Listening to the medieval book

Boethius, De institutione arithmetica, c. 1100, The Hague, Royal Library, MS 78 E 59 and Paris Bible, mid 13th century, The Hague, Royal Library, MS 132 F 21. Special thanks to Ed van der Vlist, Curator of Medieval Manuscripts, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, National Library of the Netherlands.

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Erik Kwakkel: [0:04] We’re looking at an 11th century Boethius, used in monastic education, I think. If you listen to the page, this is sort of hard.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:12] It sounds hard.

Dr. Kwakkel: [0:13] It’s a stiff page. It’s a very thick page, You actually can feel it as well. It’s a firm page. As a result, when you turn it, it’s very odd to talk about pages like this, but it has a lowish sound to it.

Dr. Harris: [0:25] We’re listening to the book.

Dr. Kwakkel: [0:27] If you’re a musician, you’d probably tell what the tone is, and all that, but I can’t.

Dr. Harris: [0:31] This is cheap parchment.

Dr. Kwakkel: [0:32] Yeah. It’s almost at the lower end of the scale. You can see it as well. It has dark stains and gaps. It’s uneven. It’s yellow-white, rather than being one color.

Dr. Harris: [0:43] This is a very utilitarian book. Let’s listen to another book.

Dr. Kwakkel: [0:46] All right. Here we are at the very opposite end of the scale. The book that…it almost makes no sound. I’m flipping through the book now. It’s sort of a high pitch, almost like water running from a tap, and it’s very, very thin parchment. It’s about the thinnest parchment you can have.

[1:03] It’s what we call a “Paris Bible,” which means a Bible with all the books in one physical volume rather than having two or three volumes, and so it had to be thin. It has no gaps. It has no holes. It’s as white as white will be. If I try to flip one page, so it’s still making noise, but I can now flip it and it will not make any noise, I think. A little bit of a high-pitched crackle.

Dr. Harris: [1:24] This is really high-grade parchment. This was an expensive book to produce.

Dr. Kwakkel: [1:28] This is an expensive book to produce. Also, it was meant to be expensive. You want to show off. You can notice on the page, there’s decoration.

Dr. Harris: [1:35] The writing, the script, is much smaller, much finer.

Dr. Kwakkel: [1:38] Yeah. It’s a script specially designed to produce tiny Bibles like this. This Bible is 133 millimeters, which is roughly the iPhone height. This is something that somebody needed to work really hard to write this finely. It’s even less than two millimeters to the line.

Dr. Harris: [1:54] It’s hard to imagine a nib small enough to write like this. I notice at the top we have something that I would assume would be the title of the book.

Dr. Kwakkel: [2:01] Yeah. If you buy a modern book today, in the upper margin will be usually the complete title of the volume. Here, it’s even smarter. It gives you R-E-G, the Latin for “Kings,” and on the other side, it says three, which is the third book of Kings.

Dr. Harris: [2:16] This was a book made for a wealthy person.

Dr. Kwakkel: [2:19] It will have been expensive to buy, but does that mean it’s made for a wealthy person? Not necessarily. Because what happened with these books is many of them were actually used by Dominican friars, monks on the road, going from city to city preaching. When you’re on the road, you try to get everything as small as possible: your phone, your computer, your laptop.

Dr. Harris: [2:37] This is portable.

Dr. Kwakkel: [2:38] This is portable. This was made to fit in your bag. Also, that’s why the pages are so thin, because you want to have the entire volume in a small object. The same Bible could easily have been copied in 20 volumes. 200 years earlier, it would have been 20 volumes of large letters, of large space, but that’s not what was the idea behind this book.

[2:59] This was made for somebody on the road. Everything that he needed was in this little device, as it were.

[3:04] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Erik Kwakkel and Dr. Beth Harris, "Listening to the medieval book," in Smarthistory, December 16, 2015, accessed May 23, 2024,