The legends of medieval books

This blogpost is not about myths and legends, but about editorial legends, the written explanatory matter accompanying an illustration, map, chart, explaining how visuals are to be read and understood, or what they stand for.

Despite their widespread use, legends are not modern. Medieval scribes, scholars and the manuscript culture these worked in made good use of legends, filling that silent space between scribe and reader with insights into the modus legendi (how to read a text): ‘Dear reader, this means that…’.

Legends exist because some illustrations are not self-explanatory or that they might serve a purpose that is not self-explanatory either. Legends point to graphics which point to something else. I wish to briefly discuss these by looking at two examples: an early 12th-century ‘Bible reading plan’ from Glastonbury, England and a late 12th-century history-book browsing tool from London.

The first example comes from a collection of readings (lectiones)  from St John’s Gospel for the use of the monks of Glastonbury Abbey. The readings are grouped by chapters and numbered in red, as in the image below.

mense lector2
The list of pericope readings from St John’s Gospel in British Library, Harley MS 5958, f. 87v – this leaf was separated from BL, Harley MS 1916.

The initial usefulness of this text was enhanced by a later scribe who realised that some of the readings were also required weekly readings during Lent when the monks met for breakfast and lunch in the refectory (the Benedictine origin of watching TV while eating). Scholars remind us that ‘the monastic custom of reading during meals is described in some texts as an explicit literalising of the metaphor of consuming a book as one consumes food’.

As Tessa Weber explains, ‘since the sequence of gospel pericopes from John during Lent does not follow the ordo narrationis (i.e. the narrative sequence) of John’s Gospel, the reader in the refectory needed some assistance to find both the relevant homily and where to commence reading, should the pericope begin at a later verse than that with which the particular tractatus commenced.’

The instructions on how to find the relevant passage for any given week was entered at the bottom of the leaf, as in the image below. The modus legendi of this Lent reading plan links the chapter numbers, the relevant passages and an extra-textual reference into a system whereby the reader may find what passage ought to be read in any given week during Lent.

mense lector
British Library, Harley MS 5958, f. 87v showing the legend for the reading plan.

The legend says:

While at the refectory table, the reader who wishes to know which passage he ought to read in this book during the whole period of Lent, he should look for the first letter of the alphabet written over the relevant feast day to the first week and from the next to the following and so on according to the letters and he should find the location of the reading.

Latin: Mense lector refectorii scire volens locum quo debeat legere per totam quadragesimam in hoc libro, querat primam litteram abcedarii supra quamlibet feriam scriptam ad primam ebdomadam, secundam ad secundam et sit ad singulas ebdomadas sequentes literas et inveniet loc[um] lectionis.

Simple capital letters explain which chapter should be read in which week in Lent. The legend accomplishes two things in this case: it clarifies the use of special symbols (letters) in the chapter list and confers a special function to this text.

Others went even further. Some legends can even introduce a system of iconographical symbols/icons that connect the text to what the icons signify. The 12th-century English historian Ralph of Diceto (died around 1202), a canon of St Paul’s, London, came up with an ingenious plan to create a thematic index for his chronicle Abbreviations of History.

He sets out by creating twelve thematic categories corresponding to the main historical areas of interest and political/ecclesiastical issues of the day, which he thought would comprise most of the information readers of his chronicle would be interested in. These are (see image below):

  1. The persecution of the Church (De persecutionibus ecclesie).
  2. Schismatics (De scismatibus).
  3. Church councils (De conciliis).
  4. Coronations of kings (De regum unctionibus).
  5. Privileges of the archbishopric of Canterbury (De privilegiis Cantuarie ecclesie).
  6. Elections of certain archbishops of Canterbury (De quarumdam archiepiscoporum Cantuariensium electionibus).
  7. Dukes of Normandy (De ducibus Normannorum).
  8. Dukes of Anjou (De comitibus Andegavorum).
  9. Controversies between kings and prelates (De controversiis inter regnum et sacerdotium).
  10. Relations between Kings of England and the dukes of Normandy (De regibus Anglorum et ducibus Normannorum).
  11. Relations between Kings of England, dukes of Normandy and counts of Anjou (De regibus Anglorum et ducibus Normannorum et comitibus Andegavorum).
  12. The conflict between Henry the Second and his three sons (De dissensione que fuit inter regem Henricum secundum et tres filios suos).
British Library, Cotton MS Claudius E III, f. 1r showing the twelve topics and the corresponding icons.

Ralph then assigns a pictogram to each topic, either as an abbreviation (PS for persecutiones, SC for schismatici, CO for concilii), or a painted icon, ranging from a simple crown (no 3), staff (no. 6), cross (5), sword (7) and lance (no. 8) to a geminated C-monogram standing for ‘controversy’ (no. 9) and a crown pulled by two hands symbolising Henry II’s struggle with his sons (no. 12). The relationship between the text and the icons is that of an anacolouthon, a rhetorical trope whereby one word is substituted with another whose meaning is very close to the original, but in a non-reciprocal fashion. A crown pulled by two hands may be substituted for or reduced to Henry II’s conflict with his sons, but such an icon cannot, on its own, convey the same connotation.

Ralph hopes that his readers will find the information they want by locating these icons in his chronicle. The instructions on how to do it are as clear as the presentation of the twelve categories. He says:

Therefore, if you discover certain signs placed in the margin while diligently reading through the time of Grace (i. e. the years since the Birth of Christ), do not rush to criticize them as if they were useless.  For these signs are of no little use so that the memory might be more easily stimulated.  That there are twelve types of signs, you should also not think this is pointless. That is because, while the nature of chronicling always runs infinitely down [in time], and new developing crises and controversies require new entries to be made, if the condition of the entire (little) book doesn’t offer you anything complete, you may at least be able to find a little completeness in the chapters contained under the aforesaid number, and in the narration of the matters particularly relevant to the same number.

Latin: Itaque si, tempus gratie diligenter percurrens, quedam signa repereris in margine posita, non hoc statim quasi superfluum reprehendas. Ea namque sunt ad memoriam facilius excitandam non parum accommoda. Quod autem signorum varietas sub duodenario comprehenditur, nec hoc reputes otiosum; quoniam cum cronographie conditio semper in infinitum decurrat, et novis emergentibus tam causis quam casibus nove fieri soleant annotationes, si continentia totius libelli nichil tibi perfectum obtulerit, in capitulis saltem sub numero praedicto contentis, et in excursu rerum ad eundem numerum specialiter pertinentium, aliquantulum perfectionis poteris invenire.

British Library, Cotton MS Claudius E III, f. 1r showing Ralph’s prologue in red.

Ralph’s legend, both as the prose instruction and the explanation of the twelve symbols, ensures that a reader interested in any of the twelve topics will find the relevant matter in the text of the chronicle.

It is clear from the two examples that medieval scribes and scholars did not lack the conceptual framework to devise semiotic and referential apparati in their works. In fact, the transfer of meaning on which legends of this kind depend was the underlying principle of allegory (not to mention all the other tropes of substitution), which the medieval mind – geared towards poetry or theology – easily lent itself to. To think of something instead of something else was as natural for the medieval thinker as it is for us to read music, charts and code. It is fascinating, nevertheless, that the application of allegory, metonymy, metalepsis, anacolouthon, etc, to a structured text enhanced its readability by making it easier for the reader to find information in it – and also memorise it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: