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.

Predjama: the Slovenian Castle Built in a Cave

Yes, you read that right, this castle is built into a cave. Observe:


Predjama Castle is an easy drive from the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana (or, in our case, a bus ride to Postojna Caves and then a quick taxi ride with a very informative man). If you’re travelling Europe and you think (as my sister and I did) that you’ve seen castles before, so you don’t need to see one more… Make a detour to see Predjama Castle. We’re so glad our Croatian friend encouraged us to go. It is incredibly unique and fascinating. Everything about it is designed for sieges and adapted for the cave environment.

It’s not just built beside a cave – the cave is an integral part of its structure. There are rooms and corridors that have solid rock for one wall. There are staircases between levels that are carved into cave passageways. The chimney in the kitchen is a natural hole in the cave. The cave ceiling actually overhangs some of the castle roof, offering further protection from the elements.

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As one of the interpretive signs says, it was really designed for a siege environment, not to be a pleasant place to live. There are actually runnels carved into some of the cave walls to direct dripping water. We were there on a rainy day and I think it was actually warmer outside of the castle, in the rain. I certainly get the impression it was continuously damp and miserable. Deeper in the cave, there’s a series of pipes and funnels designed to collect clean drinking water that had dripped through the cave ceiling, in case the other water sources were poisoned.

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There’s a whole section of the castle that was deeper in the cave. It would have been subdivided in the past, but because no one really wanted to live here past the medieval period, there are few records of what was actually there except the evidence left behind in the carved rock. There’s an extensive network of about 14 km’s worth of caves and it’s unclear how deep the livable spaces went.

According to the excellent audio-guides, there was a famous siege in the 1400s in which the Hungarians tried to defeat Erasmus Lueger, a sort of Robin Hood figure. His people could use the cave network to sneak out to surrounding communities and fetch supplies. He apparently taunted his opponents by tossing down fresh cherries at them; as they didn’t know about the cave system, this was baffling. Erasmus ended up losing the siege, however, due to a traitorous servant. The lavatory was a bit more exposed than the rest of the castle (likely so the, uh, leavings would drop directly in the stream below), and the servant lit a lantern when his boss was on the toilet, resulting in him being struck by a cannonball and killed.


The Great Clock of Rouen

The Gros Horloge (Great Clock) of Rouen is iconic of the city. It’s one of my favourite monuments of one of my favourite places in France. Many English speaking tourists to France hit up Paris, maybe the Champagne region (wine) or the Loire Valley (castles!), but if they visit Normandy normally tourists seem to skip past the interior of the region and head straight for the D-day landing beaches of the Second World War. I always encourage people to stop and explore the rest of Normandy, particularly Rouen. It’s the city where Joan of Arc was imprisoned, tried, and burned at the stake! There are narrow cobblestone streets, plus ciders, crepes, and other edible products! You can see and be photographed in front of architecture painted by Monet in the impressionist style! The beautiful Seine river that runs through Paris also runs through Rouen, but you have to deal with fewer Parisians!

The Gros Horloge itself dates from the 1300s and has an amazing little museum inside it. I really enjoyed their audioguides (available in French, English, and quite a few other languages) not only because they were informative, but also because the person speaking the audioguide claims to be the ghost of one of the former clock keepers. When he’s done talking about a particular room, he says that he’ll meet us up the stairs or wherever, and kind of implies he floats up through the ceiling. Charming!


Though it’s been run by an electric mechanism since the early 20th century, the old clockwork mechanism from the 1300s is still there, in situ, and is theoretically still in good working order if it were to be hitched back up. It was one of the earliest clocks to sound bells at the quarter of the hour, not just on the hour. The two clock faces also have black and silver globes above them that display the phase of the moon. There’s also a display showing the day of the week with Roman gods representing the day of the week: e.g., Mercury for Mecredi (Wednesday), Diana the goddess of the moon for Lundi (Monday, or the day of the “lune” / moon). In the 19th century that weekday display had been out of use for so long that it was assumed to show the signs of the zodiac! A series of reparations and restorations since the late 19th century make the Gros Horloge of Rouen an excellent functioning example of a medieval clock.

One little-known aspect of the Gros Horloge that not even all residents know is that one of the best views of the Cathedral of Rouen (famously painted by Monet) is actually from the top of the clock’s bell tower. Closed for safety reasons for many years, it reopened for the public in 2006 and have been open ever since. From there you can also see the roof of the only remaining bastion of the castle where Joan of Arc was imprisoned (now called the “Donjon” – the Dungeon). When I lived in Rouen about seven years ago, I found out that if you’re a resident of the city, when you buy your ticket you can present proof of your address and get a resident’s pass and come up any time you want to take in the view over the following year!

So please, do admire this beautiful historic clock from all angles: outside, inside, and on top!

Further Reading by Myself on Other Sites in France

Let me count the ways the Bayeux Tapestry was almost destroyed…

The Star – figures in the Bayeux Tapestry pointing at a bad omen: what is now known as Halley’s Comet, spotted in the sky on April 24th, 1066. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

On a rainy day in Normandy last month, I made an obligatory pilgrimage to see the Bayeux Tapestry. I was fairly impressed with their audio guide, which walked visitors along the narrative of the embroidery alongside medieval music. It wasn’t so busy on a weekday in April that we couldn’t go back to the start of the embroidery to revisit and more closely examine certain sections. My favourite details among many are the dwarf Tuvold holding a pair of horses and the appearance of what we now know as Haley’s Comet.

The figure of Turold, as he appears in the Bayeux Tapestry. Image source: this History Notes blog post.

I always like to support museums through their gift shops (they often have the most meaningful souvenirs for me, a history nerd), so while there I picked up a copy of The Bayeux Tapestry: The Life Story of a Masterpiece by Carola Hicks.

This book delves into a series of fascinating anecdotes covering not only what we can actually know of how/when/why the embroidery was originally made (which includes surprisingly little solid documentary evidence, mostly assumptions based on material culture and lots of fierce debating over the centuries) but also what’s happened to it over the last 900+ years. Much of that is a series of anecdotes detailing how it was damaged or narrowly avoided being lost or destroyed. Here are some highlights from the Bayeux Tapestry’s biography:

  • It has survived more than one fire and centuries of moths.
  • It wasn’t stolen, destroyed, or damaged like most of the other church treasures by a mob that ransacked the Bayeux Cathedral on May 10th, 1562.
  • Maybe at some point it was longer and pieces were removed. Judging from the assumption of narrative and visual symmetry, there was likely a scene at the end depicting William the Conqueror’s coronation. It may have been removed early on in the embroidery’s history and it’s lucky more of it wasn’t sliced away.
  • It is said that the tapestry was nearly cut up and used as a canvas cart covering during the French Revolution and only the timely arrival of a local official rescued the textile from this ignominious fate.
  • After the Revolution, it could have been brought to the Louvre in Paris like so many other regional pieces of art and could have easily been damaged or stolen on the way to Paris or afterwards.
  • It was nearly sliced into different sections to be used in a parade.
  • It actually was brought to Paris to be displayed under Napoleon. An ancient “document” such as this displaying a successful French invasion of England was an excellent propaganda coup during the war. It was luckily returned to its home in Bayeux unscathed.
  • For at least a century it was displayed by being wound and unwound on a giant wooden spool, damaging the ends and distorting sections of the fabric. The sight of this damaging method of storage and display reportedly “outraged” English tourists.
  • At least one piece of the embroidery was snipped away in the 1810s by English artist and antiquarian Charles Stothard (not his wife as many believed). It was eventually returned.
  • The Bayeux Tapestry fell into the hands of the Germans during the Second World War and was once again used as propaganda, this time by Nazis highlighting the Germanic ancestry of the Norman invaders. Now the embroidery purported to show a successful invasion of England by German people at a time when the Third Reich was also aiming to cross the channel and take over England. It could easily have been stolen away by the Germans or destroyed by bombings, as so much European art was during the war.

Author Carola Hicks made the point that one of the most exceptional things about the Bayeux Tapestry isn’t necessarily its workmanship or the narrative it tells, but the fact that it survived. Other perhaps more magnificent examples of wall hangings from the same period may not have made it to the present day simply because they were made of gold or silver thread or more precious materials like silk. The more humbly made linen and worsted wool Bayeux Tapestry may have survived in large part because it wasn’t made of valuable materials. Now we consider it valuable beyond measure for the stories it tells: a 70m remnant of a very precise and yet in many ways still mysterious period of time.

The Bayeux Tapestry’s history is almost as long and storied as the actual embroidery itself. I personally find the stories of how it came to survive to present day almost more interesting than the context in which it was originally produced. The history of artifacts tells us a lot about changing perceptions of what people valued. Mainly, we today are often horrified by the carelessly cavalier way people in the past treated what are now beloved artifacts. In any case, whenever I visit a museum, I enjoy looking at artifacts and imagining where they were and what happened to them in the intervening years between their creation and when they ended up in a climate-controlled glass case in front of me.