– notes, frequently asked questions and useful links from the archivist and curator of manuscripts at Balliol College, University of Oxford. Opinions expressed are the author's own.

#mss2017 Case 9: tiny books, tiny writing

Sian Witherden has been working on tiny books as part of her Balliol DPhil research. She writes: ‘In this exhibition, four small Balliol manuscripts have been placed together in one display case.  These books are not related to each other in any way besides their common size—they contain different texts, they are written in a variety of languages, and they hail from across the globe. However, the creators of all these books faced the same challenge: how do you produce a readable text on such a small scale? Each of these books is smaller than an adult’s hand, and this demands an impressive level of craftsmanship. In MS 348, for example, the scribe has managed to write letters that are just a millimetre or two in height. Creating ornamental initials and illuminations on this scale is an equally arduous task, and close-up photographs of these decorations reveals an astonishing level of detail and precision. ‘

Anna Sander: On the one hand, small books  are easy to move, hide or pack away if necessary; not obviously useful for recycling as binding waste, as big sheets of parchment are, when no longer e.g. liturgically relevant; and often much-loved, beautiful, and highly personal items handed down through generations. On the other, they are easily misplaced, lost or stolen owing to their small size; highly attractive on the market, reluctant though an owner might be to sell; and rather chunky to handle  because of their high proportion of height and width to thickness. Mechanically, their own weight will not help to ‘persuade’ a stiff binding to open further, and in this exhibition, it’s only the tiny books that need to be strapped in place in order to keep them open. They are made to be held in the hand, or perhaps both hands, used by one person. While big books are necessarily at the more expensive end of the book production scale because of the larger amount of parchment required to make them, tiny books are not necessarily less expensive, as they may be beautifully produced and highly decorated with expensive materials, and are sometimes written on very thin parchment which must have been even more difficult to make than regular sheep or calf.

The size of the text in these small books varies widely – while MS 348’s minute writing is closest in size to that of MS 148, a much larger book, that of the other three small books shown here is not especially small, and reasonably friendly to the naked reading eye. Though it’s especially striking to see a whole book in minute writing, tiny script is not unusual in manuscripts – it is often used for annotations, marginal comments, rubricator’s notes, and interlinear glosses (see e.g. MS 253). Was it done with the same pen as the larger main text? a tiny quill? a feather? a tiny brush? Did they have spectacles or magnifying glasses? There isn’t much evidence – descriptions and depictions of scriptoria and scribes’ equipment and practice are surprisingly few, and not always reliable. We are intrigued, and will add more evidence here as we find it.

More about tiny manuscript books

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