Almost everything we know about medieval culture is written on the skins of dead animals. Turning sheep and calves into parchment is a messy, smelly business. But when we read medieval texts in print editions all that mess disappears – so we no longer see what the authors of the Middle English ‘Charters of Christ’ saw when they compared God’s sacrificial Lamb to the lambs that supplied their writing material. As the Word made flesh, Christ declares that his body, like parchment, was stretched on a frame and dried on a tree. Then the letters that spell redemption were inscribed on his skin, with nails for quills, in the ink of his blood. The circle is complete and the sacred flesh reverts to words. But to transmit all those words, a book as large as the Bible required a very large herd. More than five hundred calves died to create the magnificent Codex Amiatinus, the oldest complete Latin Bible, which dates from the time of Bede.
The Middle English charters allude to a much longer tradition. In an Old English riddle-poem it is the dead animal who speaks: ‘an enemy’ killed him, stole his strength and deprived him of hair. But the speaking voice modulates into the parchment itself as it is pierced by a knife, folded by fingers and inscribed by ‘the bird’s delight’ – a quill full of ink. Finally, the speaker becomes the ultimate product: a Gospel book that makes its users ‘in heart the bolder, in mind the happier,/in spirit the wiser’. This transformation of beast into book fills 28 lines of intense reflection on a craft perceived as both violent and holy. The poem is deeply sensual, as Elaine Treharne notes: ‘It represents the noise of slicing, sloshing, scraping, stitching, sawing, smithing, singing, sighing, and … the smell and taste of guts and wood, fire and melting wax.’
Fortunately, no animals were harmed to produce the three works under review, each of which explores the materiality of the medieval book. Writing for a lay audience, Mary Wellesley introduces the collaborators – patrons, artists, scribes and authors – whose labour is revealed or hidden in manuscripts. She interweaves her tale of book production with the case histories of many individual works, from the Lindisfarne Gospels to the prayer book of Henry VIII, giving anecdotal accounts of the ways in which they were lost or found, preserved or destroyed. In Perceptions of Medieval Manuscripts, Treharne covers similar ground, concentrating as Wellesley does on British manuscripts. But she addresses a more scholarly audience, offering an ‘architextual and phenomenological’ study of the medieval book as a unique object-in-the-world, meant to be perceived by all the senses. Meanwhile, Elina Gertsman’s The Absent Image is a rarefied treat for connoisseurs – a kind of apophatic art history. She explores a phenomenon that is seldom studied: the voids, gaps and empty frames that manuscript artists used to represent the unrepresentable.
A manuscript is a unique artefact: war, fire, flood and, worst of all, the dissolution of the monasteries have taken an immense toll, making each work that survives precious. Some of the best medieval poems – Beowulf, Pearl, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – have come down to us in a single manuscript. Four books contain about two-thirds of all surviving Old English poetry, and for a few months in 2018 those four lay side by side in a single (doubtless heavily insured) glass case for an exhibition at the British Library. One of these, the sole witness to Beowulf, was almost lost in 1731 when the ominously named Ashburnham House caught fire, destroying or damaging more than two hundred volumes from the famous collection of Sir Robert Cotton. As a result, some words of the poem are irretrievably lost, while others are known only from transcriptions made in the 18th century, before the charred edges had crumbled. Wellesley gives a stirring account of the Cotton fire, noting that heroic Westminster schoolboys rushed into the flames to throw manuscripts out of the windows. Given that Old English poets were obsessed with ruin and the ravages of time, such tales seem grimly appropriate.
A schoolboy also figures in the saga of The Book of Margery Kempe. In 1934, the son of Colonel William Butler-Bowden was playing ping-pong at their house in Derbyshire and needed a fresh ball. A search through the ball cupboard turned up ‘an entirely undisciplined clutter of smallish leather-bound books’ – including Kempe’s long-lost memoir, which was later identified by the medievalist Hope Emily Allen. The Butler-Bowdens had been a recusant family, one of many seized on by desperate monks trying to salvage what they could of their libraries. Another miraculous survivor is the St Cuthbert Gospel, the oldest intact book in Europe. Written in the seventh century and still in its original binding, it was discovered by the monks of Durham Cathedral in the saint’s own coffin, which they opened in 1104 to inspect his relics. The tiny book has somehow endured to the present day, though not without mysterious gaps in its provenance.
The medieval scribe’s craft was highly specialised, both physically demanding and aesthetically satisfying. Treharne explains the features palaeographers consider when they examine a hand, a technical skill that allows them to situate manuscripts chronologically and geographically and, very occasionally, even to identify an individual writer. A hand can be slanted or upright, rounded or pointed, spacious or cramped, with distinctive letter forms, ligatures and flourishes. Some pocket-sized Parisian Bibles are written in such tiny script that a magnifying glass is required to read them, while scholastic writings are heavily abbreviated to save parchment. Thomas Aquinas’s shorthand was so illegible only his secretary could decipher it. Most remarkable is the prolific 13th-century scholar known as the ‘Tremulous Hand of Worcester’, who glossed Old English manuscripts in Latin and Middle English. His shaky hand led earlier medievalists to imagine him as an old man labouring to preserve the remnants of a dying language. Less romantically, he is now thought to have suffered from a neurological tremor.
Wellesley is keen to demonstrate women’s involvement in manuscript culture, not just as readers and authors but also as scribes and illuminators. Recently, a forensic anthropologist, studying the skeleton of an 11th or 12th-century German nun, found that her dental plaque contained traces of ultramarine, a pigment derived from lapis lazuli and used to paint the robes of the Virgin. In other words, the nun was a skilled illuminator, for only the best would be trusted with such a costly material. The find allows us to imagine the nameless artist as she sucked her paintbrush to create a fine point. Many nunneries had scriptoria whose personnel signed themselves as scriptrix, or female scribe. Some copies of The Rule of Benedict and other monastic texts even feminise the Latin endings to make them more suitable for sisters’ reading. Although few English women authors are known by name – among them Kempe, the 12th-century poet Marie de France and the sublime Julian of Norwich – others may lurk behind the anonymous female-voiced lyrics in Old and Middle English. Wellesley devotes a few intriguing pages to a 15th-century Welsh-language poet, Gwerful Mechain, whose diverse oeuvre ranges from religious verses to an ‘Ode to the Vagina’ and a savage stanza addressed ‘To her husband for beating her’.
Medieval books are known for their aesthetic of plenitude – and not without reason. As a rule, the wealthier the patron, the more lavish the decoration. In the Très riches heures du duc de Berry, peasants wear ultramarine to do fieldwork. Many manuscripts are celebrated for their riot of detail. But Gertsman tracks the opposite of that plenitude: the deliberate void that invites the viewer to fill an absence. Such a lacuna might signify anything from the void that preceded creation to the aporia of death. In a German Bible from the late 13th century, a richly decorated ‘I’ initial (for In principio) opens the book of Genesis. It features six medallions illustrating the six days of creation, but the one that represents the first day, the division of light from darkness, is a circle of bare parchment, perfectly framed. God made the world ex nihilo, theologians declared, so here is precisely that nihil, a shocking emptiness that lures the eye more surely than all the gold leaf, intricate designs and dense Gothic script. Gertsman links the predilection for such lacunae with medieval philosophers’ speculations: did the void truly exist, and if so, did God fill it? Or is it merely imaginary – and if so, what does that tell us about the work of imagination? Intriguingly, the debate about nihil in theology parallels a debate about zero in mathematics. Ancient mathematicians did not use the cipher. When it arrived as an Arabic import in the 12th century, it aroused alarm and wonder: how could a sign that signified nothing, like the nihil before creation, be so powerfully generative? A zero is nothing in itself, yet vast if other digits precede it.
The empty frame, with its potent absence, could also take forms such as the empty speech scroll, which asks the viewer to imagine words missing from a visual dialogue. Or in Fra Angelico’s austere Annunciation scenes, a conspicuously empty space separates the angel from the Virgin. Gertsman compares it to the empty space that divides the Three Living and the Three Dead in their macabre encounter. A spatial gap figures an ontological gap: neither God nor Death can be represented, only imagined. Even holes in the parchment, the work of moths or bookworms, could be employed. A few examples show ingenious scribes outlining such holes in red, using them to showcase drawings on the underlying page, playfully ‘punning’ on them in the text, and figuring them as mouths or eyes. Some German devotional woodcuts of the Sacred Heart show it physically pierced with not just any knife, but the Holy Lance itself, kept as a relic in Nuremberg. Jean Poyet, a French manuscript painter, designed a book of hours around 1500 with diamond-shaped cutouts in the centre of almost every page, except for those that bore sacred images in precisely that space. Readers working their way through the book could watch David or Job, the suffering Christ, the Virgin or the Trinity drawing nearer or receding from them as they prayed.
Manuscripts bear telltale signs of their use. In fact, book historians love the sloppy readers who would have pained librarians of old. Marginal notes supply priceless evidence of reader response to texts, while maniculae or pointing hands highlight key passages. If beeswax stains indicate liturgical reading, the humbler tallow wax suggests a late-night lay reader at home. Saint Boniface used a manuscript to shield himself when attacked by robbers; the slashes it suffered make it a relic of his martyrdom. Pages of many books are marred by dirty fingerprints, wine stains or, in one case, cat urine. An angry scribe in 1420 scrawled next to a smelly lacuna: ‘Confundatur pessimus cattus qui minxit super librum istum in nocte’ (‘a curse on the wicked cat that pissed on this book last night’). Evidence of private censorship isn’t rare. Not only are passages of text deleted, but angry readers even scratched out images that offended them, such as a demon or a fornicating couple.
Devotional manuscripts, however, produced the opposite response. Priests were ritually required to kiss a crucifix in the missal before the canon of the Mass, causing damage over time. That rubric inspired a few artists to paint rough Crucifixion scenes in the bas-de-page so as to leave their full-page miniatures unharmed. But even in expensive books of hours, lay readers could gradually rub the face, body, or wounds of Christ away with their kisses. Gertsman makes the remarkable claim that they were performing an act of negative theology as the beholder’s own lips effected ‘a slow transformation from Deus manifestus to Deus absconditus’. This seems unlikely, not least because devotional books were passed down as heirlooms; the most extreme erasures could have involved generations of readers. Nevertheless, image and erasure, or representation and its absence, co-exist in an endless cycle. It is the dialectic of the incarnate with the invisible God, taking material form in the books that carried his traces.
Often the markings in manuscripts have nothing to do with their contents. Like the family Bibles of a later age, books had an air of permanence that made them ideal repositories for all sorts of records – land transactions, bequests, legal verdicts, medical recipes, charms, prayers for a testator’s soul – squeezed in wherever they could fit. Private owners might turn their manuscripts into commonplace books, filling a few blank lines with a favourite poem (not always in the same language as the main text). Even inscribing one’s name left a legacy. The passage of many souls through this world is attested only by the chance survival of a signature.
Treharne’s emphasis on the manuscript in its wholeness – with its marginalia and marks of wear, its heft and its history – gives her work a polemical edge as she inveighs against ‘libricide’, a travesty that was and is all too common. If 16th-century iconoclasts destroyed books out of reformist rage, modern dealers do so out of capitalist greed. Even some of the 19th century’s best-known bibliophiles, among them Henry Bradshaw and John Ruskin, were not above dismembering books to see how they were made or to snip out attractive miniatures. Collages and ‘leaf books’ (composites made of folios sliced from disparate manuscripts) enjoyed a late Victorian vogue. Today, priceless books of hours still go under the hammer at Sotheby’s or Christie’s, only to show up weeks later as severed folios on eBay. Unscrupulous dealers can outbid museums, libraries and responsible collectors because there is a huge profit to be made from selling irretrievable treasures piecemeal. I remember hearing a renowned manuscript specialist lecture on an illuminated Apocalypse being displayed for the last time before it was sold and mutilated – an outcome he seemed powerless to prevent. Although the destruction of manuscripts violates international law (the 1970 Unesco Convention on Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property), most nations lack relevant statutes or the will to enforce them.
Libricide has been speciously justified as an anti-elitist measure, though even single leaves are sold to collectors of substantial means. The internet, of course, provides more truly democratic access as the wealthier manuscript repositories hasten to digitise their holdings. Treharne is ambivalent about the results, especially the ‘flattening’ involved in the reduction of a multi-dimensional, often sacred, object to a set of images. For students, laymen and specialists with limited travel funds, digitised manuscripts have been an enormous boon to research, while also helping to preserve the originals from damage. But websites vary greatly in the amount and accuracy of their contextual information, and online viewing can be deceptive: it is often impossible to gauge the size of a manuscript page, making it hard to tell a personal prayer book from a massive antiphonal meant for communal use at a monastery. Features such as weight, quality of parchment, degree of wear and accurate colour are elusive, and even the most expert digital display can’t convey the smell or feel of vellum. We can never be grateful enough for online access, made possible only by vast resources and the labour of thousands. But as Treharne writes, it only throws into relief our ‘desire and need for the real’.