Manuscripts and Physicality

Materiality and physicality cannot be taken for granted. That’s one thing I’ve learned thus far while working with (digital) manuscripts at Carleton. 

Digital facsimiles are extraordinary in their potential and usability for research, and digitization projects are nothing if not absolutely necessary. Digitised manuscripts present many opportunities that cannot be exploited with material manuscripts. Working with these sources digitally allows for experimentation with all kinds of digital tools, which I won’t be going into now. There is an irreplaceable value, though, to the material document—one that is sometimes more clear in some situations than others.

There is, of course, the benefit of working with the material itself—feeling the weight of the parchment, shining a light at different angles, feeling the texture of the writing and ornamentation on the page. The material culture of manuscripts is something worth dedicated studies. These studies inform us about resources, economy, cultural values, trade relations, and more. Material culture also lends itself to the study of the value of the manuscript as an object.

This has come up many times before during in-class conversation and reflections on actual manuscript creation. But it hadn’t really sunk in until I came face-to-face with an example of a manuscript completely inseparable from its physical importance.

The Reliquary of St. Ignatius of Loyola

At the Mdina Cathedral Museum in Mdina, Malta, I came across the above reliquary, in the form of manuscript leafs. The manuscript was signed by Saint Ignatius of Loyola and therefore contained a physical touch of a saint, making it a holy relic. Prior to seeing and engaging with this manuscript, I knew of the importance of physicality in manuscript studies thanks to our work with Archives & Special Collections at Carleton and our work in the Books Arts Lab, but this opened up a new dimension for me in terms of the spiritual importance that physical manuscripts can hold. There are many, many qualities that cannot be reproduced digitally.

The Switch to the 21st Century in Books and History

There is no doubt in my mind that writing manuscripts are an art. Not only is it beautiful to look at, but it takes so much time, effort, and skill to create books as Medieval monks did. Working in the book arts lab this semester has given me time to reflect on the access that we must books today and how little effort it takes to create the book compared to the work put in during the Medieval period. The weeks the creators would put in not to write but to create the books they did were amazing.

One of the more interesting discussions that we have had in class was the value of digital books and the implications of moving on from printed books. There is a level of sentimentality that comes with owning the physical copy of a book. I like turning the pages, seeing progress while reading, and keeping a bookshelf in my room of books that I like or that I think have an excellent cover; I will always try and buy a physical book over getting the digital copy. What I believe is most appealing about digital books for most people is the access and storage. Companies such as Amazon and Kobo put out e-readers in the form of a small tablet easy to store and with the ability to hold hundreds of books in one device. Most of the class came to the same conclusions as I did, with many people preferring physical copies of books over digital. What we all agreed on was the fact that electronic books have helped to create more access to information and fiction to a wide variety of people. Older generations tend to steer towards electronic copies of books due to the ability to change the font size or have their entire collection of books all in one place. With the introduction to buying online, it’s also faster to have the books downloaded to tablets than to buy the book at a store or wait to be shipped to their house.

Suarez reading about electronic books describes the electronic book as a revolution in reading. In some ways, I think that it could be thought of that way, but I also believe that for it to be a revolution in reading, the entire system of reading would have to change completely and the way we absorb the information. An e-book is the same as a regular book just placed on a tablet, and the tablet even tried to mimic a book with the animations of turning a page, the font looks the same, and there are all the same aspects of a printed book. For there to have been a revolution of reading, the method that we have been using for the past few decades would have changed entirely.

It is also interesting to see the shift to digital media in books and public spaces like museums. Many museums are switching to digital explanations or audio tours instead of handing out a booklet or having people use the guides written on the wall. I work at the Diefenbunker in Carp, where older systems are in place to guide people through the museum. I work as a tour guide, and we have several volunteers who worked at the bunker when it first opened who are a wealth of information. What I am noticing more and more is that people coming into the museum much prefer the audio or self-guided tours more frequently. We have audio tours available for them to self-guide through the bunker while listening to the voice in their ear telling them about the building and the history behind it. The revolution of technology in a historical setting helps create inclusivity and allows for room to interpret different events personally. Again, I prefer having a person guide me through or explain a possibility to me as I like to hear their insight and the personal details they can bring to the experience over a recording.

Overall, technology has become a staple in almost everyone’s life at some point or another, and it would be tough to move backwards from it. When examining how books have been affected by technology, the easiest thing to look at would be e-books or audiobooks that many people prefer over the physical copies of books. There are still people in the world that like to have the physical book in their hands, but it is widespread for someone to switch to the digital versions altogether. History is beginning to shift to the digital world through museums, archives, and historical projects intended to continue teaching the public while keeping up with trends to keep people interested. It will be interesting to see how far history can be brought into the future with technology.

Reflecting on my Manuscript

The process of analyzing my manuscript has been unique to say the least. From the work I have done so far on my manuscript, I have a gained a new level of respect for the work. It requires a level of attention to detail and critical thinking that I simply do not have. I tried, to the best of my ability, to figure this out, but, after my presentation, I clearly came up short.

Discovering the origins of my manuscript was a grueling process. As I mentioned in my presentation, I focused on the etymology of certain words—a creative, yet dangerous, method. I thought that, by tracking the history of how certain words were spelt, I could find the origin of my manuscript. Once I learnt it was written in Latin, but with French headings, I thought it was before the Protestant Reformation. As it is known, biblical texts began to be written in the vernacular during the Reformation. And, by tracking the origins of certain words, such as “martyr” written as “martir”, I placed the origin in 11th to 12th Century France.

I am using the word “thought” rather than “know” because, frankly, my presentation was a learning opportunity.

As it turns out, I did not factor in that my manuscript was not the original. Somehow. It seems so logical, with everything that has been covered in our class thus far, yet it escaped my train of thought. It was written in a later time period, because it is a reproduction, not the original copy. Additionally, other countries outside of France spoke French in the Middle Ages and Early-Modern Period. All these counterpoints are so obviously, so I am perplexed as to why I did not think of it during my preparation for my presentation. I took a risk with all the confidence in the world, and it backfired completely. Such is life, I suppose.

If it was or was not from a Book of Hours does not matter; the etymology of “martir” in French is the key to finding the true origin of my manuscript.

How foolish a thought that was.

Upon looking at my manuscript after the presentations, it so obvious its laughable. It did not occur to me that the iconography could be indicators of the origin. The text as well, being Gothic Textura, are indicative that my original hypothesis of a 11th or 12th Century was founded on unsound logic. Out of all the clues and leads I could have investigated, I chose the etymology of a few words that looked like they were spelt unusual.

The only reason I can provide for this lapse of judgement is… Well, I do not have one. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

With more research to be done for my catalogue entry, I can at least say that the presentations helped me realize a few things about my manuscript. It is very similar to a couple of the others in this class, so the presentations will help me accurately place the origin of my manuscript, as well as the purpose of it. I can assume that it is from a Book of Hours, due to the iconography and the text. The year, however, is still in question.

I have a lot of work to do with to this manuscript. Through my struggles, I have gained immense respect for the process and those who endure it. The amount of knowledge and attention this craft demands are things I did not expect to be so high. Perhaps this is the reason I failed in my argument for the manuscript’s origins. That is not to say that I did not take it seriously; I simply did not meet those demands.

The Materiality of Text

How Substrates Impact the Reading and Writing Experience

The materials used in the production of manuscripts are a major component in the quality and preservation of medieval texts. By examining these texts as artifacts rather than the text itself, and looking into the materials used to create them, we can see context into the production methods, regional origin and cultural background of the text. Back in October we had a class discussion on substrates and the different materials used in manuscript production, along with materials used in the production of all texts throughout different points in history. By comparing these materials we were able to see how the writing material itself impacted the reading and writing experience of the text. Whether that affected the political or cultural significance, the economics, or the technology of the period and region that the text originated from. 

We brainstormed different materials we have seen text written on before, with examples like Papyrus, Stone, wood and paper. Stone was an example of how the material was telling of the background of the text, often writing in stone is a monumental thing, due to the durability and longevity of the material. We discussed Roman monuments as examples of this, and how their massive monuments often had small but significant messages meant to last. This was not exclusive to the Romans, even in the modern day we use headstone inscriptions for the deceased.

 In the context of manuscripts we see the use of Vellum or Parchment quite often. By examining the kind of animal used in the production of the manuscript we can discover many different things about the background of the text. The regional origin, the quality of production and possibly the economic status of the region it comes from. By comparing the usage of vellum and paper we can see trends in the economy of writing materials of certain periods and regions, but also the reasoning behind their usage. The quality of manuscript depended greatly on the material used to produce it, from the ink to the base it was to be written on. According to one of the readings from this week, the chapter “Materials” by Orietta Da Rold from Production of Books in England 1350-1550, the use of paper was not common in comparison to vellum pre printing press. The author states, “G.S. Ivy and R.J. Lyall in their remarkable contributions to the study of paper tend to emphasize that paper has a low status in the hierarchies of manuscript production.”1 Whether this means that the use of paper was looked down upon due to a social status factor, an economic factor or that it was less durable in comparison to parchment, there seems to be evidence that parchment was thought to be better than paper at one point in time. As a class we took this point and discussed whether there was a hierarchy of writing material in our own lives during the digital age. While almost any professional writing is done with a computer and a word processor, many still prefer to handwrite their personal notes. The interesting part about a digitized writing surface, is that it seems to be above handwritten material in most cases in the hierarchy yet it is a digitized attempt to imitate past methods of writing such as handwritten methods or the printing press. 

What can be taken away from these discussions? Well, the context of a material can be determined by what kind of writing it will be used for. A large stone will often be used to make a monument, while a piece of paper could be used to make a grocery list. We can also see how much valuable information can be found by simply looking deeper into the materiality of a piece of writing, whether it’s a medieval manuscript, book or tablet. By looking at what was used in the production we can find out information on its region origin, the time period it was created in, cultural practices of the region or time period, and even the economic status. By viewing objects like manuscripts as artifacts rather than scholarly works, it becomes easier to contextualize the information not directly conveyed through the text itself.  


1 Orietta Da Rold, “Materials”, in Production of Books in England 1350-1550, ed. Alexandra Gillespie and Andrew Wakelin (Toronto: University of Cambridge Press, 2011), 25. 

The Fragilely Complicated Process of Reproduction

The process of reproduction medieval manuscripts initially seemed like such a delicate, careful process that sought and created perfectionists in their craft. However, after reading about it in detail, from the “copying” to the “finishing” phase, there is more flexibility than I previously thought. That is not to say that the scribes have complete and total artistic freedom, but it certainly displays wrinkles of complexity. Through an incredibly rigorous process, there is room for error and improvisation—to what degree, however, remains a matter of speculation.

From “Designing the Page” by Stephen Partridge, it seems that the mise-en page of a given manuscript unlocked the artistic freedom of the scribe working on it. For example, there was an example of placing what was written in the margins of a manuscript into the text of the reproduction; while it is not technically a complete copy of the original, due to the margins being moved, the actual text remains the same. The reasons for this could be tenfold: it could have been a simple mistake by a scribe, a conscious decision by the scribe, or a request by whomever commissioned the manuscript. That logic not only applied to the marginal texts, which, no doubt, must have been difficult to work with. Scribes also had autonomy with editing the actual text that they were supposed to be copying. Often, it was a matter of shortening texts with abbreviations but not always. There were various reasons—perhaps, incentives in some cases—to change a text in a recreation. Whatever the intention may be, it indicates that scribes had autonomy in reproducing text. Pieces of a recreated text can be missing or altered to change the meaning entirely.

The texts and the marginal writings of manuscripts are not the only aspect of the mise-en page that granted scribes autonomy. A page may have a picture that accompanies a text; a scribe may change the location of the image or the text, manipulate the text to fit around the image, or may omit of the image or text entirely, either by moving it to a following page or removing it entirely. Conversely, the scribe in question may change to enlarge the text or image, depending on what message they are trying to convey.

The tendency to play around with the mise-en page like a sandbox becomes more apparent when one considers that the process of reproduction has no specific order. The “finishing” (“or spot-checking”) phase can begin before or after the “copying” phase has finished or has yet to begin.

The more you learn about history, the more confusing it becomes.

Perhaps it’s just my tendency to become scatterbrained at this time of year, but something seems contradictory about “reproduction” allowing such a level of artistic autonomy and creative freedom. Even paradoxical. To me, there seems to be rules and instructions to follow in the process that all have an asterisk that states “except for when they don’t”. For example, scribes typically copied text before entering the finishing phase except for when they don’t or copying means writing the exact text from the original manuscript except for when it doesn’t. Such a delicate process, one that we all experience as a class during our workshops in the Book-Arts Lab, with immense room for error that grants the scribes as much autonomy that it does… Something just seems wrong about it.

Not wrong in a moral way, but wrong in an ironic sense. I think that’s the source of my fascination; work that requires so much attention to detail and perfection that, in reality, has so much room for improvisation and autonomy is interesting and, in a way, a little funny. Maybe I just gave scribes of the past too much credit.

Despite my urge to label this entire process as nothing more than simply following “the vibe”, it would be irresponsible and incorrect to do so. Recreating any form of media will inevitably reflect an individual’s own interpretation, and this was no different for medieval scribes. There is no doubt that scribal work was rigorous and careful, but that does not mean that there was no room for artistic autonomy. Fact of the matter is that the level of autonomy and freedom of the scribes was fluid, not stagnant; there is always a context for additions and/or omissions to recreation of manuscripts. However, the reasons for this creative freedom are not entirely relevant to the manuscripts. Adding anything to a piece of media will change its meaning, enhancing what it was in prior forms or altering it entirely. Besides, they are from so long ago that, we can never truly know why these changes were made. Clues can be found, but, ultimately, all it can only be speculation.

Typically, the mise-en page is decided before scribes begin copying the text. But, then again, who’s to say that it is?