College of St George Archives Blog

College of St George Archives

Posts Tagged ‘Manuscripts’

Researching medieval Garter robes

Monday, April 25th, 2016

To mark St George’s Day on Saturday, research project The Lexis of Cloth and Clothing in Medieval Royal Wardrobe Accounts published an article about the Order of the Garter. The Lexis of Cloth and Clothing is a project designed to encourage school-children, students and interested members of the public to engage with Britain’s medieval past, its language, manuscripts, and the clothing worn at the time.

An interview has also been published between Dr Charles Farris, project researcher, and Dr Euan Roger, who recently completed his PhD on the College of St George in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The interview was filmed in the St George’s Chapel Archives, where Dr Farris and Dr Roger were also able to inspect the sixteenth-century depiction of Garter Robes in the Black Book of the Garter.

The article can be read here. To watch the interview please click here.

It’s not business, it’s strictly personal

Friday, April 15th, 2016
More on the personal seals in the Archives.

Following a blog published in July 2015, this is a more detailed look at the value and importance of personal seals from the point-of-view of their history, usage, ownership and designs.

Most of the wax seals in the St George’s Chapel Archives remain attached to their original documents. The best represented period is between the 13th and 17th centuries: five hundred years of seals being used throughout the United Kingdom for the first time. During that time seals (and, of course the matrices from which they took their impression) reduced in size and shape, becoming mostly circular, with an average diameter of 18mm.

Personal seals are those used by an individual in a private capacity as a means of authentication and validation. They were attached at the bottom of a handwritten deed or covenant by a parchment tag or tongue, or plaited strings or cord, or applied directly onto the deed itself by pressing a seal matrix into soft wax on the parchment. Once attached, the seal helped to maintain the integrity of the document as it had to be placed by the owner of the matrix and could not be reused. In the case of important transactions or agreements the seals of all parties to the arrangement, including witnesses, might be attached to the document.

During the 13th century the use of seals spread to all but the lowest levels of society in England and Wales. This is usually attributed to a developing land market and an increase in trade and the subsequent use of documentation: individuals demanded written proof of transactions and agreements. Because such proofs represented finalisation of the transactions the records were stored away and moved infrequently and thus have been little disturbed, unlike medieval books. Now, however, the documents are used for study and this provides an opportunity to clean the seals of centuries of dirt and grime to reveal wonders of art and design.

A particularly lovely non-stamped seal in the Chapel Archives bears a remarkably preserved ash tree leaf set onto a red wax seal and attached by a parchment tag to a document appointing a man to a canonry in the deanery of Wolverhampton.

It is fascinating how many different designs and meanings are represented on wax seals and the collection in the Chapel Archives is no exception. From equestrian noblemen shown hunting, surrounded by a legend, to simple flowers with no legend, and many categories in between. Some feature a merchant’s mark, unique to each merchant – sometimes still in use today as a trademark or company logo. The meanings of some designs are lost to the mists of time, such as a fox and a goose attached to a lease of 1555.

Seals showing family coats of arms are fairly common, with a legend surrounding the design often commencing with the letter S or the full SIGILLVM (Latin for seal) followed by the bearer’s name and title. Sometimes the designs are puns on the owner’s name, such as a figure with a bow and arrow for a man called Archer. This is known as a rebus.

If a seal has a legend on the obverse or reverse, or both, and it is intact and clear enough to read this is a great help identifying ownership or meaning.  One of my favourites is a thirteenth century seal which reads ECCE AGNUS DEI EST AMOR MEUS ‘Behold the Lamb of God is my love’.

Peter Eley, Archives volunteer

I am indebted to Dr Elizabeth New’s work ‘Seals and Sealing Practices’. 2010 British Records Association for additional information.

Strange creatures in the Archives

Tuesday, November 17th, 2015

Strange creatures represented in medieval manuscripts are not uncommon. They can be seen mostly in the margins of many early European illuminated manuscripts and early books dedicated to animals are generally known as bestiaries.  Some of our own manuscripts at St George’s Chapel Library and Archives, although not bestiaries, contain images of strange creatures and as well as in manuscripts they can be seen, with a little difficulty, under the stall seats in the quire of the Chapel where the wonderful medieval oak-carved misericords feature many animals, both real and imagined.

A carving from a misericord in St George's Chapel

What readers may find more unusual is that strange animals appear again on old wax seals, and these are well represented in the fascinating collection of medieval wax seals attached to legal documents in the archives at St George’s Chapel, see images below.

The background to beasts as art in books, paintings, carvings, sculpture, and seals etc., is as interesting as many of the other incidental details of medieval artwork and gives rise to a specialised subject fairly well documented by scholars of history and nature.

A seal showing a hare with a trumpet riding on a hound

So many strange creatures are the result of stories and legends told by peoples hundreds of years ago all over the world and to this day never seem to lose their fascination and fear factor, especially to the young.

Bestiaries in medieval times were second only to the Bible in their popularity and wide distribution. They were catalogues of animal stories combining known zoological information as well as myths and legends of bizarre, exotic and monstrous creatures drawn from verbatim tales of scary imagined animals by creative storytellers. Homer was a very good proponent of them several hundred years BC, viz. CERBERUS the three-headed dog with sharp teeth who guarded the entrance to Hades, the underworld.

Perhaps the most famous, or infamous, creature known today is the DRAGON, of which we know something here at St George’s.  Our depicted dragon is almost certainly slain by our English patron Saint George and the two of them can be seen in various places around the Chapel and environs, including a fine gilt statue situated in the courtyard of the Dean’s Cloister. The Library and Archives have many representations of St George and the Dragon and perhaps the best images are on the Chapter seals attached by parchment tags to legal documents.

The seal of Elizabeth Rogers, from a lease in St George's Chapel Archives

Another strange creature to be discovered on a fine small seal is the CERASTES, a serpent with horns and a snake-like tail and a flexible spine-less body. According to legend it would cover itself with sand, apart from the horns, with which it would allure its prey, and then suddenly spring up, catch the victim and devour it.

A cerastes shown on a seal from a 15th century lease

MANTICORES appear frequently in medieval art; these are hybrids of various animals, including men and women, having the head of one creature and the body of another.

Sketch of a manticore copied from the Black Book of the Garter

Perhaps the most well-known kind of manticores are MERMAIDS. They would be beautiful women from the waist up, but instead of having legs and feet their bottom half would be a fish’s tail, and in some ancient stories they could be found helping people at sea in distress, but more often than not their siren calls would lure seamen to a watery grave.

The heraldic beast of King Edward III (the creator of the chivalric Order of the Garter in 1348) is the UNICORN, a mythical creature resembling a small horse with one spiralled horn growing out of its forehead. According to medieval writing the horn represented the Gospel of Truth. The Unicorn was an untameable beast that could only be captured by a young virgin. It supports the British Royal coat of arms, along with its traditional enemy, the lion.

There are more strange creatures to be seen, if one cares to look, at St George’s Chapel, or by appointment at the Chapel Library and Archives.

Copies of dragon heads incorporated into initial letters in the Denton Black Book

You could also take a look at an interesting article by Dr Alixe Bovey, Head of Research at The Courtauld, on the British Library’s website, which includes videos of strange creatures. For further reading on this topic, Julia Cresswell’s book Legendary Beasts of Britain (Shire Library, 2013) can be purchased from the St George’s Chapel shop.

My grandson Oliver assures me that scary new creatures continue to terrify in the forms of the Basilisk and Aragog (Harry Potter), Azog (The Hobbit) and Godzilla (Godzilla) etc., so the myths and legends are out there… be very, very afraid!

Peter Eley, Library and Archives volunteer

The man behind the Black Book

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015

Illumination is a key feature of the Black Book of the Garter which, commissioned by King Henry VIII in 1534, documents the Knights of the Order of the Garter from its origin in 1348 until 1551.

Accounts of the household for the King contain regular payments to Lucas Hornebolte (an anglicised form of his real name: Horenbout), a Flemish painter described in the accounts as a “pictor-maker”. He was appointed King’s Painter, and worked as court miniaturist to Henry VIII from 1525 until his death, painting several famous miniature portraits including those of Henry’s wives and children. Horenbout’s miniature portraits appear to use a technique very similar to that in the illumination of manuscripts, thus it has been identified that Horenbout was the illuminator for the Black Book.

Lucas Horenbout was born in Ghent around the year 1490 and trained with his father, who was a manuscript illuminator. In the 1520s Lucas, along with his father, Gerard, and sister, Susannah, moved to England. It has been suggested that they moved to this country in order to help the attempted revival of English manuscript illumination, but there is no definite evidence for this. Nevertheless, Horenbout is considered by many as the founder of the English school of portrait miniature painting.

While the ensuing two volumes of the Register of the Order of the Garter are also decorative in keeping with a similar style, the Black Book is undoubtedly illuminated to a higher quality. Not only does it contain several pages on which the Sovereigns since the start of the Order are represented, surrounded by beautifully designed borders, but decorative initials are a continuous presence throughout.

Elaborately illuminated page for the start of King Henry VI's reign

On the whole, the use of the colours red, blue and gold are most prominent, with each initial of the start of each paragraph or title of Sovereign or Knight, written in gold and backed by a square of blue or red alternately.

Due to the highly decorative nature of the Book in comparison to the other registers of the Order, King Henry VIII may have commissioned it as a status symbol to display his wealth and power as King of England and Sovereign of the Order of the Garter. The ornate use of the colour gold throughout conveys the sense of wealth, and the more extravagant decoration for the Sovereigns sets Henry VIII’s pages apart from the rest of the book, suggesting its purpose wasn’t merely to document the statutes and the foundations of the Order. Likewise, toward the centre of the Book on a double page spread are four illustrations depicting a Garter procession and Henry VIII surrounded by the Knights of the Garter, further exhibiting his status, and emphasising his involvement in the creation of this first volume of the Register of the Order of the Garter. By comparison, all other monarchs who appear in the Black Book have only one small miniature portrait to mark the start of their reign.

Lucy Brown, Archives work experience student

Conservator’s eye view: wax seals

Thursday, July 23rd, 2015

The Medieval Seals at St George’s Chapel Archives or a Geek’s blog

My background has been rich in the conservation and restoration of many historical artefacts mostly on paper and parchment, books and paintings and in the service of the most prestigious of clients. But rarely have I encountered wax seals, those mostly little red things hanging from the bottom of documents, so my introduction to them four years ago by the gracious Librarian & Archivist, Dr Clare Rider at St George’s Chapel Archives was met with not a little apprehension. Since then I have offered my voluntary service on Tuesdays to help clean, repair, survey and protect some 2,000 plus fascinating medieval wax seals. When I relate what I have been up to for the past four years to some of my family and all of my friends I am met with a glazing-of-the-eyes and pathetic attempts to suppress their yawns. I have morphed into, not a Navy Seal, but a Geek Seal and very proud of it I am too! So let me try to explain what treasures we have at St George’s Chapel Archives and to begin with a short background to the subject.

Four wax seals attached by parchment tongues to a deed from 1530

A seal attached to a legal document is a device for authenticating the document. It may be attached by a tag (a strip of parchment threaded through slits made in the folded foot of the document) a tongue (a strip cut laterally across the foot of the document with the seal attached at the end) or a cord (made from wool, silk and often plaited, threaded through the foot of the document) or applied directly onto the document. Most early seals are made of coloured beeswax, although some are left uncoloured and they generally have an impression stamped into them, though again, some are just wax blobs. The impression is created by a hand-engraved matrix or die, which in principle is the personal property of its user, i.e. the person accepting responsibility for what the document says. In England prior to the early 11th century the solemn grants of lands and rights bore no seal and their authority was written and signed by eminent witnesses along with the sign of the cross for sacred and divine significance. The earliest English documents known to be authenticated by attached seals are the writs of Edward the Confessor (1042-66). This is possibly the period when wax or metal seals were introduced as a permanent form of document authentication in England.

Whilst there are many thousands of medieval wax seals, some broken but many intact, within the archives of British libraries and institutions there are sadly very few of the matrices remaining. This is a pity because the study of the subject is enhanced if a well impressed seal has its matching ‘partner’ complete, like two hands coming together in prayer. Nevertheless, the real importance is the document together with its attached seal. The matrix would have been engraved and made by hand, some of the best were done by gold or silversmiths, and the materials used were copper alloy, gilt or silver and most had a handle made of metal or wood which would be held and pressed into the soft wax. Some smaller seals were made of precious metals in the form of a signet ring.

The front of King Edward III's Great Seal from 1333

The reverse of King Edward III's Great Seal from 1333

The broad categories seals and their respective documents take are as follows:

  • Royal seals or Great Seals (very often double-sided);
  • Aristocratic and heraldic seals;
  • Secular clergy seals, e.g. Bishop’s seals of dignity;
  • Personal seals (mostly un-heraldic);
  • Seals of corporate bodies, e.g. monastic and town seals

My four years of experience at St George’s Chapel Archives has enabled me to experience all of these categories, but the overriding majority of seals here are personal seals, belonging to the seal owning public. The great spread of personal seals in the 12th/13th centuries and after reached out to virtually all landholders, from the largest to the smallest. It seems that virtually no one, including villeins, such as tenant farmers, was denied the use of a seal to authenticate a legal document – either their own or a borrowed seal. Therefore the plethora and complexity of designs and motifs impressed into the wax for us to study today is astounding. The collection of personal seals at St George’s Chapel Archives is no exception.

A seal depicting a grotesque head. Sketch by Peter Eley.

A seal depicting a phoenix rising from the ashes. Sketch by Peter Eley.

A seal depicting a two-faced man. Sketch by Peter Eley.

Peter Eley, Library and Archives volunteer

Conservator’s eye view: book bindings

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015

Once the scribes and illuminators had completed their exemplary work on the vellum pages the quires were re-assembled in the correct order and the binder would start to sew each quire with linen thread around upright thicker leather thongs within a binder’s frame, tying up on each leather thong in turn. He then continues sewing through the leaves of the quire and onto the next quire until all the gatherings were sewn together to form the text-block. A book with say 40 quires would take a skilled binder a day to stitch a text-block together.

Released from the binder’s sewing frame the text-block would then be, literally, knocked into shape to form the familiar convex/concave profile. The text-block would likely be clamped into a laying-press to enable the binder to treat the edges of the pages with gold leaf using a soft guilder’s-tip brush. He would lift the fine fragile gold leaf by passing the brush once through his hair to obtain enough static to gently lift and place the gold into place on the vellum edges. The gold leaf is finally burnished with a ‘dog’s tooth’, a smooth hard stone such as agate to dress the three exposed edges with lustrous gold.

The five, six or seven thongs (depending on the size and nature of the book) used for sewing the quires together are now cut off long enough to form the coupling of the text-block to wooden boards. Two wooden boards, made from oak or beech, would be cut, planed and smoothed to fit the front and back of the text-block to form its protective covers and to keep the leaves together. Grooves are cut into the boards to enable the thongs to fit into the wood and then are glued into place, thus forming the initial strength of boards to block. The thongs are left raised on the spine and glued again when the leather binding is adhered. A complete binding of tawed or tanned leather is cut and prepared to be stuck onto the boards, or just a partial covering for the spine and part of the boards.

We have a very good example of a partial leather binding on plain untreated oak boards at St George’s Chapel Library, see fifteenth century LIB MS 2 ‘Examples of Scriptures’. This book has five ‘raised bands’ on the spine.

SGC LIB MS 2 bound in leather and untreated oak boards

The advantage of leather bindings were the infinite variety of decoration that could be created; from blind stamping designs to gold-leaf embellishment to luxurious commissions from royalty or church, whereby precious gem-stones, smithed metal designs, miniature enamels and elaborate arms would be applied to the boards and spine, thus creating the most treasured contemporary possessions and, as has been proven, enduring and expensive works of art.

Other than leather bindings forming a tight covering around the book, a rather rarer protection was a chemise cover. Usually meant for a private devotional books such as Books of Hours; an expensive dyed and decorated fabric would be attached carefully to the book and be cut and finished off long enough to wrap around the entire illuminated manuscript to protect it.

The saying, ‘You can’t judge a book by its cover’…in the case of medieval manuscripts, is invariably wrong!

The interior of SGC LIB MS 2

For an informative and delightful Gresham College lecture from Dr Sally Dormer of the V&A speaking about the fascinating subject of manuscripts, please see ‘The Making of Medieval Manuscripts’ on YouTube.

Peter Eley, Library and Archives volunteer

My references for this series of blogs are as follows.

‘Making an Illuminated Manuscript’. Stella Panayotova and Teresa Webber (2005) Cambridge.

‘Collectors and Collecting’  Christopher de Hamel (2005) Cambridge.

‘The Wormsley Library’    Maggs Bros (2007) London.

Gresham College Lecture Series    Sally Dormer (2012) London.

My special thanks go to Dr Clare Rider and Kate McQuillian, Librarian and Archivist and Assistant Archivist respectively at St. George’s Chapel for their kindness, patience and help with my research on this project.

Conservator’s eye view: illumination

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

As we have seen in my previous blogs most manuscripts were written before they were decorated. Scribes often doubled as page designers, planning the hierarchy of decoration in line with the articulation of the text. They left room for the illumination and prompted artists by inserting faint letters in the spaces where historiated initials were to be painted. The artist almost always painted the initials suggested by the scribe and also made use of the lines ruled across the space intended for the miniature when transferring compositions throughout the volume, as can faintly be seen in some of the illuminated miniatures in our precious holding, Liber Niger, the ‘Black Book’ [SGC G.1].

Illuminated miniature and historiated initial at the start of Henry VI's entry in the Black Book of the Garter

The artist would sketch out the design of his miniature with a plummet and then firm it up into an ink drawing. By following this under-drawing the illustration would be developed to a remarkable level of coloured detail, showing the confidence and fluidity of a truly accomplished artist.

Before leading on to the application of gold it is worth considering who these artists were. Manuscript artists in Europe were predominantly monks working in monasteries and we know many of them as masters of their art, eg Master Hugo, Virgil Master, Master of the London Pliny, Master of Ippolita Sforza, etc, etc. There were also some known women artists, nuns working in nunneries including Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) and Sussanah Hornebolt (1503-1545). I believe that the reason why we are not aware of many more female artists is because it was considered unseemly and against their religious vows to claim ownership of their work.

The next stage in the decoration of the manuscript is the application of gold. Sometimes liquid gold would be painted onto the vellum page to gain maximum impact under candlelight, this in the most precious and expensive commissions. But the less expensive option was to use gold leaf. Beaten into sheets thinner than tissue, loose gold leaf crinkles at the faintest current of air, dissolves into dust if handled roughly, and, most importantly, clings to painted surfaces. It was carefully laid over areas brushed with gum arabic, fish glue, or beaten and strained egg-white, known as glair. Flat gold leaf was often left unfurnished, as can be seen in the Black Book. For a raised effect, gold leaf was laid over gesso, a compound of plaster, white lead and glue, which was often coloured with salmon-pink to enhance the glowing warmth of the gold. The gesso formed a ‘cushion’ making the thinnest gold leaf look solid.

The Schorn Book of Hours (1430-1450) [SGC LIB MS.6] has wonderful examples of gold and coloured historiated initials and border decoration. The gold has been burnished with a ‘dog’s tooth’, a smooth hard stone such as agate to give it a lustre as bright today as it was five hundred and sixty five years ago.

Illuminations incorporating painted gold in the Schorn Book of Hours

Gold glows and shimmers with the light, revealing the dazzling beauty and true essence of an illuminated manuscript, and just as all the colours illuminated the pages of these sensational books so long ago, they continue to do so as well as illuminate the past for us today, and for others, well into the future.

Because the pages of illuminated manuscripts are kept closed most of the time, and indeed for hundreds of years, they are kept clean and safe from handling and light, and other than repairs to torn pages and minimal dusting, conservators are wise to maintain a ‘minimal intervention’ approach to these precious works of art.

Peter Eley, Library and Archives Volunteer

Conservator’s eye view: scripts

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

My last blog ended thus…’with the parchment, ink and quill ready, the scribe could start work on the text.’

Anyone who has seen early manuscripts will perhaps understand the bewildering number and diversity of different styles of script there are, but all derive ultimately from the handwriting of the late Roman world. In the Medieval and early Renaissance periods the vast majority of scribes were men; they were monks working in monastery scriptoria. These rooms for writing and illustrating manuscripts were often near the library, if the monastery had one, but there is a scholarly body of thought that there were not actually that many scriptoria and that many scribes worked on their own in their own cells.  The scripts they would use (and there might be two, three or four different scribes working on the same book) would be in the style determined at the outset, either by the Abbot or the patron of the work, or both.

The earliest formal codex scripts were majuscule scripts, in which few of the letter-forms contain strokes that project beneath the ruled line or above the headline. Majuscule in time developed into the familiar Gothic script and was used in northern Europe from the 12th through to the 17th century and was in use in Germany until the 20th century.  There are many variations of the Gothic script just as there are variations in all other styles. As Gothic script fell out of style in France, the Low Countries and Britain (in Italy, Spain and Greece Gothic was never in vogue; they considered it too barbaric and archaic), there were new styles of handwriting being developed in different regions, mostly based on the uncial and half-uncial style, and of these the most successful was the Caroline Minuscule. Whilst this had elements of the Gothic it was revived by the Italian humanists in a form known as Humanistic Minuscule.

The main text is a very neat Caroline minuscule but notes have been added in the margin in a less formal hand

Caroline Minuscule is also known as Carolingian script. Two of our own manuscripts held in the Chapter Library at St George’s, SGC LIB MS.4 and SGC LIB MS.5, have good examples of Carolingian script.  Once the scribes had completed their writing per vellum leaf to the style and plan agreed at the outset, the spaces remaining were there for the artist to paint directly onto the page his or her miniatures (women artists were making their mark elsewhere away from the monastery). This might be a full-page painting, half-page, foliated borders with flora and fauna, historiated capital letters at the start of chapters, et al.

Colourful inks have been used to draw attention to the start of a chapter

There was much creativity and high quality artwork amongst the legion of artists throughout Europe and this will be the subject of my next blog.

Peter Eley
Library and Archives Volunteer

Conservator’s eye view: writing instruments

Tuesday, March 24th, 2015

In my last blog I wrote about quire structure of the parchment, prepared not only for the binder, but crucially for the scribe and the artist to fashion their magic with masterly hand-writing and radiant illustrations and historiated initial letters. Here I give some detail on the writing instruments and inks used during the Medieval and Renaissance periods. Before writing, scribes rubbed the parchment with pumice, cuttlefish or ground chalk to remove any impurities and make the surface smooth and absorbent. They pricked the margins, often through several stacked sheets, and linked the pricks across the page to rule the lines and frame the text space. The ruling instruments varied in different areas and periods. A hard point, stylus or awl was favoured in the early Middle Ages and again during the Renaissance; it produced a shallow furrow and edge effect on the page. A plummet, or metal point often made of silver, was common from the eleventh century onwards; it left a trace resembling a fine pencil mark. Several styluses attached to a handle resembled a mini gardener’s rake which was run across the page to produce parallel lines. One can detect the use of the scribe’s rake in manuscripts whose lines quiver ‘in time’.

Medieval writing materials

Black ink had several sources. The dark natural colour from the glands of the cuttlefish was known since Antiquity; just as common was the carbon black ink made of crushed charcoal dissolved in water. But the material Medieval and Renaissance scribes favoured above all else was iron-gall ink. Its tendency to bond with parchment meant guaranteed durability and its lustre was irresistible. Its source was the tumour-like growth around the gall wasp (Biorhiza pallida) eggs laid in their hundreds in the buds or soft twigs of oak trees. The crushed galls, together with a little iron-salt, were boiled in rain water and the black liquid was thickened with gum-Arabic – the water-soluble sap of acacia or, more commonly in Northern Europe, cherry, plum or almond trees. The red ink used for titles, headings and important parts of the text was made from the roots of rose madder (Rubia tinctorum). Many colours, such as red, were cooked down with soft rain-water and fermented until the right colour was achieved. Blue was a very important colour because of its association with the purity of the Virgin Mary and artists would, if it was available and could be afforded, use lapis lazuli. When the stone was crushed to a fine powder and mixed with egg-yolk (tempera) it produced ultramarine. Instead, scribes would use a much cheaper alternative blue produced from woad (Isatis tinctorum).  Yellow was often made with dried saffron crocus stimas, which produced a rich golden yellow and was sometimes substituted for gold.

Scribes made their quills by cutting a goose, swan or rook feather with a pen-knife. The width of the nib determined the degree of contrast between pen strokes, thick or thin, according to the direction in which they were traced and also had a bearing on the scale of the writing. Smaller handwriting generally required a narrower nib.

Medieval scribe

With the parchment, ink and quill ready, the scribe could start work on the text.

Peter Eley
Library and Archives volunteer

Conservator’s eye view: book structure

Monday, February 23rd, 2015

My blog dated 23 January gave a short introduction to the remarkable natural material called parchment or vellum and its durability. The collection of medieval documents and early books at St George’s Archives and Chapter Library is testament to its properties.

This time I will concentrate on the way a book was constructed after the parchment had been cleaned and dried and cut to the required size. Very large sheets could be folded several times and their edges cut open to form the basic unit of a book, the so-called quire, or gathering (and in the language of printers, a signature). Smaller sheets were folded only once to create a bifolium – that is, two leaves or four pages. Bifolia were inserted inside one another to form a quire. The quires of the manuscript of Biblical commentaries of Gregory and Bede held at St George’s [SGC LIB MS.5] are made up of four bifolia each, that is of eight leaves or sixteen pages. There are 24 quires in total in the book which equates to one hundred and ninety two leaves, or three hundred and eighty four pages. The arrangement of the leaves follows a pattern common throughout the medieval period – the hair side of the treated calf skin faces hair side and flesh side faces flesh side. The aesthetics of a medieval manuscript were determined well before work on the page layout, let alone the decoration, could begin.

Quire structure in SGC LIB MS.5

The quires were often distributed among scribes and artists in monasteries and chapel scriptoria to speed up the work. The differences of handwriting within a single volume will nearly always be per quire and rarely within the same quire.  Scribes used various devices to signal the order of quires: quire marks (consecutive numbers written on the last verso of a gathering), quire and leaf signatures (combination of letters and numbers on the leaves in the first half of a gathering), or catchwords (the first words of the next gathering written at the end of the previous one).  Each of the pages will have been textualised by the scribes and then elaborate letters or miniature illuminations will have been added before the completed quires are sent to the bindery for binding the whole codex, or book.  More information about binding will be the subject of a later blog.

For a brief, yet pleasant animated introduction to the above please see the Getty Museum video, ‘The Structure of a Medieval Manuscript’ on YouTube.

Peter Eley
Library and Archives volunteer