Around Oxford Hands-On Palaeography

Codicology in the Weston: A whodunit through the Ages

Rebecca Schleuss, MSt Modern Langauges

This sunny afternoon the History of the Book seminar met in the Weston Library’s lecture theatre to explore another important aspect of medieval manuscripts: their materiality. When you mostly work with editions of texts, it is easy to detach them from their physical containers and forget about their materiality. Andrew Honey, book conservator at Bodleian Libraries, and Matthew Holford, Tolkien curator of medieval manuscripts at Bodleian Libraries, broke manuscripts down for us and took us through the topics of parchment and paper, as well as quires and structuring of manuscripts. We learned that size, material, texture and quality – irrespective of content – can reveal a lot about a manuscript book.

Parchment was used as a writing surface in Europe since the 2nd century, eventually being replaced by paper from the 13th century onwards. Andrew, when describing the production process, reacted to some queasy looks in the audience and reassured us that parchment was mostly the byproduct of meat production or management of livestock. To make parchment the animal skin of calfs, sheep or goats first need to be cleaned of hair and skin. For that the skin is soaked in lime solution to loosen the hair and then scraped first with a blunt knife, then with a sharp knife to remove the rest of the skin. What differentiates parchment from leather, however, is the following step: while still wet the skin gets tensioned onto a frame, called a hurst, and left to dry. A half-circular lunar knife is used on the stretched skin for further smoothness. Afterwards, sheets are cut out of the parchment to utilise as much of the skin as possible – consequently we encounter some pages with irregular edges, cut from the sides of the skin. A careful observer can at times even detect from which part of the animal’s body the piece is from, making out the contours of the spine or darker coloured arm-pits and leg-pits.

A skin tensioned onto a round frame (hurst) with a ‘fly-bite’ formed into a round circle in the upper centre. The darker line going down the middle of the skin are the contours of the spine.
MS. Huntington 300, fol. 142v

As this is a manual process, accidents happen and the knife can pierce the skin during the production process. The animal also can have had wounds which then create round holes on the parchment, expanding as the skin is stretched and known as fly-bites. Their shape and how they are treated by parchment-makers and scribes can reveal when these holes appeared. If it happened during the processing of the skin, then it was mostly sown together again and the ends are closely aligned. Scribes wrote around or playfully ornamented extant holes, revealing the care taken to accommodate the various qualities of parchment. As Andrew pointed out, both the parchment makers and later the scriptorium decided whether, and if so, how to hide a sheet’s faults. The manuscripts brought along for this session wonderfully illustrated this, containing some insightful examples of irregularities and the methods employed to adapt to them. It made apparent that there was a spectrum to how ‘perfect’ a sheet of parchment needed to be: some flaws were carefully erased, others were acceptable to remain and were incorporated into the layout of the page. The manuscripts also bore testimony to the fact that parchment was valuable. A parchment manuscript could well contain the hides of a whole herd of animals, making them expensive and precious possessions. Consequently, parchment was reused – as seen in MS Laud. Misc. 306, fols. 72v-73r, where the wide margins are used as ‘quarries’ for small pieces of parchment – and could end up in the most wondrous places (in bindings, as covers of books, in hem of dresses, and saint’s crowns).

MS. Laud Misc. 439, fols. 35v-36r. The structure of the columns accommodates the hole.
A hole in sheepskin. Because there is a layer of fat underneath sheep’s skin, a very visible mark is left, called a ‘sheep-window’. Sheep parchment was preferred for charters in England as these ‘sheep-windows’ made amendations to the text very visible.

Parchment was gradually replaced by paper as the main writing surface in the later Middle Ages, so we were introduced to the intricacies of paper production and the hidden signs this process leaves on paper. Most well-known among these is the watermark, but there are also chain lines and laid lines to detect, all three of which create a unique fingerprint by which to trace the paper’s origin, but also potentially the manuscript book’s origin. Paper was made from rags, whose quality also influenced the paper quality. If you wanted a white sheet of paper, you needed white rags, which were soaked in water and stamped into a watery pulp. These cellulose fibres were then carefully collected in a mould, made from metal strings that form a grid and function like a sieve to collect the pulp. The more expert the craftsman, the smoother and thinner the resulting sheet of paper. The mould and the loose frame (also known as deckle) around it define the ultimate size of the sheet of paper.

A paper mould from the Bodleian Printing Press. Also the mould cover left its marks, with the laid wires going horizontally and lying close together, while the chain wires are vertical, wider apart and align with the wooden ribs supporting the mould.

The watermark is created by weaving an image, such as the head of an ox, a crown, etc. onto the mould that then leaves a slight indentation in the paper. The more unusual a watermark, the better to track it nowadays (who can identify the unicorn?!) – ox-heads were frustratingly popular in the past, which make them almost impossible to trace. For research into watermarks the work by Gerhard Piccard has proven invaluable, who collected watermarks into a vast database. We learned that the watermark is the paper-makers signature, which always exists as twins, as there are two moulds needed for an efficient paper manufacturing process. There are in fact three people who worked simultaneously, a) the vatman, who forms a sheet of paper with the mould out of the water-fibre mixture, b) the coucher, who removes the new sheet from the mould onto a pile of felts, which, gradually, also press the paper, and c) the layer, who carefully removes the still damp sheets from the felt and prepares them for pressing and returns the felts to the coucher.

Even though paper became the main writing surface – surviving to this day (if we don’t count our Word-documents, which we surely don’t) – parchment continued to be utilised. In the MS Huntington 300 a mixed quire can be found that uses both paper and parchment. Even switches in quality and sizes of paper sheets can be detected when paying attention to the laid lines and chain lines on the page. In the printed book Auct. N 5.8 from 1480 two different stocks of paper were used for its production, chancery and royal, whose uncommon combination mean some pages have chain lines going horizontal to the page, and others have chain lines vertical to the page. These inconsistencies reveal areas that warrant more attention when handling a manuscript book – more detailed descriptions of the paper qualities found within manuscripts would be illuminating.

This is written on paper…
MS. Huntington 300, fol. 144r
… and this on parchment!
MS. Huntington 300, fol. 143v

The next half of the session we turned our attention to the structure of the manuscript book with Matthew Holford. Even though every manuscript book is unique in its production and composition, there are unifying characteristics how it was structured. As we were told: “A manuscript is a unit formed by assembling in sequence series of smaller units” (quoted from C. de Hamel, Scribes and Illuminators (1992), p. 18) Every book was made up of a number of quires, combined and sown together, that contained sheets of parchment or paper. If you take a sheet and fold it once, you create a bifolium (bi=two) with four sides to write on. Were you to fold it once more, you would end up with a quarto (four folio pages and eight sides). Often a gathering consisted of four sheets, all folded in half, forming eight folios with sixteen sides to write on. Alternatively, a single sheet was taken and folded thrice, also resulting in eight folios which automatically were identical in size.

But of course, there are always exceptions to a rule and gatherings did not solely consist of bifolia. At times, half-sheets (literally only one half of a bifolium) were added to the gathering, increasing the number of folios or substituting for a complete bifolium. While half-sheets are not an uncommon occurrence, it has to be considered, when found in a manuscript, whether any leaves were added or removed. Consequently, it is necessary to study and describe the quire structure for each manuscript, to be able to contextualise deviations from the individual manuscript’s quire structure. This is called collation, and we were shown two ways to express the positions of sheets in a quire: the ‘German’ formula, and the ‘English’ formula. Both provide the same information, but go about it differently. The ‘German’ formula continuously counts all the folios in the quires, which appears as superscript. It also records the size of the quires and whether any irregularity, e.g. missing or added folios, occur. The ‘English’ formula does not count the folios continuously, but instead counts the quires. Their superscript numbers refer to the number of folios in each quire and they record at precisely which point in the quire folios were added or are missing. So: when faced with a collation, just check whether the superscript numbers increase (then it’s the ‘German’ one), or whether the Roman numerals demarcating the quires increase, in which case it’s the ‘English’ one.

In Matthew Holford’s slide you can see how folios could be added in-between bifolia.

Finally, the question of a manuscript book’s content was raised. Despite appearing on the outside like an intended whole contained within one protective cover, the inside often reveals a more complex story. It can be a miscellaneous work, consisting of many separate booklets, which initially existed independently and formed ‘self-contained’ units of text. Only at a later stage were they combined, each carrying its own sheet and scribal characteristics. Thus it is paramount to specify at which point in time the content of a manuscript book was united, whether it was produced together (production unit) in the same place and at the same time, or if it was a ‘circulation unit’ with different origins, later combined in a bound manuscript.

MS. Laud Misc. 439. We were all stunned the first time we saw how neatly the little piece of paper fitted onto the page, covering up the hole.

We also learned about the little signs that scribes left on the pages of manuscript books to help navigate it: pricking in the margins, which were aides for ruling the sheet; quire numberings and catchwords in the lower margins of the page to help align the quires in the correct order; and the bifolium signatures in the right hand corner of the lower margins that indicate the position of the page in the quire (they were not always successful, and quires did end up incorrectly bound together). All of these signs – and many more besides – are still there on the pages of medieval manuscripts, to be discovered and understood by those who look, opening up a window into the medieval workshop. They reveal the difficulties faced, and the care taken to produce the works we cannot help but marvel at unto this day. This session helped to sharpen our senses to information hiding in plain sight, for everyone to detect and unravel who pays enough attention – so ready, steady, go on a detective whodunit with manuscripts!

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