Holes and Holiness in Medieval Manuscripts

It’s probably not terribly surprising to anyone that there are holes in medieval manuscripts—after all, a millennium-old piece of parchment should expect to see some wear and tear. While countless medieval manuscripts have been lost to time, a large number remain, and in a wide range of qualities. But almost every medieval manuscript has some holes in it somewhere. They may be large or small, accidental or intentional, hidden away in the binding or displayed openly, but they’re there.

Some holes are there before the parchment or vellum (footnote: parchment is made from animal skin, typically sheep, cow, or goat; vellum, the most prized variety, is made specifically from calf skin) is written on:

Engelberg, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. 16, f. 16v

Parchment is made by taking animal skins, removing their hair, and creating a writing surface by stretching and scraping the skin repeatedly over time, until it is the thickness and texture desired. This is a labor-intensive and thus expensive process. So, when a hole formed during the parchment-making process, the product couldn’t very well just be discarded. (However, it should be noted that these holes are not found as often in very expensive manuscripts—we can probably assume that the scribe would select more pristine parchment for more important documents.)

Some holes appear after the scribe’s work is done:

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 915, p. 1

Medieval manuscripts face many dangers. Holes can be caused by insects, fire damage, mold, or perhaps from damage done during the writing, illustration, or binding of a text. Holes were clearly viewed as part and parcel of the medieval bookmaking process. Not only were they often written around, but sometimes they were decorated:

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 915, p. 299

Many manuscripts—it seems particularly common in Continental manuscripts, like this Swiss manuscript from the monastery of St. Gallen—have holes and tears sewn up with colorful thread. Some of these holes were apparently caused by damage from the bookmaking process: these horizontal slits that have been sewn up appear to have been caused by a monk who was ruling the page with too heavy a hand. Others seem to just be from accidental damage:

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 915, p. 339

The stitching serves two purposes: to protect the book from further damage, and to add decoration to what might otherwise be seen as unsightly.

And finally, holes are occasionally created for the purpose of decoration:

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 18, p. 43

In this manuscript, containing mostly liturgical texts, the illustrator has cut a hole as part of his illustration of the “star clock” (a means to tell time after dark), the invention of which is credited to Pacificus of Verona. It’s impossible to know if this was an ingenious method of using a piece of parchment that already had a hole from some sort of damage, but close observation shows where it has been cut to form the frame of the clock.

Sometimes it’s surprising just how good the condition of most medieval manuscripts is: most, if not all, of the manuscripts we still have today have survived damp, fire, insects, or wars (if not a combination). We can’t really begrudge them a few holes.

Marjorie Housley
PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

This post is one in an ongoing series on the Mysteries of Medieval Codicology

Welcome to Medieval Manuscript Studies!

Eddy_Arundel157_f134r
Words within words! A woman, inhabiting the large first initial of the Latin word “verba” (“words”), holds up a book
Office of the Dead, Oxford, c. 1220-1240; British Library Arundel MS 157, f. 134r

In fall of 2014, University of Notre Dame graduate students had the opportunity to explore the world of medieval manuscripts under the guidance of Professor Kathryn Kerby-Fulton and postdoctoral fellow Nicole Eddy.  Manuscript Studies is an exciting and quickly growing field, fueled in part by the explosion of digital resources for this study: libraries and archives around the world are digitizing their collections, making it easier than ever before for students, scholars, and the general public to get a close-up view of medieval Europe’s heritage of book history.  Not only that, but the study of manuscripts — books literally “written by hand,” each one unique — can give a deeper perspective on questions that excite us today.  In a world of e-readers and audiobooks, what does it mean to say we have “read” a “book”?  How do the physical materials of books affect our understanding of the text?  How, we ask, did earlier readers approach the works we study today, and what can their readings teach us? And what can we learn from things outside the text block, the pictures and marginal notes that were the Middle Ages’ answer to today’s hyperlinks or comment fields?

Eddy_Add24189_f4r
Medieval writing was a double-fisted endeavor: scribes wrote with a pen in one hand and a knife in the other, to “erase” (literally “razor out”) their mistakes
Mandeville’s Travels, Bohemia, first quarter of the 15th century; British Library Additional MS 24189, f. 4r

In this blog students will, over the coming months, share the fruits of their researches, spotlighting some of the fascinating finds they have made in manuscripts around the world.  We will have a number of topic threads on subjects we hope will be of interest to a wide range of readers: “Medieval and Early Modern Poetics: Theory and Practice,” “Mysteries of Medieval Codicology,” “Multimedia Reading Practices and Marginalia: Medieval and Early Modern,” and “Medieval Animals and their Literary Afterlives.” We hope you enjoy exploring these beautiful and captivating books as much as we have.

Nicole Eddy
Postdoctoral Research Associate
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

Eddy_Harley2900_f85r
Where the wild things are in a medieval book is the margins! And even this animal-human hybrid grotesque enjoys a good book
Book of Hours, France, c. 1430-c. 1440; British Library Harley MS 2900, f. 85r