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.

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