Guest Edited by Dr David Rundle (MEMS, University of Kent) and Dr Alison Ray (Assistant Archivist, Canterbury Cathedral)
By codicology, we signify the study of the whole codex, in all its physical and historical characteristics. The term, however, is a twentieth-century invention and so by convention excludes the pre-existing traditions of scholarship, palaeography and the study of illumination, which are discussed under Palaeography.
There is a technical language to the study of manuscripts with which you may want some help. Here are the best starting points:
Vocabulaire codicologique - the main resource, this is not confined to French terms but also provides their equivalents in Italian, Spanish and occasionally in English. For that language, it can be supplemented by:
British Library’s Glossary of Illuminated Manuscripts - this is based on Michelle Brown’s Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts (London, 1994). Note that the hard-copy version has received a second edition, revised by Elizabeth Teviotdale and Nancy Turner (New Haven CT, 2018) but that does not have an online presence.
Glossary on Littera visigothica site - with a particular focus on palaeographical features, Ainoa Castro has compiled a very useful introductory list of terms, based on (but diverging from) the work of the leading English palaeographer, M. B. Parkes.
See also Binding below for Ligatus.
Materials and Tools
The codicologist realises that the material nature of the book can provide significant evidence for its creation and use. A good start to help you think about this materiality is Teaching Manuscripts: book historian Sara Charles researches manuscripts through recreating production techniques such as making iron gall ink and making parchment, and records her progress and findings through guides, images and videos.
In terms of the surfaces on which text appears, there has been a wide variety from stone (the subject of epigraphy) to wood to tattoos on skin. For medieval manuscripts, the most frequent materials used were:
Parchment — the main support for writing through the Middle Ages was prepared animal skin. How this was — and still is — done is described in this video. The classic written description of the process, by Ronald Reed, The Nature and Making of Parchment (Leeds, 1975) is hard to come by now, but it is summarised online, with a useful bibliography (up to 2003).
Palimpsest — literally 'rubbed smooth again', this is a surface that has been cleaned of its original text and reused; the surface best suited to this practice is parchment, because of its durability. Some famous works have survived solely as the undertext of a palimpsest, like Cicero's De re publica, in the Vatican's MS. Vat. lat. 5757, now fully digitised. For examples of palimpsests and the techniques now used to recover the lost text, see the 2021 exhibition held by Cambridge University Library, Ghost Words.
Papyrus — parchment’s predecessor as the main writing support was plant-based. Its use did continue for some centuries after the introduction of the parchment codex, but it is heyday was among the ancient civilisations around the Mediterranean. The project to study papyri from one Egyptian city, Oxyrhynchus, has a helpful listing of links. See also the introductory article by the Bibliothèque nationale de France.
Wax tablets — in the ancient world, wax tablets were another popular writing surface. Because they had the advantage that the text could be erased, they continued into the Middle Ages but only a few examples survive, including a set with the earliest surviving Latin script from Ireland, the Springmount Bog Tablets.
Paper — a late import into Western culture from China via Islamic culture, it also provides important information for its study through the early introduction of watermarks. Their individuation to paper mills potentially allows scholars to narrow down the localisation and date of a manuscript. Several catalogues of watermarks are available online and are now best accessed through the Austrian Wasserzeichen des Mittelalters site. For paper in medieval England (where,excepting one decade, it was all imported), we now have the monograph by Orietta da Rold: that is not available for free, so see the report of the conference she and Jason Scott-Warren organised.
Le Fil de L'Arar - The Blog du laboratoire Archéologie et Archéométrie have created a glossary of some tools used by scribes and illuminators. (In French)
Under the Covers - The Fitzwilliam Museum conservation team produced this detailed case study of the conservation and rebinding of Fitzwilliam MS 251, demonstrating the step-by-step process of binding a medieval manuscript with close-up images.
Medieval Bindings, British Library -This article on the British Library's Medieval England and France, 700-1200 website by Charlotte Denoël (BnF) outlines the range of manuscript bindings and their materials, from leather monastic bindings to luxury treasure bindings.
British Library Database of Bookbindings - Medieval manuscripts rarely retain their original bindings, having been commonly rebound by later owners. This British Library database is a useful starting point to study later bindings from the 16th century onwards.
British Armorial Bindings - For those interested in provenance research, this database produced by The Bibliographical Society of London and the University of Toronto Library is a catalogue of the coats of arms, crests, and other heraldic devices that have been stamped by British owners on the outer covers of their books, together with the bibliographical sources of the stamps. The bindings are early modern, but the books they cover are sometimes medieval.
ABC for Book Collectors - Regularly updated as a current guide for book trade practitioners and researchers, John Carter's ABC for Book Collectors alphabetically defines technical terminology, book formatting, and book trade practices. Primarily covering the rare and printed book trade, this ABC is helpful also for manuscript studies.
RBMS Binding Terms - Similar to Ligatus, the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of the American Library Association have developed a useful thesaurus for cataloguers to describe binding features. This is a helpful resource for both printed books and manuscripts.
Though, for Britain, the Cambridge History of Libraries is the first recourse, there are some classic discussions which remain important and are freely available online:
J. W. Clark, The Care of Books (Cambridge, 1901) - an impressively broad overview of the physical development of western libraries.
B. H. Streeter, The Chained Library (London, 1931) - as its name suggests, more limited in its scope but highly relevant, given MEMSLib's slogan.
W. Blades, Enemies of Books (London, 1880) – not confined to discussions of libraries, but a useful introduction to thinking about the ways books are destroyed. The 1896 edition is enlivened with illustrations.
In addition, scholarly resources are available online:
Medieval Libraries of Great Britain (known as MLGB3) - this is the digital version of the hard-copy work of the same name (which was edited by Neil Ker and supplemented by A. G. Watson). It catalogues surviving manuscripts from medieval institutional libraries but also has a section of the medieval catalogues, based on the ongoing Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues project.
There has recently been heightened interest in the 'unwhole codex', that is their partial survival as fragments, a sub-discipline sometimes inelegantly called 'fragmentology'. Here are a few examples:
Fragmentarium - the leading international site cataloguing fragments, based in Switzerland.
Lost Manuscripts - a more modest project, working with fragments in the British Isles. This is run by MEMS.
Virtual Manuscripts - a project concentrating on the interesting history of fragments in Norway.
For updates on some fragment projects, see Lisa Fagin Davis's blog, as listed below.
Letterlocking - Unlocking History is a collaborative project hosted through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The project explores the materials, tools, and techniques of writing, and offers videos, images, and a dictionary of letterlocking on their website. The project also owns a Youtube channel featuring videos showing a diversity of letterlocking techniques.
Scriptorium - the leading periodical for codicology and palaeography, published twice yearly. It sits behind a paywall, but back issues, excluding the last five years, are available on the Persée site.
Manuscript Studies - a new entrant, recently established by the Schoenberg Institute at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
The Library - the publication of the Bibliographical Society of London, its remit is much wider than just manuscripts. It is viewable by subscription, with back issues are on JSTOR.
Gazette du livre médiéval - a French-language journal, freely available online.
Fragmentology - the recently founded Open Access journal of Fragmentarium (see above).
Littera visigothica - more specifically palaeographical, this site, the work of Ainoa Castro, focusses on the script of the Iberian peninsula which preceded and lived alongside caroline minuscule.
Manuscript Road Trip - the personal site of Lisa Fagin Davis, who specialises in fragments and in manuscripts now in the States.
Medieval Manuscripts Blog — brought to you by the British Library.
Medieval Manuscripts Blog - this blog is run by the fantastic curatorial team of the British Library's Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern section and showcases items in their collections, including medieval and early modern records, manuscript art, examples of scribal practices and literary texts. Keep an eye out for newly digitised records!
Resource page updated by Amilia Gillies. Last updated 07/12/23.