allegory (adj. allegorical) – a story in which all the characters and events are symbols of other things. In a true allegory this is also true of the characters’ actions and relationships to each other. Allegories can thus be used to explore ideas that are abstract and intangible (such as how an individual falls in love, or how the soul is affected by various aspects of life) or that are too sensitive or dangerous to discuss directly (such as how a king should rule, or criticism of the church).

bifolium (pl. bifolia) – a single sheet of parchment or paper folded in half to make two leaves (q.v.) (from ‘bi’ = two and ‘folium’ = leaf).

booklet – a codicologial unit (q.v.) consisting of one or more quires into which has been copied a self-contained text or group of texts.  Booklets could circulate unbound before sometimes being included in larger, bound codices.

catchword – a word or short series of words written at the end of one quire (q.v.) to show what the first words of the next quire will be. Catchwords thus make it possible to identify the correct order in which individual quires should be bound together into a larger unit.

champie initial see initial.

chained library a library where the books are attached to the shelves by chains, usually fixed to a corner of the cover of the book (in chained libraries, books are often stored with the spine at the back of the shelf). Chaining books in this way meant that they could not be stolen. Several such libraries still exist, for example the library at Hereford Cathedral in the UK.

codex (pl. codices) – a bound manuscript volume or medieval book.

codicological unit – a subsection of a codex which has its own identity and is in some way complete in itself (cf. booklet, fasciclegathering, quire).

codicology – the study of books and manuscripts as artefacts (i.e. not simply studying the texts within them). Someone who does this is a codicologist.

composite manuscript – a manuscript comprised of two or more originally distinct codicological units (q.v.), sometimes from widely different places or periods.

cursive script – a ‘running’ type of handwriting (from Lat. ‘currere’ = to run), written without lifting the pen from the page (except when dipping it into the ink-well), so that the letters in each word are joined to each other.

decorated initial see initial.

drypoint – a sharp-pointed needle or similar tool  that could be used to indent lines and other marks on a parchment leaf, showing scribes the layout of a page.

exemplar – the manuscript from which a scribe copies in order to make a new manuscript.  

explicit (Lat. ‘here ends’ [origin uncertain]) – a paratext (q.v.) formally marking the end of a text (cf. incipit). 

fascicle – a codicological unit similar to a booklet (qq.v.).

flyleaf – a page at the very beginning or very end of a manuscript, originally left blank but often covered with later additions by the manuscript’s owners.

gathering – a series of bifolia (q.v.) placed one inside another.

heading – a paratext (q.v.) at the top of a page, identifying the text beneath it.  If this is repeated on every page of the same text, it is known as a running heading.

historiated initial – see initial.

illuminator – an artist responsible for creating the images (including miniatures, q.v.) within a manuscript.

incipit (Lat. ‘it begins’) – 1) a paratext (q.v.) formally marking the beginning of a text (cf. explicit) OR 2) the opening words of a text, used to identify it in the absence of a recognised title.

initial – a large capital letter at the beginning of a text or section of text. If the initial is placed against a background of more than one colour it is said to be a champie initial (from Fr. ‘champ pie’ = multicoloured field); if it is embellished with tracery, different colours or gold leaf, it is said to be decorated; if this decoration includes a picture of an person, animal, or narrative scene, it is said to be historiated.

leadpoint – a precursor of the pencil, essentially nothing more than a piece of lead alloy, sometimes with a holder, that could be used to make lines and other marks showing scribes the layout of a page. 

leaf – both sides of the writing support considered as a single unit, or two pages as it would be numbered in a modern book; thus a bifolium (q.v.) is two leaves, or four pages. See also recto and verso.

marginalia – anything written or drawn in the margins around the main block(s) of text.

miniature – a picture in a medieval manuscript (derived from the Latin minium, ‘red lead, the red pigment used for the illustrations; originally, the word does not refer to the size of the pictures)

miscellany – see multi-text codex.

multi-text codex – a medieval book that contains more than one text (sometimes many different texts). This is to be preferred over the more loaded term ‘miscellany’, which carries implications about the presence or absence of what modern readers might consider to be unity or coherence.

nota bene Lat. ‘note well’, a mark, often added in the margin, drawing the reader’s attention to a particular place in a manuscript, such as a pithy quote or key argument. This can be done by writing the words ‘nota bene’ or the abbreviation ‘NB’ (still in use today), or by drawing a hand with a finger pointing to the desired place.

paleography – the study of old and historical handwriting.

paratext – a piece of writing within a manuscript that is not considered to be a text (in sense 2, q.v.) or part of a text. Exactly what does and does not constitute a paratext is debatable, but most scholars would include some (or all) of the following in their understanding of the term: titles, running titles, incipits (in sense 1)), explicits, marginalia, rubrics, chapter headings, tables of contents.

performance – much medieval literature was performed (as well as, or instead of, being read).  Performance could involve recitation, singing, musical accompaniment, and/or active participation from an audience.

recto – the front side of a leaf or page (cf. verso).

rubric – text written in red (from Lat. ‘rubrica’, meaning ‘red ochre’) and thus designed to be visually distinctive on the page.

rubricator – a scribe who writes a rubric (q.v.)

quire – a gathering of bifolia sewn together into a unit.

scribal hand – the unique handwriting of an individual scribe, especially when this is used by scholars to identify different texts or manuscripts as being copied by the same scribe.

scribe – a writer of manuscripts, either a highly trained professional copying texts for a living, or an amateur copying texts for his/her own use.

scriptorium (pl. scriptoria) – a place in which books are copied and made, especially the room used for this purpose in a monastery.

text – 1) any writing OR 2) a section of writing considered to constitute a complete and discrete unit in some way, e.g. a poem, a treatise, a story-collection etc.

vernacular languages – native or indigenous languages, especially as opposed to Latin (e.g. English or French in England, French in France, Dutch in the Low Countries, German in Germany).

verso – the reverse side of a leaf or page (cf. recto).

watermark – words, or an image, or a combination of both that is impressed into sheets of paper to identify their manufacturer. They are usually invisible except when the paper is held up to the light, but by examining these marks in late medieval and early modern books it is often possible to discover where or when or by whom they were produced.

writing support – the type of physical material being written on in a manuscript, e.g. parchment or paper.