VIDI project 'Turning over a New Leaf: Manuscript Innovation in the Twelfth-Century Renaissance'


This project is concerned with the intriguing relationship between written culture and society, specifically how innovations in the technology of the medieval manuscript (the handwritten book, or codex, used before the invention of print) relate to cultural change. It will argue that the age of renewal known as the “Twelfth-Century Renaissance” (c. 1075 - c. 1225) produced a new manuscript format, custom-tailored for the age: during this period manuscript production turned over a new leaf, as did readers, who were introduced to new reading aids, page layouts and scripts. This proposal claims that the emergence of this new book is caused by shifts in the manner of reading and the texts that were read, as well as a changing intellectual profile of scholars. The project traces the roots of this new manuscript (the institutional homes of a new breed of European scholars), maps its development, and explains its elevation to new book standard. With its innovative blend of physicality and historical inquiry the project is anticipated to have significant implications for all medieval disciplines that use primary sources. As it is, primary sources are silent beyond the words on their pages: medieval scholars nearly exclusively turn to these sources for their contents. However, this project will show, based on a “field-tested” methodology, how observations related to the physical formats in which medieval texts were fitted (type of script, reading aids, layout of the page, etc.) can be “spun” and used as historical arguments. By showing how medieval primary sources can be exploited more fully, beyond the text they carry, the project demonstrates to medieval scholars from a variety of disciplines how to turn over a new leaf in their inquiries and look at familiar textual sources from a new perspective.

Project coordinator

  Dr. Erik Kwakkel
Location : Leiden University, Faculty of Humanities
: Leiden University Instutute for Cultural Disciplines
Period : 1 May 2010 - 1 May 2015
Project members : Coordinator - Junior Researcher (aio) - Postdoctoral researcher
Project website Turning Over a New Leaf 

The project: Introduction

In his provocative “Becoming Screen Literate” (New York Times, 23 November 2008), Kevin Kelly discusses the notion of “fluency”, or the ability to read a text quickly and accurately. He argues that literacy is presently going through a paradigm shift from “book fluency to screen fluency”, as new generations of readers are adopting the screen as the primary vehicle for texts. Kelly connects these changes in the physical presentation of the text to changes in society: “when technology shifts, it bends culture”, he claims, pointing at the impact of Gutenberg’s printing press on the culture and history of the century following the invention of the printed word. The present research proposal is concerned with this intriguing relationship between book technology and society, specifically how innovations in the medieval manuscript (the handwritten book, or codex, used before the invention of print) relate to cultural change. It will argue that the age of renewal (renovatio) that stretched from the late eleventh to the early thirteenth century, also known as the “Twelfth-Century Renaissance”, produced a new and innovative manuscript format, which included new reading aids, new page layouts and new scripts. The new format would rapidly evolve to the new standard — and it is in essence the book we use today. This proposal claims that the emergence of this new book, precursor to the well-known and better-studied “Gothic manuscript”, is caused by shifts in the manner of reading and the kind of texts that were read, as well as a changing intellectual profile of scholars: changes in taste and attitude of the twelfth-century educated reader necessitated a new “vehicle” for texts. The research project outlined on these pages traces the roots of this “pregothic manuscript” (the institutional homes of the new breed of scholars that emerged in Europe), maps its development through the period 1075-1225 (from innovative creation to accepted standard to Gothic manuscript) and explains its elevation to new book standard in an age when the intellectual landscape of Europe altered dramatically.

Scholarly Background

With its roots in the fourth century, the medieval codex is an old soul, which pushed its established competitors, the papyrus book and parchment scroll, into the margins of history with surprising ease and speed (Hall 2004; Roberts and Skeat 1983). Christian culture in late antiquity needed a medium that could hold long texts and the success of the codex reflects its ability to meet this requirement. However, the first codices seen in the Latin West looked very different from manuscripts made in the later Middle Ages. A particularly important observation is that the physical format of manuscripts developed significantly throughout the medieval period: new physical traits, production methods and scribal practices were regularly introduced, and established ones were constantly improved. A related observation of importance is that the speed of this development increased during periods of cultural and intellectual change: Insular scribes in the seventh and eighth centuries introduced word separation (Saenger 1997, Chap. 4); the Carolingians presented educated society with a new script, the product of deliberate design rather than spontaneous evolution (Ganz 1995); and vernacular scribes of the fourteenth century, serving new readers in the middle classes, revamped the traditional Latin codex into a cheaper object, using new writing support materials and scripts (Kwakkel, forthcoming 1). When culture shifts, it bends technology, to allude to Kelly. Focusing on this causal relationship between cultural change and transformations in written culture, the present project will be devoted to the information revolution that occurred in the twelfth century. While the medieval manuscript underwent over a thousand years of development by the hands of a variety of cultures, one particular age stands out in that it arguably introduced more innovations than any other: the period 1075-1225, also referred to as the “Twelfth-Century Renaissance” (Benson and Constable 1991; Haskins 1927; Swanson 1999). While this established term might be historiographically restrictive (Jaeger 2003; see also Thomson 2002), the notion it covers (one cultural movement that unites scholars in different fields and geographical locations) is useful in that it brings under one umbrella a number of related historical events, such as monastic reform, establishment of universities, birth of scholasticism, revival of jurisprudence, and the introduction of Greek and Arabic philosophy. This “Great Awakening” of Europe (Knowles 1962, Chap. 7) gave alacrity and optimism to educated society, whose members sensed they were living in a time different from their immediate past and who contemplated, often explicitly, their role in the course of history and the new present (Abulafia 2006; Jaeger 1994). The term “renaissance of letters” is sometimes used to accentuate that this cultural movement was primarily driven by intellectuals (Damian-Grint 1999; Luscombe 2004; Verger 1995), first those in Northern France, Belgium and Northern Italy, followed suit by kindred spirits in Southern Italy, Germany and Spain. These intellectuals — who lacked cohesion other than a shared background (a “career”, perhaps) in higher education, a deep yearning for knowledge and the sense that classical ideas ought to be revived in their life-time — exchanged ideas through texts and letters, which were disseminated through the main intellectual centers in medieval Europe, monasteries, cathedral schools and universities. Here the new voices, presenting new ideas in a new language of eloquence, were read and heard, and contradicted and expanded upon, by a broad range of intellectuals, from St Bernard of Clairvaux and William of Malmesbury to Peter Abelard and John of Salisbury.

Overall aim

The research project described here does not focus on the Twelfth-Century Renaissance as such, nor exclusively on book innovations in this age. Rather, it presents an innovative blend of the two: it aims to show how a changing literary taste, a shift in the use of texts, and a new outlook on the world among intellectuals had a direct and immediate influence on the physical appearance of manuscripts. In an age that is defined by the introduction of an unusually high number of new authors (foreign and home-grown), texts (original Latin works and translations) and genres (natural philosophy, encyclopedia), as well as a new approach to reading and evaluating the written word (through the scholastic method), it became important for readers to own manuscripts that presented texts in an entirely different format than the vehicles they inherited from the Carolingians (9th-11th centuries). This research project aims to show that to meet these demands, a new manuscript was cast in the twelfth century, custom-tailored for use in the new age. Certain elements of this new book have already been examined, such as its script (Derolez 2001, Chap. 3), decoration (Cahn 1996), bookbinding (Sheppard 1995) and the glossing it frequently contains (De Hamel 1984). Furthermore, the contexts of its production and use have been illuminated for some individual copies (Donovan 1993; Gibson 1992; Gullick 1990), regional branches (Kaufmann 1975; Ker 1955; Thomson 1998; Thomson 2006) or monastic houses (Palmer 1998, Chap. 2; Thomson 1982). However, the manuscript as a whole and as a new European book format has to date been largely ignored, as has the historical backdrop of its creation, a pan-European intellectual movement. What has been studied in depth is its successor, a book known as the “Gothic Manuscript”, the handwritten book produced between c. 1200 and c. 1530 that is defined by a new script (Gothic script), certain ornamental motives, standardization in the production stages, and a commercial production environment (Derolez 1996). The proposed project focuses on the “lost” century in the history of medieval written culture, the period between the conclusion of the Carolingian age (c. 1100) and the start of the Gothic period (c. 1200), an epoch in which the physical book is in transition from one prolific format to another.

Over the course of the twelfth century, manuscript production and the manner in which books were used had turned over a new leaf: a new script was introduced (known as the “Littera Praegothica”), new decoration emerged (so-called “proto-penwork” flourishing) and new aids for the reader were invented. The latter dimension proves to be of particular importance in understanding the establishment of the new book format, which can, for now, be called the “pregothic manuscript”, for lack of a better term. As this project aims to demonstrate, the majority of book innovations introduced between c. 1100 and c. 1200 were aimed either at improving the speed with which information in the book or on the page could be accessed, or facilitated a better understanding of the complex intellectual discourse that the texts of this age often presented. In short, the new format facilitated an improved “book fluency”, to borrow Kelly’s term, or the ability to read a text (presented on a page) quickly and accurately. While in the late eleventh century book culture nearly completely lacked tools that could rise to these occasions, by the outset of the thirteenth century scribes had a rich palette of aids at their disposal that facilitated comprehension and speedy access, such as pagination, running titles, paragraphs, quotation marks, footnotes, cross references, diagrams, marginal keywords clarifying the argumentation (“first argument”, “second”, “third”, etc.), the use of abbreviated names of authorities as marginal reference tools (“aug” for Augustine, “am” for Ambrose), interplay between various text colors, availability of multiple script types and sizes (“hierarchy of scripts”), and a layout that visually distinguished between main text and “add-ons” (commentary, reference, etc.). These revolutionary “paratextual” features define the pregothic manuscript, the project claims, because they were instrumental for the new breed of European scholars. They prompted what the philosopher Ivan Illich calls a “bookish culture” (Illich 1996) in that they helped to organize knowledge, convert words into arguments and open a dialogue between reader and author.

Key Objectives, Methodology and Time Table

The emergence of a new book format in the twelfth century raises important cultural-historical questions. What physical traits were introduced on the page and how did they precisely aid the reader? How quickly were these new features disseminated, which ones were most popular and what can be said about their geographical spread? Can their introduction be tied to particular institutions, such as the cathedral school, monastery or university? Do certain texts come with certain physical attributes? And, perhaps even more importantly, how does the emergence of such an extensive palette of textual aids contribute to our understanding of the Twelfth-Century Renaissance, particularly regarding the cultural-intellectual profile of educated readers, or how their interaction with texts changed? To address these questions the research project will focus on the pregothic manuscript as a material object and a historical product by juxtaposing its physical features (paleography, codicology and decoration) and historical context of production and use. There is also a broader aim: based on a “field-tested” methodology (applied in Kwakkel 2003, 2009 and forthcoming 1; and explicitly discussed in Kwakkel 2007), this project aims to show how observations related to the physical formats in which medieval texts were fitted can be used as historical arguments. Such “cultural residue” embedded in the material book sheds light on the cultural background of readers and the aim for which the book was made (Kwakkel 2007).

The project will be primarily based on 250 manuscripts written between 1075 and 1225 (the traditional boundaries of the Twelfth-Century Renaissance) present in the so-called Catalogues des Manuscrits Datés, or CMD (Derolez 2009). This source, which has seen rapid growth over the past five years and can now be used for inquiries such as the present, contains hundreds of manuscripts. The inclusion of an item is based on the presence of a scribal colophon stating when a book was made, and each entry includes a transcription of this colophon, as well as one or more images and a rudimentary manuscript description. This unique tool, which, in spite of its excellent suitability for this task, has to date never been used in an historical investigation of this kind, enables us to firmly date the emergence (and disappearance) of certain physical features. The corpus of 250 manuscripts will be expanded with a selection of other manuscripts that can with certainty be tied to a particular year of production, bringing the total to no more than 300 manuscripts. It is anticipated that most of these manuscripts will have been written in Latin. However, the project includes investigations into the application of the new book format in the European vernacular traditions, aspects of which have been probed in Kwakkel, forthcoming 2. The project will be broken up into three components, executed by the coordinator, a PhD student (AIO) and a postdoctoral researcher.

Component 1: The Physical Manuscript (Coordinator) — The first component, executed by the applicant, assesses what physical changes occurred on the page and how the new book format they helped to create evolved over time. Features related to book fluency will be highlighted, but the investigation will also include other codicological and paleographical innovations, such as the emergence of new abbreviations and new scripts (Praegothica, Textualis and “notula” script). The 300 manuscripts in the project’s research corpus will be analyzed according to the methodology of quantitative codicology (Ornato and Bozzolo 1997), which means that a substantial amount of data related to their physical features will be entered into a database and queried for patterns. The images and rudimentary manuscript description that accompanies each CMD entry are sufficient to make an inventory of the innovations, trace their temporal and regional origins, and establish when the new format became the received standard. In addition, one hundred of these 300 manuscripts will also be studied in more depth and in situ, in Belgian, Dutch, English, French and German libraries. This first component encompasses five years of research (data gathering in years 1-2, writing in years 3-5) and produces a database with detailed manuscript descriptions (to be used for all three components and to be put online as an output of the project); a monograph on the emergence and development of the pregothic manuscript; and two articles: one on the application of the methodology in medieval historical studies; and one on the emergence of the new manuscript format in the vernacular traditions (a very suitable case study is a material investigation of the twelfth-century French and Anglo-Norman historical texts that feature in Damian-Grint 1999).

Component 2: Readers (PhD Student) — The second component, executed by a PhD student, will focus on the cultural background and geographical location of the readers who handled the 300 manuscripts. Here the contextual information from the CMD will be brought into play. The information regarding the reader and its background is taken from the colophon, which specifies where and when a manuscript was copied, from brief entries placing the manuscript in a certain city or cultural setting (“This book was copied by scribe X in monastery Y / city Y in the year Z”) to more elaborate ones revealing intimate details about the circumstances in which the book was used (“This book was made by X, commercial scribe working at the university of Y, and master Z bought this book to prepare for his classes”). In addition, ex libris inscriptions and other contextual information relating to the medieval owner of a book will be used as well. This information related to the books’ users will be compared to the manuscripts’ physical features, captured in the database constructed in component 1. The main aim is to determine whether readers with a certain intellectual or cultural background, or those with a particular kind of book use in mind, preferred manuscripts with certain physical features — for example those that improved a book’s “fluency”. Questions addressed here will cover such topics as the milieux in which new features first emerged; in which cultural centers certain features were most popular; and whether manuscripts with certain physical features were used in a certain manner (reference, classroom discussion, monastic consultation, etc.). This second component encompasses four years of research and produces a PhD thesis on the relationship between the material book and the milieux in which it was used, as well as its manners of use.

Component 3: Texts and Genres (Postdoctoral Researcher) — The third component of the project, executed by a postdoc, focuses on the relationship between the physical features of manuscripts and the texts they contain: it poses the question of whether certain texts or text genres tend to be found in manuscripts with certain codicological or paleographical features. Queries addressed in this third part include: which texts are first fitted in the new book format; what texts or text genres contain the most aids to help the reader; do certain texts come with particular physical traits; and does the number and types of aids evolve over time within certain texts or genres? Component 3 includes two case studies in which the manuscript tradition of a particular text will be analyzed in order to reveal what changes the physical presentation of a text underwent through time, but also how a variation in the use of a given text (within the three centers under investigation, the cathedral school, university and monastery) may have impacted its material format. One case study will involve manuscripts with works by Aristotle (exploratory work undertaken in Kwakkel 2009); another will focus on the manuscripts of Peter Lombard’s Sentences. Both texts survive in a high number of manuscripts, including many dated ones, and both were read in all three of the intellectual centers under investigation in this study. For this purpose the corpus of 300 manuscripts will be complemented with a small number of additional manuscripts (a maximum of fifteen from each tradition, which will be studied in situ). This third component encompasses four years of research (to begin year 2 of the project). The topics of the case studies (Aristotle, Lombard) may change depending on the expertise of the postdoc. The primary output of component 3 is a monograph on the relationship between the physical appearance of twelfth-century Latin manuscripts and the works they contain. In addition, article-sized publications on the afterlife of the new format may be written (text association in the Latin and vernacular manuscript traditions of the thirteenth-century).

Originality and Impact

The proposed project complements and expands current scholarship in several ways. First, the twelfth-century manuscript has not yet been studied as a separate entity that stands apart from its predecessor and successor because of its unique physical features. The terminology used to discuss various aspects of this new book format, with its decoration designated as “proto”-gothic and its script as litteraprae”-gotica, shows it is primarily seen as a precursor of the Gothic manuscript, that great book of the later Middle Ages. The project will also augment existing research through the sources it is based on, dated manuscripts, and how these are approached, namely in a quantitative manner. A large set of manuscripts so evidently linked to temporal, geographical and social dimensions of medieval culture can help provide assessments of unprecedented detail and conviction, as quantitative publications show. While this source is to date exclusively used for manuscript studies, the project will use the factual data it presents to historical ends: the catalogues can, like no other source, show us in detail that twelfth-century manuscript production turned over a new leaf, as did the medieval readers who used the objects.
This study also stands out in that it regards the object at its core — the twelfth-century manuscript — as a product of a pan-European intellectual movement, designed to satisfy the needs of a new generation of intellectuals. By linking the innovative book format to the age of renewal in which it was created, this study provides an unusual blend of physicality and historical inquiry, allowing the medieval historian to “read” much more in the manuscript than merely its texts: including the material dimension in his observations allows him to extract the “cultural residue” hidden in the DNA of the new book format and reveal new historical information, for example about the manner in which a manuscript was used and the readers who handled the object.

The project described on these pages not only provides better understanding of the twelfth century as a historical period and of the handwritten instruments that helped to broaden and deepen its cultural renaissance, it has applications far beyond the disciplines of history and manuscript studies. By showing how observations related to the physical formats in which medieval texts were fitted can be used as historical information, the proposed project shows scholars of all medieval periods and disciplines how to exploit their primary sources more fully: the medieval historian is shown how a historical text can be tied to a certain type of cultural center based on its physical traits; the theologian is shown how certain physical instruments help the medieval reader, which may help this scholar to deduce how a certain bible exegesis was used; the philosopher who studies medieval Aristotle translations is helped to understand why his base manuscripts look so very different; and the literature historian may find new clues to the readership of the prose or verse texts he is studying based on their physical format. In short, this project shows scholars from a variety of disciplines how to turn over a new leaf and gain a new perspective on their primary sources.

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Last Modified: 10-01-2011