Has your cat ever walked across your keyboard? Well, it’s not a new problem. Medieval book historian Erik Kwakkel recently Tweeted this photo of a 15th century book with –you guessed it– cat paw prints in ink on the pages! We’re part of a long and glorious historical movement, friends. (Source: Dr. Marty Becker)
This is a true feel-good doodle, drawn by a medieval reader and found in the lower margin of a 13th-century page. The surprisingly modern-looking smiley face is wearing glasses and seems to float towards the text in a balloon, quite content. This little scene made my day.
Pic: Conches, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 7 (main text 13th century, doodle 14th or 15th century). More medieval doodles in this Tumblr.
The Codex Gigas (or ‘Giant Book") is also known as “The Devil’s Bible.” A curious illustration of Lucifer gives the tome its nickname.
The 13th-century manuscript is thought to have been created solely by a Herman the Recluse, a monk of the Benedictine monastery of Podlažice near Chrudim in Czech Republic. The calligraphy style is amazingly uniform throughout, believed to have taken 25 to 30 years of work. There are no notable mistakes or omissions. Pigment analysis revealed the ink to be consistent throughout. The book is enormous - it measures 36.2" tall, 19.3" wide, and 8.6" thick; it weighs approximately 165 pounds. There are 310 vellum leaves (620 pages). The leaves are bound in a wooden folder covered with leather and ornate metal.
The manuscript is elaborately illuminated in red, blue, yellow, green and gold. The entire document is written in Latin, and also contains Hebrew, Greek, and Slavic Cyrillic and Glagolitic alphabets. The first part of the text includes the Vulgate version of the Bible. Between the Old and New Testaments are Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews and De bello iudaico, as well as Isidore of Seville’s encyclopedia Etymologiae and medical works of Hippocrates, Theophilus, Philaretus, and Constantinus. Following a blank page, the New Testament commences.
Beginning the second part is a depiction of the devil. Directly opposite is a full picture of the kingdom of heaven, juxtaposing the “good versus evil." The second half, following the picture of the devil, is Cosmas of Prague’s Chronicle of Bohemia. A list of brothers in the Podlažice monastery and a calendar with necrologium, magic formulae and other local records round out the codex. Record entries end in the year 1229CE.
In 1648 at the end of the Thirty Years’ War, the Swedish army invaded Prague and the Codex was stolen as plunder. It is now held at the National Library of Sweden in Stockholm. For more information, check out this short National Geographic documentary and/or flip through this digital copy.
** If you have the least amount of intellectual curiosity or interest in history, the short vids above will only whet your appetite: might as well grab a cold drink & some popcorn, then settle in to watch the whole thing ~
The Scottish Declaration of Independence, April 6th 1320
The Declaration of Arbroath was made in the form of a letter, composed in Latin and submitted to Pope John XXII in the year of 1320. Its purpose was to get the pope to acknowledge Robert the Bruce as the country’s lawful king, to assert Scotland’s status as an independent, sovereign state and to defend Scotland’s right to use military force when unjustly attacked. It was most likely drafted in the scriptorium of Arbroath Abbey by Abbot Bernard on behalf of the nobles and barons of Scotland. Eight earls and about forty barons attached their seals to the Declaration. The following is one of its most popular excerpts:
“As long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours, that we are fighting, but for freedom - for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.”
The Declaration of Arbroath represents the founding of the Scottish nation and it has been credited as being part of the inspiration for the American Declaration of Independence.
Medieval evenings were as dark as ours. However, with no electricity and smaller windows, rooms - libraries - will generally have been dark places back then. This is why we frequently encounter candle wax on the pages of medieval books. Looking at such yellow blobs, like the one on this image, it’s not hard to imagine the medieval reader bent over his book, holding a candle. In this case to read a law text and scribble clarifying notes between the lines. A bit of wax to illuminate the law.
Pic (my own): Liverpool University, Sydney Jones Library, MS 4.20 (Italy, 13th century)
Manuscript evidence of the little known bunny rebellion of the late 13th century that also shows the facts long suppressed by male historians of the important role that women had in putting down the rebellion.
The first letter of a medieval text was often made to look like a picture. In these examples the capital letters are filled with action figures doing all sorts of gymnastic exercises. There is something special about them, because they are all taken not from regular medieval books but from so-called Alphabet Books. These objects were used by decorators: they provided patterns for each letter of the alphabet, in a variety of themes. The decorator picked a letter that he (or his client) liked and duplicated it onto the page he was working on. The diversity of styles is clear from the examples above, which are taken from three different late-medieval pattern books: some are funny, others serious. Most of them feature people in uncomfortable positions, as if they are attending yoga class. These one-letter shows acted as eye candy at the outset of the text: they got the reader in just the right mood.
The images above are from three sources: the Macclesfield Alphabet Book (London, British, Library, MS 8887), fully browsable here; Giovannino de’ Grassi’s notebook (Bergamo, Biblioteca Civica, MS Cassaf. 1.21), viewable here; and the alphabet book of Gregorius Bock (Yale, Beinecke Library, MS 439, of 1510-17), online here.
The Codex Gigas (Giant Book), also known as the Devil’s Bible, is the largest extant medieval manuscript in the world. According to the Codex legend, the single scribe was a monk who breached his monastic code and was sentenced to be walled up alive with no chance of escape. There was only one way the monk could avoid his excruciating death, he promised to create a beautiful, and fascinating book to glorify the monastery forever; a book that would include all human knowledge. There was one catch, he was given only twenty-four hours to complete the task in and if the monk would complete the task, then be free to live.