Ten medieval ways to hold a book

The good thing with illuminated manuscripts of books of the Old Testament is that there is great scope for depicting scribes, books, scrolls, pens, desks, and other elements of the medieval culture of writing and book-making. Manuscript Engelberg 76, produced in the mid 12th century at the Benedictine Abbey of Engelberg in Switzerland , one of the highest-altitude monasteries of Western Europe (1,020 m ASL), offers a visual catalogue of authors holding their books. These are ten out of the 12 minor prophets of the Old Testament (Micah and Haggai are missing, while Jonah is surely hiding his book behind parts of the initial). The images are below.

The fashion of holding a book never quite went out of fashion. The book may be held with the right (Hosea) as well as with the left hand (Amos), or with both (Malachi) – some medieval volumes were too heavy for a human, and some, such as giant Bibles, were even bigger than toddlers; some may be held closer to the body (Nahum), or away from it (Amos); some may be held while protecting the covers with one’s tunic (Obadiah) or in a contorted fashion in one hand, while the other admonishes the crowd (Zephaniah). One may also brandish a club while holding a book (Amos), though oratorical and pacific stances are more common.

Contrary to popular opinion (and common sense), books may sometimes be held ostentatiously in order to highlight how their covers match one’s outfit (Obadiah), or occasionally even for contrast (Hosea).

There can be no doubt that the most fashionable way to hold a medieval book is in such a way that one’s beard strokes the book’s leaves, as Malachi aptly demonstrates.

Joel, f. 23r
Amos, f. 32r
Obadiah, f. 48r
Jonah, f. 51r
Nahum, f. 89r
Habakkuk, f. 75r
Zephaniah, f. 82r
Zechariah, f. 94r
Malachi, f. 118r.

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