Titling the untitled

Just like the fish in the water that take the water for granted, so are we immersed in our culture(s) so deeply that we find it hard to imagine that things were once very different from what they are now. Imagine looking for a book that doesn’t have a title, how would you ask around…

The library of secrets

Who doesn’t like a medieval secret? One of the enduring features of the medieval period is that of an age of secrecy. There’s a secret in every corner, the dark centuries are replete with mystery, teeming with hidden treasures, shrouded, cloaked, clouded – with secrecy. Not really. If the medieval age of secrecy is more…

Let us make the past in our image, after our likeness

What can medieval manuscripts contribute to the current debate about whether questionable items from our past (the past understood as a shared experience and/or collective identity) should be excised from memory or removed from places of memory? Western medieval manuscript art testifies to the endurance of the human disposition to recreate the past in the…

Judging a book by its covers

Don’t judge a book by its covers, they say. The inside is what counts, they say. The advertising community is not so sure. The cover design is said to increase the marketability of a book by 50%, by a conservative estimate, and by as much as 80% in some cases. Which means that while we…

The enduring charm of hybridity

In at least one respect, we’re not too far away from the Middle Ages, and that’s in our cultural bend towards hybridity. I’m not taking about hybrid cars, or maybe I am. One question historians very rarely ask is: what’s in a hybrid? Sure, the word is familiar enough, and it conjures up images ranging…

Guilty pleasures

Since the 14th century, many book lovers have been born in Florence or its vicinity. The Renaissance was, since its early days, a book rush, especially one for rare, lost, unread, unknown, neglected volumes. The humanists of the Renaissance were avid book finder and collectors. The Florentine scholar Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459) made some incredible finds…

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…

Pre-print UX

Everything today is about user experience. The standard ISO definition of user experience has it as ‘a person’s perceptions and responses that result from the use or anticipated use of a product, system or service’. The earliest case of user experience has to do with books before the age of print. Readers’ engagement with manuscripts…

The confession of a 15th-century curator of manuscripts

We generally know very little about the early physical life of medieval manuscripts. We know when texts were started and completed, we may even know where the book travelled, to whom it was donated, who sold it, etc, but to get really close to a particular moment in the volume’s history one has to be…