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.