I have produced numerous small displays of medieval manuscripts for teaching and college events since I became responsible for the collection and moved it to the new premises in 2010-11, but this is the first major exhibition of Balliol’s western medieval manuscripts in the Historic Collections Centre at St Cross Church. It may even be the first exhibition of this collection that has been open to the public.
Because it’s rare for these ancient, unique and delicate objects to be exhibited, even to members of the College, I wanted to show as large a selection as possible, and to provide a broad overview of the collection. I have included manuscripts from the whole medieval period covered by Balliol’s collection (C11-16), representing a range of provenances, decoration and handwriting styles, contents, sizes, formats, physical condition, and conservation issues. Exceptions prove the rule; not everything in the exhibition is medieval, western or a codex (book-shaped) – or even manuscript (handwritten). Two manuscripts are shown closed; one is displayed upside down. Some mss are well known to scholarship and have been exhibited before; others are relatively unknown. All are catalogued (1-450 by RAB Mynors, 1963), but to widely varying degrees of detail and emphasis. Visitors may be surprised by the variation in the amount of documentation about not only conservation work but provenance and donation.
Focusing on the theme of damage and conservation removed possible restraints of e.g. period or subject, while avoiding a miscellaneous ‘Treasures of…’ approach. The manuscripts’ move to new premises was a good point in their history to assess their current condition and their needs for the foreseeable future, continuing to build on Balliol’s first several years as members of the Oxford Conservation Consortium.
Damage to manuscripts can occur at any stage of their existence – during production, while in storage, and in use (both voluntary and involuntary). I need only quote from the litany of woes turned up in the 2014 condition survey: dirt, losses, pest damage, staining, ink corrosion, text loss due to trimming, water damage, cockling, pleating, old repairs, smudging, ink fading/abrasion, ink offset, flaking gold, tears – to name a few. ‘Losses’ is a particularly painful catchall term including anything from a torn away corner to an excised illuminated initial to whole missing pages.
Conservators plan and carry out repairs to these amazing objects with great professional skill and enormous patience. Similar problems come up again and again, yet every case has to be treated individually, combining scientific understanding, practical knowledge and a creative approach. Much of their work is hidden inside a book’s binding once treatment is complete. Most items are not intended to, and do not, look ‘like new again’ after repair; they show their old scars as part of their material history, but are made safe to handle again (carefully) without causing immediate further damage.
In addition to repairs, however, the conservation team also help their members with advice and support on a wealth of related subjects: pest and environmental monitoring, preservation materials, all aspects of exhibition production, borrowing and loan of objects, transport, general and specialised handling and cleaning training for staff, loan of specialist equipment and advice on purchase, disaster preparedness and emergency response planning and training, and as we all do, career advice and visits for students.
Not every manuscript shown has been conserved – or at least not to modern standards – yet. The exhibition features a number of fine examples of the work of the Oxford Conservation Consortium and previous conservators known and unknown, but it marks a milestone rather than an endpoint. The OCC has been providing conservation services to Oxford’s special collections since 1990. Balliol joined it in 2006 at the instigation of Dr Penelope Bulloch, then Fellow Librarian, and with support from John Phillips and the Balliol Society. The OCC became an independent charity in 2014, and Balliol’s Archivist and Finance Bursar sit on its management committee. The OCC now cares for the historic collections of 17 colleges. They also maintain the Chantry Library of conservation-related publications, which is available to everyone.
A great advantage of OCC membership is the ability to plan not only a full year’s work but strategies and priorities for years to come. We have been able to move from a reactive programme of occasional work on individual manuscripts to proactive long-term planning that includes detailed conservation of key individual items but emphasises improving the condition and care of the collection as a whole.
Curatorial initiatives for the medieval manuscripts comprise a network of related projects:
- 2014 condition survey
- boxing of all manuscripts (nearly 100) previously without boxes
- 2017 exhibition
- Conservation treatment/repairs
- Replacement of old/worn/substandard boxes
- Improving descriptions and updating bibliography
- Digitisation for documentation & research
- Supporting teaching and research in person
- Documenting manuscript fragments in early printed books
- Workshops on correct handling of special collections material for students preparing for research using archives and manuscripts
The aim of all of these activities, and others as yet in the planning stages, is to improve preservation and access for all the manuscripts.
Preservation means ensuring the continued survival, and improved physical condition, care and handling of, all manuscripts. This is the responsibility of all staff and users of material. An archivist’s regular preservation tasks may include removal of rusty paperclips and staples, rehousing in acid-free archival quality folders and boxes, photography and scanning for cataloguing (to minimize use of the original), and training students and researchers in good handling practice.
Access is not only hands-on consultation of original material, but also improved access to better information about the manuscripts; images are an important source of information. It also includes improving understanding of the manuscripts as texts, physical objects and cultural products. Access is provided by staff and institutions, with input from researchers and scholarly publication.
Conservation means specialist professional treatment and repair of individual manuscripts, with the aim of ensuring that future careful handling/consultation/display does not actively cause further damage. Work is planned by staff in consultation with conservators, and carried out by the conservators.
Each of the manuscripts displayed is augmented by a number of prints from digital photographs, mostly enlarged details. While no facsimile edition or digital image can replace direct encounters with original manuscripts, they can support and augment research in person. An exhibition can only show one opening of a codex, or (usually) one side of an original document, at a time, in a single geographical place, to a limited number of people, for a limited period of time. Digital images can help to provide more access to information about, and contained within, the manuscripts, to more people in more places over a longer period. [more about digital images as tools for manuscript studies – not as substitutes for the original]
Digital photography of the manuscripts is carried out as part of my work as archivist, prioritised by researchers’ enquiries. Depending on the request and time available, I may photograph all or part of the manuscript, though in the case of part photography, ideally I will return later to complete the set. Images are sent to individual enquirers for ease of download, and also posted to Flickr at full resolution. Neither the original requester nor online users are charged for access to the images; widening access in practicable ways to collections that cannot be made generally available in person is part of the College’s obligations as a Charity, and of its aims as a higher education institution responsible for these historic collections. So far I have posted images of more than 100 of the medieval manuscripts online, many of them complete, in addition to some of the archives, personal papers, and key research resources, and the Balliol Flickr collections have had more than 2.5M views altogether (as of October 2017).
The supplementary images in each display case provide a window into other parts of the book and a magnified view of tiny details that can be hard to appreciate with the naked eye. If you are inspired by the original manuscripts on display to explore the wider world of manuscript studies, links to more images of these and many more of Balliol’s medieval manuscripts, and a starter list of print and online sources, are provided in the Further Reading post.
A note about display: I have chosen to display most of the manuscripts exhibited on the grey foam wedge supports we routinely use in the searchroom, with the pages in many cases held in place by fabric-covered lead pellets (known as ‘snakes’). Using ordinary supports shows a little of how we, curators and researchers, work with manuscripts; it looks less ‘produced’ than museum-style stands, but after all the collection is owned by a small institution and a very small department. Only a few sets are new for the exhibition, and all will be used after it. This saves huge amounts of specialist time, money and materials in making custom-fitted card or acrylic stands for each, and means that all the display materials will be used again for years to come, for research, teaching and future exhibitions, since the wedge sets can be used in interchangeable combinations to suit the size and opening angle of any volume. Only the four tiny books in case 9 needed their own stands made, as they had to be strapped into place to remain open.
I have also chosen not to print copies of the exhibition catalogue except for use while visiting in person; those who would like a hard copy are welcome to print the PDF version or any combination of the blog posts for their own use. Any exhibition of physical items is ephemeral, but a catalogue should have the lasting effect of opening the exhibits, though in an inevitably limited way, to a wider audience than could possibly attend the exhibition itself. An online catalogue can be accessed and printed at any time according to the needs of the user, and can also be augmented and corrected into the future.
I would like to thank Jane Eagan and her team of dedicated professional conservators at the Oxford Conservation Consortium for a decade of not only repairs to Balliol’s archives and manuscripts, and latterly to some of the early printed books as well, but also for their expert advice and support on all aspects of the material wellbeing of the historic collections, including environmental monitoring and amelioration, pest monitoring and treatment, local and international loans and exhibitions, project grant applications and planning.
I thank also Annaliese Griffiss for proof reading – all remaining errors are mine – and invaluable help preparing the exhibition, as well as her ongoing work on the Manuscript Fragments project, and Sian Witherden for good conversations about tiny books and for her contribution on book vandalism.
– Anna Sander, BA, MPhil, MScEcon, Archivist & Curator of Manuscripts, Balliol College
Photographs in this catalogue are by Anna Sander for Balliol College except where otherwise indicated.
The catalogue as printed for use by visitors to the exhibition is available as a PDF here. The print version is restricted to a single opening (one A4 double-page spread) per manuscript, which is as much as anybody can stand to read while walking round an exhibition; this online version, a series of blog posts tagged #mss2017, contains more detail and more images for most entries, as well as Further Reading sections for specific topics not included in the more general Further Reading post. The print version entries will also be used as Special Collections in Focus posters in Balliol Library and Holywell Manor during Michaelmas Term 2017.
MS 384, open to full page miniature of the martyrdom of St Thomas à Becket
MS 384 is a 15th century Flemish Book of Hours, made in the Low Countries for the English market according to the Use of Sarum. I am sometimes asked about the pre-Reformation liturgical books lost from the College chapel. Books of Hours would not have been among them – they were designed for the private devotions of secular individuals at home.
It is not known who gave the book to the College, or when, but from a note inside it, it was not at Balliol before the 18th century. It bears marks of having been a much-used family devotional book, and has a remarkable history ( or at least legend) of preservation against the odds; the anonymous donor writes: ‘The Book was found in the thatch of an old house… now my guess is that at the beginning of the Reformation, this Book was committed to Atkins of Weston to be secured ‘till a turn might happen… Pray Sir my humble service to Mr Harris and all friends at Colledge.’
MS 384 does corroborate this story in several ways: there is rather heavy, ingrained dirt across all surfaces, which would fit with its having been stored in the inevitably smoky thatch of a house. Burn marks on its lower edge might indicate a thatch fire – perhaps this is how it was rediscovered. It shows a few signs of contact with water, and of damp conditions. Otherwise, it is in remarkably good condition – it was rebound, probably in the 18th century, but does not show much evidence of earlier intervention in the text block. The only essential repair needed in 2017 was to secure a long tear across the lower part of f.70. unusually, this tear did not start at the edge of a page; rather, it looks as though a guideline ruled with a dry point may have (after several centuries) weakened an already thin and fragile area of parchment.
MS 384 – L, detail of miniature damaged by devotional kissing; R, rather dirty liquid damage from head edge
The other type of damage evident in this manuscript affects two miniatures, with similar partial removal of the faces of the central figures. Such damage to saints’ images, and sometimes to the associated texts, has often been assumed to be deliberate ‘de-face-ment’ by anti-Catholic reformers – but Kathryn Rudy and others have more recently asserted, with excellent evidence, that some such instances are the result of devotional kissing. Both Thomas à Becket (a frequent victim of the deliberate type of damage) and John the Baptist have suffered loss of paint here, but not of drawing or parchment surface – the painting has not been scratched or scraped, neither text nor image has been struck through, and the faces are still clear despite the smudging. Both also look as though the damaged areas have been somewhat damp. Viewers may draw their own conclusions!
work on MS 384 by Celia Withycombe of OCC: fine bridges of Japanese paper connect the edges of an irregular tear, 2017.
More about devotional damage in manuscripts:
- John Lowden, Manuscripts tour ‘Treasures known and unknown in the British Library’ – Kissing Images section
- Kathryn M. Rudy, “Dirty Books: Quantifying Patterns of Use in Medieval Manuscripts Using a Densitometer,” Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art 2:1-2 (Summer 2010) DOI: 10.5092/jhna.2010.2.1.1
More about defacement of images of Thomas of Canterbury (Thomas Becket):
- Sarah J Biggs, ‘Erasing Becket,’ British Library Medieval Manuscripts Blog, 2011.
- Cambridge University Library, ‘The Face Defaced,’ Bodily Memory section of Remembering the Reformation exhibition, 2009-2017. Individual author unidentified.
MS350 opening ff 11v-12r (Herefordshire Domesday)
This manuscript of 170 folios includes three separate texts on Anglo-Norman legal subjects: a late 12th c copy of the Herefordshire section of Domesday book (first written in the late 11th c); an early 13th c copy of the earliest treatise on English common law ‘Treatise on the laws and customs of the kingdom of England in the time of King Henry II’, known simply as ‘Glanvill’ after its late 12th c author; and an early 14th c copy of ‘Britton’, the earliest summary of English law to be written in French, probably in the late 13th century. The first two texts are in Latin – with an Anglo-Norman French charm against snake bites appended to the end of the Domesday extract – and ‘Britton’ is in Anglo-Norman French. From the Herefordshire connection, Mynors thinks it likely to have been another gift to the College from George Coningesby, but there is no internal or external provenance documentation.
MS 350 is displayed open to ff. 11v-12r, part of the Herefordshire Domesday, with entries for the Wormelow and Elsdon hundreds. This opening shows surface dirt, particularly in channels from the head edge, liquid staining at the edges, and ink oxidation of the red initials – most have darkened from bright orange-red to silvery purple. Some of the red and green ink, though not blue, has come through from the verso. The manuscript was rebound, or at least recovered in white vellum (calf skin) in 1892, but this rebinding may have reused medieval wooden boards – it is impossible to tell from the outside. The manuscript is in generally good condition, and only needs some surface cleaning and repairs to the split parchment cover.
The ‘Glanvill’ text in MS 350 is heavily decorated with intricate penwork initials, but no other colours are used and there is no gold. Penwork decoration, the most common form of textual ornamentation in medieval manuscripts, is often done by the main scribe; in this case, the rubrics, red ink chapter headings/incipits/explicits both within the text and in the margins, seem to have been completed along with the main text, while the red and blue initial letters and exuberant decorative penwork were done later and perhaps by another hand. NB the different hues of red ink used, a darker red for the rubrics and a brighter orange red for the initials and decoration. The penwork of the initials Q (Quandoque) and U (Utroque) lace together in alternating colours, and in two places the rubrics and decorative flourishes run across each other.
The margins of this text are home to a good number and variety of lively penwork beasts and human faces many more than the lion, rabbit, goat and dragon featured here. Some grow out of the flourishes of initials, while others are separate figures, mostly in the lower margin, reaching up to feed on the red and blue foliage, and sometimes fruit. As is usual, though not universal, marginal figures appear without comment and seem unrelated to the text, though close study (anyone?) might reveal puns and wordplay – often decoration is (at least) a navigational tool and a memory aid.
More about the texts in this manuscript
- Domesday: online exhibition from The National Archives http://bit.ly/2hw6xRq. The Herefordshire section of Domesday as found in this manuscript was edited by VH Galbraith and J Tait as Heredfordshire Domesday, circa 1160-1170 (Pipe Roll Society, London 1950).
- Glanvill: explore http://www.earlyenglishlaws.ac.uk/
- Britton: HL Carson, ‘A Plea for the Study of Britton’ (1914) http://bit.ly/2huYfZK
- Anglo-Norman French language: hub for all things A-N http://www.anglo-norman.net/
- John Hudson, The Formation of the English Common Law: Law and Society in England from King Alfred to Magna Carta (Routledge, 2nd ed 2017) – a briefer distillation of his weightier tome on the subject, The Oxford History of the Laws of England (OUP, 2012).
MS 350 full set of images: http://bit.ly/2hsx9Fu
As part of Balliol College’s project to survey the use of manuscript fragments in its early printed book collection, I have had the pleasure of spending many hours systematically inspecting each book in search of these hidden treasures. Currently only a fraction of the way through the collection, we have already found fragments in over 35 early printed books, testifying to the frequency of the practice.
These fragments, found in books ranging from 10cm-40cm in length, appear in many forms. Some are full page flyleaves or pastedowns, many are stubs which give support to the inside covers, others are cut into strips and used to reinforce sewing supports beneath their coverings. One small book of multiplication tables has used a document complete with notary mark and curved edging as its cover, repurposing a serious legal record as something creative and even decorative – from legally binding to mathematical binding!
It’s easy to see why manuscript fragments were favoured for this type of work. In a period where texts were transitioning from parchment to paper, the difference between the two materials in terms of durability must have been marked. Combined with the availability of manuscripts, and the value apparently placed on print (as a new and exciting technology) over commonplace manuscript texts (such as we see in the fragments), recycling parchment in this way was a very practical way of strengthening bindings and protecting the paper pages.
The types of texts being used in the early printed books in the collection are various. The majority so far have been in Latin, with some in English and at least one in French. Most are from the 14th and 15th centuries, but some fragments seem to be as early as 13th century. In terms of content, there are legal documents, personal letters (how our curiosity has been piqued by the sad tale of the man whose wife has left him with 3 children to care for!), ecclesiastical texts, musical notation, and what appears to be a homily emulating the enraged style of the 10th century Archbishop Wulfstan.
One of the aims of the project is to photograph these fragments to make them available online. This poses a number of challenges. The early printed books themselves date from 15th and 16th centuries and are, as one would expect, fragile. The spines will not lie flat without causing damage which, when one simply wants to read the text, is no problem at all, but when the use of the fragments is to strengthen the very structure of the book, careful thought needs to be given to how to access fragments tucked away down towards the fragile spine. In a number of instances, photographs have simply not been possible for this reason.
Conversely, the condition of some of the bindings have actually enabled us to see the fragments better, as some have deteriorated to leave fragments exposed. One of the frustrating things for the curious medievalist is the suspicion that leaves of medieval texts have been used in a binding, but having no way to access them. When later binding is found in poor condition, a curious mix of reactions occurs: a clear desire to protect the book, combined with mischievous delight at what might be revealed. In these cases, it is often that a parchment spine has cracked or disintegrated, or that pastedowns are now lifting.
In all cases, the photography of these fragments is tricky. To photograph stubs, the book must be supported on foam blocks and opened at a suitable angle depending on the flexibility of the spine. The parchment itself is not smooth, and the camera can struggle to focus on the right part of the book. In order to take a picture of useable quality, some contortion is generally needed, trying different angles with the camera whilst carefully holding down fragments with a pair of bone holders. Seasoned yoga practitioners and the addition of a third or fourth hand are desirable attributes!
The photographs get labelled and uploaded to Balliol’s Flickr account for interested parties to view. Medievalists can examine the texts and try to identify them; book historians can see further examples of binding techniques from the early modern period; and we can also perhaps use these fragments to tell us something about how the texts that they came from were valued during this time. Whilst many of the texts that we are discovering might be understood to be commonplace (the legal documents, for example, or other texts which appear to be unremarkable in terms of appearance), some were clearly prized at the time of writing. The musical notation of 470d13, for example, is decorative, using red and blue inks for initials, and the script is in a neat gothic hand. Care was obviously taken in the writing of this text, but by the time of binding, the value of the early modern work (Cunningham’s Cosmographie) was deemed to be far greater. Of course, this does not necessarily indicate that Cunningham’s work was intrinsically more important than the medieval one: it could be that the rest of the medieval text had deteriorated beyond reasonable use as a codex, or that some other flaw had been found in it, making this particular version redundant. What these fragments do tell us is what texts were available to the binders at the time and how the material was repurposed.
It would be interesting to survey the use of these fragments, identify them and see what (if any) correlation could be found between the types of text and the individual book binders (this would involve examining a far larger collection than Balliol’s alone), but by increasing the accessibility of these fragments through this project, further research on this interesting topic can contribute to wider understanding of the phenomenon.
– Annaliese Griffiss, Michaelmas term 2017. Follow Annaliese’s archival adventures on Twitter @aglaecwif!
 Whilst the vast majority of the fragments are on parchment, there are also examples of paper manuscripts being used as flyleaves as well.
 Though Erik Kwakkel has experimented with the use of x-rays. https://medievalbooks.nl/2015/12/18/x-rays-expose-a-hidden-medieval-library/
Photos of the manuscript fragments discovered so far, with descriptions, are appearing on our Flickr site at https://www.flickr.com/photos/balliolarchivist/sets/72157683085214934/ and descriptions of the fragments with links to their host volumes’ SOLO catalogue entries are also at http://archives.balliol.ox.ac.uk/Ancient%20MSS/msfragments.asp
Some numbers about archives & manuscripts activity during September:
- Number of enquiries: 61
- Running total for 2017: 578
- Number of researchers in person (unique users): 3
- Number of person-days in the reading room: 5
- Collections consulted: college records, medieval manuscripts (3)
- Productions (consulted by researchers in person or by the archivist in response to enquiries), over 4 months since late May when a new production slip system was introduced – numbers doubtless incomplete:
- 33 boxes containing from two bound volumes to 4 thick files of individual items, not including
- 83 files – up to 200 items per file, not including
- 50 individual items from a single letter to a bound volume, not including
- 74 medieval ms codices
- No of non-research visitors: ca.400
- images created: 1300
- events: Oxford Open Doors (7th year), patronal evening prayer service, Balliol incumbents’ conference visit to exhibition and evening prayer service, Balliol Society visitors to exhibition, individual visitors to exhibition
This month I’ve included a snapshot of numbers about enquirers’ place of origin (or at least geographical research base) and enquiry type – I don’t do this every time as they get very repetitive; proportions are fairly consistent throughout the year and from year to year. Private family history enquiries may make up less of the annual total now that basic research sources such as the College Register and War Memorial Books have been available online for more than 5 years; individuals can use them without reference to the archivist, and they are being mentioned in e.g. family history/WW1 research forums as well. More about September’s enquiries (calculated out of 61):
Origin of enquiry
- Internal (Balliol) 9, 15%
- Oxford (outside Balliol) 17, 28%
- Rest of UK 24, 39%
- Other countries 11, 19% (Germany, France , Netherlands, Australia, USA, Italy, Canada)
Type of enquirer
- Private (mostly biographical or local history) 20, 34%
- Academic 18, 29%
- Student 7, 11%
- Institutional/admin 16, 26%
Some of the enquiry topics received in September:
- advice re archives cataloguing and preservation
- advice re student/volunteer projects in archives
- requests for (new) digital images of medieval manuscripts
- C17 college accounts
- Buittle Castle
- college hymn
- college portraits and paintings
- college rules for students in the 1920s
- records of college livings and related estates/property
- development of the tutorial system, late C19-earlyC20
- history of the role of Visitor of the College
- Balliol JCR and MCR Presidents
- history of adult education in Oxford, late C19-early C20
- Biographical research re / info on Balliol or related archives of
- people who were not members of Balliol
- Nathanael Konopios (Balliol 1630s/40s)
- GM Hopkins (Balliol TT 1863)
- R Browning (Hon Fellow 1867)
- J Ashton Cross (Balliol 1868)
- R Younger, Baron Blanesburgh (Balliol TT 1880)
- OV Darbishire (Balliol 1888)
- J O’Regan (Balliol 1889)
- AR Cunliffe (Balliol 1890)
- HJ Rofe (Balliol 1890)
- CE Goetz (Balliol 1891)
- FF Urquhart (Balliol 1891)
- CN Dyer (Balliol 1897)
- JS Mann (Balliol 1912)
- HG Greene (Balliol 1922)
- C Gilpatric (Balliol 1938)
- JR Schlesinger (Balliol 1947)
- Egerton Richardson (Balliol 1954)
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
MS 378, open at ff.28-29, showing rubrics and stitching in the middle of a quire
MS 378 is an undated volume of prayers to the Virgin Mary in Ethiopic, or Ge’ez, the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. This is Balliol’s smallest manuscript book at only 2 ½ x 3 ½”, or 62 x 83mm. It is so tiny that its custom-made box is about four times the size of the book, with a recessed mount to hold it securely. One benefit of this rather larger and heavier box is that it’s easy to find on the shelf, to handle, and to keep track of during production and consultation – a box as small as the book might easily be hidden behind a larger one, or worse, dropped.
This manuscript is displayed closed in order to show its Ethiopic sewing, often known as Coptic style and distinct from later western binding techniques. The Copts, early Egyptian Christians, were the first to use the codex format, and their sewing method is still unsurpassed in simplicity and flexibility: a new Coptic binding can be opened a full 360 degrees.
The MS is in fairly good condition; the sewing is fragile and there is evidence of fairly recent repair to the attachment of the front board – what looks like a large stitch on the lower front cover – but other than some surface dirt it does not require further intervention. The paper label glued to the front cover, which MS 378 has in common with many of the others, is in the hand of EV Quinn, who began at Balliol as Assistant Librarian in 1940 and became Fellow Librarian in 1963, a post he held until 1982.
MS 378 is the only one in the collection known to have been given to the College by Benjamin Jowett from his own library, but there is no documentation in the archives about how he came to acquire it, or its previous provenance.
Although it is neither western nor medieval (as far as we know, at least), this manuscript has been included in the exhibition for two reasons: it shares many of the same conservation issues and endearing qualities as any tiny book, and it serves as a small signpost to another section of the collection that has hitherto suffered from lack of attention. As yet, many of Balliol’s 33 non-western manuscripts are still ‘closed books’: not yet accurately dated and without full descriptions of their contents, they have not been studied in detail and their research value has yet to be assessed. We hope that through recently established Balliol and Oxford contacts, and with good digital images emerging as useful tools, scholars in the relevant fields will soon be able to tell the College more about this part of the collection. Their entries in Mynors’ catalogue have been grouped together under their traditional label of ‘oriental manuscripts’ here.
MS 378, showing stitching, boards and binding
More about Ethiopic manuscripts and Ethiopic/Coptic sewing: