To hold and to cherish… a medieval book

As discussed in a previous post, there are many ways to hold a book in the Middle Ages. The collection of Romanesque sculpture at the Musée des Augustins in Toulouse offers an interesting take on the subject of fashionably holding a book in the early 12th century.

Let’s start on familiar ground (below). There is nothing wrong with crossing one’s legs if (and only if) the book one’s holding is a quarto format, conveniently held with one hand, while the other is pointing to some important text therein. This may be called the single-author ad-pose: “please read my book”, it seems to say, “there’s only one but it will change your life, especially this passage on folio 40 recto”.

Sharing is good, but co-authoring is better. It’s easier to collaborate on a roll than on a codex (obviously, as Google Docs tells us), and when you’re happy with the results, there’s nothing wrong in showing it. One word of advice, though: don’t forget to acknowledge your colleague. This may be done by patting him or her on the back. Touching the colleague’s shoulder, however, may be construed as an acknowledgment of inferiority. He or she may have done most of the work, but don’t be so self-effacing. Even limestone gets a certain luster with time.

You might think of going to the other extreme. There is room for two authors in the world of medieval letters, you know. No need to be so dismissive of your rival. And remember: a closed book is no way inferior to an open one. If anything, it might be more mysterious and might sell better (or simply get copied more) than one which has nothing to hide. On the other hand, if you offered to help with the proofs but were turned down, you may certainly show your contempt with the right hand. Or you may end up in a book-holding beauty pageant. If you do, then make sure you cross your legs (or at least bend a knee), oil your beard and smile.

There’s always the thorny question of which one is better, the codex or the roll. If you ask Peter of Poitiers, he will tell you it’s the roll, and everyone at the Exchequer would approve. Everyone else, however, would be of the opinion that a rolling roll gathers a great deal of moss in the library cupboards and is becomes useless. If we’re looking at the problem in terms of tablets vs soundbite-phylacteries, however, then we might find room for both. The medievals were a lot more postmodern that we give them credit for.

Nota benissime: The above photos are copyright Daniel Martin of I took photos of my own when I was in Toulouse in January 2018, but they’re nothing compared to these. Also, the sculptures may be dated to 1120-1140 AD, but the artist remains unknown.

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