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A Medieval textbook

Dr. Erik Kwakkel and Dr. Beth Harris look at a medieval textbook: Boethius, De institutione arithmetica, c. 1100 (National Library of the Netherlands, The Hague,  MS 78 E 59). With special thanks to Ed van der Vlist, Curator of Medieval Manuscripts, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, National Library of the Netherlands. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

- [Erik] We're in the Royal Library, the National Library of the Netherlands in the Hague. And we're looking at a 11th century manuscript of mathematical text, which was very popular in education at the time. Most books made for education, in this early period particularly, are not very fancy. - [Beth] This 1,000 years old. - [Erik] Yes. - [Beth] And yet it looks so recognizable. - [Erik] The book now is still very medieval. If you look at dimensions, if the height is one the width will be 0.7, and that's exactly what we now have at least in Europe. Because American paper is a little bit different. - [Beth] So the people of the Middle Ages found the perfect form factor. - [Erik] There's some variations. Some books are more narrow, other ones are broader. - [Beth] This wasn't printed, someone wrote this. And I can feel that when I look at the ink. - [Erik] It's what we call a manuscript, from Latin manuscripta, so written by hand. Here you see that all individual letters are written. And even each letter is written in different strokes. So you couldn't really write one letter at the same time, you use to break it up into little pieces. - [Beth] So the person who did this was a professional. This was a hard job. - [Erik] You could only write if you were a professional. If you had been trained to write, not just in this type of script, and this is what we call a book script, because it has sort of a formal approach to it. So this kind of script you can only do if you have, not only had a lot of training but also a lot of experience. So if you open this book for the first time, there is a number of things that you see if you're only use to looking at modern books. One is, there's no title page. - [Beth] There's no publisher with a date. - [Erik] There's nothing, no date, no made in this city, etc. Actually it's not even saying what the text is. - [Beth] That's true. - [Erik] The idea is you know what it is. Cause when you read the first lines it's Boethius and it's that particular text of Boethius. Sometimes later you'll have what we call rubrics, which is little title written in red on top, which actually evolves into the title page that we now have. So this is not paper. This was once a cow or calf running through the field, and it's been turned into a book. - [Beth] So someone took the skin of the animal and stretched it. - [Erik] Yeah, you put it on a frame of wood after you've put it in a substance of lye and other things. - [Beth] That clean off the hair and the fur. - [Erik] Most of the hair and then you still have cleave the remaining hair and the bits of piece of flesh. - [Beth] So I imagine it would take months to make. - [Erik] It will take a few weeks to make a batch, but then when you buy it as a scribe or as a monastery, you still need to prepare it for writing. - [Beth] And there were different grades of parchment. - [Erik] Yes. - [Beth] Looking at this can you tell what grade of parchment it is? - [Erik] This is a book made for education and what's remarkable in books for education is that it's often not the best quality of parchment. It's a little bit comparable to textbooks that we have nowadays. You go for the cheap one, if there is one. - [Beth] And that makes sense, you just need the information - [Beth] that's in it. - [Erik] Yes. - [Beth] You don't need a fancy book. - [Eric] So a beautiful book in a church, a gospel book that was displayed on the alter would usually be written in a very nice script and in the best parchment with illumination. Very few books were illuminated. It's exceptional to have a book with gold and shiny colors on the page. - [Beth] And then the parchment was folded and put together into groups and then bound together. - [Erik] Yeah they're called quires or gatherings. We can see that usually about four, what we call double leaves or bifolias, so long leaves folded once and four of those folded leaves would produce one quire. A book like this will probably hold about four or five of them. But if you have a longer text like the Bible, you may 20 or 30 quires. And so, you would put them together as a scribe. This is a nice example of a, you can see it's skin of the animal. You can even a little bit of hair. So this was not very good parchment to begin with, cause it's kind of yellowish and there's stains over it. If you look at it you can see that it's white, yellow, white, yellow, white, yellow. And so, this animal was not so good to begin with. But this part here is the edge of the beast. It should actually have been trimmed. - [Beth] But it was very valuable, so you used as much as possible. - [Erik] And it's for education, so it's no problem if it looks like it's scruffy. - [Beth] I can imagine a scribe dipping a quill pen, a feather pen into ink and needing to be very careful about making blotches of ink. One book must have taken months to make. - [Erik] It's extremely slow going to produce this kind of material, even to make it flat and smooth so you can write on it. And also producing letters that consist of various bits and pieces. So if you have an m for example, you can't write it down like we do, because you can't go up with your pen. So you need to do stroke, stroke, stroke, down, down, down for an m. So at the heart of making those quires, the pages is a number of activities. One is to prick the margins. - [Beth] And then put a rule down. - [Erik] And then you put a ruler over it and then you draw your lines. In this case, and this why we can also imparts that it's an 11th century manuscript. It's not color that makes the ruling, it's a pressure. So it's what we call blind ruling, which means it's blind in a sense because you can hardly tell that it's there. It actually means also a sharp device was used to press down on the parchment. Sometimes even the whole quire at the same time. So you push very hard on a closed quire and then it travels throughout the pages. If you are beyond the 11th century, in the 1130s, 1140s, there's a new technique, which is ruling with plummet, so pencil, a big piece of lead. And then you have gray lines. - [Beth] So you said this was made in educational context. - [Erik] Well this is the time where universities didn't yet exist. But people in the monastery needed to be trained in reading, writing. They needed to have grammar, rhetoric, Latin. So here we have a scribe that is writing this book and may just have been by himself. Or sometimes scribes worked together either in scriptorum or in their cell, where two people work in different cells. A sort of division of labor that you still see nowadays. - [Beth] And I noticed text in the margins too. - [Erik] So on this page you have a main scribe in brown ink. You have either the same scribe or somebody else writing a rubric in red ink, from Latin for red. And you have likely a reader in the margin writing. There's a little symbol here, an L with a bar through it, which is Latin for Vel. It's an abbreviated word, which means alternatively. So somebody compared it likely to another text dealing with the same subject and came up with a different reading of this particular passage. - [Beth] So why the red? - [Erik] It catches your eye. I mean you look at this page, it jumps out at you. The function is to say, go with your eyes here because something new starts. - [Beth] The same thing as the initial letter. - [Erik] And also sometimes it helps you as a reader to find what you need. Imagine your scribe sitting in his cell or a scriptorium copying a book, he will have what we call an exemplar in front of him. - [Beth] The book that's he's copying. - [Erik] Copying from. The main activity here, that is the result of somebody looking at a book in front of him over and over again, and copying a half a line at a time onto this until the text is complete.