Visitor’s Book

We hope you have enjoyed your visit to this Virtual Exhibition. We welcome your comments below.

Note: Any posting judged by project members to be obscene or insulting, or which we are informed violates relevant law, will be removed as and when project members become aware of it.

Bodley 264: Further Reading

  • The whole manuscript has been photographed by the University of OXford and can be viewed online, FREE, at the Bodleian Library website here.
  • For a recent in-depth study of this codex, see Mark Cruse, Illuminating the Roman d’Alexandre – Oxford Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 264: The Manuscript as Monument (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2011).
  • For a technical description of the manuscript, see Gisela Guddat-Figge Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Middle English Romances (Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1976), pp.
  • To learn more about the Middle English poem, see this database entry from the University of York.
  • You can read the whole of the English poem from this manuscript in a rather out-dated edition online here. The most recent (but not very recent) edition is F.P. Magoun, ed., The Gests of King Alexander of Macedon. Two Middle English Alliterative Fragments, Alexander A and Alexander B. Edited with the Latin Sources Parallel (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1928).
  • Two works on Alexander the Great in medieval Britain: Gerrit H.V. Bunt. Alexander the Great in the Literature of Medieval Britain (Groningen: Egbert Forsten, 1994), and Luann M. Kitchel, A Critical Study of the Middle English Alexander Romances. (Dissertation: Michigan State University, 1973).
  • You can read the Roman d’Alexandre in French (Old French with a translation into modern French) in Le roman d’Alexandre ou Le roman de toute chevalerie, eds. Catherine Gaullier-Bougassas, Laurence Harf-Lancner, Brian Foster and Ian Short (Paris: Honoré Champion, 2003).

Taxonomy of crazy people

Geraardsbergen Manuscript, Text 3 (fol. 104r)

The short French text, ‘Fol est qui fol boute’ is one of the only French items in the Geraardsbergen Manuscript.

Brussels - KBR - 837-45, fol. 104r: A short French tekst in the Geraardsbergen Manuscript (by courtesy of the KBR Brussels)

Brussels – KBR – 837-45, fol. 104r: A short French text in the Geraardsbergen Manuscript (by courtesy of the KBR Brussels)

It runs:

You are mad if you

  • shove a madman
  • never doubt a madman
  • have crazy friends
  • make a fool of yourself
  • reason with a lunatic
  • marry a mad woman

But the most mad person of all is the one

Who lets his daughter marry a madman.

This text also appears in a number of French manuscripts, including BnF fr. 1555, where it is written out in full as part of a larger proverb collection.

detail from BnF fr. 1555, 77v. Reproduced by kind permission of the BnF

detail from BnF fr. 1555, 77v.
Reproduced by kind permission of the BnF

Back to the table of contents or Text 1 (A riddle) of the Geraardsbergen Manuscript

Short Verse Narratives

Our project focuses on specific texts: short verse narratives. What does that mean?

Short. Scribes tended to treat short texts differently from longer ones, for a simple and obvious reason: unlike longer texts – such as romances – they cannot fill a whole manuscript but have to be combined with other texts. This leads to several revealing aspects of a manuscript that scholars can investigate now, such as:

  • Which texts are combined by the scribes and in which order?
  • What markers are used for the beginning and the ending of a text?
  • If they have different known authors, (how) are they designated?

Whether it is important to distinguish between short and very short texts can be seen in one of our French examples.

Verse. Starting in the 13th century, vernacular authors began to compose texts in prose. Prose (as opposed to verse) was associated with chronicles and had therefore an aura of truthfulness and authenticity. However, some genres would still be composed in verse (and still are today). Manuscripts tend to combine prose with prose and verse with verse, so it makes sense to choose one thing or the other. For the project, we chose verse.

Narrative. Thirdly, we are looking at texts with narrative content, meaning texts that tell a story. This is an important distinction as there are many other kinds of texts: didactic ones (telling people how to behave), religious tracts, reflective or contemplative texts. In fact, the distinction between narrative and non-narrative is important in modern philology. It remains to see whether it was equally important to medieval scribes who were composing books.

In the Geraardsbergen Manuscript we find a few examples: e.g. Text 89.


Literary scholars talk of ‘genre’ when they refer to a specific type of literature. In modern literature examples might include the legal thriller, the love poem, the graphic novel or the cookbook.

It is not always clear which categories (if any) people in the Middle Ages found important. However, we can try and find out from the manuscripts whether scribes have assigned the texts they copied to certain categories.

Discourses on love (Minnereden), for instance, are texts with clear identifiers, and they are very often transmitted with one another. This can lead us to believe that medieval scribes, like us, thought that they were similar and belonged to a group (even if there is no medieval name for them).

Our French manuscript, fr. 837, contains many texts that are labelled with words that look like generic identifiers. However, some of these labels have much clearer meanings than others.

Some texts seem to belong to different genres in different manuscripts: ‘fol est qui fol boute’ is treated as a play on words in one manuscript, and a proverb in another manuscript.

You may also be interested in letters, sermons, captions, travel itineraries and poster texts, or you can check out which role riddles played already in the Middle Ages.



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!

Return to: The Making of

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! 

Return to: The Making of


Have you ever tried to write a love letter by hand? What did you choose to do: write it in separate letters or joined-up letters? Which one would make the best impression? And, very importantly, which one would be most legible?

All through the Middle Ages texts were written by hand. Even after the invention of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century the handwritten book did not disappear immediately. Every scribe (?) could choose from several script styles to write his (or her!) text. It all depended on the purposes the text was meant for (just like our love letter). For a book for a rich and well-paying nobleman you would automatically choose a well executed book-hand; for a personal administrative document a quick cursive (?) script was good enough.

Scripts evolved slowly through the ages. The manuscripts in this exhibition are all written in a gothic script. Gothic scripts were used from c.1200 until c.1500 (even longer in some places). Three major categories of gothic script can be distinguished, all of which could be executed meticulously, or jotted down sloppily:

  1. Textualis: the general book hand, until c. 1400 used in all types of books. We find this script in Oxford Bodley 264 and Paris BNF fr. 837. One of its main characteristics is the ‘a’ instead of an ‘a-without a roof’.
  2. Cursiva: the script generally used for administrative purposes. It can be executed more rapidly. Examples in this exhibition are Berlin Ms.Germ.Qu. 719 with a rapid cursive, while the Geraardsbergen manuscript has a more stylized cursive script. Characteristic are the loops on the l, k, h and b.
  3. Hybrida: introduced in the second quarter of the fifteenth century. It has characteristics of both textualis and cursiva. The cursive script in the Geraardsbergen manuscript is very close to a hybrid script.

Until c.1400 most manuscripts were written in a textualis, while cursive script was used for administrative documents, but after 1400 the cursiva intruded more and more on textualis territorium. The manuscripts in this exhibition clearly show this change in applied script for ‘literary’ manuscripts: the textualis manuscripts are pre-1400 and the cursive manuscripts are post-1400. After the introduction of the hybrid script in the textualis lost even more ground. For more information on these changes in scripts, see Clerks vs. Monks.

The field of research that studies scripts is called paleography (?). Paleographers have drawn the outlines of the evolution of script. Even though there are general trends in this evolution in western Europe, many regional styles, or characteristics only found in a special monastery, do occur. This enables us to date and locate manuscripts, and sometimes, if we are lucky, we can recognize a certain scribe by his or her personal traits.

For information on manuscript pages and their decoration, click here.

Or you can return to the entrance of this room.

The Making of: Pages

When the medieval scribe (?) was planning to make a manuscript he had to make several decisions. Depending on the length of his text(s), he had to decide how big the leaves (?) should be, and how many leaves he wanted to use. However, he could cheat a little. By writing very small, he could fit a long text in an ordinary-sized manuscript, and by writing bigger than usual a more voluminous codex could be filled up with a short text. It all depended on what the manuscript was meant to be used for. If it was intended to be a portable book for a traveler, then it had to be of a modest size and weight. But if a choir needed it as a song book that could be read by all its members while singing, it had to be big.

Before the scribe could start writing, the leaves had to be ruled. In the left and right margins of his bifolium (?) he pricked little holes at regular intervals. Between these prickings he laid a ruler and with drypoint (?) or leadpoint (?) he drew the lines. He also had to choose how many columns of text he wanted, and had to make another set of prickings for them in the upper and lower margins.

Private Collection (by courtesy of the owner): leadpoint ruling

Private Collection (by courtesy of the owner): leadpoint ruling

After ruling the pages horizontally and vertically the scribe had to make a few other decisions before he was ready to start writing the text. For the layout of a manuscript page he had to consider several things, most importantly of all which script to use and whether to decorate the page. If he wanted decorations, he would to leave some space for them, because they were applied only after the copying of the text was done. The decoration was often executed by other craftsmen: the rubricator (?) who filled in the ‘reds’ such as headings and simple initials, and the illuminator (?) who painted the miniatures (?) and the important initials. The scribe could help his colleagues by writing short instructions in leadpoint in the open spaces (e.g. a small letter ‘A’ where an initial ‘A’ was needed).

One last thing the scribe had to take care of was keeping the bifolia and the gatherings (?) in the right order. He could do this by giving each gathering a letter (a, b, c, etc.), and by numbering each leaf in the gathering with roman numerals (a i, a ii, a iii, etc.). Numbering the first half of the leaves this way was already enough, since the second half of the leaves was connected to the first half. Another way of keeping the gatherings in the right order is by adding the first word of the next gathering as a catchword (?) in the lower margin of the last leaf of the previous gathering.

To read more about the making of medieval books, click here.

Or return to the entrance of this room.

The Making of: Books

Unless you are visiting our virtual exhibition on your iPad on the train or on the beach, you are probably reading this text on a computer screen, with a printer nearby. As you know, medieval books were hand made, so let’s do a little exercise: reach out your hand and take a sheet of paper out of your printer. Fold it in half. Congratulations: you have just made your first book!

The basic principle of making codices is the folding of a sheet of parchment or paper in half. By folding the sheet once you get one bifolium (?) of two leaves (?) or four pages, and every time you fold this bifolium in half again, the number of leaves and pages doubles, but the size diminishes. The result is a gathering (?): a number of bifolia, one inside another.

A number of gatherings bound together is a codex. The method used in binding a book has not changed much over the centuries: all you need is a few holes in the folds of the gatherings; some cords, leather bands or parchment strips to put along the outside of these holes; and some sewing thread. From the inside of the gathering, the needle is pushed through the hole to the outside, around the cord, band or strip, and back in again. At the top or bottom of the gathering, there is an extra hole through which the thread is passed from the inside to the outside, and then on to the next gathering. When all the required gatherings have been sewn onto the cords/bands/strips, these then are attached to the covers of the book (made from wood or parchment, or in later ages cardboard) .

Between both covers of a book modern readers would expect to find a single text (e.g. a novel or play) or a sharply-defined collection of texts (e.g. a set of poems by one named author), but in the Middle Ages the contents of a book could be more diverse. There were books with one long text; with a long text followed by some short texts; with many short texts; or some other combination. Sometimes these texts were planned to be together, but in other cases the scribe (or someone else) added a few texts to a pre-existing codex. It was also common to put together several smaller books, so-called booklets (?), in one binding. These booklets consisted of only one, or a few gatherings, with often only one fairly short text in them. They were too thin for wooden boards, and probably could circulate unbound for some time. This made them very vulnerable. Not many unbound booklets survive nowadays; it was only when they were bound together with several other booklets that their chances of survival increased. An example of a manuscript with a number of booklets bound together can be found in the German case study.

For the present day codicologist (?) one of the main challenges is to find out whether the book s/he studies is still in its original construction or not. Many things could have happened to it during the ages. Sometimes parts of the original codex have been taken out, and sometimes manuscripts from different ages or places, or with very different contents were put together by owners in the Middle Ages, collectors in the eighteenth century or libraries in the twentieth century. Such a codex, in which at some point in time (parts of) two or more different manuscripts ended up together, is called a composite manuscript (?). The constituent parts are called codicological units (?), and can be recognized by their difference in layout, script, scribal hand (?), writing support (?), or simply their size. An example of a composite manuscript with two codicological units can be found in the Dutch case study.

For information on manuscript pages and their decoration, click here.

Or you can return to the entrance of this room.