The image above is a page from one of ZSR’s manuscript codices. It is probably Italian (though the text is of course in Latin) and has many typical features of a manuscript from the 14th century. The red and blue ornamentation is not just decorative. Rubrication in medieval manuscripts served as a sort of punctuation, orienting the reader to line breaks and different sections in the text. Marginal notes and symbols, like the manicule (pointing finger), could be used to highlight important passages, add text or commentary, or correct errors in the text.
This very small New Testament manuscript from our collection is an example of the trend for “pocket Bibles” which began in the 12th century.
Most medieval manuscripts were written on parchment (also called vellum), which was specially prepared animal skin, usually goat, sheep or calf. Parchment was durable but very expensive, so bookmakers on a budget often made do with lower-quality skins. These might have uneven pigmentation, holes, or other flaws. The image above is a detail from another of ZSR’s manuscript books. The right margin shows a tear in the parchment, which was at one point repaired by sewing up the hole with thread.
Manuscript production in Europe fell off rapidly with the invention of printing from moveable type in the mid-1400s. Manuscript books were sometimes disbound and the parchment sheets put to other uses. One typical use was in the bindings of other books. Above is a manuscript page pasted inside the cover of a volume of the works of Horace, printed in Venice in 1490. Below, a page from a manuscript missal covers the outer binding of a 1532 Basel imprint.
Though the ZSR medieval manuscripts collection is not large, it gets a lot of use. I show the books to many medieval and Renaissance history and literature classes, and my History of the Book class uses the manuscripts extensively. And of course I pull them out every time someone asks the ever-popular “What’s your oldest book?” question. My goal in attending the USC symposium was to learn more about medieval manuscripts so that I could use them more effectively in teaching and so that I could create catalog records for our codices, which are currently undocumented. I definitely learned a lot, and I met some terrific medievalists. In fact, Dr. Gwara from USC and Dr. Jo Koster from Winthrop University have volunteered to make a site visit to ZSR next week, to look at our manuscripts and help me identify and describe them in detail. So check back for part 2 of this post, in which we’ll learn everything we ever wanted to know about medieval manuscripts at ZSR!
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