The empty parchment

Did ancient and medieval writers ever worry about the blank page in the same way we do? Considering how many medieval manuscripts survive with blank parchment leaves, it is a question worth asking: did facing the empty parchment have any special meaning to those preparing to embark on the adventure of shaping a text into a book?

Scribes, whether original authors or professional copyists, knew more about the universe of script than we might ever hope to learn. For most of the medieval period, stationery fell under DIY rather than retail, with writers preparing their own writing equipment, quils from bird to nib, inks from powder to juice, parchment from the ovine specimen to the blank page. We are amateur scriveners compared to them.

Words seem to be the easiest thing to lay out on the page, once the page has been ruled, pricked, scripted. No scribe could afford to go off-script. Ligatures binding the writer to her desk, the quil flowing – but what if it didn’t?

The empty page flickering in the flickering candlelight, except no writing was ever done at candlelight, words are too precious to write away from sunlight. The illuminated manuscripts were in-lumined, infused with light. The gilding that made the decoration glisten was an accessory. Every manuscript page is illuminated in a fundamental way.

Nevertheless, the page remains blank, the parchment untouched, folded in the folds of unconsummated Gothic love. An unupdated medieval chronicle, an unfinished poem, words breaking in half-lines, a tract missing its conclusion. The blankness is telling. They were sitting on the shoulders of giants. And the page was laid out ready by those who came to sit on theirs.

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