Genève, Bibliothèque de Genève, Ms. fr. 167, f. 11r on Flickr.

Manuscript title: Jean Thenaud, Introduction to the Kabbalah, dedicated to King Francis I

Manuscript summary: This parchment manuscript contains the mystic text of the Kabbala in cursive script, illustrated with numerous highly colorful drawings with allegorical, cosmological, and liturgical themes.

Origin: Geneva (Switzerland)

Period: 16th century

Image source: Genève, Bibliothèque de Genève, Ms. fr. 167: Jean Thenaud, Introduction to the Kabbalah, dedicated to King Francis I ( www.e-codices.unifr.ch/en/list/one/bge/fr0167 ).

Manuscript title: Sefirat ha-Omer (Counting of the Omer) and other prayers.

Manuscript summary: The Counting of the Omer is the ritual counting of the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks. In this manuscript, these days and their corresponding numbers, are inscribed in 49 quatrefoils. F. 18r shows a menorah with the seven verses of Psalm 67 inscribed in microsript on the seven arms of the candelabrum. The scribe Baruch ben Schemaria from Brest-Litovsk (Belarus) created this manuscript in Amsterdam in 1795 for Aaron ben Abraham Prinz, of Alkmaar in the Netherlands, as noted on the title page. The drawing on f. 1r, a page of calligraphic decoration, depicts the giant Samson as Atlas, since, according to rabbinical tradition, he was endowed with superhuman strength.

Origin: Amsterdam (The Netherlands)

Period: 18th century

A medieval manuscript that was peed on by a cat 

Scribe was forced to leave the rest of the page empty, drew a picture of a cat and cursed the creature with the following words:

“Hic non defectus est, sed cattus minxit desuper nocte quadam. Confundatur pessimus cattus qui minxit super librum istum in nocte Daventrie, et consimiliter omnes alii propter illum. Et cavendum valde ne permittantur libri aperti per noctem ubi cattie venire possunt.”

[Here is nothing missing, but a cat urinated on this during a certain night. Cursed be the pesty cat that urinated over this book during the night in Deventer and because of it many others [other cats] too. And beware well not to leave open books at night where cats can come.]

Cologne, Historisches Archiv, G.B. quarto, 249, fol. 68r

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Books as hardware

These odd-looking medieval books share one peculiarity: they were all made into interactive objects because actual turning discs were attached to the page, usually more than one. The makers of these manuscripts added them to calculate the position of sun and moon (Pic 1), the date of Easter (not shown), or make other calculations (Pic 3). Particularly intriguing is the set of cogwheels embedded in the bookbinding (Pic 2), which picked a random number used for a method of divination. More about these unusual books and their function in this post on my other blog, medievalbooks.nl.

Pics: British Library, Egerton 848 (top); Oxford, Bodleian Library, Digby 46 (middle); Maastricht, Regionaal Historisch Centrum (bottom, pic my own).

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Rawlinson MS B 502 (Medieval necromantic manuscript), Leinster monastery, 15th century, Ireland.

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William Morris, artwork for The Story of the Dwellers at Eyr’, 1871. Via Birmingham Museums.

Morris had been fascinated by medieval illuminated manuscripts since childhood. This is his translation of the Eyrbtggja Saga, the first of the Norse sagas he had read with the Icelandic scholar Eirikr Magnusson. 

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Medieval dachshund - Or: drawing with words

Here are three examples of a technique called “micrography”: decorative scenes that are drawn with words written in a tiny script. While there are examples from Latin books made in the West (here is one), the technique is particularly common in medieval Hebrew manuscripts. The drawings are usually found in biblical manuscripts and they appear to be commentaries to the text. The technique, whereby a scribe wrote in the smallest handwriting possible, goes back to the 9th century AD. The examples here, from the 13th century, shows just how entertaining the word-made drawings can be: they are an opportunity for the scribe to frolick in the margins of the page - like drawing a creature that looks like a dachshund.

Pic: London, British Library, Additional MS 21160 (13th century, more about the manuscript here). More about micrography here.