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Article Review: Seven Things to Look for in Medieval Manuscripts

As a passionate bookbinder and restorer, diving into the world of medieval manuscripts is like embarking on a journey through time. Recently, I came across an insightful article on the Medievalist website that unravels the hidden gems within these ancient creations. Let me share with you seven fascinating aspects of medieval manuscripts that capture the essence of their artistry and functionality.

Erik Kwakkel’s book, "Books Before Print," serves as a valuable guide, unveiling the intricacies of medieval manuscript creation. The article delves into lesser-known visual aspects, starting with the historiated initials. These enlarged and illustrated letters served as navigational aids, gracefully introducing new chapters.

Shorthand, particularly Tironian Notes, reveals a form of ancient efficiency, with over 13,000 abbreviations circulating during its height in the ninth century. Kwakkel’s discovery of two Psalms manuscripts entirely in Tironian Notes sparks curiosity about their purpose, perhaps as tools for training scholars.

Word art, a practice where letters and words shape into objects, is exemplified in a ninth-century manuscript on astronomy. This evolves into micrography by the tenth century, observed in various cultures, including Medieval Hebrew manuscripts.

The presence of empty spaces, despite the costly nature of manuscript production, becomes logical when considering traditional practices and providing room for notes and comments, a feature likely appreciated by students.

Pen trials, found at the back of manuscripts, display short words or swirls, offering insight into scribes ensuring the smooth flow of ink from their pens. Meanwhile, purple corners reveal the damaging impact of mould, a perilous threat averted in a manuscript from Leiden University.

Lastly, the article explores expandable books, such as folding almanacs or 'bat books,' providing portability when closed and expansive information when unfolded, a unique and clever material approach.

This exploration into medieval manuscripts is a captivating journey for book enthusiasts and artisans alike. Kwakkel's expertise and the article's engaging narrative shed light on the nuances of script, symbols, and craftsmanship embedded in these ancient pages. The fusion of artistry, functionality, and historical context unveils the manuscripts' significance beyond mere text.

The inclusion of visual examples enhances the reader's understanding, making this article a valuable resource for bookbinders, restorers, and collectors. The revelation of Tironian Notes and the mystery behind Psalms manuscripts written entirely in this code adds an intriguing layer to the narrative.

The article's diverse topics, from word art to expandable books, showcase the creativity and adaptability of medieval scribes. It successfully captures the essence of these manuscripts, offering a deeper appreciation for their historical and artistic value.

In concluding this journey through medieval manuscripts, one can't help but marvel at the ingenuity, artistry, and resilience encapsulated within each page. For bookbinders, restorers, collectors, and lovers of bookish treasures, this exploration serves as a gateway to understanding and cherishing the rich tapestry of the Middle Ages. The secrets of historiated initials, shorthand whispers, and expandable wonders await those who seek to unravel the tales hidden within these timeless manuscripts.

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