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June 16, 2014 / Charlie McNabb

Embodied Books

Some months ago I had the opportunity to observe a fascinating presentation about illuminated manuscripts given by James D. Fox, Head of Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Oregon. He showed several gorgeous examples and discussed the connection between books and the human body. I just found a bunch of photographs I had taken and thought I would share.

Two long tables in an academic reading room with medieval manuscripts displayed.Rare books lovingly laid out on tables.

A very old rare book with leather cover with obvious holes from hungry bookworms.Leather medieval cover. Check out the bookworm damage!

A rare book displayed spine out; the spine has thick bumps that resemble vertebrae.We name the parts of a book to correspond with the human body. Notice how this spine looks eerily like vertebrae.

A very old book with a lock and chain used to fasten it in place to discourage theft.Many books were protected with chains and locks. Does this remind anyone else of a chastity belt?

A music score from circa 1300 inscribed on animal hide; faint markings from a previous use are visible underneath.Text was painstakingly inscribed on vellum or parchment made of calf, sheep, or goat hide.

A page of an illuminated manuscript with a fancy decorated initial at top and a painting in the bottom margin.Illuminated manuscripts are so named because of the decorative painting on the borders or initials. Here’s a fanciful dragon vomiting a spray of flowers.

A close-up of an illuminated initial Q with a fat cherub to the left and a bearded elder smiling and holding a book in the center.Could this exceptionally detailed initial portray the proud scribe himself?

A close-up of a manuscript page that somebody/ies have doodled on; pictures include a staring face and a pointing hand.Medieval people wrote notes in their books, too. Paratext commonly depicted faces and hands to indicate especially important passages.

If you have a chance to visit the University of Oregon Special Collections and University Archives, I highly recommend it. These rare books can’t be checked out, but you can view them in the reading room.

If you’re interested in this topic, James suggested the following books:

Introduction to Manuscript Studies by Raymond Clemens and Timothy Graham, 2007.

Scribes and Illuminators by Christopher de Hamel, 1992.

Animating the Letter: The Figurative Embodiment of Writing From Late Antiquity to the Renaissance by Laura Kendrick, 1999.

The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future by Robert Darnton, 2009.

The Allure of the Archives by Arlette Farge, 2013.


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