Wonderfully Weird & Ingenious Medieval Books

Medieval Books

Lei­den Uni­ver­si­ty book his­to­ri­an Erik Kwakkel describes his tum­blr site as fol­lows: “I post images from medieval books.” In the words of Samuel L. Jack­son on the immor­tal Snakes on a Plane, you either want to see that, or you don’t. Pre­sum­ing you do (and giv­en your pre­sum­able sta­tus as an Open Cul­ture read­er, it strikes me as a safe bet) know that Kwakkel does­n’t main­tain just any old images of medieval books; his posts tend to high­light the askew, the obscure, and the inno­v­a­tive, fur­ther demon­strat­ing that we need not find the “dark ages” dull. At the top of the post, you can see one pho­to of the sev­er­al he post­ed of the biggest books in the world, in this case the “famous Klencke Atlas” from the 16th cen­tu­ry. “While they are rare, such large spec­i­mens,” writes Kwakkel, “they do rep­re­sent a tra­di­tion. Choir books, for exam­ple, need­ed to be big because they were used by a half cir­cle of singers gath­ered around it in a church set­ting. If you are impressed with the size of these objects, just imag­ine turn­ing their pages!”

Siamese Books

Above, we have an exam­ple of what Kwakkel calls “Siamese twins,” two books bound as one using an odd bind­ing “called ‘dos-à-dos’ (back to back), a type almost exclu­sive­ly pro­duced in the 16th and 17th cen­turies.” You could read one text one way, then turn the thing over and read a whole oth­er text the oth­er way. “You will often find two com­ple­men­tary devo­tion­al works in them, such as a prayer­book and a Psalter, or the Bible’s Old and New Tes­ta­ment. Read­ing the one text you can flip the ‘book’ to con­sult the oth­er” — no doubt a handy item, giv­en the reli­gious pri­or­i­ties of the aver­age read­er in the Europe of that era. The ani­mat­ed image below high­lights a relat­ed and equal­ly unusu­al bind­ing effort, a dos-à-dos from the late 16th cen­tu­ry con­tain­ing “not two but six books, all neat­ly hid­den inside a sin­gle bind­ing (see this motion­less pic to admire it). They are all devo­tion­al texts print­ed in Ger­many dur­ing the 1550s and 1570s (includ­ing Mar­tin Luther, Der kleine Cat­e­chis­mus) and each one is closed with its own tiny clasp.”

dos a dos

If this kind of high­ly vin­tage, labor-inten­sive book­mak­ing gets your blood flow­ing, make sure to see see also Traité des couleurs ser­vant à la pein­ture à l’eau, the 700-page 17th-cen­tu­ry guide to col­ors we fea­tured in July, and which Kwakkel cov­ered on his blog back in April: “Because the man­u­al is writ­ten by hand and there­fore lit­er­al­ly one of a kind, it did not get the ‘reach’ among painters — or atten­tion among mod­ern art his­to­ri­ans — it deserves.” Just one more rea­son to appre­ci­ate the inter­net, even if, as a medi­um, you far pre­fer the medieval book.

Keep tabs on Kwakkel’s tum­blr site for more unusu­al finds, and don’t miss his oth­er blog, Medieval Frag­ments, where he and oth­er schol­ars delve more deeply into the won­der­ful world of medieval books.

Medieval Color

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Wear­able Books: In Medieval Times, They Took Old Man­u­scripts & Turned Them into Clothes

Dutch Book From 1692 Doc­u­ments Every Col­or Under the Sun: A Pre-Pan­tone Guide to Col­ors

Medieval Cats Behav­ing Bad­ly: Kit­ties That Left Paw Prints … and Peed … on 15th Cen­tu­ry Man­u­scripts

Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy Illus­trat­ed in a Remark­able Illu­mi­nat­ed Medieval Man­u­script (c. 1450)

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (3)
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  • bl2r says:

    Inter­est­ing, but all the books fea­tured here seem to be from the Renais­sance, not the Medieval peri­od.

  • William Ashley says:

    Awsome. absolute­ly love these inven­tive cre­ations. The dos a dos is very cool. The oth­er like a poster book of sorts, must have been mad expen­sive to make back in the day.

  • Andrew Kapochunas says:

    Klencke Atlas, from 1660, is 17th cen­tu­ry, not 16th. See 16th cen­tu­ry maps at my site: Lithuanianmaps.com

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