Apparently old books in pop culture media are becoming increasingly cool, or I’m just noticing them more lately. I get fired up every time I see manuscripts and early printed books in movies and television shows. A few recent examples include Athelstan’s Insular gospel-book in the Vikings television show, a book written in runes in Disney’s Frozen, and ancient manuscripts in The Last Jedi. In these and other media, it’s always exciting to see books getting their due attention.
You might be a classicist if you start screaming during television shows when you think you see Loebs on a bookcase. pic.twitter.com/dmryBtlTts
— Sarah Bond (@SarahEBond) April 1, 2018
My latest obsession is with a made-up old book in the Netflix comedy Santa Clarita Diet.
The main plot of the show (beware of some spoilers below) is that a suburban family’s life is turned upside-down when mom inexplicably goes full-on zombie. It turns out that this is linked to a mysterious disease, and the legendary origins go back several centuries to Serbia. This is where the book comes in.
When the book is introduced–in an episode titled “The Book!” (season 1, episode 9)–its origins are said to be sixteenth-century Pozica (see a transcript here). No town by this name exists, but Serbia does have towns named Božica and Požega. The main characters also encounter a few other pages that seem to be leaves from another copy.
While the book is a plot device, pointing to the mysteries of the disease’s origins centuries before, its details are a treasure for book nerds. The book is most prominent in the episode where it’s introduced, but it also keeps appearing throughout the two seasons of the show released so far. A few times, the main characters go back to it to consult for more clues about the zombie disease. (I screen-captured most of the photos in this post from season 2, episode 4, “The Queen of England.”)
Some photos of the book (which I’ve used below) are rather popular on imgur. There’s good reason; in the few glimpses we get of its pages, it’s a beautiful, fascinating book.
Just look at that tome.
The layout alone is enough to excite book nerds: decorated frames, red rubrics, and colored images interspersed with the text.
Full-page woodcut images also appear in this book, as with depictions for the different stages of the zombie disease: illness with vomiting, zombie lunch, followed by a potion cure. Some fans on Reddit have worked out that the text records a type of recipe, which fits what happens in season 1 of the show as well as the last full-page image here.
A few moments when the show’s characters leaf through the book offer tantalizing glimpses of what we’re not directly shown otherwise.
Many features of this Serbian book seem to indicate that it’s printed, but there are elements that also betray its reliance on manuscript culture. Details like variations in the ink lines pressed onto the page, minor smudges, and other features like shadowy doubling of printed bits (lines and letters) indicate the remains of the press’s imprint in the process of printing.
Red rubrics and colored images indicate that it’s more of a mixed-media book that brings together the technologies of both manuscript and print. Details in the letters of the red rubrics provide clues for some handwritten elements. For example, the script sizes between the left-hand (verso) and right-hand (recto) pages appear to be different. While I’m not especially experienced with Cyrillic orthography and scripts, the descender of the letter Ka (К) on the right side of the page seems to drop below the line further than the same letter on the opposite page. Other discrepancies in the sizes, ascenders, and descenders of the various rubrics bear out the same conclusion that they’re handwritten rather than printed.
The colored images also give away the mixed media of this book. While colored images became part of the printing process later, in many early printed books we find hand-colored woodcuts like these. After all, from Johannes Gutenberg’s creation of the moveable-type printing press around 1440 through the sixteenth century, the early age of print was filled with quickly changing media technologies.
Both Sarah Werner and Heather Wolfe have highlighted these types of books in the early modern collection at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Such examples combine printed text and woodcuts alongside handwritten and hand-colotred features. Aptly, Werner calls them “media transitions,” while Wolfe discusses them as “hybrid books.” The image to the right, from Werner’s collection of examples, is an appropriate parallel to the images of plants in the Santa Clarita Diet book. Although this text is not Serbian, this page also exhibits the uses of plants for medicinal purposes in the early modern period–a holdover from ancient and medieval practices.
With so many early modern codices digitized, it’s not difficult to find numerous analogues for the images in the Santa Clarita Diet book. One hilarious parallel to the woman vomiting is found in this woodcut from a book on anatomy by Johann Dryander, printed in Frankfurt in 1542. Of course, the reason for these men being ill is obviously quite different from a zombie disease.
Perhaps the most famous example of a hand-colored early printed book is the Nuremberg Chronicle, printed in Nuremberg in 1493.
In various copies of this book we find many hand-colored woodcuts, such as these fabulous images of the Byzantine generals Belisarius and Narses stylized as knights (folios 145r-v). It’s not a far leap from these types of depictions to the one we see of a knight in season 2 of Santa Clarita Diet (in the episode titled “The Queen of England”).
Fortunately, we can compare the Santa Clarita Diet book with some excellent examples of actual sixteenth-century Serbian books in the Digital Matica Srpska Library. Various parallels may be seen in a liturgical book (a book used for worship) printed in Venice in 1536. A few sequences of pages offer striking resemblances in some of the details. Folios 110v and 111r present a depiction of the Annunciation to Mary and the decorated beginning of a new section of text opposite each other.
Folios 162v and 163r present a similar sequence, with a depiction of the Crucifixion opposite another new section of text with similar decoration.
In both examples, we find a few notable parallels to the Santa Clarita Diet book: hand-colored woodcuts, decorative framing techniques for both images and text, and red rubrics demarcated from the other text. The hand-colored pages here are all the more striking when compared to other pages with woodcuts in the same volume. For instance, folios 182v and 190v have woodcuts of saints that aren’t colored at all.
Such hybrid books are unique in many respects because the process is not the same for every page or every copy of the same book. Mixed-media manuscript-print books are complex artifacts. This is certainly the case with the types of books highlighted with the examples used in this post. From what we’ve seen of the extensive details in the Santa Clarita Diet book, we’re meant to assume that a lot of labor and attention went into its creation. No doubt other fabulous details not yet revealed also fill the pages within its binding.