By Danièle Cybulskie
In thinking this week about the medieval mysteries we’ll never solve, it struck me that one of the most fun questions that I – and everyone else who loves medieval books – ponder is why the particular stories in them are put together the way they are. Most medieval manuscripts that aren’t prayer books are what we’d call miscellanies: they contain bits and pieces of this and that in no particular order. You can often find a religious treatise followed by a romance, for example, followed by recipes and remedies. Looking at one is like listening to a stranger’s mix tape: you have to search carefully for clues to try to figure out more about the person who made it.
If we go back to the very beginning of a conventional medieval book’s production, it starts with a text (recipe, romance, sermon, etc.) that a reader has been exposed to, and now wants a copy of. A scribe borrows an original source text, and then painstakingly begins to copy every part of the text word for word. In order for the book copying not to take forever (the original text does eventually have to get back to its owner), scribes would sometimes work in tandem in commercial workshops, or in monasteries, with everybody getting one section of the original to copy out. Each scribe would copy onto sheets of vellum (illustration came last), which they’d fold into a bundle called a quire. In order to make sure that everybody got their finished section of the text put together in the right order, sometimes scribes would write “catch words” in the margin at the end of their section that matched up with the first words in the next section. Sometimes, they’d immediately put together their sections to make up a booklet, and leave the booklet aside until they had enough material to justify the expense of binding. This worked especially well for commercial booksellers if they could manage it: people could just come in and pick out the booklets they wanted and then bind them together – kind of like the medieval book version of iTunes. If you look at a big medieval book, it’s pretty much inevitable that you’ll see different sections of it in different scribal hands (handwriting). Sometimes, you’ll see one scribe has copied out an entire text (like a romance), and sometimes just a few pages here and there that were put together later.
Back in the day, if you were going to justify the expense of a blank tape, you’d want to fill it all the way up with tunes. It’s the same with medieval books. Binding consisted (usually) of stitching together the booklets with wooden boards making up the hard covers, and then covering the covers with leather (or metal in some cases). Because books were investments and most likely going to be seen by more than just one person, the bindings could be very ornately embossed and bejeweled. Old scraps of vellum were used to stuff and paste down the leather bindings so that they were left smooth and to lessen the bumps of the stitching showing down the spine, bumps that we now sometimes add to spines to give them ye olde feel. These were sometimes pieces of old manuscripts, and they occasionally offer a pleasant surprise for modern people tasked with rebinding medieval and early modern books, kinda like if you catch a snippet of a song between songs on your anonymous mix tape – it tells you more about the mix tape’s life before this particular incarnation. If a person was going to go to the expense of binding, he or she wouldn’t want to do it for just a slim volume. Might as well go big and stuff the book with as many texts as possible, inadvertently giving historians a place where all sorts of popular texts intersected.
The Beowulf Manuscript (Cotton Vitellius A.XV), is a miscellany made up of four separate manuscripts (also miscellaneous) bound together in the late sixteenth century. If we just look at the section which contains Beowulf, we can find the Homily on St. Christopher, The Marvels of the East, The Letter of Alexander [the Great] to Aristotle, Beowulf, and the Old English poem Judith. In another famous manuscript, The Auchinleck Manuscript (NLS Adv MS 19.2.1), we can find (among many, many other texts) the romance Amis and Amiloun right next to The Life of St. Mary Magdalene, a lengthy explanation of the Lord’s Prayer (The Paternoster), and a history of England (The Anonymous Short English Metrical Chronicle). For these texts to appear together in one bound manuscript automatically suggests that at one point there was a reader who wanted all of these texts – as with waiting to record your favourite song when it comes up next on the radio, nobody does that much work for something they have no interest in. Finding the same texts in more than one book tells us a little bit about general trends, like what types of stories and languages were popular and where they were circulating. Seeing religious texts cheek by jowl with Arthurian romances can tell us a little bit about society, too; for example, people didn’t feel the need to necessarily keep religious stories and stories of the otherworld (like Auchinleck’s Sir Orfeo) separate.
No matter what we learn about trends and sources, though, the mystery remains: who commissioned the book in the first place? What sort of person wanted this particular mix of texts? Do these books reflect the tastes of just one person or a group (like a monastery or a family)? Although we can do some detective work, like track down some names that appear in the manuscript or look for the most well-worn pages to tell us which texts were favourites within the manuscript, the truth is that we will never know the circumstances under which the reader chose these texts, or how much influence s/he had in their placement within the book. Just like with a mix tape, we can use a medieval book to get into the headspace of the person who made it, but we can never actually know his or her thoughts.
Never knowing who made the mix tape doesn’t diminish the pleasure you get from listening to it, just as never knowing who wanted to read about monsters and saints doesn’t diminish the pleasure of reading a medieval manuscript. For me, the mystery of who’s behind the miscellanies just adds one more fascinating dimension. For a whole lot more on medieval books and what their individual quirks can tell us, take a look at Erik Kwakkel’s Medievalbooks blog.