Blog post devoted to oddly-shaped books from medieval times, including one shaped like a heart.
The last page of a medieval book is usually a protective flyleaf, which is positioned between the actual text and the bookbinding. It was usually left blank and it therefore often filled up with pen trials, notes, doodles, or drawings. This addition I encountered today and it is not what you’d expect: a full-on drawing of a maiden playing the lute, which she holds just like a guitar. A peaceful smile shines on her face. I love this rockstar lady, so unexpectedly positioned at the end of the book, trying to catch the reader’s attention as he is closing it.
Pic: London, British Library, Sloane MS 554 (more here).
These charming images from medieval medical books show something you don’t often see depicted in this age: foetal positions in the womb. The drawings range from the 10th to the 15th century but they show more or less the same scenes. What is most striking, of course, is that the babies-to-be are simply miniaturized adults, which is how children are often depicted in medieval illustrations. There is something oddly entertaining - and strange - about these tiny people. The top image in particular has an almost cartoon-like appearance: if it wasn’t for the Middle English text around it, the drawings could well be modern. A short story in four frames of a tiny naked person doing exercises on a pink yoga mat.
Pic: London, British Library, Sloane MS 2463, 15th century (top, more here); Brussels, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, MS 3701-15, 10th century (lower left, more here); Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Laud Misc. 724 (lower right, more here). Here is a nice piece on medieval twins, which features other images.
I like to think this is what a medieval blogger would look like: a tired-looking individual seated at an uncomfortable desk quilling down blogs - with his head stuck in a space helmet. Blogging may be a modern activity, the parallel with the medieval scribe is not that strange when you consider that he, too, wrote things he was passionate about. Also, while his reach was perhaps much smaller (relatively few people could read back then) he also aimed to captivate his audience. And he, too, made sure that the message looked attractive visually, as the decoration on this very medieval page shows. Remarkably, scribal portraits like this are usually found on the opening page of the book. It is as if the most important factor in a text’s existence was deliberately put up front: remember, dear reader, the joy you are about to have was paid for by my sweat and tears.
This post celebrates the birth of my new blog, medievalbooks.nl.
Not too many of our books are held together with iron bars and nails, but this hefty hymnal needs the support for its massive wooden boards.
Privately printed in 1646, for the Monastery of Santa Maria della Pace by Giovanni Agostino Casoni della Spezia in Genoa, no expense was spared for this weighty wonder, including commissioning a giant unique typeface and initials that were used exclusively for this work. (Do you see how big that “I” is? It is as big as my hand!). In addition, each of the 103 pages is a full sheet printed as a broadside.
This is our most recent acquisition, and the bookseller Bruce McKittrick and his team did an incredible amount of research to figure out all the details about this unique hymnal. As we sort through the included research and catalog this item, we will post an update.
This is a nice printed equivalent to the giant handwritten books I posted a few days back: a large liturgical book with wooden boards. This is about as large as a printed book could be made on the 17th-century printing press. Handwritten versions could be as big as the full skin of a cow: a page height of 850-900 mm is not unheard of.
World’s oldest animation
You are looking at a GIF of a phenakistiscope, a 19th-century revolving paper disk imprinted with a series of drawings, which was spun so as to produce a moving image. The device was invented around 1840 by Joseph Plateau and it is the world’s oldest animation. The disk above is one of the oldest to survive and it shows the remarkable resemblance to our modern GIF: they both create motion where there is none. It is simply mesmerizing.
Note: as one follower noted, there are older animation-like devices. Greek vases from Antiquity hold sequential images; when spun, they show a running person. Read more about this “precursor to animation” here. The vase would make for a great GIF, if the museum lets you!
Biggest books in the world
Here are three examples of really big books. While the first is modern and is more of a gimmick than a book meant for reading, the other two are very real: it concerns a choir book from the 16th century (middle) and the famous Klencke Atlas from the same century (lower image). While they are rare, such large specimens, they do represent a tradition. Choir books, for example, needed to be big because they were used by a half circle of singers gathered around it in a church setting. If you are impressed with the size of these objects, just imagine turning their pages!
This post celebrates the birthday of Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, who was born on 1 August 1819. When he wrote his book, in 1851, whales were an important commodity, for example for fuelling lamps (an astonishing 300,000 whales were caught between 1835 and 1872 alone). While I am against whaling, there is a fascinating book-historical dynamic to this 19th-century tradition: the captains of whaling vessels kept detailed logbooks, the pages of which are sometimes decorated with charming images. They are doodles, really, entertaining rather than functional. The sample above, taken from digital material made available by the Providence Public Library, shows a pod of inky whales swimming across the page of a daily log (top), a tiny bottle illustrating a post on the consumption of alcohol on board (middle), and a row of whales next to the catch of different vessels (bottom). The images present a peculiar contrast between artistic charm and the bloody events that sparked their creation.
Want to know more about these great little books? Here are some digitized items which you can help to transcribe; here are a whole lot of digitized microfilms of whaling logbooks. Here are PDFs of the famous Nicholson collection of logbooks.
Shark with Napoleon hat
Meet a medieval shark with a hat on. However, there is much more to this funny 13th-century decoration. Medieval decorators often got it wrong when they drew exotic animals like this. Elephants, for example, looked like pigs with big ears. We can’t blame the artists, as they had never seen these animals, which lived far away - and they had no internet or means to travel that far. This is why the image of the shark is so special: it is realistic. It shows its gills, the row of pointy teeth that stick out, and the typical round opening near the tip of the nose. In sum, this decorator had likely seen a shark in real life. For the book historian this is interesting as it may help localize where the book was made. Given that it was produced in France, we may potentially place its production near the ocean, or perhaps even in the south of the country, near the Mediterranean. All that from a bunch of pointy teeth - and some healthy guess work.
Pic: Paris, Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, MS 98.
Quite a way to test your pen: drawing a figure that looks like, well, Batman. The nib of medieval quills needed constant adjusting, cutting with a knife. In order to see if it had the right shape, the scribe would test it out on a blank page. This one is filled with such pen trials, most of them written vertically: nonsense words, elongated letters and wobbly lines, all at least 500 years old. The biggest trial, however, looks familiar: a hooded man in which we may see Batman. Long live the needy medieval pen, which produced such delightful creations!
Pic: Paris, Bibliothèque Mazarine, MS 3475 (15th century).