2.1 Some concepts on the nature and the making of th manuscript book
In the periods and settings that we are addressing here, various materials were used to write: hard materials (stone, wall plaster, terracotta, etc.) engraved or written with colored materials, wooden boards covered with wax or not, loose sheets or packs of papyrus sheets, of parchment, and of paper. All this material that concerns the study of codicology is also of interest for paleography. This pathway, however, is especially aimed at the book intended for the circulation of “literary” works (in a broad sense) and therefore involves the materials and the normal forms of the book used for this purpose. The two main forms of the book are the roll and the codex. The materials used are papyrus, parchment, and paper.
2.1.1 The roll of papyrus
From the 4th century B.C. until the early centuries of the Christian era, the normal form of the book is the papyrus roll. Narrow strips of about 2 cm are cut out from the inside of a reed (the plant is called cyperus papyrus), which grows bountifully in the delta of the Nile. The strips are then laid out side-by-side in two perpendicular layers (one horizontal and one vertical), pressed (without glue) and dried, so as to form a sheet of 20/30 cm in height and 15/25 cm (usually 16/18 cm) in width. On one side of the sheet the fibers of the plant can be seen going horizontally, on the other, vertically. A certain number of sheets were glued to each other along the long edges, as they were all turned on the same side (except, often, the first sheet, called protocol), and they formed a long strip which was then rolled, keeping the side with the horizontal fibers on the inside. A roll was thus formed and prepared for writing. The roll that went up for sale normally contained 20 sheets (4/5 meters was the standard measurement); the roll-book, that is, the roll after it had been written upon, could be shorter (it was cut off at the end of the writing of the text) or longer (going even up to 10/11 meters), and it was created by joining different parts together until the length required for the whole text was obtained. In order to write (and then also to read), it was unrolled little by little from left to right. To write, the copyist used a calamus (see 2.2), with which he drew carbon black ink out of a container, that is, inkpot (see 2.2). Until the early Middle Ages, in the East, the scribe laid out the roll (and later the folio) on his knees. The use of wooden tablets placed on the knees and then of real tables, which existed among the Romans, originated later and only in the West. The text was arranged in columns with lines of writing (on average approximately 14 cm long, about the length used to write a hexameter in Greek) parallel to the long side of the roll. The space between the columns and between the rows was calculated by sight and therefore may vary. The roll was normally written only on the inner side, where the writing runs parallel to the fibers of the plant. The finished book is rolled around a wooden cylinder (umbilicus), often equipped with a small tag on which the author’s name and the title of the work are recorded. Sometimes this information was written on the protocol, which is the most external sheet when the book is rolled up. The spread of the papyrus roll is attested to starting from the 4th century BC. At the end of the 1st century AD, the roll went into competition with the other form of writing material, the book or the codex (first, made of papyrus, then of parchment). The substitution of the roll by the codex was gradual and slow in the pagan world, while it was sudden and widespread in the Christian setting. In the Christian world, it was a deliberate innovation, but the reasons for this have not yet been entirely ascertained (practicality for transport, reading, study; the codex suited a more modest cultural level, and was set in a more modest social environment; perhaps there was a desire to be distinguished from the pagans and the Jews). At the end of the 4th century AD, the codex had almost superseded the roll, and from the 4th century to the 7th, parchment gradually eliminated the papyrus. This also brought an end to the literary use of the roll, which reappeared only in very specific cases but for other uses and in other forms (for example, Byzantine liturgical rolls, documented from the 8th century until the printing period; rolls of the Latin “Exultet” in parchment, often illustrated, used in southern Italy from the 10th to the 14th century; other particular types of texts in the West; these medieval rolls are written parallel to the short side, and then unrolled from top to bottom.
Vat. lat. 3867, f. 3v. The poet Virgil holds a scroll of papyrus containing his work, near to him a "capsa".
2.1.2 The parchment codex
The codex was the normal form of the book from the 4th century AD up until today (excluding e-books). The basic constituent is the quire, or gathering, made from one or more folios folded and inserted one into the other. Several quires sewn together form a block called the codex. Many elements are to be considered in the material analysis of a codex. These can provide valuable information on the date and place of origin of the book, and thus contribute to improving the results of paleographic analysis. Here are the most important in brief.
126.96.36.199 MATTER AND DIMENSIONS
The codex was made from papyrus until the 4th century, and from parchment until the 16th century or from paper starting (in the West) from the end of the 13th century. Parchment is a piece of skin (from a sheep, goat, calf) that is immersed in a lime bath, then scraped and refined by placing it in a special frame that stretches it out well. This procedure makes it possible to obtain a very light-colored robust and flexible material, which is smooth and suitable for writing. Parchment always maintains a difference (the visibility of which can vary widely) between the side that was on the outside of the animal (called the “hair side”) and the inner side (called the “flesh side”). The thickness, color, and softness depend on the quality of the preparatory process and the age of the animal. In any case it was always a product obtained “from waste”; animals were not killed to make parchment, but to eat them, and the skin is not edible. Paper was fabricated with a paste made of scraps of linen and hemp, mechanically weakened and left to steep in a vat of water for a long time. The “mold” was a sieve made of thin metal wires crossed perpendicularly to each other and mounted on a wooden frame. The mold was submerged into the paste. After steeping, the mold was taken out of the vat, extracting a thin layer of paste. It is then left to dry until it formed a sheet of paper. On the sheet, the impressions left by the metal wires of the frame remain visible (in backlight): in the structure of the wire netting (mesh of one set of wires paired with another series of wires arranged closer together perpendicular to these), which allow for a recognition of the type of paper. In the West, from the end of the 13th century, the most significant element was added: the watermark, a pattern impressed onto the paste by metal strands sewn onto the sieve. The watermark was used like the signature or logo of the manufacturer. The type (the skin was mostly from sheep, goat or calf) and the quality of preparation of the parchment, the characteristics of the paper (appearance of the rods and of seams, the identification of the watermarks) are all significant elements that help to date and localize a codex. The dimensions (in particular the relationship between height and width) have also undergone characteristic variations over certain periods or areas (e.g. the square codices of parchment in the 4th and 5th centuries, etc.).
188.8.131.52 MAKE-UP OF THE QUIRES
In general, a quire consists of several bifolia (according to the nomenclature used here, in some countries these are also called “folios”): the most frequent number is 4 and the quire is called a quaternion: 4 bifolia (or “folios”) = 8 folios (or “sheets”) = 16 pages, but often the quire is composed of 5 bifolia (quinion); in the late Middle Ages and in the Renaissance, the senion (6 bifolia) is also frequent. The bifolia are inserted one into the other. In the first papyrus codices, when you open the quire, you might find one page with vertical fibers and one with horizontal fibers. In parchment codices, on the other hand, as a rule, when the codex is opened, there are two flesh sides or two hair sides (the so-called «Gregory’s Law», from C. R. Gregory, 1846-1917, who first studied the topic). This arrangement is probably due to aesthetic reasons, but it can also be observed that it is obtained automatically if a piece of skin is folded three times before being cut to create a quaternion. Until the early Middle Ages, the quires normally began with the flesh side of the parchment. Later, they began with the hair side in the West and with the flesh side among the Byzantines. Before being written upon, the folios are marked with ruling so as to facilitate a well-ordered writing, with regular margins and distance between pre-defined lines. The ruling is done either in drypoint, with a metallic stylus or with thin lines drawn with ink or pencil, depending on the region and the era. The ruling system (the way in which the lines are drawn) and the ruling type (the design formed by the set of lines on the page) can offer clues as to the origin of the book. After the quires have been gathered and ruled for writing, they are then numbered according to different systems: with numbers, or with letters and numbers, on every bifolium; the folios or pages are rarely numbered. In the late Middle Ages and in the humanistic period the use of “catchwords” also spread (the first words of the quire are written outside the marginal space at the end of the previous quire; obviously this can be done only after the text has already been written).
184.108.40.206 WRITING (COPYING) OF THE TEXT
The scribe usually divided the quire into bifolia to execute his task. In the East the calamus continued in use, while in the West the quill pen (see 2.2) spread from the 6th century onward; the ink that was used was now of the iron gall type (see 2.2). Most manuscripts that have been preserved today were not written directly by the authors of the texts, but were copied by specialized personnel, the scribes (also called amanuenses). In classical antiquity the work was done by scribes, often educated slaves or freedmen who worked on commission. From late antiquity until the 13th century, the work was done almost exclusively by monks, especially Benedictines. The monasteries were often built to include a scriptorium, a place in a well-lit position and equipped for the task of copying. In the most important writing centers, in addition to the scribes there were also correctors, who reread the text comparing it with the original and made emendations to remedy errors and oversights. There was also a director of the scriptorium, who distributed and checked the work. Often the director determined some of the characteristics that were common to all the manuscripts produced in a particular scriptorium, such as the type of ruling, or the use of special colored inks. The element that is specially important for paleography is the development of new graphic styles and new types of writing in the scriptoria. Starting from the 13th century, especially with the birth of the universities and with a wider audience of readers, the category of professional lay scribes was formed. The undersigning (or colophons), placed at the end of the manuscript by the copyist, sometimes give useful clues regarding the concrete conditions of copying (place and date, patron, scribe, price, model used, etc.), The colophons are rather rare, however, particularly before the late Middle Ages; therefore, more often, the study of writing centers and their production is based on the clues suggested by the material make-up of the codex and by the analysis of its writing, which is precisely the object of paleography.
Urb. lat. 3, f. 16r, Gospels of Lotario I, L of "Liber generationis"
Decoration is an important element of the manuscript book. Although it was not completely absent in the papyri in the form of illustrations, there was a decisive development with the arrival of the parchment codex. In order to decorate the codices, various colored inks were used (see 2.2) and the work was usually done by a different person other than the scribe, with fairly developed artistic skills. It is customary to distinguish between the illustration proper (the miniatures) and simple ornamentation (which can actually be very complex). Composed of quite tiny paintings, illustration is used in technical works (military, medical, astronomical, etc.) and in costly editions. Apart from illustrations of a mythological nature, most of the time the illustration included images related to Sacred Scripture, or liturgical and hagiographic collections, but sometimes also illustrated chronicles and other historical books, epic and allegorical poems, Patristic and juridical works. The ornamentation was quite austere until the early Middle Ages, except for the so-called Eusebian Canons (tables of concordance of the Gospels), which were richly decorated from the 6th century onwards. Decoration entailed initial letters, titles, friezes, frames, frontispieces, and the art both developed and varied over the following centuries. The techniques of execution, motifs, as well as the relation between text, illustrations and ornamentation, as well as that between scribes and artists, signify an immense field for research, providing the object for a specific discipline: the history of the miniature and the decoration of the book. There are several criteria to classify the various types of initials (e.g. calligraphic, pen-flourished, ornate, historiated).
After the writing and the (possible) decoration, the quires were assembled and sewn together to form the codex, which was usually finished off with the addition of a cover, after which it is said to be bound. The technique of execution and the ornamentation of binding constitute another field of research for the historian of manuscripts. In the Mediterranean world the point of departure was constituted by sets of wooden tablets, connected to each other with wires passing through some holes made along the edge of the boards. In the first bound codices preserved (from Egypt, 2nd/4th century AD), the block of quires is attached to two covers with leather cords pulled through special holes in the folded quires, while the spine is covered by a strip of leather; the cover boards are made of wood, cardboard (made from papyrus), or leather without the support of wood, or wood covered with leather. In the Middle Ages the book binders improved the techniques of sewing and attaching the quires to the covers made up of wooden boards. Around the 10th century, the technique was introduced to the medieval West, after which the method of sewing on cords or thongs increased and was facilitated by the invention of the loom, which make the codex more robust, but sometimes more inconvenient to open. The cords protrude from the back, which allows for an additional, aesthetic element. The East remained faithful to the technique of binding without cords, and instead used chain-stitch sewing (from the shape of the knots of the threads) placed in specific grooves made in the folds of the quires (“grecaggio”) and consequently the back remains flat. In addition, the covers of Byzantine manuscripts retain the same measurements as the quires and are entirely or partially wrapped by a leather jacket which extends over the back. The upper and lower parts of the latter are protected by the end caps which also reinforce the solidity of the whole book. In contrast to those in the West, Byzantine end caps extend beyond a part of covers and thus protrude outward from the quires. Since the codices were kept in a horizontal position, some bosses (metal nails with large heads) protect the covers and the book is kept tightly closed by clasps. The ornamentation of the cover boards normally consists of drawings (geometric, vegetal, zoomorphic, anthropomorphic) impressed on the leather by special tools; in the West, gold is also used in impression by drypoint. In more costly bindings, the cover boards are made of ivory or covered with fine metals (often embellished with gems) or precious fabrics. In the humanistic/Renaissance period (15th and 16th centuries) and in the following centuries, codices made of paper were lighter, and cover boards made of hard cardboard or leather or flexible parchment may also be found.