To inhabit a letter


What was the snuggest spot to inhabit on the medieval manuscript page? It couldn’t have been on the text, that was always shifting, the handwriting was not always steady, the spelling not always the same, the words not always in the right place. Scribes were tired and the light was generally bad in the medieval indoors (unless you chose to write in the garden, which there is absolutely no evidence of).

Would it have been on the edges of the page? I doubt it. That’s where the cropping went on century after century, ravaging the page. To set camp in the margins would be like building a house in a coastal-erosion area. Unfortunately, bookbinders were Procrustean bed experts, making the pages fit the covers and not the other way around. After all, in a manuscript culture, the leaves and pages come first, the covers second.

The safest bet would be the decorated initial letters. In medieval manuscripts, the first letter of important sections of the text (beginning of the book, of a chapter, or any other division) was often made larger than the others and was painted. Each region and each period had its favourite decorated initials, which also depended on the texts they appeared in. Because there are so many decorated initials in medieval manuscripts, historians have classified them, and the taxonomies are long and boring. Some initials, like the one above, contain figures within them and are called ‘inhabited’ – because the figures inhabit or live within the initial. And so I can say that these are the homiest places in these manuscripts – places of rest and imagination.

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