The Beauty of Physical Encounters with Rare Books

Before the word, was flesh—an animal’s skin, scraped and stretched to form the vellum, a writing surface for a scribe to scratch text with quill.

Iron-gall ink fashioned from crushed oak gall nuts and ferrous sulphate, gum arabic for thickening. Red ink from vermillion and egg white. A polishing rub, a ruling of the sheet, a marking off of boxes for illuminated puzzle initials or decorated miniatures. A knife in one hand to steady the vellum, and a quill in the other, the writing begins. Stacks of folios accumulate, are divided amongst artists for decoration. Reassembled, stitched together to bands attached horizontally to the spine and threaded onto boards, then wrapped in leather.

A handmade book, a sensual object.

In the course of writing my novel Cities of Women, which follows a modern woman obsessed with the medieval manuscripts of Christine de Pizan, I spent hours scrolling through the digitized pages of Harley 4431, the compilation of writing de Pizan assembled in the early fifteenth century as a gift to Isabeau of Bavaria, regent to the French king, Charles VI. Known as The Queen’s Book, this exquisitely decorated manuscript is a prized possession in the British Library’s collection, a book only the most prominent paleographers and book historians are permitted to handle.

Like Verity, the obsessed character in the novel, I made a valiant effort to access the original. Request denied. For your purposes, the digital facsimile is adequate. Bereft, I continued scrolling.

More than a million medieval manuscripts have survived centuries of time and shifts of ownership. The majority have been hidden away in private collections or behind the locked doors of a museum’s climate-controlled vault. Occasionally one might be brought out for display in a dimly lit case and opened to a single, tantalizing page, like the gilded, gaudy beauty from The Queen’s Book I spotted a decade ago in an exhibition and have been haunted by ever since. A shimmering revenant, a tempting slice of time I would never be permitted to touch.

Digitization made many of these artistic medieval masterpieces available online. Anyone with access to a computer can visit the British Library or the Bibliotheque Nationale or the Morgan Library, among the more than 300 digital libraries around the world housing digitized manuscripts, conveniently mapped on a crowdsourced web site. All it takes is a few clicks to peruse images from the Iranian astonomer Al-Ṣūfī’s revision of Ptolemy’s star catalogue, incorporating Arabic folk traditions or locate the one of Christine de Pizan presenting her book to the Queen in Harley 4431 that had captivated me years ago.

For me, digitization has been both a boon and a disappointment. My research for the novel wouldn’t have been possible without it. But it proved a poor substitute for the tactile pleasure I imagined holding such a manuscript in my hand would bring. The more I gazed at the images, the more I longed to have the kind of physical encounter with a rare, medieval book like the one Christopher de Hamel had described in his Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts.

 “Nothing can compare with the thrill of excitement when a supremely famous manuscript is finally laid on the table in front of you,” de Hamel explained. To touch the parchment and feel its texture, to inhale the aroma, to hear the crinkling sounds of time while turning the pages, to see the dance of light in decorated borders and puzzle initials and elaborately illuminated miniatures, to sound the words aloud, rolling around the rhythm of centuries-old syntax in the mouth, to grasp what other hands once formed and held, ages and ages ago—this is the multi-sensual experience awaiting anyone who has the rare opportunity to encounter a medieval book face-to-face.

As invaluable as they were, digital facsimiles deprived me of these subtle, aesthetic dimensions of the story a medieval manuscript could tell, a story that began long before a scribe drew even one letter of text on parchment. In fact, de Hamel observed, “no one can properly know or write about a manuscript without having seen it and held it in the hands.”

Digitization has been both a boon and a disappointment. My research for the novel wouldn’t have been possible without it. But it proved a poor substitute for the tactile pleasure I imagined holding such a manuscript in my hand would bring.

In 2018, I learned about a special workshop on medieval manuscript making that the Morgan Library was hosting and immediately enrolled. One rainy May evening, I found myself being escorted up a staff stairway to the Thaw Conservation Center, the Morgan’s laboratory for manuscript conservation and research. Led by two of the library’s conservators, the workshop introduced a small group of us to the mysteries of parchment making, scribal tools, medieval ink, the origami of folded vellum, and the laborious process of illuminating manuscripts. Then the moment I’d been waiting for arrived: we were directed to a table across the room, where several manuscripts were displayed for inspection.

I walked over and leaned in for a closer look at the Hours of Catherine of Cleves, a mid-fifteenth century Dutch prayer book commissioned by the Duchess for private use. Weighted cords held it open to a page with the continuation of a prayer to St. Matthew on the left, and on the right, to one with the beginning of a prayer to St. Simon, whose image was featured in an elaborately painted miniature. An intricate array of fishing nets bordered that page, a design I learned later may have resulted from the artist’s confusing this Simon with Simon Peter, the biblical “fisher of men”.

Intrigued by the gold embossed puzzle initial announcing a new paragraph of text, I traced its outline with my finger and felt the letter raise itself off the page, as if it were a tactile messenger, instructing me to pause and breathe before continuing my devotion. Touching that shimmering letter brought to mind images of the laborious, lengthy and fully embodied process involved in the creation of this kind of handmade book. Four or more pairs of hands would have touched the materials composing the book that lay before me until the object was delivered to the bookseller, into the hands of its requisitioner, and then into those of myriad collectors, until many centuries later, I held it in mine.

No digital image ever had the synesthetic effect on my imagination as that tactile encounter. It’s fair to say touch brought my novel to life.

In the digital age, books have gained in reproducibility, portability and accessibility in direct proportion to the sensuality they have lost. And that is perhaps a necessary sacrifice. The secular knowledge and rituals of religious devotion contained in the more ostentatiously illuminated and bejeweled manuscripts of the middle ages once were coveted possessions of the elite, objects of private possession, “displays of wealth,” de Hamel tells us, “wantonly expended by medieval kings on their private books, when half of Europe starved.” Since then, these books have made their way into museums, libraries, the collections of the rich, and sometimes into the hands of the infamous, like Hermann Göring, whose looting of the Rothschild’s property in Paris included the 14th century Book of Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, recovered by a circuitous route more than twenty years after World War II. Digitization has made these books much more widely available.

And yet, the originals have peculiar textures, sounds, smells, iridescences, and other sensorial qualities that cannot be reproduced, mechanically or digitally. Such afferent characteristics of medieval books are among the reasons why contemporary book artists and book historians like Sara Charles continue to practice and teach about medieval crafts. And why novelists like me remain indebted to them and the workshops they host. “By thoroughly immersing myself in the making process, I can experience the smells, textures and sounds that medieval manuscript makers would have encountered, and appreciate problems or difficulties that they would have faced in their everyday working lives,” Charles explained.

The memories and sensations evoked by this encounter or by holding a physical book, whether medieval or modern, are absent from digital copies, remarkable objects in every way except the sensual. Historians like Sara Charles and contemporary book artists such as Barbara Wolff  offer a tactile connection to the past, experiences even we in the digital age might want to seek out, whether to write a novel or simply to discover a physical tunnel to long distant ages.

Librarians, archivists and curators who conserve these medieval wonders are right to limit access to those whose research depends on close inspection of the works “in the flesh.” The manuscripts are simply too fragile to be subjected to excessive handling. Yet, perhaps museums and public libraries can further expand opportunities to experience the art of making a medieval book, enhancing appreciation for the history of books as sensual, physical things even in the digital age.


cities of women

Cities of Women by Kathleen B. Jones is available now via Keylight Books. 

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