Rolls vs. Codices

In the era when papyrus was the most important writing support (?), the best way to keep a long text safe was to roll the interconnected sheets of papyrus into a roll (or scroll). Papyrus could not be folded without risk of breaking it. This did not mean that reading a roll meant unrolling all of it at once. It was read horizontally, so that while rolling out one side, one could roll in the other.

At the dawn of Christianity the roll was supplanted by the codex, a bound book. The first codices were made of wooden writing tablets, hence the name ‘codex’, which is derived from the Latin word caudex (‘a block of wood’). The invention of parchment changed the codex drastically. Exploiting the flexibility of parchment, which did not break when folded, books were from then on made of many thin layers of animal skins.

But the codex did not replace the roll entirely. Parchment rolls continued to be used throughout the entire medieval period. For texts that had to be proclaimed, a roll was often more suitable than a book: we can all picture a herald in a town square reading a message from the king.

Long genealogies too were drawn on large parchment rolls, stitching skins together when the family trees grew over the original borders of the sheets. A fifteenth century example can be found in Chicago’s Newberry Library.

Although the monks in this video look a little too modern to have witnessed the initial change from roll to codex, their reaction to the new invention may be spot on!

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Why the White Gloves?

If you are reading this text on your iPad, you will probably have noticed that you have had to clean the screen several times already today. Every time you touch it, you leave some fingerprints. Even when using your desktop computer, you will probably have complained about the ‘fingers’ on your screen at some stage . And you will have noticed that some keys on your keyboard tend to get more dirty than others.

The same thing happens to all other objects you touch, including medieval manuscripts. Touching leaves tiny traces of fat and sweat that, sooner or later (depending on the surface), become visible. Not only do great numbers of fingerprints make a book look dirty, they also affect the structure of the paper or parchment, because their acidity works its way into the leaf, and makes it deteriorate faster. (For some researchers, though, the best old book is a ‘dirty book’!)

Using gloves is a way to solve this problem. But the famous white cotton gloves are hardly used anymore, because it is hard to get hold of a single leaf when you wear them. It is better to wear thin rubber gloves or to wash your hands regularly while visiting a reading room to consult manuscripts. (See for instance the British Library’s views on white gloves.) By far the best way to handle a manuscript is touching it as little as possible: after opening, just put a booksnake on the corner of the page you are consulting.

In general, you should be careful when dealing with manuscripts. The manuscripts that have survived the ages until now are the lucky ones. Many thousands of them must have been destroyed in wars and disasters, or were just discarded when they were of no use anymore. Each of them is unique and irreplaceable. Mr. Bean’s destructive visit to a library is a good example of how not to work with manuscripts! 

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Solution to Riddle 4

The solution of the riddle in Text 4 in the Geraardsbergen Manuscript is: Cain

Cain is Adam and Eve’s first born child. Since Adam was never born, but made of clay by God, Cain was born before Adam was born. Eve as well was never born, but she was made from one of Adam’s ribs.

Cain is also known to be the first crop farmer. Adam’s ‘mother’ was the clay he was made from, so Cain’s grandmother is Mother Earth. By planting and growing crops he took the earth’s virginity.

Adam and Eve’s second child was Abel, who became shepherd. When both he and Cain offered God some of their produce, God was very grateful for Abel’s offerings, but hardly payed any attention to Cain’s. This made Cain so angry that he killed his younger brother. The earth’s population thereby was reduced from 4 to 3, a quarter of all mankind was slain by Cain.

See also: Genesis 4,1-8.

Read more about riddles in the Middle Ages.

Another Riddle

Geraardsbergen Manuscript, text 4 (fols. 103r-103v)

The Geraardsbergen Manuscript opens with a series of riddles. To solve these riddles you need some knowledge about life in the Middle Ages. In this particular riddle it may help if you have read the Bible:

‘My father got me before he was ever born, and so did my mother, believe me: she carried me before she was born. Moreover, I am the man who took my grandmother’s virginity. And also I am the one – how did I manage to do that?! – who killed one quarter of the earth’s population. So, I ask you who reads this text: do you know my name?’

In Middle Dutch it sounds like this! (read by Daniël Ermens, MA)

Brussels - KBR - 837-45, fol. 104r: A riddle (by courtesy of KBR Brussels)

Brussels – KBR – 837-45, fol. 104r: A riddle
(by courtesy of KBR Brussels)

“Mijn vader wan mi hier te voren
Eer hi ghewonnen was of gheboren
So dede mijn moeder sijt seker das
Drouch mi eer soe ghedreghen was
Ic ben oec de selve man
Die mier ouder moeder maeghdom nam
Oec ben ic die niet en verdrouch
Die tvierendeel vander werelt verslouch
Nu vraghic elken die dit aensiet
Of hi minen name mach weten yet”

The solution!

Go to: the complete table of contents.


An Easter Sermon from Paris in Geraardsbergen

Geraardsbergen Manuscript, text 76 (fols. 142r-144v)

Unlike today when Roman Catholics can receive the holy communion weekly during mass on Sunday, in the Middle Ages one could only receive it once or twice each year on the most important christian celebrations: Christmas and especially Easter.

But it took a brave (wo)man to receive it!

Brussels - KBR - 837-45, fol. 142r: The beginning of the sermon (by courtesy of KBR Brussels)

Brussels – KBR – 837-45, fol. 142r: The beginning of the sermon (by courtesy of KBR Brussels)

‘I forbid anyone to receive Our Lord (i.e. the Holy Communion) – on punishment with excommunication – in this church or parish unless he has confessed his sins to me, or to anyone appointed by me to take confession, or anyone who has the power to take confession,’ thunders the priest. And that was not all! You could get excommunicated too, if you tried to receive the communion when you hated someone, or had committed a deadly sin. People who only come into the church to receive the communion are warned too: you should not rush out of church after receiving the host to start excessive eating and drinking as soon as possible.Confession was a key word in medieval christianity. By confessing your sins to a priest, you could be forgiven for them. But only after you had done penance for your sins you were considered to be ‘clean’ enough again to receive the holy communion.

Can this be a sermon by the Parisian John Gerson? It could be possible. Both text 77 and text 73 are attributed to him in the headings (?) above the text, and their topics are closely connected: what to confess (73), when you are allowed the holy communion (76) and how to die in a state of grace (77).

Go to: Table of contents


Thousands of medieval sermons have survived in manuscripts all over Europe, in Latin, but also in the vernacular languages (?). Most of these sermons have been written down to keep the wise words of an important clergyman (e.g. Bernard of Clairvaux, Augustin of Hippo, Gregory the Great, etcetera), and could be used as instructions for writing sermons, or as a good text to be read during meals in the monastery. Other sermons, however, were never spoken out on the pulpit, but were intended to be read at home by lay people from the start, as instruction for leading a good life.

In the manuscripts in this exhibition we only encounter one sermon: Text 76 in the  Geraardsbergen Manuscript.

Poster Texts

Bruges - Museum Saint Salvatorchurch: Panel with a text by Anthonis de Roovere (as published in Hogenelst and Van Oostrom 'Handgeschreven wereld' (2002))
Bruges – Museum Saint Salvator Church: Panel with a text by Anthonis de Roovere (published in Hogenelst and Van Oostrom (2002), see Bibliography)

Two texts on the wall, left and top centre (published in Queeste (1999, see Further reading: Reynaert)

When you start looking for medieval texts that were not in manuscripts, you realize that there must have been a world of words in the cities of the later Middle Ages. Not only do we find captions to statues, objects and buidlings, but apparently it was common to post longer texts on walls in churches as well. These texts provided usefull information to the readers. The question arrises: how many people could actually read in the Middle Ages? It is one of those questions that will always remain unanswered.In the Geraardsbergen Manuscript we find several examples of poster texts: Text 23 and Text 73.

Travel Itineraries

Travel tales were as popular in the Middle Ages as they are now. Famous examples are the travels of Marco Polo and John Mandeville who travelled to the edges of the known world (and beyond). On a smaller scale pilgrim journeys were of greater use to the average man/woman in the later Middle Ages. They could help you get some reduction on your time in purgatory, so good instructions before setting off on a pilgrimage were valuable. Usually they probably circulated on loose leaves, or scrolls, which were easier to carry along, but the ones that have survived the ages can often be found in manuscripts.

In the Geraardsbergen manuscript we find two examples: Text 22 and Text 69.