Brandon W. Hawk

Dealing with Holes in a Medieval Manuscript


One of the best parts of studying the medieval period is exploring the many idiosyncrasies of manuscripts. In fact, #medievaltwitter is great for this sort of fun, as medievalists post so many photos of manuscripts with strange elements.

I’ve been able to do a bit more sustained thinking about the pleasures of manuscript details while teaching a course on “Medieval Multimedia” for the last two semesters (first as a graduate seminar, now, reworked, as a senior seminar). This week, we read the article “‘It’s a Magical World’: The Page in Comics and Medieval Manuscripts” by Martha Rust (English Language Notes 46.2 (2008)), a nice reflection on the use of pages across older and newer media. As part of her argument, Rust discusses how a hole in a manuscript of a French romance makes meaning with the text that can be seen through it. This led me to consider other types of holes found in medieval manuscripts.

It’s not uncommon to find holes or similar flaws in parchment from the Middle Ages. After all, the possibility of holes from preparing a manuscript is one of the hazards of using parchment. All the flaying, soaking, rubbing, stretching, scraping, drying, and cutting of animal skin to get pages sometimes brought about unintended blemishes. (In addition to links below, see some other examples from Marjorie Housley here, some from Erik Kwakkel here and here, and some from Allie Newman here.) But medieval scribes found ways to deal with such gaps, sometimes with unexpected results.

One of my particular favorite manuscript holes is in a page of Peter Comestor’s Historia scholastica in the fourteenth-century codex Aarau, Aargauer Kantonsbibliothek, WettF 9, folios 31r-v. This particular page features not only a hole but also a decorative job to patch it up:

This example intrudes on a rubricated list of chapters and descriptions for the events in Exodus begun on folio 30v. Unlike the previous example, this hole doesn’t appear to be the result of flaws from preparation, since it’s cut somewhat symmetrically into something like a hexagon. Of course, it might be the case that this hole began as a blemish from the creation of this parchment and was later cut for some reason, maybe even for aesthetic sensibilities. In any case, the rainbow yarn embroidery touches it up with a nice flair.

This repair job, however, isn’t especially practical (see another, more utilitarian stitch-up job here) as much as decorative. Perhaps purposefully–or perhaps ironically, from our own perspective–this use of such colorful yarn draws attention to the hole. Even more, this isn’t the only decorated hole in this manuscript. According to the description by Charlotte Bretscher-Gisiger and Rudolf Gamper, this codex contains over 70 holes that have been similarly embroidered.

A sampling of other instances demonstrate a few of the ways that embroidered holes show up in this Aarau codex.

Some of these holes intrude on the text, as above, while others are only in the margins, as here:

These embroidered holes in the margin, however, cause us to pause. Why do some holes look cut while others are clearly accidents from preparation or later damage? Why were some holes embroidered while others weren’t? (I’ll return to these questions below.)

Another example is an even more curious instance, since it shows another hole that must have been cut out and sown up; but the thread was later removed except for a few traces:

One final example poses yet other questions, since this hole must have been cut after the text was written, and it was never repaired:

Like so many of the holes in the Aarau manuscript, this one is clearly cut, deliberately defacing the text. Were other holes also deliberately cut not because of flaws already in the parchment but for other purposes?

One possibility is that, yes, various pieces were cut out deliberately. We might note that some of the cut outs are more like blocks of parchment while others are more slender strips. Judging from these shapes and sizes, it is likely that these cut out pieces were used in the bindings of other manuscripts.

Of course, repurposing from manuscripts was common practice in both the medieval and early modern periods. This is the case with palimpsests as well as many pieces of larger manuscripts that survive only in bindings or other uses as fragments. Perhaps this is the explanation for so many missing parts of this Aarau codex. But at least the pages were decorated in their loss.