UCB Libraries


Past Exhibits

MS309: Detail, Bible, France, 13th c.


Ploughing the Parchment:
European Manuscripts from the Middle Ages, 500-1500


Gallery Space across from the Special Collections Department,

Norlin Library Room N345

On display July 15, 2002 through September 13, 2002



Medieval Bestsellers


Until Gutenberg invented printing from movable type in the mid-15th century, books were written and then copied entirely by hand. This was not only a time-consuming and laborious process (a large Bible might take one scribe, working six hours a day, six days a week, two years to complete), but it was also very expensive.


In the early middle ages only the Church and the nobility could afford to have books made for them. They were also among the very few who knew how to read.


With the rise of the universities in the 13th century and the growth of the middle class, more people knew how to read, needed and wanted books, and could afford them. This led to an explosion in manuscript production.


Then, as now, certain books were bestsellers. While many texts were religious in content, an equally large number were not. The examples you'll see here, illustrate the wide variety of texts produced during the middle ages.


Gospel Books


A Gospel Book contained the first four books of the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Often produced for emperors and kings and bound in ornate jeweled bindings, these books were sometimes regarded as sacred objects with protective powers.

Gospel books were among the most frequently produced books up until the 10th century.


Christian Bibles


Bibles, containing both the Old and New Testaments, were produced in Latin and Greek and used predominantly by the Church.




Missals contained all of the texts necessary for the priest to say Mass.




Psalters contained all 150 Psalms from the Old Testament. These were meant to be recited or sung throughout the week. Psalters were used for daily prayers both in monasteries and by the laity. Psalters remained popular up until the 14th century when they were supplanted by the Book of Hours.


Book of Hours


For nearly 300 years (1250-1550), the Book of Hours was THE number one bestseller. More Books of Hours were produced than any other medieval book. By the 14th century, the emerging middle class meant more people could read and more people could afford the luxury of owning a Book of Hours. Owning one became a status symbol.


Used by monks and nuns as well as the laity, the Book of Hours was intended for private devotional practice. It contained prayers and readings to the Virgin Mary that were to be recited at eight times, or hours, of the day. It also contained the Office of the Dead (recited to help loved ones reduce their time in purgatory) and the Penitential Psalms (recited for help in resisting the Seven Deadly Sins: Pride, Envy, Gluttony, Lust, Anger, Greed, and Sloth). A calendar was placed at the beginning with holy days marked in red. Births, deaths, and marriages were recorded inside and young children learned how to read from it.


If a household owned only one book, it was a Book of Hours.


Hebrew Bibles


The Hebrew Bible is divided into three parts: 1) the Torah, "law," or Pentateuch, containing the Books of Moses 2) The Prophets and 3) the Kethubim, "writings," or Hagiographa.




The Koran, or Qur'an, is the sacred text of Islam. It is composed of 114 chapters called suras. No animal or human forms are permitted in its decoration. The examples here come from 13th century Andalusia (Muslim Spain).


(The Arabs conquered Spain in the 8th century. Over the next several hundred years, medieval Arab scholars significantly advanced European astronomy, mathematics, science and medicine. Arab traders also introduced papermaking technology to Europe.)




In addition to copying religious texts, monastic scribes also copied classical texts. Many classical texts only survive in their medieval copies.




In the early middle ages, most books were written in Latin, the official language of the church and of the educated. In the 14th century, many authors such as Dante and Chaucer chose to write in the vernacular, or spoken language, of their countries.




An Herbal contained illustrations of plants and described their medicinal properties.


Medical and Scientific Texts


Many influential medical and scientific texts were translated from Arabic into Latin or Hebrew and then later into the vernacular.




Bestiaries contained illustrations and descriptions of birds and beasts. Sometimes these were quite accurate and sometimes they were fantastical. For Christians, the creatures all had moral and allegorical significance. Bestiaries were particularly popular in the 12th and 13th centuries.


Many, many other kinds of books were written, copied, commissioned and sold during the middle ages.


MS 284: Bible, Detail, France, 13th c.
MS 284: Bible, Detail, France, 13th c.



Medieval Alphabets


Roman Capitals


Roman Capitals have been used continuously, in one way or another, for over 2000 years.


Employed throughout the Roman Empire for formal inscriptions carved on stone, the letter forms were later adapted and used for the titles and chapter headings of medieval manuscripts.


Rustic Capitals


By the end of the first century A.D. Rustic Capitals were well established as a popular book script, especially for luxury volumes. This was still true at the beginning of the medieval era (500 A.D.) Like Roman Capitals, Rustic Capitals continued to be used into the late middle ages but their use also came to be limited to titles, chapter headings, introductions, and colophons.




By the 4th century A.D., Uncial had become another established script for important manuscripts. Uncial, meaning an inch high, is a script that works well in small formats. Its popularity continued through the end of the 10th century.


In the 15th century, Uncial was revived by the Humanists who used it as the foundation for their scripts. When the printing press was developed in the mid-15th century, Uncial, through the Humanists, ultimately came to inspire modern typefaces.


Caroline Miniscule


Charlemagne (742-814), King of the Franks and Holy Roman Emperor from 800-814, never learned to write but was instrumental in encouraging the development of an official script to be used empire wide. He wanted an alphabet that would be both beautiful and efficient. The resulting script came to be known as Caroline Minuscule and was in use from the 8th to the 13th centuries.




With the foundation of some of Europe's oldest universities in the 10th century and an increasingly educated public, the demand for manuscripts rose. The upright, narrow, Gothic style of writing that developed in the 11th and 12th centuries had a distinct advantage in that more could be written in less space. Gothic remained a popular script through the end of the middle ages and became a model for the Gothic, or Black Letter, typeface commonly used during the renaissance.




Batarde is just one of many variations on Gothic script that developed as people tried to simplify and more rapidly produce Gothic by combining it with cursive elements. Sometimes called Bastard, or, Gothic Littera Bastarda (lowborn Gothic letters), the variations were numerous and were in use from the 14th to the 16th centuries.




In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Humanists wanted to create an even simpler and more readable script. To do this they went back to the Uncials that had been so popular at the beginning of the middle ages and used those letter forms to create a new script. This became known as Humanistic Minuscule.


Humanistic Minuscule also had a cursive form.


When Gutenberg invented movable type in the 15th century, Humanistic Minuscule became the model for Roman type. Developed in 1475, Roman typeface was used throughout the 20th century and is now the foundation of a number of computer fonts.


Just as Humanistic Minuscule became the model for Roman type, Humanistic Cursive became the model for Italic type.


Ege 39
EGE 39: Livy, History of Rome, Italy, 15th c.


Making a Medieval Manuscript




Vellum and parchment are words that technically have different meanings but that have come to be used interchangeably to mean the skin of a sheep, calf, or goat. Papermaking technology wasn't introduced into Europe until the 12th century and didn't become widespread until the 15th century. For much of the middle ages, vellum was the preferred or, simply, the only writing surface available for book production.


Part of a book's cost was the number of skins required to make it. A very large Bible might require the skins of over 200 full-grown sheep.


Preparing vellum was (and still is) a time-consuming and smelly affair.


First the skin is soaked in a lime solution for three to ten days. This helps remove hair and dirt.


Next it is tied onto a stretching rack with adjustable pegs and is scraped with a parchmenter's lunar knife.


The skin then needs to be soaked again to remove the lime solution. A skin may be wetted, stretched, and scraped many times to achieve the desired thinness. Finally, it is allowed to dry.


Sometimes holes appear in the vellum, either because it was nicked by the vellum-maker's knife, or because the skin had a small flaw in it (such as a bug bite). These holes were either sewn closed or the scribe simply wrote his text around them.


Before it can be written on, the skin has to be made smooth by scraping it with a pumice stone. The pumice also absorbs any residual grease from the skin.


Animal skins are naturally rectangular. When folded to create pages, they produce the rectangular shape we have come to associate with modern books.


Vellum could be dyed different colors. Here you see purple vellum which was a popular color for books intended for emperors or kings.




Paper, at times called "cloth parchment" because it was made from rags, was a Chinese invention that traveled to Europe in the 12th century via Arab merchants. Papermaking technology spread slowly from Arab Spain throughout the rest of Europe. While some medieval manuscripts were written on paper, it was not heavily used until the invention of printing from movable type in the 15th century.


Linen and cotton rags are sorted, soaked, and allowed to ferment.


The rags are then placed in a trough and hammered until the fibers separate and the rags have been reduced to pulp.


The pulp is placed in a vat of water. The vatman scoops the pulp up on a mould and evenly distributes it by first shaking the mould in one direction and then another as the water drains through. He then hands it to the coucher who places the newly formed sheet down on a layer of felt.


Once a sizeable stack of wet sheets interleaved with felts has been achieved, the stack is placed in a press and the excess water is expelled.


The sheets are then removed from between the felts…


…and hung up to dry.


Pricking and Ruling


After a piece of vellum was chosen it had to be ruled so that the scribe's writing would be straight and even.


Along the edge of a manuscript you will sometimes see a series of small holes that coincide with the lines of writing. This is called pricking. Only the top sheet of a stack of pages was measured and then holes were poked through the whole stack at each measurement point. Ruling the following pages was then quite easy and all the pages were uniform.


The lines themselves were either inked in or drawn with pencil (which was usually erased later).


Very often a stylus was used to draw the lines in hard point.




Texts were generally written in black ink while chapter headings and other divisions in the text were done in red ink. In the early middle ages, one scribe might have done both the writing and the illumination. In the later middle ages, these tasks were given to different people.


Black ink could be made from oak galls (growths that form on oak trees when wasps lay their eggs inside the buds) or it could be made by mixing charcoal or soot with gum arabic. Red ink was made from vermillion (a combination of sulfur and mercury) or from brazilwood chips.


Inkhorns or inkpots were used to keep the ink close at hand.




Bird feathers (usually geese or swans) were used to create quill pens. Reed pens were also used.


In many contemporary images of scribes at work, they have a pen in one hand and a knife in the other. The knife was necessary to sharpen the pen and to scrape mistakes off of the vellum.


Rustic Capitals


Medieval manuscripts are referred to as illuminated (lit up) because of the gold that is often part of their decoration. Gold could be ground up and used as paint or gold leaf could be adhered directly to the page and then polished with an animal tooth (called a burnisher).


Gold leaf is very thin and difficult to work with. It was placed on the page before any other color.


By one account, 145 leaves of gold could be made from one gold coin. Gold leaf is rarely found on manuscripts before the 13th century because, before then, most monastic scribes worked in cloisters open to the wind.




The brilliant colors found in medieval manuscripts were derived from plants, minerals, semi-precious stones, and certain insects. The pigments derived from these sources were ground up and combined with glair (from egg white) or gum arabic. Some recipes became carefully guarded secrets.


A medieval recipe for making green pigment:

Coat copper, beaten out into sheets, with honey or the froth of cooked honey and put beneath it in a pot broad laths of wood, and pour over it a man's urine. Let it stand, covered, for 14 days.

A preliminary sketch was usually done before color was applied.




Once the text and illustration were complete, the book needed to be sewn together.

Here books are being sewn on supports (leather or hemp cords) that will then be used to secure the texts in wooden or vellum bindings.




Some of the most spectacular bindings surviving from the middle ages are the treasure bindings. The covers are made of gold or silver in which precious or semi-precious stones, pearls, and carved ivory have been set. Because of their immense expense, few of these were produced.


A variation on the treasure binding was the reliquary binding.


Thought to have been very common, few textile bindings from the middle ages have survived.


Sometimes a book was given a textile chemise (in this case, velvet). When the book was closed, this could be wrapped around it for added protection.


Girdle books were books with leather or cloth bindings that not only wrapped around the book to protect it, but also had a string or knot that could be used to attach the book to the owner's belt, or girdle. Scholars believe that tens of thousands of these were made and yet fewer than fourteen girdle books have survived.


Common materials such as leather and vellum were also used. These were often stamped or embossed in blind relief.


Curses and Chains


Given the time, the effort, and the expense involved in producing a medieval book (during the early middle ages the expense of having a large, heavily illustrated book made was roughly the equivalent of having a medium sized cathedral built), it follows that book theft was a great concern.


As a deterrent to theft, many medieval scribes and book owners penned curses on thieves into their books. Who knows, perhaps these were more effective than the magnetic strips currently used in libraries …

He that steals this booke
Shall be hanged on a hooke.
 15th c.


If anyone take away this book, let him die the death; let him be fried in a pan; let the falling sickness and fever seize him; let him be broken on the wheel and hanged. Amen.
 12th c.


Whoever steals this Book of Prayer
May he be ripped apart by swine,
His heart be splintered, this I swear,
And his body dragged along the Rhine.
 early 16th c.


For him that stealeth, or borroweth and returneth not, this book from its owner, let it change into a serpent in his hand & rend him. Let him be struck with palsy, & all his members blasted. Let him languish in pain crying aloud for mercy, & let there be no surcease to his agony till he sing in dissolution. Let bookworms gnaw his entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not, & when at last he goeth to his final punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him for ever.
 from a book in the Monastery of San Pedro in Barcelona

Beginning in the 15th century another method of preventing theft from cathedrals and universities became popular. Books were chained to the shelves.


MS 314: Bible, France, 13th c.


Medieval Scribes

The art of scribes is hard compared with all other arts:
the work is difficult, hard too to bend the neck,
and plough the sheets of parchment for twice three hours.
from a medieval colophon


In the middle ages there were no printing presses so all books had to be written out by hand. This is where the word manuscript comes from (manu is Latin for hand and script comes from scribere meaning 'to write'.) The slow and sometimes tedious job of copying out books fell to the monks and nuns living in monasteries and convents across Europe.

For many centuries, the Church was the center of learning and book production.


Preserving, copying and reading sacred (and even secular!) texts was an important part of monastic life. With the exception of the nobility (and even they were not always exceptions), few people outside of the Church could read or write and few could afford the immense expense of a handwritten book.


Early monastic scribes worked in cloisters or scriptoria (rooms meant for book production) that were open to the elements. They needed the sunlight to see. They often worked long hours: six hours a day, six days a week.


Progress was slow. In 1050 the new bishop of Exeter Cathedral discovered that the library held only five volumes. He quickly established a scriptorium but, by his death in 1072 (22 years later), the scribes had managed to produce only 66 books, an average of three books a year.


It is now thought that occasionally lay scribes were brought in to work alongside the monks. Early on the same person would copy the text and do the illumination. Later these tasks were given to different people.


In some medieval manuscripts you will occasionally see an xb written in the margin. This is an abbreviation for Christe Benedic or Christ Bless; a short prayer written by the scribe before he began his day's work.


One of the mysteries of medieval manuscripts involves the marginalia or small pictures found in the margins of manuscripts, usually apart from the main decoration. Raunchy, dirty, silly, grotesque, or mundane, they are sometimes directly related to the text on the page but just as frequently they are not. Many theories have been posited as to their purpose but the marginalia have never been satisfactorily explained.


After spending so much time working on a manuscript, the medieval scribe came to view the space at the end of the manuscript, called the colophon, as personal space to write in. It is here that you find complaints, observations, prayers, curses, jokes and even recipes.

Here ends the second part of the title work of Brother Thomas Aquinas of the Dominican Order; very long, very verbose, and very tedious; thank God, thank God, and again thank God. (14th c.)
Pleasant to me is the glittering of the sun today upon these margins, because it flickers so. (9th c.)
Be careful with your fingers; don't put them on my writing
You do not know what it is to write. It is excessive drudgery; it crooks your back, dims your sight twists your stomach and sides. Pray, then, my brother, you who read this book, pray for poor Raoul, God's servant, who has copied it entirely with his own hand in the cloister of St. Aignan. (early middle ages?)
It is finished; let it finish!
Let the scribe go out to play. (?)

It is from colophons that we learn the names of over 23,000 medieval scribes and illuminators.


Many of these scribes and illuminators were women. In the early middle ages most female scribes were nuns. Later on, some female scribes were part of husband and wife teams ("Alan the scribe and his wife the illuminator"). Or some, as in the case of Christine de Pisan, were laywomen supporting themselves by writing and copying manuscripts.


From around 1200 onward, the bulk of book production shifted away from the church and the great age of commercial manuscript production began. With the rise of the universities and the growth of the mercantile class, more people could read and more people needed and wanted books. Too, many more people could now afford them.

Books became big industry and professional scribes and illuminators set up shops all over Europe. Wealthy patrons could choose the script as well as the amount of decoration and number of illustrations. Poor students could rent chapters of the books they needed and then copy them out themselves.


Christine de Pisan


Christine de Pisan, one of the most famous French medieval poets, was also perhaps the first woman to make her living by her pen. Born in Venice in 1364, she went to France with her father when he was appointed astrologer to King Charles V. Widowed there at 25 with three small children to support, Christine de Pisan earned her living as an author and a scribe.


hayes134: illuminated manuscript leaf
HAYES 134: Psalter, France, 12th c.





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Special Thanks go to: Susan Guinn-Chipman, Andrew Violet, Josh Abrams,Tim Riggs, Dan Davidson, Deborah Fink, Paul Moeller, Tony Edwards, Rick Visser, Debbie Hollis, Kris McCusker, and Chris Vincent.


Captions by Michelle Visser