bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

How (not) to describe a manuscript’s weight

Posted in Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 3 March, 2019

Canterbury, Monday 4th March 2019: a day of delights for manuscript-lovers. There are two related events taking place to celebrate the cathedral’s purchase at auction in July 2018 of a so-called pocket Bible from the thirteenth century. The book was most recently in the Schøyen Collection (as no. 15) when it had a short title of ‘Canterbury Bible’; it was advertised at the sale as the ‘Trussel Bible’, after an early owner whose name is still present at the opening flyleaf; since its purchase, it has changed name again, now being the ‘Lyghfield Bible‘, after a monk of Christ Church, Canterbury through whose hands it passed. It will feature in the Cathedral’s Annual Library and Archives Lecture given on Monday evening by the redoubtable Alixe Bovey. Before that extravaganza, there will be a workshop organised under the auspices of the University of Kent’s Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies by my dynamic colleague, Emily Guerry, and myself.

Canterbury: Cathedral, MS. Add. 392 – the Lyghfield Bible

In preparing for the workshop, I have spent some hours in close company with the Bible and written a short post introducing some of its interesting aspects. As I explain there, it is certainly of a small page-size and is eminently portable, but you would have to have had well-lined and very large pockets to be able to carry it. To bring this home to readers, I thought I should provide its weight and the ever-obliging staff at the Cathedral Archives unearthed some scales. There is an established tradition of describing the weight of a manuscript by relation to some animal: the locus classicus is R. L. S. Bruce-Mitford’s assertion that the Codex Amiatinus (34.25kg) is as heavy as ‘a fully grown female Great Dane’. In similar spirit, let me tell you that the Lyghfield Bible has the approximate weight of a small duck-billed platypus. Imagine having one of those in your pocket.

From the information I have given, you will gather that the Bible weighs 700g. Or, more likely, it will not have been transparent to you. Unless you enter your platypus in the village fete’s ‘how heavy is my pet’ competition, or are given to lifting canine weights, then the comparisons are useless. There is, though, a serious point. We are accustomed, in codicological descriptions, to giving the measurements of the page and written space or ruled space (the two can be different). I have become convinced that the formula fashionable in Italy presents that best:

height x width of page = (upper margin + [height of written space] + lower margin) x (inner margin + [width of written space) + outer margin)

That is because it ensures that the placing of the text-block on the page is clarified — and some of my recent research suggests that the placing is culturally specific so useful to record. These details, though, are perhaps not the only co-ordinates worth noting. I cannot think of cases where the breadth of a book’s spine is mentioned, and to note its weight is unusual, a reflection of it being out of the ordinary. Perhaps we should change that, and so make reference to it less of an eccentricity.

Note of clarification: no animals were harmed or even weighed in the preparation of this post.


3 Responses

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  1. Andrew Dunning said, on 4 March, 2019 at 11:53 pm

    I would love to see information on the placement of the text block in more descriptions. I think the Italian formula could be improved: for instance, there’s no way of telling whether the cataloguer is measuring the upper margin from the top of the ascenders, or from the top rule. I have been experimenting with providing basic information on page layout by providing rule locations in millimetres from top to bottom and left to right, specifying the folio measured. (I usually omit rules that do not extend into the margin, instead noting the distance between lines within a text block.) This is much easier to teach and verify, plus one could automatically produce a diagram of the page based on this information.

  2. bonaelitterae said, on 5 March, 2019 at 10:10 am

    Thanks, Andrew. I think the issue you raise, implicit in my comment on written v ruled space, is one that should be dealt with in the conventions. I think it should be explained there that:
    (a) the measurements are for ruled space unless there is no ruling or writing is above top line; in either of those cases it must be for written space measured from the top of the minims on the top ‘line’ to the foot of the minims on the bottom ‘line’
    (b) the measurements taken are from a recto, in the order you describe (and, yes, citing folios can be useful)
    (c) these are no substitute for providing measurement between two lines, height of minims, height of ascenders — these really matter if you are dealing with something fragmentary or wanting to use a full codex to compare with the fragmentary

  3. Andrew Dunning said, on 5 March, 2019 at 4:45 pm

    Yes, that certainly seems like a sane approach, the only thing I would query is the approach for writing being above the line. In such cases, many manuscripts still treat the top margin as being the space from the top of the page down to the first rule – judging from the balance of the upper and inner margins, if we believe the theories of Jan Tschichold et al. In such cases, the top line is written in the top margin, but the upper margin would not begin from the top of the minims. (Much as, when calculating the layout of a modern printed book, the running head can be placed either in the upper margin or within the textblock, completely changing the appearance of the page without technically modifying the margins, even though the latter approach gives the appearance of a larger upper margin.)

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