Book History

History Through the Ordinary: MS 2154.4


“Illuminated manuscripts are extraordinarily attractive visually” (Watson 7). On display in museums, in private collections, in books about media history and online, illustrated manuscripts continue to fascinate a contemporary audience and confirm Watson’s sentiment. Before the invention of moveable type and the spread of the printing press in the second half of the 15th century, manuscripts in Europe were for the most part made in monasteries, many of them illuminated. Books were enormously valuable and rare compared to today, both due to the labor-intensive process of making one and also because literacy was, and is, an expression of power. Many of the manuscripts, once finished, stayed in a monastery. When the printing press spread throughout Europe, more and more books were printed instead of being made by scribes and illuminators in a scriptorium. The printed books developed from looking like manuscripts in the first decades to emphasizing other elements, such as uniformity, readability, portability. This paper will examine MA 2154.4, an illuminated manuscript. It is a Franciscan choral book that was made in Spain in the late 17th century. After a brief exploration of its bibliographical description, I willsituate the manuscript in the communications circuit developed by Robert Darnton. A subsequent close reading of the illuminations of this manuscript will show that commonly held assumptions about media history are false. Despite a common narrative of progress and new technology replacing old technology, MS 2154.4 demonstrates that the history of books does not have a single, driving force and that, instead, there is a simultaneity of technologies and practices.

The bibliographical information available about MS 2154.4 is entered in the Special Collections catalogue at San Diego State University, where the manuscript is archived (Fig. 1). The choral book is a gradual, a liturgical book of music used during Mass in a monastery (Rider-Bezerra). The choir, consisting of monks or nuns, would sing parts of the mass, and they would

Fig.1 MS 2154.4. Leaf 1r. All the illustrations in this essay come from the same manuscript.

Fig.1 MS 2154.4. Leaf 1r. All the illustrations in this essay come from the same manuscript.

all be reading from the same book. Consequently, a gradual needed to be large enough that one could read it from some distance, hence the size of this particular gradual with a height of 56 centimeter. The manuscript is bound with wooden blocks covered with leather and sewn together with heavy thread. It has three metal closings at the fore-edge of the book as well as metal decorations on the cover. The manuscript is made of vellum and has 200 leaves with pagination on the right leaf. Some of the leaves of vellum are stained with yellow while others are quite white, some leaves have visible hair follicles. A number of the leaves has worn lower right-hand corners and there are seven thumb indexes, made with an additional piece of vellum and sewn onto the leaf. The Special Collections librarians at San Diego State University have dated the gradual to the late 17th century based on the inclusion of music for the “fest Patrocinij Sancti Ioseph” (leaves 39r-42r, Souvay). This feast was approved by the Catholic church in 1689, after the Spanish Carmelites chose Saint Joseph as their patron saint, and celebration of this feast soon spread throughout Spain and thereafter to other European Catholic communities.

Ex 1. Leaf 155 r

The Gradual contains a Spanish table of contents pasted on the front pastedown endpaper, listing the religious holidays incorporated in the volume. The title page, filling the first leaf, pertains only to the first feast day in manuscript. The codex contains plainsong notation with five five-line staves and five lines of Latin text per page. The staves are written in red ink and the plainsong is made with black ink (Ex. 1). The text is also written with black ink while most initials are painted in red or, occasionally, red or blue. The manuscript is rubricated and some of the initials have square and florid borders painted in various colors. On many of the leaves there are pencil markings, demarcating the margins or outlining the initials. The text is written in a variant of Gothic script, though with rounder curves than what was standard in Germany and England.

When historicizing the production and usage of one particular book, it is useful to consider what Robert Darnton coins the “communications circuit” (11). Darnton argues that printed books follow “roughly the same life cycle” of communication and interplay between a multitude of contributors: author, publisher, printers and their suppliers, shippers or other transporters, booksellers and binders, and readers (10). In addition to these individuals, each and every book is also influenced by the economic, social, political, and intellectual climate it engages and in which it is made. Of course, the communication circuit does not address the life and movement of handmade manuscripts, yet it is fruitful to consider the various stages of production of MS 2154.4 as well as how the specific, local context informs production and, presumably, usage. After briefly introducing the communication circuit, Darnton goes on to apply it to a specific volume of Voltaire’s writing, stocked by a specific bookseller in 1777. It is startling that despite the relative closeness in time — MS 2154.4 was probably made less than a century before the Questions Darnton examines — almost nothing is the same for these two books. This discrepancy might serve as a reminder that books in the 17th and 18th century served a variety of purposes and were produced in a variety of ways.

There is no known record of where the MS 2154.4 was made. It might have been made in a monastery where it was later used, or it might have been made elsewhere. From the 13th century an increasing number of manuscripts were made by professional lay scribes. Secular scribes sometimes came to a monastery to work on a manuscript for board and pay, or monks in the monastery were scribes and illustrators capable of making such a book (Alexander 11). Christopher De Hamel points out that in order to make a new copy, it was necessary to have something to copy from: an exemplar (84). Monasteries lent manuscripts to other monasteries and sometimes scribes from one monastery visited another in order to work on their own, new copy. It seems most probable that the MS 2154.4 is the work of monastic scribes. The professionalization of lay scribes and illuminators in the centuries before the production of this gradual led to some degree of uniformity in the illuminations of manuscripts. Frankly, I would think a professionally made gradual would show more craftsmanship and consistency, especially in the illuminations. Thus, it is likely that this manuscript was made by the scribes in a monastery, either at home where they were to use the manuscript, or staying in a monastery where they could copy from an already existing gradual.

In Darnton’s communications circuit, the author is one of several starting points of a book. Though the inspiration might come from elsewhere, patrons or social or political needs, the author is thought of as the person who writes down text that will become a book. MS 2154.4 does not have an author as such, but rather is an expression of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is led by the Pope and the occasional council, a legally convened meeting with church officials (Wilhelm). Both doctrine and religious praxis are determined by these two bodies. The content of MS 2154.4, in other words, is a result of decisions taken by the Pope and church officials and the tradition of the Catholic Church. Everything in this manuscript, the words as well as the music, was pre-approved by the Pope in order to ensure uniformity in text, plainsong, and language (Latin) (Henry). The local context of MS 2154.4 is closely aligned both with decisions made in Rome, maybe centuries before, as well as with the more mundane geographically concern of having an exemplar to copy from.

Of course, local practices in printing and manuscript making also inform the local context of MS 2154.4. The manuscript comes from Spain, as evidenced by the Spanish table of contents pasted on the front pastedown endpaper. Culturally Spain inhabits an interesting position in European history in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. After centuries of varying degrees of Muslim occupation from 711 Spain re-conquered their territory in 1492. Still, there was no centralized government or, indeed, no “Spain” as we understand it now. Instead, the Spanish and Portuguese territory consisted of five kingdoms until 1516 (Levarie 207). Due to geographical and historical factors — a large territory, regional rule, relative isolation from the rest of Europe — early Spanish manuscripts have different styles according to where they were made (Williams 9). Catalonia, for instance, had a distinct tradition in manuscript making compared to the area around León (William 14). The technology of making paper, first developed in China and spread West under Muslim leaders, came to Spain already in the 1100s, about a century before Italy and two centuries before there paper mills were established in Germany (Howard 6-7). The first printers came to Spain from Germany in 1473 and settled in various locations (Levarie 163). In the following decades, printing presses appeared in commercial centers and close to universities: Valencia, Salamanca, Toledo, Barcelona, Madrid. According to Levarie, Spanish incunabula were “unmistakably” Spanish because of a propensity for using a more rounded Gothic script and specific conventions of a large, wood-cut title page, often with armorial design (163). Around 1530 the number of printed books had increased such that there were not enough skilled craftsmen — compositors, inkers, pressmen — nor enough quality paper to produce books of the same kind (Levarie 209). A contributing factor to a decline in the quality of printed books was that the Crown of Spain had become financially troubled because of wars related to its expanding empire. In this process, the influences from other European countries became more prominent in the printed book-market (Levarie 209). In the centuries after the introduction of the printing press it remained common to employ the technique of the illuminated manuscript for liturgical books, especially choirbooks (Watson 128). It was more economical to produce or procure single copies manually than a printed alternative.

In addition to a Spanish and a Catholic context, this manuscript comes from a specifically Franciscan, monastic environment. The founder of the Franciscan order, Francis of Assisi, lived from 1181 to 1226. He placed more importance on the celebration of Mass than many of his contemporaries, at least we know that his hagiographers emphasized Francis’ adherence to and love of the Mass above what was common in the 13th century (Foley 390). This eucharistic emphasis became part of the Franciscan order(s), where prayer — communal and individual — are more important, according to Timothy Johnson, than in other orders (viii). What we call the Franciscan order today in fact encompasses several different orders, lay and monastic, hermits, women, and men. Consequently there was (and is) room within the order for different kinds of prayer, various kinds of religious worship (Johnson xii). However, for the purpose of this paper, suffice it to establish that the Franciscans placed great importance on the Mass, since the MS 2154.4 is part of the liturgical chant used to celebrate Mass. The biographers of Francis of Assisi, germane to forming the Franciscan order in the first centuries of its existence, also underscored Franscis’s facility for music and, in particular, his gift for connecting music and preaching (Loewen 17). One early biographer tells the story of how Francis, upon walking past a singer entertaining a crowd with a courtly song about love, spontaneously started preaching to the same crowd, using text from the song but re-contextualizing it for the purpose of speaking of religious topics. Loewen acknowledges that “[i]t is a legend, of course,” yet the story illustrates and emphasizes how the the patron saint of this particular order fluidly could understand and use music as a basis for communication and as communication proper (17). Against this backdrop, according to Loewen, early Franciscan thinkers perceived “music as a universal science that illumines both melodic music and preaching” (9). With this in mind, we can assume that a gradual was an especially important book in a Franciscan monastery, one that allowed for music and eucharistic prayer to come together for all the monks. All these local, national, and religious influences, then, contribute in the production and use of the manuscript and its contents.

While a printed book is typically made in interplay between the author and the publisher, before moving on to the printer and all those working for and supplying the print shop, the first task when making a manuscript was to procure vellum. The skins might have been a by-product of food-production in the monastery, or they might have been produced commercially. Making parchment was a process that took many days. The skins had to be soaked repeatedly, cleaned, scraped, rinsed, and stretched (De Hamel 84). Jonathan J.G. Alexander asserts that parchment often was made by professional, secular parchmenters and sold to monasteries even in the early Middle Ages (36). By the 13th century, larger centers of bookmaking had various commercial suppliers of parchment where one could choose between different standard sizes of folios as well as parchment that was already cut to size sewn together into gatherings (Alexander 36). Of course, it is likely that as the demand for parchment decreased in the centuries after the invention of movable type, the number of commercial parchmenters would also decrease. The quality of the parchment largely depended on the expertise with which it was prepared. MS 2154.4 has leaves with varying quality and coloring. Yet it still appears to be sturdy and, for the most part, unworn.

After the leaves were prepared, folded, and sewn into gatherings, the leaves had to be planned out and ruled. The pages in MS 2154.4 have five five-line staves each and they have been carefully measured and ruled. Early Medieval manuscripts were normally ruled with a hard point stylus made of bone or metal before graphite, “what would nowadays be called a pencil,”  or “crayon” became more common (Alexander 38, Shailor 16). Some manuscripts were also ruled by an implement called a ruling board. The ruling board was most commonly used in Arabic manuscripts from the Middle Ages and the subsequent centuries, but there is also evidence that Italian Renaissance manuscripts were ruled with a similar process (Shailor 16). At this stage, each page would be planned in detail. If the new manuscript was to contain miniatures, the space for the illuminations had to be marked so that the scribe did not, by mistake, write there before the gathering got to the illuminator. Copying from an existing book must have been immensely helpful when one was faced with the task of ruling a new manuscript. The MS 2154.4 was ruled with graphite. The lines in the gradual are still clearly visible as margins on many of the pages (leaf 33v, leaf 39).

leaf 1v

Fig. 2. MS 2154.4 leaf 1v. Ink flaking off.

The scribes then wrote the letters and the music on the pages with ink that had to be prepared. The writing implement was a quill pen made out a bird’s feather, for instance goose or swan. The feathers first had to be hardened by time or a warm sand bath. Then the feather was scraped and the tip cut to the right shape. A pen would have to be sharpened quite frequently, probably dozens of times each day. Depictions of Medieval scribes show monks holding the pen in one hand and the knife in the other, so as to be ready to sharpen the pen (“Pen,” “Ink”). The ink was probably made according to recipe. It was thicker and of a different consistency than our contemporary commercial inks. The ingredients often had to be imported and then ground and mixed (Kern n. pag.). Based on the extant number of Medieval recipes to make ink and the absence of explanations of how to make a quill pen, Alexander infers that everybody must have known how to procure and prepare a pen, and that the ink would be made in the scriptorum rather than bought (“Ink” n. pag.). The MS 2154.4 has black and red ink. On some pages the black ink is flaking off, whether because of the composition of the ink, the quality of the parchment, or for other reasons (Fig. 2.). Presumably, then, the scribes made their pens and ink was probably also sourced in the monastery. The script in the gradual is a Gothic script. With or without the help of an (alphabet) pattern book, the scribes copied from the already existing manuscript. This was a time-consuming work requiring precising and concentration, a practice in monastic discipline.

So far I have assumed MS 2154.4 to be made and used by monks, male members of a Franciscan order. Though it seems most likely, it is by no means certain that the manuscript was made by male bookmakers. Silvia Evangelisti traces the participation of nuns in different arts in the centuries after the Middle Ages as part of her survey of life for nuns. She shows that nuns, much like monks, all over Europe applied their skills in painting, textile and needlework, and production of books as a way of adhering to the general monastic tenets of work and prayer (162). Jeffrey F. Hamburger draws attention to what is commonly termed Nonnenarbeiten in his research. The drawings Hamburger examines were produced in Germany during the Middle Ages by nuns and are often criticized for lack of artistry (Burkhalter n. pag.). Hamburger argues that, rather than viewing this art as “primitive” or simply the precursor to more complex visual art, the images should be read and understood as they relate to their own socio-historical context, and that the “artless images” express the hopes of the artist nuns (4). Considering the number of nuns involved in various arts at the time, it is perfectly feasible that MS 2154.4 could be made and used by nuns rather than monks. It is beyond my ken and purpose to establish the gender of the contributors to the gradual, yet it is worth pointing out that the common assumption of only male monastic scribes and illuminators simply is false.   

It is impossible to know exactly how many individuals participated in the production of the MS 2154.4. Maybe the scribes also made the illuminations. Maybe there were several apprentices who made ink and ruled the folios. Someone must have proofread the text, because there are corrections on a handful pages (leaf 140). As explained above, copying the text was a two-handed job, quill pen in one hand, knife in the other, so there was no hand to follow the text in the exemplar. Consequently it was easy to lose one’s place in the text one copied from, especially when copying text in Latin, a second language where many words end similarly. From looking closely at the initials in MS 2154.4, it is clear that several scribes must have been working on it. In the first pages, for instance, the rubricated capital As are very similar to each other (leaf 3r). Around leaf 65 verso, however, the rubricated capital As look quite different, even if the capitals clearly were traced first with graphite and later filled in with ink (leaf 63v). Since the folios were not bound together, several scribes could work simultaneously, each on a different gathering. Each gathering has three or four folded folios.

leaf 154 r

Fig. 3. MS 2154.4 leaf 154r. Rubrication for St. Anthony.

The MS 2154.4 has rubricated initials throughout. Unlike many illuminated manuscripts, it has no miniatures or marginalia. The illuminator would fill the pencilled initials with colored ink and draw florid borders around some initials. Each new musical phrase has an initial, which may or may not be rubricated, though generally the first in a series of phrases is rubricated. Rubrication was an important way of structuring the text. In addition to making it easier for the reader to find where a new invocation or the next part of the music starts, the rubrics are also visually pleasing. Many of the initials in MS 2154.4 are bigger than the rest of the text and drawn with red ink, some have two colors, mostly blue and red, some are patterned with white and others have borders with or without flowers. Scholarship on rubrication takes different forms. Noelle Phillips explores the relationship between rubrication and the scribe’s interpretative framework. She finds that the scribe’s decisions regarding which letters to rubricate and, by extension, which words to draw attention to, can be a fruitful way of closely reading illuminated manuscripts. Working with a Piers Plowman manuscript, she discusses how the scribe underscores the importance of voices through his rubrication, and this can serve as a way to interpret the poem. The illuminators of MS2154.4 seem, at first glance, to not have taken any individual liberties regarding what to capitalize or how to rubricate what. But looking closer, it is clear that the three largest and most elaborate rubrications are attributed to the feasts of Anthony de Pauda, Francis of Assisi, and Mary (leaf 154r, Fig. 3). Mary has a solid position for all Catholics, monastic or not, and both the two other saints are particularly important for Franciscans: Francis founded the order and Anthony of Pauda was an early Franciscan monk known for his ability to preach and speak clearly enough that everyone could understand him (“St. Anthony of Padua” n.pag.). It is difficult to know whether this is a decision made by an individual illuminator or scribe, whether it was simply copied from the exemplar, or it reflects a decision made by the prior or the person overseeing the making of the manuscript. Either way, it signals the relative importance of the religious feasts celebrating these two particular saints and is probably reflective of the whole monastic culture where it was produced and used.

Still focussing on rubrication, Alexander represents a different view. He articulates what he calls a “tension” in the execution of the illuminated letter (93). The rubricated initial in the Middle Ages “illustrates both the freedom to experiment which a decorative purpose as opposed to an illustrative purpose allowed, and also the restraint bending the early medieval illuminator even here” (92).

Fig. 4. MS 2154.4 leaf 19v.

Fig. 4. MS 2154.4 leaf 19v.

Symbolic, then, of a monastic life ruled by obedience and rules, rubrication allowed some space for an individual expression of creativity. Alexander’s reading is hard to prove (or disprove), yet there is an appeal in his parallel between a monastic life divided between prayer and work, and the page, ruled and divided between letters, song, and decoration. If I am right that MS 2154.4 was made in the monastery by the monks or nuns who would later use it, it would also be a manifestation of that community. The gathering with initials that are smaller and often not colored other than with the black ink is displayed literally side by side with the gatherings containing the feasts of St. Francis and St. Anthony. The gathering with a similarly (but characteristically) patterned capital i and a, and the gatherings where the rubricated a is filled in with red ink, but not to the graphite tracings are part of the same bound manuscript as the more complicated rubrication for St. Anthony. The variety of styles

FIg 5. Leaf 21 v. Observe the similar patterin in Fig. 4 and 5

FIg 5. Leaf 21 v. Observe the similar patterin in Fig. 4 and 5

in the rubrication, with their differing skill levels, speak to community in a similar way that the sung “readings” of MS 2154.4 would do: all the voices from the choir sounding together, forming a whole.

The most elaborate rubrications in MS 2154.4 have flowers in them. Celia Fisher traces the history of illuminations depicting flowers in Medieval manuscripts. Flowers were common illustrations in a wide variety of books, both for decorative and symbolic reasons (5). This mode of illumination, around initials and as marginalia, reached its peak in the 15th century after a long development. In other words, the illuminators of MS 2154.4 are part of a long tradition when they rubricated with flower motifs.   

After a book in Darnton’s communication circuit has been produced, it is typically transported by someone to a bookseller. For many centuries, the decision of whether — and how — to bind the book would be made by the bookseller before the book was sold. MS 2154.4 is also bound; it has been collated, the various gatherings have been sewn together, and put inside covering boards which were then covered with leather and, lastly, reinforced and decorated with metal corners (Bologna 36). MS 2154.4 is a big, heavy book, it was probably in constant use, and binding a book dramatically increased its durability. Manuscripts that were made by professional lay scribes might be bound by a specialist, a bookbinder. Books made in monasteries, however, were normally bound by “whatever member of the community … able to do so” (“Bookbinding” n. pag.). The MS 2154.4 was probably not sold before it could reach its readers, since it is likely that the scribes, illuminators, and apprentices involved in making it became its users after it was ready. So although produced in a society that is increasingly commercial, the Gradual existed and circulated, to the extent that it moved at all, in the margins of a commercial marketplace.

When reading book history and literature about bookmaking, some narratives are repeated. Nicole Howard, in her survey of book history The Book: The Life Story Of A Technology, positions manuscripts and manual book production as a precursor to printed books. It is true, of course, that manuscripts existed before bookmakers in Europe were able to print books, and it is also true that the revolution of print depended on already-existing technologies, for instance blockprint, the knowledge of how to make ink, and myriad other components. Nevertheless, it does not follow that the new technology, the printed book, precisely covers the functions or utility of the old technology. On the contrary, the existence of alternative technologies serves to highlight the differences between them. We can assume that MS 2154.4 was made as a manuscript rather than in print because of the cost. But it needs not be true that price be the only consideration. The actual making of the manuscript fit well with requirements of monastic life. The Rules of Francis of Assisi require work, devotion, and obedience (St. Francis part 1, n.pag.). Engaging in the production of manuscripts containing liturgy could well be an expression of all three. As discussed above, the tasks involved to plan, rule, copy, illuminate, and proofread a manuscript require time, attention, and a constancy that are all compatible with devotion, obedience, and working for others. Alexander makes the point that the production of manuscripts in the Middle Ages involved many steps and many groups of workers (47). This, he writes, fits well with the “collaborative nature of much Medieval art” (47). MS 2154.4 was probably made during the Renaissance, at a time when forces in society were more concerned with exploration, discoveries, and movement towards the Enlightenment, with more emphasis on the individual. But since a monastery is the specific, local context of the manuscript, however, the production of this manuscript resonates with monastic values of building community and working together for something bigger and more permanent than only oneself. These goals could not have been achieved in the same way if the monastery had chosen a printed version of this gradual, whether it be a book large enough for the whole choir to sing from at once or, as today, each member were provided with an individual book. This manuscript, then, resists the assumption that the new technology, print, fully could satisfy the needs and functions of handmade manuscripts.

The extension of this assumption — that new technology, print, is equivalent to old technology, handmade manuscripts — is a belief that is all too common in the history of books, namely that the new technology wipes out the old one. In my research I have come across this assumption time and again. Christopher De Hamel explicitly claims that “[t]he invention [of movable type] … represents the end of the production of illuminated manuscripts” (7). Other scholars imply the same when they choose to exclude the contributors of manuscripts as bookmakers in periods after the Middle Ages (Howard 55-111). I accept that a survey study, for instance, will focus on the broad lines in the development instead of seeking to unearth complexities at every possible turn. It is simply beyond the scope of many scholars to contest this assumption. Yet it is a common and deep-seated belief, seemingly made manifest when new technologies become available. Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher, expressed concern over writing, the new technology of his day. In Phaedrus Socrates discusses the problems with writing, explaining to Phaedrus that writing can be of lesser quality, deceptive, and unable to explain properly the issues at hand to the reader (Plato n.pag.). The consequence of writing, according to Socrates, could be to up-end society, because writing has a durability speech does not have and would, thus, replace it or, at least, overpower oral discourse. Although veracity in written discourse can certainly be a problem, it is clear that Plato was wrong in his assumption that writing would replace oral transmission. There are still storytellers today; information and culture are still transmitted orally in many cases. In the present moment we are seeing the same kind of debate, this time about paper books and electronic books. Anyone who is unaware of the existence of this debate can simply google “end of paper books.” My search yielded 424 million hits. Admittedly, not all of them discuss whether or not e-books will cause paper books to disappear, but even so, it is clear that the perceived replacement of one technology by another is a cultural concern of our time. The MS 2154.4, created several centuries after the invention of moveable press, disproves the assumption that new technology makes the old disappear. The gradual shows that even when a new, robust technology is available, there is coexistence with the new and the old.

A third assumption prevalent in the discussion and display of Medieval manuscripts is that these handmade manuscripts are beautiful and that their aesthetic represents a progression in skill and beauty. One example is Giulia Bologna’s Illuminated Manuscripts: The Book Before Gutenberg. The bulk of the book consists of colored pictures of “One Thousand Years of Masterpieces,” a truly impressive display of examples from illuminated codices with a focus on miniatures (40-161). Other examples expressing the same sentiment are the illustrated essay “The Art of the Book in the Middle Ages” and the British Library’s online Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, displaying examples of extremely skillful illumination. The selection in these compilations suggests that handmade manuscripts in general are beautiful and, moreover, that their aesthetics are their raison d’être, or at least the reason we archive them and display them. Again, MS 2154.4 resists this view. Compared with other illuminated manuscripts depicted in books and articles about manuscripts, this gradual is rather unremarkable, especially in its illuminations. It has no colorful miniatures, no illuminations in gold, no spectacular marginalia. MS 2154.4 was probably never conceived of as heir to this tradition of illuminated manuscripts that we, now, have constructed. Its existence demonstrates that the history of illumination was not one of progress or continual development. Constructing a history solely from the most extraordinary examples of illumination does not give a complete picture of the history of illuminated manuscripts, because books like MS 2154.4 exists.

In addition to engaging in assumptions of media history in general and illuminated manuscripts in particular, MS 2154.4 also draws our attention to issues of archiving. My written biography of this choral book only exists because the manuscript has survived and become part of the Special Collections at San Diego State University. It has been bought or donated by the university and it has been examined and catalogued by librarians in the Special Collections. Knowing that the backlog for cataloguing of rare books in libraries often is long (and constantly growing), it follows that MS 2154.4 has been prioritized in order to be in the searchable catalogue at all. Archiving is simultaneously a process of saving, making available, and of choosing some objects at the expense of others. After all, there is only so much of a given resource: money to buy books, physical room to store objects, digital storage space, and time to catalogue, scan, or make physically available. Yet the decisions made in archiving influence what objects of the past we have access to, for instance when we want to study the history of the book. If only the most spectacular specimens of illumination are saved and made available, it is hardly surprising that the history of illuminated manuscripts is presented as one of ever increasing skill and artistry.

Although the MS 2154.4 still is largely mysterious, examining it closely proves revealing. The gradual and especially its ordinary illuminations challenge the commonly held idea that illuminated manuscripts are, per definition, artistic and extraordinarily beautiful. Its existence also questions the history of manuscripts is a constant progression of skill and aesthetic value, since it clearly cannot boast more impressive illumination that works that were made centuries earlier. Ultimately, this illuminated manuscript shows that even with the coming of the printing press, the old methods survived — and not only because handmade manuscript could be illuminated with impressive artistry. The illuminated manuscript also survived in this ordinary example, serving as a reminder that the ordinary also is the material of history.

Works Cited

Alexander, Jonathan J.G. Medieval Illuminators And Their Methods Of Work. New Haven: Yale UP, 1992. Print.

Bologna, Giulia. Illuminated Manuscripts: The Book Before Gutenberg. New York: Crescent Books, 1968. Print.

“Bookbinding.” Materials And Techniques Of Book Production. CEU, Department of Medieval Studies, n.d. Web. 19 May 2016.

Burkhalter, Whitney. “‘Nuns Can’t Paint’: Sexism, Medieval Art, and Dudes on Mopeds.” Blog. The Toast. n.p. 20 May 2014. Web. 12 May 2016.

Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. British Library, 15 Jan 2016. Web. 15 April 2016.

Darnton, Robert. “What Is The History Of Books?” The Book History Reader. Eds. David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery. London: Routledge, 2002. 9-26.  Print.

De Hamel, Christopher. A History Of Illuminated Manuscripts. Oxford: Phaedon, 1986. Print.

Evangelisti, Silvia. Nuns: A History Of Convent Life 1450-1700. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. ProQuest. Web. 10 May 2016.

Fisher, Celia. Flowers In Medieval Manuscripts. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2004. Google Books. Web. 5 May 2016.

Foley, Edward. “Franciscan Liturgical Prayer.” Franciscans At Prayer. Ed. Timothy J. Johnson. Leiden: Brill, 2007. 385-412. Proquest. Web. 20 April 2016.

Francis of Assisi. Writings. Trans. Pascal Robinson. Internet Sacred Text Archive n.d. Web. 12 May 2016.

Hamburger, Jeffrey F. Nuns As Artists: The Visual Culture Of A Medieval Convent. Berkeley: U of California P, 1997. Print.

Henry, Hugh. “Music of the Mass.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 10. New York: Robert Appleton, 1911. Web. 10 May 2016.

Howard, Nicole. The Book: The Life Story Of A Technology. Westport (CT): Greenwood, 2005. Print.

“Ink.” Materials And Techniques Of Book Production. CEU, Department of Medieval Studies, n.d. Web. 19 May 2016.

Johnson, Timothy. Introduction. Franciscans At Prayer. Ed.T.H. Johnson. Leiden: Brill, 2007. vii-xiii. Proquest. Web. 20 April 2016.

Kern, E.H. “How-to Tuesday: How To Make Medieval Ink.” QuirkBooks. n.p. 17 Feb 2015. Web. 9 May 2016.

Levarie, Norma. The Art & History Of Books. New York: H, 1968. Print.

Loewen, Peter Victor. Music In Early Franciscan Thought. Leiden: Brill, 2013. ProQuest. Web. 19 April 2016.

M2154.4. Franciscan Choral Book. San Diego State University Special Collections.

“Pen.” Materials And Techniques Of Book Production. CEU, Department of Medieval Studies, n.d. Web. 19 May 2016.

Phillips, Noelle. “Seeing Red: Reading Rubrication in Oxford, Corpus Christi College MS 201’s Piers Plowman.” The Chaucer Review 47.4 (2013): 439-64. Project Muse. Web. 7 May 2016.

Plato. Phaedrus. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. The Internet Classics Archive MIT n.d. Web. 11 May 2016.

Rider-Bezerra, Sebastian. “Introducing Beinecke MS 1184: The Olivetan Gradual.”Beinecke Rare Books & Manuscript Library Yale University Library, 12 Sept 2014. Web. 3 May 2016.

Robinson, Paschal. “Franciscan Order.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. Web. 10 May 2016

Shailor, Barbara A. The Medieval Book: Illustrated From The Beinecke Rare Book And Manuscript Library. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1991. Print.

Souvay, Charles. “St. Joseph.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. Web. 8 May 2016.

“St. Anthony of Padua.” Catholic Online. Catholic Online, n.d. Web. 13 May 2016.

“The Art of the Book in the Middle Ages.” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. Web. 11 May 2016.

Watson, Rowan. Illuminated Manuscripts And Their Makers. London: V & A, 2003. Print.

Wilhelm, Joseph. “General Councils.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. 10 May 2016.

Williams, John. Early Spanish Manuscript Illumination. New York: George Braziller, 1977. Print.


  1. Marlene Moore

    Wow, Katherine. What an amazing paper. So thorough. And so interesting! -Marlene

  2. Kathrine Engan (Post author)

    Marlene, you are too kind :) I’m looking forward to reading yours tomorrow!

Leave a Comment