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IT’S RARE TO know authorship of an 11th-century manuscript. However, thanks to Christopher De Hamel’s Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts, the Oxford University’s Bodleian Library’s Bodley 717 is an exception. Tidbits follow from De Hamel’s book, which has already been celebrated here at SimanaitisSays, most recently in A Palaeographer’s Adventure.  

Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World, by Christopher De Hamel, Penguin Press, 2016.

The Prophet Isaiah as Rastafarian. Bodley 717 is an 11th-century copy of St. Jerome’s commentary on the prophet Isaiah. Jerome, c. 347 A.D.-420 A.D., translated the Bible from earlier Greek and Hebrew sources while living in Bethlehem. 

The frontispiece of Bodley 717 shows Isaiah enthroned in Jerusalem. This and following images from Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts.

De Hamel notes that “the frontispiece shows the skyline of the holy city between suitably oriental domes, although these are surmounted by crosses hardly appropriate for the time of Isaiah, who lived there in the eighth century B.C…. Some Old Testament exoticism is conveyed by his bizarrely braided hairstyle, parted in the centre, which would do credit to any Rastafarian.” 

De Hamel also notes that Isaiah holds a scroll reading “ECCO VIRGO CONCIPIET ET PARIET FILIUM, ET VOCABITUR NOMEN EI[US] EMMANUEL,” “Behold, a virgin will conceive and bear a son, and his name will be called Emmanuel.” 

An 11th-Century Selfie. De Hamel stresses the importance of Bodley 717: “… we not only know the name of the man whose three fingers held the pen in the late eleventh century, but we even have a picture of him doing so, for it ends with what is generally considered to be the earliest signed self-portrait in English art.”

Folio 287v of Bodley 717, the image of Hugo Pictor, “Hugo the painter.” Part of it reads, “Imago pictoris & illuminatoris huius operis,” “Picture of the painter and illuminator of this work.”

Was Hugo a southpaw? “In reality,” De Hamel says, “it is unlikely that Hugo is left-handed. His script has none of the backward slant so often detectable in the writing of left-handed people. It is just possible that he drew himself from a mirror, forgetting to adjust the image (or he knew it was in reverse, which is why he called in an ‘Imago,’ ‘reflexion’).”

“More probably…,” De Hamel continues, “the picture does not primarily depict him writing or painting, but designing the page. He is ruling its guidelines, using his right hand. The pen is in reserve, to be used when he is ready.” 

Designing a Page. Scribes, as the name suggests, aligned the text of a page by scribing thin lines in the parchment with a knife. De Hamel observes that the knife served other purposes as well: “for holding a page steady without the natural grease from using one’s fingers, and for sharpening the pen several times a day. (It is, of course, a penknife.)”

Fabricating a Page. Parchment comes from the hide of a calf, goat, or sheep (hence, the term “sheepskin” for an important document). “The principle of making parchment,” De Hamel explains, “is that the waterlogged skin is pared and thinned over and over again as it gradually dries while suspended under considerable tension from all sides.” 

Opps. A lunellum, a curved blade with a handle, was the tool used for this “rasping.” However, with the material under tension, an accidental nick could easily open up into an oval gap in the skin. “We can see examples of this in Bodley 717 on folios 36 and 53 and elsewhere.”

An early twelfth-century drawing of a parchmenter scraping skin under tension. A hole in Hugo Pictor’s manuscript was caused by an accidental nick. Below, another page’s imperfection was repaired by parchmenter stitching.

Holding the Quill Pen. De Hamel observes, “Most people today are taught to grasp a pen between the first and second fingers, secured by pressure from the thumb. Its movements are made by manipulating the thumb and forefinger.”

By contrast, he notes, “In the images here and in almost all others showing scribes in medieval manuscripts, the pen is held by the thumb against the underside of the first two fingers, more like a painter’s brush inverted. The two smaller fingers are tightly curled up. To write, the whole hand has to move across the page, and the entire arm is involved.”

Medieval penmanship.

De Hamel cites a common scribal exclamation: “Tres digiti scribunt totum corpusque laborat.” “Three fingers write but the whole body labours.” 

That they labored more than a thousand years ago continues to delight us today, thanks to scholars such as Christopher De Hamel. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2020  

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