Medieval Writing
Page Design (2)
Hierarchies of headings with a range of sizes and letter forms, as specified by modern word processing programs, are another legacy from the era of the manuscript book. Small headings, sometimes in rubric, might occupy a single column width or a full page width at the beginning of a new section. Major divisions may be indicated by a large heading at the top of a new page. Special scripts could be employed to differentiate the headings. Such conventions are very familiar to us and we don't think about them very much. However, they are significant because they represent visual code for rendering the text more comprehensible. Heading hierarchies became very fomalised in the Carolingian era. The fact that they have endured for hundreds and hundreds of years indicates their success as a concept.
explicit and incipit A page from the commentary of St Jerome on Isaiah, from c.800, probably written in the monastery of St Martin at Tours (British Library, Egerton 2831, f.48). (From New Palaeographical Society 1907)
This page shows an enlarged heading at the end of one section, in the second column, followed by an enlarged decorative initial and first line of the following section. It is clearly a place marker, especially as the heading reads




That simply means End of the Explanation of Isaiah Book 25, Beginning of Book 26, which makes it breathtakingly clear what the function of the heading is in terms of enhancing readability. Commonly the word explicit, rather than finit, is in the heading indicating the end of a section, leading to the use of the terms incipit and explicit by palaeographers to describe such headings. Most esoteric jargon can ultimately be explained in simple terms.
Occasionally the beginning of a particular passage of text is considered to be so significant that a whole page is devoted to constructing a display heading or even initial. The normal formatting of the text goes out the window as illustrative elements and text are combined to form patterns. The letters may be rearranged so they no longer read in the normal way from left to right, or they form anagrams or puzzles. Significant passages of Biblical text were special candidates for this treatment.
heading page heading page
First page of Psalm 51 in a late 10th century psalter (British Library, add ms 37517, f.33). (From New Palaeographical Society 1909)   First page of St Matthew in an early 11th century gospel book (Cambridge, Trinity College Library, MS B.10.4). (From New Palaeographical Society 1903)

The first reads, in somewhat entangled form



and continues in an uncial script before reverting to the insular minuscule of the main text.

The second reads


amongst an entanglement of foliate ornament, interlace, and medallions depicting the evangelists.

An entire page has thus been appropriated for the purpose of marking an important place in the text through the use of enlarged and unusual scripts, elaborate decoration, but also by altering the strict and repeating left to right horizontal rhythm of the page. Here the penman has broken away from the design that could later be emulated by a machine.
In between these extremes of the minor heading and the heading which occupies a whole page, enlarged initials, historiated initials and miniatures could be inserted to provide emphasis, to suggest points to pause and ponder, to mark a passage in the text or to mark a place in mental space. Elaborate borders may contain some clues for reading the text, but often seem to simply identify a page through its graphic elements. Books designed for boring old scholars to study in their cloisters or university rooms might go on and on for pages of plain horizontal text. Books from which segments were read during liturgy, or even those designed for personal religious contemplation, may be more liberally festooned with these graphic punctuation marks and reminders.
text with rubrics and initials
A simple text page from a book of hours divides the text up with enlarged illuminated initials and rubrics (National Library of Australia, MS 1097/9, f.35r). By permission of the National Library of Australia.
miniature with text St Catherine stands in triumph over her pagan oppressor in a miniature page from the same book of hours as above (f.22r). By permission of the National Library of Australia.
This page shows a very standard layout for the beginning of a new section in a book of hours, with a miniature above a small box of text, which includes an enlarged initial and a rubric heading as well as a few lines of text. The whole is enclosed by a lavish floral and foliate border. St Catherine is depicted with her well known visual attributes of book, sword and broken wheel. The page begins a section on prayers to St Catherine, so provides an obvious visual clue to the partially literate.
A particular form of page layout was used throughout out the medieval period for the presentation of poetry. The first letter of each line was enlarged and set slightly to the left of its usual position. This did not break the basic left to right horizontal mode of reading, but must have served as some sort of little memory jogger to read in poetic mode. There is a terrible temptation to try and discover anagrams or other code in the vertical lines of initials, but there was no such intention on the part of the author or scribe.
poetry Section of page of The Dialogues of Gregory the Great translated into French verse, from c.1212-13 (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS Français 24766, f.82). (From New Palaeographical Society 1910)
While we might wonder why the medieval scribe did not indulge in greater flights of fancy in the arrangment of his text, and why he mostly restrained himself to writing in horizontal lines, it was this convention that made the newfangled printed books of the 15th century an easy transistion to accept for the reader. They looked pretty much like the books they were used to. There was nothing to alert the reader to the fact that this technology would change the significance of the written word forever. Forever? Well, for a very long time.


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