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The Bigger the Book: On Oversize Medieval Manuscripts

Medieval Manuscript

The Bigger the Book: On Oversize Medieval Manuscripts

By George D. Greenia

Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire, Vol.83:3 (2003)

Medieval Manuscript

Introduction: A serious consideration of the archaeology of the large format medieval book, including an examination of constraints on its production, its implied value as a totemic object, its original audience, and the intended performance of its texts in public settings, is an important area of research for cultural historians, but one which first must struggle against common representations of early books in popular Western culture. Modern movies that pretend to recreate a medieval setting routinely include oversize books among their most characteristic props. Besides being served up as the commonplace fixtures of monasteries and cathedrals, and evoking something of their same grand scale, big medieval style books are also movie trappings for an age not only untechnologized but desperately quaint and somewhat hopeless or ponderously mystical in its information retrieval systems. These unwieldy tomes are Hollywood’s icons for an epoch of clumsiness, inefficiency and arcane knowledge. Real medieval books of monumental proportions do survive in considerable numbers although during the period that first created and used them their relative frequency must have been rather modest; smaller books were simply more common in the everyday life of medieval readers. But in our age handheld models are less appealing to movie audiences, and they tend to command less awe on the part of antiquarians and the bibliophiles they serve, at least as high visibility show pieces. Most modern, oversized coffee table books with their limited press runs and high prices emulate many of the showy characteristics prized in their forebears in the pre-modern book industry.

Exhibitions of medieval manuscripts, and the catalogues published to accompany those events, tend to celebrate large format books that may not be at all representative of the less showy majority of holdings of any major collection. Private collectors and those who cater to their tastes often veer toward objects of conspicuous consumption and display, which may actually correspond to some of the motives for a large book’s original manufacture. One new title currently on sale, Modern Art: Revolution and Painting (Artmedia Press), retails for $6000 and includes a handsome wooden stand to display the 75-pound leather-bound volume.

Although measures of what counts as a “big book” are inevitably impressionistic, one could say that any tome that requires an adult reader two hands to handle, and that one would prefer to rest on some physical support like a table or book stand might count as an oversize volume for our purposes. This would include such celebrated medieval volumes as the Book of Kelts (33 χ 25 cm), the Codex Calixtinus (30 χ 22 cm), the codice rico manuscript of the Cantigas de Santa Maria (49 χ 33 cm), MS 47-15 of the Cathedral of Toledo which starts with a copy of Alain of Lille’s Planctus Naturae (57 χ 41 cm), the Libro del conocimiento de todos los reinos (30 χ 21 cm), or the Grandes Heures of Jean duc de Berry (40 χ 30 cm). The maximum size of a medieval folio is determined, of course, by the size of the animal skin it is made from, or the dimensions of the frame or mold that a papermaker’ s arms can span when casting leaves of handmade paper.

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