Medieval Book Carousels

Medieval readers, especially studious ones, must have cursed their desks from time to time. It is not easy to manage desk space when working with often large and clunky medieval books. Scribes and translators developed work-arounds for these space issues, as I have shown in a blog post on medieval desktops. Scribes would place two desk surfaces stacked vertically, one for the book that was copied from, the other for the copy (image here). In contrast, translators would sometimes position two surfaces next to one another, one presumably for the original text, the other for the translation (see the striking images here and here). Readers, however, faced bigger challenges, since many needed more than two books open at the same time, which produced clutter and frantic searches for particular information. Figure 1 shows the French author Christine de Pisan, who is often shown while working in her study (here is an interesting article on the iconography), sitting behind a desk cluttered by books.

–Erik Kwakkel at Medieval Books

I need one of these. You should see my desk right now. Or maybe not.

6 thoughts on “Medieval Book Carousels”

  1. Great post! I love medieval books, especially the illustration and illuminations. I can’t imagine the pressure of perfection that the scribes must have been under. From what I recall, if they made a mistake, they would have to scrape the skin or get creative with the illustration to disguise the mistake.

    Interesting that readers required carousels. I guess I can relate, as I often have multiple windows on my laptop open while reading in order to look up words and references.

    1. Short version:

      So young new monk comes into the monastery reporting for duty. Gets his book, notices that it’s a copy. Looks around, sees everyone is copying from copies. Walks up to Head Monk, asks why, says it’s possible mistakes are being propagated.

      Head Monk says this is how we’ve always done it, but you’re right. So he takes a volume he’s working on and goes to the cellar to check it against the original.

      He’s gone quite a long time, so another goes to look and finds Head Monk slumped in a corner of the cellar weeping uncontrollably.

      What is wrong?

      You idiots! Head Monk cries. The word is celebrate.

      1. 🤣
        Another famous account:

        The photo of the cat paw prints represents one such situation which forces the historian to take his eyes from the text for a moment, to pause and to recreate in his mind the incident when a cat, presumably owned by the scribe, pounced first on the ink container and then on the book, branding it for the ensuing centuries. You can almost picture the writer shooing the cat in a panicky fashion while trying to remove it from his desk. Despite his best efforts the damage was already complete and there was nothing else he could have done but turn a new leaf and continue his job. In that way this little episode was ‘archived’ in history.

      2. Too funny. I read an interesting book about the scribes who putt the Bible to paper. Your joke is kinda spot on.

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