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Dirty Books: Quantifying Patterns of Use in Medieval Manuscripts Using a Densitometer

Dirty Books: Quantifying Patterns of Use in Medieval Manuscripts Using a Densitometer

By Kathryn M. Rudy

Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art, vol 2 , no. 1-2 (2010)

Introduction: Although it is often difficult to study the habits, private rituals, and emotional states of people who lived in the medieval past, medieval manuscripts carry signs of use and wear on their very surfaces that provide records of some of these elusive phenomena. One of the most obvious ways in which a category of manuscripts—missals—carries signs of use is the damage often found in the opening of the canon of the mass. A priest would repeatedly kiss the canon page of his missal, depositing secretions from his lips, nose, and forehead onto the page. In the Missal of the Haarlem Linen Weavers’ Guild, made in Utrecht in the first decade of the fifteenth century, the illuminators provided an osculation plaque at the bottom of the full-page miniature depicting the Crucifixion. This plaque is designed to bear the wear and tear of the priest’s repeated kisses, for illuminators realized that priests would damage their paintings if they could not deflect the lips elsewhere. The priest in Haarlem who used this missal kissed the osculation plaque some of the time, but his lips also crept upward, onto the frame of the miniature, onto the ground below the cross, up the shaft of the cross, occasionally kissing the feet of Christ.

Taking as my premise the idea that missals reveal habits of wear and use, in this article I bring together other manuscripts—especially prayer books—that have been rubbed and handled. These examples reveal how medieval people interacted with their books and reveal something of their habits and expectations, and ultimately, an aspect of medieval readers’ emotional lives. I first consider how images were abraded through devotional kissing and rubbing that was directed at a particular image, or even a particular area of an image, or occasionally directed at a text. I then consider how material was often inadvertently added to manuscripts through handling. Users employed thread and glue to affix devotional objects to their books, and fingerprints and dirt darkened the page as the user ground it into the fibers of the vellum. The more intensely a reader used a given section of the book, the more intensely discolored those folios are. My contribution to this discussion of reader response is to quantify this wear using a densitometer, an apparatus that measures the darkness of a reflecting surface. The densitometer has allowed me to objectively measure the wear, which is positively correlated to the darkening of the vellum (or paper) manuscript support. The results reveal how a given reader handled his book, which sections of a book he handled, and which he ignored. These are discussed as a series of case studies below.

Click here to read this article from the Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art

Click here to read this article from the University of St Andrews

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