Brief notice about books in the Middle Ages

Until the appearance of scrolls, the traditional form of books at the time was that of papyrus rolls; papyrus, in turn, had replaced clay tablets. Scrolls, like vellum (made from calfskin), were crafted from animal skins, which was much easier to handle and conserve, it was soft and resistant and had the added advantage that it could be used on both sides. This wad of folded and bounded sheets, producing booklets, received the name of ‘codex’. The origin of scrolls traces back to the city of Pergamon, in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey); the story goes that when King Ptolemy of Egypt refused to provide papyri to other towns in order to preserve the supremacy of the Library of Alexandria, Eumenes II, King of Pergamon, had to find an alternative solution to stock his own library.

What were books like in the Middle Ages? Their main characteristic, common to all, is that they were manuscripts: written by hand. For the most part, also illustrated. They included decorations in which capital letters were highlighted, greatly ornamented and crafted by true artists. Today, the codices we consider the most valuable and interesting are precisely those which exhibit a more delicate and meticulous illustration work, both in the capital letters and in the page edges or in miniatures, which are precursors of modern illustrations in books. The term ‘miniature’ derives from the Latin miniare (‘to colour with minium’) and refers to the red minium used by scribes to integrate the text and images into the page’s space.

The surviving medieval manuscripts constitute the best example of the period’s pictorial and decorative art. These manuscripts were unique copies; the very letters were combined to form beautiful drawings. The general public did not have access to these books, which were reserved for the noble class and the clergy, and were considered valuable objects with restricted distribution. Popular literature (as we call it nowadays) was transmitted orally through stories or songs. Scrolls have been discovered with no ornamentation, which would have been designed to convey texts to the troubadour or minstrel who had to read them aloud.

Most manuscripts were created in the closed environment of monasteries, by amanuensis monks who dedicated years of their lives to copying works from the past. Thanks to this labour, which became progressively more specialised and would propitiate the emergence of different trades related to books, fundamental works by some classical thinkers, such as Aristotle, have made their way to us, preserving part of the knowledge of Greece and Rome. (We should keep in mind that we are referring to the Western World, since tradition in the East is quite different.)

Scribes often travelled to other monasteries, sometimes in remote locations, to copy entire books. During this era, large libraries were built to preserve and study the knowledge that mankind had gathered over the centuries on a vast number of subjects. The book The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco, as well as the film based on it, have contributed to spread awareness of the existence of these libraries, and to explain their significance.

Many religious books produced during this time are Bibles or biblical texts, particularly of the Old Testament, as well as psalm and prayer books for liturgy, but in Spain there is a type of handwritten codex that represents a special phenomenon: Beatus. These are copies of the commentary on the Book of Revelation, made in 776 by Saint Beatus of Liébana, abbot of the Monastery of Saint Toribio, in the valley of Liebana, in Cantabria. Nowhere else is it as easy to find as many copies of a same book as those made of the Book of Revelation in medieval Spain. Around 31 Beatus are preserved —in some cases only fragments—, made between the 10th and 13th century, and of which 24 contain miniatures.

Not all books produced during the Middle Ages were dedicated to religion or intended for religious readers. Although access to education was a privilege of the religious orders, the nobility grew interested in the ‘books of hours’, which included prayers and were usually personalised. From the 13th century onwards, large university centres emerged and spread in many parts of Europe and, consequently, the demand for books also increased.

When Johannes Gutenberg (c. 1400-1468) introduced his movable-type printing press, he must not have been aware of the enormous success his invention would achieve. The first book printed by Gutenberg, in 1456, was a Bible, of which he made 150 copies on paper and 12 on scrolls. The first books produced with the printing press tried to imitate the characteristics of the codices as to avoid provoking the readers’ rejection, and that is exactly what happens today with digital books —a kind of tablet read like a papyrus scroll—: they are a novelty, but in them the world of the past beats loudly.

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Media Vaca publishes very illustrated books for children of all ages. This year we are celebrating our 20th anniversary and we would like to showcase our work, which is slow, thoughtful, and very close to craftsmanship. We identify ourselves within the tradition of the illustrated book, which began with Egyptian papyri, followed by miniated codices, continued in aucas and sheets, which in turn popularised wood engravings, and has reached our days both unchanged and different, but faithful to the humanist spirit of the first publishers.

Vicente Ferrer

Text elaborated for a booklet handed out during Rubielos de Mora’s Medieval Weekend (23, 24, 25 and 26 August 2018). Media Vaca participated in the Medieval Market with a stand for the first time and with great success, since more than a hundred books were sold. The customers, by the way, were mostly local neighbours and not the fair’s casual visitors. (Photograph by Luis Moreno.)