"A Medieval Mirror": Insight into the Production of Medieval Books


In November 2013 I had the pleasure of reading the beautifully written and magnificently produced volume, A Medieval Mirror. Speculum humanae salvationis 1324-1500 by Adrian Wilson and Joyce Lancaster Wilson, published by the University of California Press in Berkeley in 1984. This book concerned the many manuscript and printed versions of this text, the printed editions of which were also discussed in HistoryofInformation at this link.

The format of this work is 13.5 x 9 1/4 inches (34 x 23.5 cm). A Medieval Mirror was published a year after Wilson received a MacArthur "genius grant." Wilson was a distinguished book designer, and the Wilsons, working as a team, were also excellent book historians. The physical book, designed by Wilson, and luxuriously printed in Japan on the finest paper ( with no show-through) by Dai Nippon, with superb color and black & white plates, large, easy to read type and footnotes, is one of the finest university press books produced during the 1980s. Issued for $175, it was also one of the most expensive university press books at the time. In November 2013 a digital edition of the book was available from the UC Press E-Books Collection. However, this is one instance where a digital edition can never do justice to the experience of reading such a splendidly designed and produced physical book.

I felt that the quotation below was worth including in this database because Wilson brought to book history a lifetime of experience as a book producer and designer, thereby approaching the historical problems with insight beyond that of pure scholarship:

"In the actual work of making books, the medieval scribe must have begun, as would a modern designer, by determining the amount of text which would make a page when written in the chosen script and size and in the desired format. To this must have been added the space planned for miniatures, initials, headings, captions, and sometimes areas for glosses. This calculation would reveal the number of sheets of parchment or vellum needed. Sometimes the skins were prepared by the scribes themselves as evening work when the light was too poor for writing, but probably it was more common to obtain them from the parchment maker. Once the scribe acquired them his next step would be to stack the sheets, possibly in threes, fours, or fives, for gatherings that would make, when the sheets were folded, from twelve to twenty pages. From his basic format plan, he pricked, through the parchment stack, the positions of the margins and the grid for the grid lines of the script. The points would then be connected by ruling lines in pale colored ink or by blind scoring.

"Whether the scribe actually wrote in a sewn gathering, or even a bound book, as is so often shown in miniatures, is diffcult to determine. The practice may sometimes have been to inscribe a single four-page sheet of the text consecutively, turning over or replacing the pages to preserve the sequence. There are examples of manuscripts in which a full skin was folded twice to make eight pages, or three times to make sixteen, where the scribe wrote his text leaving the sheet uncut. Scribes are also shown seated at steeply slanted, double-faced desks with the skin folded over the top in the direction of the animal's spine, but it must have been awkward to turn it around or upside-down for each new page. Probably this was the exception, and one may assume that the sheets were usually cut into bi-folios before inscription" (Wilson & Wilson, op. cit., 20-21).

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