Blog post

Video Series: Exploring the Medieval Manuscript Book

Join eight show-and-tell sessions with unique artefacts in the reading room of the Leiden University Library

Still frame from a video discussing medieval manuscripts. Two hands holding a very small codex positioned just above a large manuscript book. Both books have detailed calligraphy.
André Bouwman (opens in new window) (Leiden University Libraries)
Erik-Jan Dros (opens in new window) (Leiden University Libraries)

Medieval manuscripts were collected and read for the texts they contained, especially those surviving from classical antiquity. But the book can tell us so much more than solely the text it contains! Studying the materiality of books can provide important information about how, when, where and even why they were made. It can also show how books were used and valued during the many centuries of their existence.

Dr Irene O’Daly (Book and Digital Media Studies, Leiden University) teaches her students about the contents and materiality of medieval manuscript books. During her courses, she frequently brings her students to the University Library, where she shows and discusses interesting items selected from its rich collections.

Woman sitting with a manuscript book and a man standing with a camera in a library

Leiden University Libraries, a partner of the Art of Reading in the Middle Ages project, invited Dr O’Daly to participate in a video series, introducing a wider audience to the fascinating world of the medieval manuscript book. This collaboration resulted in eight short videos, recorded in the Library’s Special Collections Reading Room. O’Daly presents the materiality of the codex from different angles, such as script, lay-out, traces of scribes and users. Every book she shows is made available as a digital facsimile by Leiden University Libraries on Europeana. We invite you to watch the videos first, and afterwards enjoy browsing and viewing the manuscripts yourself, for as long as you like, with ample opportunity to zoom in on details of your choice.

  1. Scripts
  2. Structuring the page
  3. Discontinuous reading
  4. Traces of scribes
  5. Traces of users
  6. Bindings
  7. Composite volumes
  8. Dimensions and forms

1: Scripts

Before the invention of the printing press in the 1450s medieval books were written with quill and ink. Medieval script tended to change over time but was also influenced by strong local traditions. This phenomenon helps scholars to date and localise manuscript books.

Explore the manuscript books yourself:

2: Structuring the page

Chapters in modern printed books begin on a new page, and paragraphs after a blank line. In medieval manuscript books, however, pages incorporated a variety of visual cues such as colour and decoration, which helped the reader navigate the text.

Explore the manuscript books yourself:

3: Discontinuous reading

Although manuscripts could be read from cover to cover, medieval readers also read selectively. Clever navigational tools such as indices and running titles, were introduced for readers to find specific parts of the text. We find these in schoolbooks, but also in devotional works and in other genres.

Explore the manuscript books yourself:

4: Traces of scribes

Most medieval scribes did their job without revealing their identity. But several of them, upon reaching the end of the copied text and with a sigh of relief in their heart, signed and dated their work in a colophon. We can piece together further information about scribes by looking at errors made during the writing process and how they were corrected by the scribe or a colleague.

Explore the medieval books yourself:

5: Traces of users

A medieval manuscript book is like an archaeological object with many layers. These layers can reveal not only traces of the scribe but also traces of the users the book encountered during the many centuries of its existence. These traces can include various annotations, explaining or commenting on the text, but also doodles with or without significant relation to the text.

Explore the manuscript books yourself:

6: Bindings

The binding is the ‘outside’ of a book, protecting the words on the inside. There are impressive medieval bindings with blind-tooled leather over wooden boards, but also simple bindings that just consist of a flexible parchment cover. Many medieval manuscripts were rebound, either in the Middle Ages, or later. Frequently, medieval and post-medieval books contain traces of ‘predecessors’: fragments of manuscripts that were repurposed, when their texts were deemed worthless. For example, parchment leaves could be cut up to strengthen a new binding.

Explore the manuscript books yourself:

7: Composite volumes

The present state of a medieval manuscript can differ considerably from its original state, when it left the scriptorium or workshop. A binding can even contain one or more other manuscripts that were created separately. Such a composite volume may contain texts on related subject matters, but that is not necessarily always the case.

Explore the manuscript books yourself:

8: Dimensions and forms

The appearance of a book can inform us about the way it was used. For instance, the dimensions of a Gradual are huge because it was used by choir singers during liturgical services in the church, where it was placed on a lectern. A tiny Processional, by contrast, could be held in one hand by a user while walking and singing in a procession.

Explore the manuscript books yourself:

This blog is part of the Art of Reading in the Middle Ages project which explores how medieval reading culture evolved and became a fundamental aspect of European culture.