Should we judge books by their covers?

Last week I was faced with a very difficult decision, to go see the new Lego Movie or attend a lecture given by Dr David Rundle entitled “The Uses of Books in Late Medieval Culture”? Fortunately for you, I chose the latter and was rewarded handsomely! Within the space of an hour this erudite lecturer ruminated upon the fact that within medieval culture a book was not solely reading material but an object that within a specific moment had its own agency.

This specific moment is the presentation of the book itself. The book had agency in the presentation event because it created a social opportunity for both its producer and its royal recipient. For the producer of the book the presentation was an opportunity for patronage, and in accepting the book the recipient would have to show their largesse.

During this lecture I was struck by the fact that the content of the books were not fully recognised. While the significance of the book was widely acknowledged in medieval culture, literate people formed the minority within a culture dominated by illiteracy. Therefore the potential to fully engage with writing and realise the significance of a book’s content was reserved for those elite few who could both read and write.

Gaston may have had a point after all! Writing was central to medieval culture yet illiteracy resulted in an engagement with writing that was predominantly characterised by ignorance.

Gaston may have had a point after all! Writing was central to medieval culture yet illiteracy resulted in an engagement with writing that was predominantly characterised by ignorance.

In his lecture Dr Rundle used certain manuscript illuminations depicting book presentation events as visual aids to further elaborate this fact. These illuminations usually involved an open book, with the presenter in a reverential kneeling position and the royal recipient ruminating upon the book’s content. The illuminations that I found particularly interesting were the ones that depicted a closed book being presented. In these representations it was clear that it was the book’s luxurious binding was the focus in their presentation.

Christine de Pisan presenting her expensively bound and decorated book to Isabeau of Bavaria (BL Harley 4431).

Christine de Pisan presenting her expensively bound and decorated book to Isabeau of Bavaria (BL Harley 4431).

One of Dr Rundle’s visual aids was a manuscript illumination depicting Christine de Pisan presenting her expensively bound and decorated book to Queen Isabeau of Bavaria. Within this context it is clear that reading is not a book’s sole purpose. A book was also a means of demonstrating a person’s continuing social status which subsequently stimulated the development of more deluxe and luxurious forms of book binding, such as Treasure binding.

The Codex Aureus of St Emmeram an example of Treasure bookbinding dated to 870

The Codex Aureus of St Emmeram an example of Treasure bookbinding dated to 870

The “New Histories of the Book” module of the Texts and Contexts: Medieval to Renaissance MA in University College Cork introduced the notion that a book’s paratext, the extraneous elements of the book, are just as important as its content in understanding its context. Dr Rundle’s talk complemented this module by dwelling upon the book’s connection to social status within a medieval context. To conclude, when faced with a book as lavishly decorated and bound as the Codex Aureus of St Emmeram, how do you not judge the book by its cover?

For those who wish for superior discussions about palaeography or codicology, visit Dr David Rundle’s WordPress Blog!

Works Cited

Rundle, David. “The Uses of Books in Late Medieval Culture”. University College Cork, 2014.

Images Cited

Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München. Codex Aureus of Sankt Emmeram. Photograph. 2009. Codex Aureus of St. Emmeram. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 03 Mar. 2013.

British Library. Isabeau de Baviere. A photographic reproduction of a manuscript illumination. 2013. Christine de Pisan. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 03 Mar. 2014.

gemma4scott. Belle and Gaston. Cartoon. n. d.. fanpop! Wikimedia Commons. Web. 03 Mar. 2014.

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Palaeography: An Introduction

If you look up the dictionary to define the word palaeography, you’ll likely meet a standard definition that will succinctly inform you that palaeography is the study of ancient writing. While the definition of palaeography can be simply tied down, the subject matter in this field of study is more complex than its definition initially alludes.

Firstly in relation to the word “writing” there’s an important distinction to be noted between two forms of writing, handwriting and scripts. Handwriting refers to a person’s individual handwriting and it’s characterised by its idiosyncratic nature. Scripts however, differ from handwriting because they are a standardised form of writing that were systematic in their composition involving many rules that had to be adhered to when writing.

While there are many differences in handwriting that are peculiar to the person’s individual hand, there are also grades of distinction within script hands, known as book hand and document hand. Book hand was reserved for monastic works, and used predominantly by monastic scribes writing religious works. Document hand refers to a faster, more cursive script that was used by secular scribes to write legal documents.

The peculiar thing about these script hands is the fact they influenced each other in turn; document hand was eventually elevated to book hand and became formalised and book hand became more cursive in its form as a result of the influence of document hand.

The Gothic script is an example of a standard book hand. There were difference grades of Gothic script, and a professional scribe would have a catalogue of different scripts that they could produce for commercial purposes. The most expensive and time-consuming of the Gothic scripts were the high grades which involved a diamond-shaped finish to each character.

High grade Gothic script.

High grade Gothic script.

An example of a document hand that was elevated to book hand is the Anglicana script (1280-1440). This script is characterised by the looped aspect to its characters and was designed to be written quickly.

Even from this brief introduction it is clear that palaeography is far more complicated than its straightforward definition implies. The study of ancient writing is a diverse discipline replete with an abundance of distinctive scripts, which I anticipate studying in more detail.

Image Cited

Pingstone, Adrian. “Calligraphy in a Latin Bible of AD 1407 on display in Malmesbury Abbey, Wiltshire, England”. Photograph. 2005. Blackletter. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 13 Oct. 2013.

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