Illuminated Manuscript Company Presents:
This Issue: Common Types of Manuscripts
Many of us may dream of obtaining a page from
a book by
Chaucer, Boccaccio, or Dante, but in reality such manuscripts are hard
to come by. Few scribes dedicated their time to copying literature
and anyone in possession of such a rare gem is likely to hold on tightly
to his/her treasure! Just to give you a sense of how rare early manuscript
copies are of these literary works, there are fewer than ten copies
(including fragments) of the Chanson de Roland. About fifty
various versions of the King Arthur stories exist. For the beloved
The Canterbury Tales, only about 85 manuscripts and fragments
remain. The most popular work of literature (based on remaining copies),
the Roman de la Rose, has only 200 surviving copies, which is a
prodigious number compared to the other texts, but still preciously few. And it’s no wonder. For this latter text, it took a scribe about 75 days
to write out the words for the poem. Imagine the cost! A patron
would have to be astonishingly wealthy to afford such a luxury. So
unless your name is Pierpont Morgan or Henry Huntington, you are
unlikely to ever possess such literature.
You might even be disappointed if you did
come across a surviving manuscript, as most are without illustration and
decoration (one of the great exceptions being the Ellesmere manuscript
of The Canterbury Tales).
The Canterbury Tales from the Ellesmere Manuscript at the Huntington Library is unusual for a work of literature in its elaborate illustrations.
BOOKS OF HOURS
bestsellers of the Middle Ages were the Books of Hours. Designed to be
held in the hand, the books were meant to easily be carried and read by
the lay person. The dutiful Christian was expected to stop and pray
eight times a day at each of the canonical hours (Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline). Because Books of Hours were
for private use, the Church did not control the text as tightly as they
did other texts. Thus, there are some variations depending on region,
time period and individual preference. Books of Hours reached their
heyday of production in the 15th century in Paris, Rouen, Tours, Ghent,
and Bruges. We can fairly easily find copies produced in these cities.
It’s more difficult to find German and English copies, likely due to the
Reformation. Because of their commonality among affluent families,
these books often served purposes beyond prayer in the household.
For example, children were sometimes taught to read from the family Book
of Hours (a safer choice than Boccaccio!). For more information on Books
of Hours, visit our newsletter on the topic. (Books
of Hours newsletter)
The Breviary is the monk's, nun's, or priest’s equivalent to the lay person’s Book of Hours. Like the reader of the BOH, the reader of the Breviary theoretically stops eight times a day to read the appropriate text for the assigned canonical hour. The Breviary contains hymns, readings, psalms, and other prayers. Sometimes Breviaries included all of the Psalms. Often, a parish priest would write out his own Breviary to save some money.
A handsomely illustrated Breviary, small enough to be conveniently carried by a clergyman.
As you may recall from
earth science class, "diurnal" means “daily” and in liturgical terms,
this is quite literal. A Diurnal resembles a Breviary, but includes only
the “day” offices (Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers); it
generally excludes the night offices (Matins and Compline).
Considering the Diurnal skips the midnight and 3 am prayers, it’s a very
tempting choice for the sleepy monk.
The Psalter contains the 150 lyric poems (psalms) written between the 10th and 3rd centuries BCE. These ancient poems comprise the oldest liturgical book used by monks to celebrate the holy office. The Psalter is also known as the Psalms of David because the poems are traditionally ascribed to King David (whom Christians believe is an ancestor of Jesus Christ). In addition to the 150 psalms, the Psalter of the Middle Ages often included a calendar, a litany of saints, canticles from both testaments, and other prayers. The Psalters were enormously popular in the Middle Ages and were frequently lavishly illuminated. Due to their commonality, students of the Church often used them to learn to read (just as students of the laity often used the Book of Hours for their literacy instruction. Psalters were sometimes a part of the Breviary and sometimes their own book.
The Missal is the book used by the priest in celebrating the Mass. Not to be confused with the Breviary, which was used by the clergy for daily services, the Missal is used at the altar for the sacrament of communion or the Eucharist service. Missals are generally simply illustrated. Patrons often donated a Missal to the church. The patron could be the bishop, the priest, or a parishioner.
All medieval churches and
monasteries needed music books as music is central to Christian
services. However, unlike today, where parishioners can hold their own
copies, before printing music books were shared by the choir alone.
Consequently, the books needed to be large (quite large!) so everyone in
the choir could see. A common observation regarding books of music is
the variation in the number of lines in a stave. You will observe
that some staves have four lines and some have five. While a
five-line stave generally suggests the book was written after the 15th
century, this is not a consistent indicator since the 5-line stave was
used earlier. In southern Europe, conventionally, the staves
were drawn in red and the neumes (notes) are penned sans tails, while in
German and Dutch manuscripts, staves are often black. Music manuscripts
are most frequently found from Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian books,
but of course, others survive. One of the fortunate aspects to the
modern collector is the grand size of the manuscripts. Because the
manuscripts were so large, they were not readily adaptable to the
printing press, so we see manuscripts still handmade in the traditional
way for centuries after printing began.
The Gradual contains the music
for the Mass; it is the sung portion of the Missal. All medieval
churches and monasteries would own a gradual, of course, since music is
such an integral part of church services.
The Antiphoner is to the
Gradual what the Breviary is to the Missal. In other words, the
Antiphoner contains the church music for the daily round of services (as
opposed to the music for the Mass).
Page from an antiphonal. Antiphonals tend to be larger than Graduals
The Latin Bible was the fundamental text of
every monastery. Old monastic Bibles were usually quite large and
written in several volumes. Frequently separate volumes existed for each
book of the Bible (e.g. Leviticus, Numbers, Mathew, etc). Some time in
the late 12th or early 13th century, the format of the Bible changed. The most notable
change was the preference for portability due in part to the growing
friars serving as traveling preachers. Obviously, carrying around a multi-volume
Bible was an impossibility for an itinerant preacher. The Bible,
therefore, moved to a single volume. In order to accommodate the small
size, the text became tiny and was written in two columns to save space.
To facilitate reading, each page was marked with a heading and chapter
beginnings were indicated with red and blue initials. Thin paper was
also used to prevent bulkiness. Around this time, the Interpretation of
Hebrew Names, a dictionary of the Latin meanings
of Hebrew names, was added to the Bible. Interestingly, today’s Bibles are almost the same in
their presentation (thin paper, tiny font, two columns, headings, etc).
Leaf from a Latin Bible. Note the compact font which made it possible to have a book small enough for the carrier to place in his bag.
The Interpretation of Hebrew Names was an innovation of the 13th century Bible.
Other Types of Books
Image from a medieval medical book. (from the Bodleian Library, Oxford University)
* For more information on illuminated manuscripts, we recommend: