Fascinating Details of Medieval Manuscripts

Over the last several months, I’ve been working my way through Christopher De Hamel’s book Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World, and I just finished reading the final chapter today. I’m not a medievalist – I’ve often found books on medieval history that I’ve been exposed to are very focused on warfare, religion, and the history of “Great” men, which are fine topics of study but of less interest to me. (I recognize that there are other focusses of medieval scholarship but as I haven’t made a particular study of this time period I’m less aware of others – please feel free to recommend books / works you think I’d like!) As such, my understanding of the time period was sort of “flattened”, in that I couldn’t really distinguish much between the early and late medieval periods, aside from a general sense of changing fashions and art styles, and a knowledge that there was a lot of wars and politicking.

However, de Hamel’s book really gets at the heart of what I find particularly interesting about any period of history: the lived experience of people, and what the materiality of surviving artifacts can tell us about their lives. This book does describe the contents of the manuscripts under discussion (dating from the late sixth century Gospels of St. Augustine to the Spinola Hours from nearly a thousand years later, 1515-1520), but more than that, the author delves into amazing detail about what we can learn about the medieval world and its people from the materiality of these books. What can we learn about the book from the “hand” that wrote it – and what can we determine about their identity? What about little oxidized pinpricks that indicate a long since removed metal clasp? In what ways were books made in different regions made unique by the materials available and the local education of their makers, and in what ways were these far-flung places actually connected, by culture, education, or traded goods? What details can we glean that tell us a bit about the books history: where it was made, why it was made, and where it’s been for the last 1,000 years before it popped up again unexpectedly in the mid-1800s? The way he describes the minutia, it very much is a form of historic detective work.

I also really enjoyed how the author always described the experience of seeing the book in the archive where it rests today. This is a researcher who has consulted so many manuscripts over his life time things like the feel and weight of the parchment, the smell of the book, and the nuances of the writing, ping things in his brain, where he can draw connections to texts he consulted decades before. As he says on multiple occasions in the book, you don’t really get a sense of some of what he’s describing from a facsimile or a photograph, but he does his best to try. I really felt like I was walking along with him as he visited these archives, sitting beside him at the consultation table and leaning over his shoulder as he pointed out nifty details.

I want to share a few choice passages with you today that really spoke to me and made me want to learn more. I hope that you too pick up a copy of this book and delve into the world of medieval manuscripts!

On the Book of Kells (late eighth century): “Newcomers to manuscripts sometimes ask what such books tell us about the societies that created them. At one level, these Gospel Books describe nothing, for they are not local chronicles but standard Latin translations of religious texts from far away. At the same time, this is itself extraordinarily revealing about Ireland. No one knows how literacy and Christianity had first reached the islands of Ireland, possibly through North Africa. This was clearly no primitive backwater but a civilization which could now read Latin, although never occupied by the Romans, and which was somehow familiar with texts and artistic designs which have unambiguous parallels in the Coptic and Greek churches, such as carpet pages and Canon tables. Although the Book of Kells itself is as uniquely Irish as anything imaginable, it is a Mediterranean text and the pigments used in making it include orpiment, a yellow made from arsenic sulphide, exported from Italy, where it is found in volcanoes. There are clearly lines of trade and communication unknown to us.”(124-5)

On the Morgan Beatus (mid-tenth century): “The Morgan Beatus is written in the script known to paleographers as Visgothic minuscule. To explain it, we need to go back to the origin of Latin writing in ancient Rome. There were two distinct classes of script common in Roman antiquity. The first of these were high-grade display capitals, such as the letters ‘S.P.Q.R.’ on classical monuments, easily legible to us, and rustic capitals in books, as imitated in the Leiden Aratea. At the other end of the scale were rapid cursive hands – ‘joined-up writing’ as children call it – used on papyrus for administrative documents. At the simplest level – it was a bit more complex in reality – Roman capitals evolved over the centuries into unicals, and eventually (through subtle and gradual mutations, as in genetics) descended into modern European letter forms, including those used in this book. The cursive, however, was exported outwards with imperial bureaucracy into the Roman provinces, where it bred independently into the many local variants of handwriting, such as the strange-looking spidery Merovingian minuscules in France, Alemannic miniscule in western Germany, and so on. These were then swept away by Charlemagne in the early ninth century in a deliberate programme of standardization of script throughout his vast dominions, substituting the famous ‘Caroligian’ or ‘Caroline’ minuscule. Only on the outer fringes of Europe, beyond the reach of Carolingian authority, the tenacious descendants of Roman cursive managed to live on, like prehistoric animals still surviving in some fictional valley isolated from the outside world. The best-known of these living fossils are Beneventan minuscule in southern Italy and up to the extreme fringes of the eastern coast as far as Croatia, and Visgothic minuscule in much of Spain and Portugal. The fact that such scripts endured, against the trend, even into the eleventh and twelfth centuries, tells us a great deal about the cultural frontiers of contemporary politics.

A detail from the Morgan Beatus, showing Visigothic miniscule. 095, MS M.644, fol. 40r.

“Visgothic minuscule, which has nothing to do with the illiterate tribal Visgoths other than a shared association with pre-Muslim Iberia, is beautiful and calligraphic and exasperatingly difficult to read. It is filled with flowing ligatures inherited from Roman cursive, such as the joined ‘e’ and ‘r’ resembling a single letter. The lower case ‘a’ is open-topped like ‘u’, and ‘s’ looks like ‘r’, and ‘t’ rather like a modern ‘a’. Reading Visgothic reminds me of being a child on the first days of the summer holidays. One would scamper painfully in bare feet across the road and over pebbles on the beach, feigning ease and non-chalance; by the very end of the holiday, it was truthfully no hardship at all. Early next summer it was agony all over again. Stare at an impenetrable page of Visgothic minuscule in despair, struggle letter by letter, and by late afternoon, usually just as the library is about to close, it becomes at last surprisingly legible; next morning it is quite unreadable once more. This might explain partly why Beatus had such limited circulation outside early-medieval Spain.”(209-10)

On the Morgan Beatus (mid-tenth century): “The second volume opens on folio 150 with the storia from revelation 11:17-10. The first picture shows the Antichrist – his face vindictively scratched by an outraged reader (long ago, I hope) – chopping the witnesses into nasty blooded pieces…”(218)

Detail of the antichrist with his face scratched out by a reader, from the Morgan Beatus.

On the Morgan Beatus (mid-tenth century): On the art of this manuscript, which has been described by other scholars as unsophisticated, especially compared to pieces like the Book of Kells: The “downright strangeness of the pictures may have had a practical purpose. The monastic method of studying the Scriptures was to read a sentence or two aloud, and then to think about the text word by word, looking slowly for multiple layers of meaning. It was called ‘lectio divina‘. That meditative rumination was itself an act of devotion. If the monk could gaze at the page and memorize it, then this slow pious reflexion could continue in his mind long after the original manuscript had been closed up and put away in its box in the cloisters. Passages of plain script, maybe especially in Visigothic minuscule with little word-division, are difficult to envisage afterwards, but pages with complex illustrations as dramatic and as unsettling as those here are impossible to erase from memory. Their naivety is a benefit. The brilliance of the colour and the startling narrative drama have real value. They served as a mnemonic device to enable reflexion on Revelation to continue among many readers at once, at any time of day or night.”(224)

On the Carmina Burana (first half of the thirteenth century): “Since Latin was the language of international literacy, versus composed in France were just as understandable in London, Cologne, Rome or Salzburg, at least by educated men. When the poems had lost their context so far that they had been reduced to dance songs in which women participated, however, extra verses were sometimes added in the German language. Many of the earliest records of vernacular languages of Europe are associated with women, who were at that time genenerally less Latinate than men. About forty of the love poems of the Carmina Burana have refrains in German, in the same metre as the Latin. These were probably supplied when the songs were used as rounds, with the different languages to be sung simultaneously by male and female voices. About a dozen other poems in the manuscript are partly or entirely in German. This is extremely early in the survival of any vernacular literature. Some German verses in the Carmina Burana are addressed to women, doubtless in the guise of admirers supposing that their suits might be more successful if the lady understood what was being asked of her. Examples are “Süziu vrouw min …”, ‘My sweet woman …’, imploring her to enjoy the darts of Venus, and “Selich wip, vil süziz wip …”, ‘Lovely lady, most sweet lady …’, describing how the writer has sent her a love letter. Others are set in the voices of women themselves, addressed to men. There is a charming poem on folio 72r in which a woman is whispering to her lover who has secretly stayed all night, “Ich sich den morgen sterne brehen …” (‘I see the morning star breaking …’), urging him to slip away without being seen. . . . In one famous five-line verse in German in the Carmina Burana the protagonist gladly offers to sacrifice the wealth of the entire world to lie in bliss in the arms of the queen of England. In fact, in the manuscript itself, the scribe originally wrote ‘king of England’ – “chunich van engellant” – which was crossed out and later altered to ‘the queen’ (“diu chunegin”). It seems to be in reality to make better sense as the wish of a woman, speaking German. The formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine (c. 1122-1204), queen of England 1154-89, was an unlikely object of male fantasy, but her son, the dashing Richard the Lionheart, was unmarried and nearby, a prisoner in Austria in 1192-4. This would furnish a plausible date and general locality for the composition of the German text.
“It is generally accepted that the manuscript of the Carmina Burana was not compiled at Benediktbeuern itself, but probably somewhere further south in what is now Austria, then part of greater Bavaria. The script has pronounced Italianate features, as often in Austrian books, and the smooth pages have a southern feel to the touch, unlike the more suede-like texture of German parchment. (This is a judgement impossible to make from a photograph, or while wearing gloves.)” (367-8)

On the Hours of Jeanne de Navarre (second quarter of the fourteenth century): “The original owner, however, was not a friar or nun, and her identity is not in doubt. About twenty margins include little vignettes of a queen kneeling in prayer, wearing a gold crown and a cloak lined with ermine, sometimes with a manuscript open in front of her. Elsewhere she kneels in the illuminated initials. Sometimes she appears within miniatures themselves, witnessing first-hand the Scourging of Christ and venerating the Virgin and Child in their actual presence. Many of the prayers in the text are adapted for exclusive use by a woman, as we can tell from words that have gender-specific endings in Latin. Examples are “… ut michi indigne peccatrici ancille tue” (‘to me your unworthy sinful servant,’ all feminine forms), “… concede michi famule tue” (‘grant me your servant’, where a male petitioner would have been “famulo tuo”), and the prayer upon receiving Communion, “Domine non sum digna …” (‘Lord, I am not worthy …’, the female form of the adjective). By extreme good fortune, the woman is actually named. This is in a prayer to the Virgin Mary which happens to include a plea to ‘intercede for me, your servant, Johanna, queen of Navarre’, or, in the original, “ut intercedas pro me ancilla tua Johanna navarre regina”. These precious words are on folio 151v, easy to overlook in the middle of a page of text.”(391)

On visiting the Visconti Semideus (c. 1438) in St. Petersburg, which is all about tactics of medieval warfare: “The first hurdle is the immensely complex application for a Russia visa, for which one has to list, among many other things, every school and university attended and every job one has ever had, with dates and contact names and telephone numbers, and every country one has visited in the previous ten years, with dates. Any involvement with politics or armed conflict, at any period of one’s life, has to be declared. There are clearly issues that are sensitive. For the stated purpose of my purported visit to Russia, I toyed for a moment with writing ‘gaining access to government department to inspect manual on armaments and military strategy’ but instead I put ‘tourism.'”(472-3)

On the Visconti Semideus (c. 1438): “The text describes how to advance on the city, with God’s help, bearing shields and catapults and bringing constructions to be moved up against the walls, and what I take to mean bombards or cannons (literally ‘roaring bronze’), with flamethrowers, slinging machines, and other instruments of war. Many terms for siege machinery are listed – “tormentis, fundibulis, scorpiis” and others: my little Latin dictionary simply defines each one as ‘catapult’ but there are evidently subtle differences known to military specialists.”(491)


De Hamel, Christopher. Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World. New York, NY: Penguin Press, 2016.

Many libraries and archives seem to have made available many of the manuscripts written about by De Hamel in his book. If any of the works described here or in his book intrigue you, go snooping on their website. Be prepared to go down a rabbit hole of zooming in on high resolution scans of these books!

Cover image from the Hugo Pictor manuscript from the Bodleian, including a detail of the earliest known labelled self portrait.


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