Manuscript Culture: Slow and Intentional

Over the course of the past three classes, which focused on substrates and inks, page layout and scripts, two themes repeatedly came up over the course of our discussions: how meticulous the planning and creation of medieval manuscripts was, and the reciprocal relationship between modes of production and design.

During our first session working on our folio reproductions in the book arts lab, many of us were struck by the difficulty mapping our folio layouts onto a blank sheet of paper. I’d been fairly comprehensive with my measurements, calculating not only the space between each line but also the dimensions of each text block and historiated capital. Even so, there was at least one measurement I neglected to take: the empty space between lined text blocks.

Fortunately, I’d made sure to measure the average height of letters without ascenders and could thus calculate this distance, which was roughly the size of two letters. This was something that I was only able to do because of the larger size of my folio. For other students working with smaller, text-heavy pages, variations of even a millimeter or two threw off their entire formatting. These measurements would have been even more important centuries ago when scribes were working with costly vellum.

This materiality also impacted design elements. Codexes were artisan-made luxury items which were created in an “assembly line” fashion, requiring multiple collaborators with different specialty skills. One monk might rule the page and indicate where capitals or illustrations would be placed, a scribe would be responsible for transcribing text from exemplars, and an illuminator would add in illustrations. Because a single text would be created in stages, it had to be carefully planned so that all of the component parts would fit together into one complete whole.  

Even elements as innocuous as marginalia – which are frequently described as the doodles of bored scribes – were frequently copied out from exemplars. Professor Saurette spoke to early “stencils” used by scribes, in which needles were poked through a pattern onto the substrate below, leaving dots that could then be connected into an outline. Despite my Googling I’ve yet to find any images of such stencils, but we will be using them during a later session in the book arts lab.

The careful mise-en-page of medieval manuscripts left little room for improvisation. While glossed versions of text were common (with the commentary of prominent thinkers or theologians added to help clarify meaning), these commentaries were part of the production process rather than annotations added at a later date. Other more organic annotations are frequently written interlinearly rather than in discrete columns on either side of the text, potentially cluttering the page.

When we created quills out of goose or duck feathers and attempted calligraphy, it stressed how laborious the physical action of writing was. While to some extent our class’s difficulty can be explained by a skill gap, even experienced scribes would have had to spend much more time writing each individual letter than we do using modern technology such as ballpoint pens. Otherwise, their script would be inconsistent or would leave spatters or blotches of ink on the page. Adding in the need for consistency further slows the writing process. This suggests that even career scribes probably took much longer to finish a medieval manuscript than we might expect. This once again underscores the need for careful formatting in medieval manuscript culture.

The physical act of writing – which was limited by both the quills and inks available at the time – impacted various forms of script. As Professor Saurette pointed out, the intricate lining within floriated or historiated initials can in part be attributed to not having the technology to write large letters with a single stroke: instead, an outline would have to be drawn and then filled in.

I attempted to recreate a capital from my folio in the book arts lab. This took me approximately 40 minutes, but I was working with modern tools such as a fine tip marker, watercolours, watercolour pencils, and a gel pen.

This material impact cannot be understated: the need to work carefully to avoid messes may have impacted the development of Gothic script, which is made up of discrete strokes. Each letter is separate and ornate, making for a more laborious transcription process. This particular script is strongly identified with ecclesiastical texts, which were created “for the glory of God” rather than being motivated by sheer utility. 

Other forms of handwriting evolved to suit these more utilitarian purposes. In Stefano Zamponi’s “Late Gothic” chapter of the Oxford Handbook of Latin Paleography, he discusses how different scripts were typically identified with specific kinds of manuscripts. Cursiva scripts tended to be used in commercial, legal, or university settings, where the ability to quickly record information was essential. While the resulting scripts are aesthetically unique, their appearance stems from the mode of production: dropping serifs and linking letters together as a result of writing quickly.   

Living in a digital age, we choose fonts for documents based almost solely on an aesthetic basis. But in the Middle Ages, the use of a specific script was informed by utility. It was only with the popularization of the printing press that the choice of text become a solely aesthetic decision: it takes no longer to frame a press to print in Gothic font than it does to print in Rotunda, even though one is more expedient to write in by hand. But by the time the printing press was popularized, centuries of these scripts’ identification with specific types of document created cultural associations that gave some fonts more perceived authority or prestige.