Bad medieval book manners. Part 1

Handle with care. Those who have worked with manuscripts in libraries and archives know that the casual relationship between the reader and the printed book stops at the door and a special covenant enters into force once we approach bound parchment (ok, some paper, too, mais j’en passe). ‘Be careful with that’, ‘no flash, please’, ‘don’t open it like that’, ‘use a book-rest, don’t you see you’re hurting it’ are ululations typical of a manuscript room. Needless to say, things were not quite like that in the long Middle Ages. Those manuscripts that have made it through fire and water, deliberate destruction or noxious negligence usually tell us stories of a book culture where the reader and the book were only slowly coming into a friendly bond. Historians have been telling us about book damage arising from negligence, weakness or deliberate fault, but wouldn’t it be great to hear the story from a contemporary who’s lobbied à pleins poumons for the dignity and sacrality of books? This man was Richard de Bury (1287-1345), bishop of Durham, Lord Chancellor, Treasurer and Privy Seal and author of the ‘Philobiblon’, a work that is as fascinating as it has been neglected by modern historians. It is Richard’s manifesto for bibliophilia or the love of books. In it, books take central stage, speaking to us, often through personification, about their ordeals, rewards and achievements. It is, for me, the greatest confession of faith of a bibliophile.

The book is divided into twenty chapters, but I want to focus on the fifteenth, which deals with handling books, do’s and don’ts. A commentary is usually my preferred approach to texts, but this time I think I should let Richard tell his story. I have tried to illustrate each of his points about handling books and manuscript damage using images from surviving manuscripts. A special thanks goes to Erik Kwakkel for making so many wonderful manuscript features available online.

Of showing due Propriety in the Custody of Books

We are not only rendering service to God in preparing volumes of new books, but also exercising an office of sacred piety when we treat box carefully, and again when we restore them to their proper places and commend them to inviolable custody; that they may rejoice in purity while we have them in our hands, and rest securely when they are put back in their repositories. And surely next to the vestments and vessels dedicated to the Lord’s body, holy books deserve to be rightly treated by the clergy, to which great injury is done so often as they are touched by unclean hands.  Wherefore we deem it expedient to warn our students of various negligences, which might always be easily avoided and do wonderful harm to books.

‘Various negligences’ or simply time gone by: London, BL, Or 10538 before the British Library repaired this ‘wonderful harm’. Source here

And in the first place as to the opening and closing of books, let there be due moderation, that they be not unclasped in precipitate haste, nor when we have finished our inspection be put away without being duly closed.  For it behoves us to guard a book much more carefully than a boot.

Unclasped: London, College of Arms, Arundel 10 (13th century). My own photo.
Carefully clasped back up: same as above.

But the race of scholars is commonly badly brought up, and unless they are bridled in by the rules of their elders they indulge in infinite puerilities.  They behave with petulance, and are puffed up with presumption, judging of everything as if they were certain, though they are altogether inexperienced.

You may happen to see some headstrong youth lazily lounging over his studies, and when the winter’s frost is sharp, his nose running from the nipping cold drips down, nor does he think of wiping it with his pocket-handkerchief until he has bedewed the book before him with the ugly moisture.  Would that he had before him no book, but a cobbler’s apron!

The smudge on the lower part of this leaf may be due to ink spillage, but I like to think it’s nasal effluvium. London, BL, Additional 37517, fol. 135v. Source here

His nails are stuffed with fetid filth as black as jet, with which he marks any passage that pleases him.

Dirty fingers mean century-old fingerprints. When you’ve got your fingers in too many pies, such accidents are bound to happen. Photo by Erik Kwakkel, discussing it here.

He distributes a multitude of straws, which he inserts to stick out in different places, so that the halm may remind him of what his memory cannot retain.  These straws, because the book has no stomach to digest them, and no one takes them out, first distend the book from its wonted closing, and at length, being carelessly abandoned to oblivion, go to decay.

Erik Kwakkel was therefore right to surmise that straw was used as bookmarks. What Richard de Bury perhaps hasn’t thought of is the similarity between his description of damage done by straw, on the one hand, and dental caries, on the other.

For many books, this may have been the straw that broke the book’s back. Source and discussion here

He does not fear to eat fruit or cheese over an open book, or carelessly to carry a cup to and from his mouth; and because he has no wallet at hand he drops into books the fragments that are left.  Continually chattering, he is never weary of disputing with his companions, and while he alleges a crowd of senseless arguments, he wets the book lying half open in his lap with sputtering showers.  Aye, and then hastily folding his arms he leans forward on the book, and by a brief spell of study invites a prolonged nap; and then, by way of mending the wrinkles, he folds back the margin of the leaves, to the no small injury of the book.

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There’s not much this book hasn’t seen. Dublin, Trinity College, MS 1363. Source here

Now the rain is over and gone, and the flowers have appeared in our land.  Then the scholar we are speaking of, a neglecter rather than an inspecter of books, will stuff his volume with violets, and primroses, with roses and quatrefoil.

Straw for autumn, primroses for spring, leaves for summer. Image by Erik Kwakkel

Then he will use his wet and perspiring hands to turn over the volumes; then he will thump the white vellum with gloves covered with all kinds of dust, and with his finger clad in long-used leather will hunt line by line through the page; then at the sting of the biting flea the sacred book is flung aside, and is hardly shut for another month, until it is so full of the dust that has found its way within, that it resists the effort to close it.

But the handling of books is specially to be forbidden to those shameless youths, who as soon as they have learned to form the shapes of letters, straightway, if they have the opportunity, become unhappy commentators, and wherever they find an extra margin about the text, furnish it with monstrous alphabets, or if any other frivolity strikes their fancy, at once their pen begins to write it.  There the Latinist and sophister and every unlearned writer tries the fitness of his pen, a practice that we have frequently seen injuring the usefulness and value of the most beautiful books.

Pen trials, known in Latin as ‘probationes pennae’, were the scribe’s way of testing his quill, which was in constant need of recutting and readjusting. Richard actually calls it ‘aptitudo pennae’. In the hand of a student, use could easily turn to abuse, and marginal doodles show the extent of this enduring practice. Jenny Weston has some remarkable examples of scribes doodling around (the page).

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The scribe’s sandbox. Manchester, University Library, Rylands English MS 113. Source here


Update: Part 2 can be found here.


4 thoughts on “Bad medieval book manners. Part 1

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  1. Unfortunately damage to books are not middle age fault. In XX century lots of books were destroyed, for instance in the educated Germany (please do not blame Adolf as far as he had plenty of support). In brazilian dictatorship (with the support of US and Western countries) it was a crime to have some books from classical greek authors. So let us just trh to protect books without blaming any era or nation.


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