Teachable Features 2: Pricking and Ruling, MS. e Musaeo 54

Sian Witherden explains the ruling in MS. e Musaeo 54. Sian is in the second year of a DPhil in English, at Balliol College, Oxford.  

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. e Musaeo 54 is a parchment manuscript dating from the first quarter of the fifteenth century, which contains a version of Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe. The text itself occupies folios 1r–29v. The last few folios are mostly blank, save for a handful of names signed in later hands (fol. 30v) and a diagram of a hand, the fingers of which are labelled with the names of musical notes (fol. 31v). Of these final pages, folio 30r is a particularly useful teaching resource because it contains a ruling pattern that has not been filled with lines of text. In the absence of any such text, the organisational structure and function of the ruling pattern becomes especially clear:

e mus 54 f 30r
MS. e Musaeo 54, fol. 30r. Photo Sian Witherden, courtesy Bodleian Libraries.

The ruling in this particular example, which has been completed in dry-point, has a relatively simply pattern. It consists of thirty-four horizontal rulings and two bounding lines, one each in the right and left margins. Some manuscripts, for example those containing saints’ days or astrological data, demand much more complex ruling patterns in the form of grids and tables. Other manuscripts, however, use just frame ruling, or sometimes, no ruling at all. On the spectrum of complexity for ruling patterns, therefore, this folio falls somewhere in the middle. This photograph gives a closer look at the bounding line in the right- hand margin:

2 e mus 54 f 30r detail
MS. e Musaeo, fol. 30r. Photo Sian Witherden, courtesy Bodleian Libraries.

E Musaeo 54 is further useful as a teaching resource because the pricking marks used to coordinate the rulings are often visible in the right-hand margin. In many medieval manuscripts these prickings have been lost because the pages were trimmed for the original binding, or because the pages were (re)trimmed for later bindings. MS. e Musaeo 54, by contrast, offers a good insight into the process of pricking and ruling the page, a task that may have been completed by the scribe himself or a separate individual. The prickings can be seen particularly well in the following photograph:

3 e mus 54 f 30r side detail
MS. e Musaeo 54, fol. 30r. Photo Sian Witherden, courtesy Bodleian Libraries.

For the purposes of comparison, here is a portion of a folio from earlier in the manuscript, where the same ruling pattern has been filled with the text of Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe:

4 e mus 54 f 23r
MS. e Musaeo 54, fol. 23r. Photo Sian Witherden, couresty Bodleian Libraries.

Finally, where diagrams are demanded by the text, these have typically been imposed on top of the ruling pattern:

5 e mus 54 f 14r
MS. e Musaeo 54, fol. 14r. Photo Sian Witherden, courtesy Bodleian Libraries.

Further Information

For discussions of e Musaeo 54, see:

Eisner, Sigmund, ed., A Treatise on the Astrolabe (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002), pp. 66–7.

Pintelon, P., Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe (Antwerp: De Sikkel, ‘S-Gravenhage: Martinus Nijhoff), pp. 17–18.

Seymour, M.C., A Catalogue of Chaucer Manuscripts: Volume 1, Works Before The Canterbury Tales (Aldershot: Scholar Press, 1995), pp. 109–10.

For more general discussions of pricking and ruling, see especially:

Clemens, Raymond and Timothy Graham, Introduction to Manuscript Studies (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007), pp. 15–17.

Dane, Joseph A., ‘On the Shadowy Existence of the Medieval Pricking Wheel’, Scriptorium 50 (1996), 13–21.

Jones, Leslie Webber, ‘Pricking MSS: The Instruments and their Significance’, Speculum 21 (1946), 389–403.

Ker, Neil, ‘From “Above Top Line” to “Below Top Line”: A Change in Scribal Practice’, in Ker, Books, Collectors and Libraries: Studies in Medieval Heritage (London: Hambledon Press, 1985).

Peikola, Matti, ‘Guidelines for Consumption: Scribal Ruling Patterns and Designing the Mise-en page in Later Medieval England’, in Emma Cayley and Susan Powell, eds, Manuscripts and Printed Books in Europe 1350–1550: Packaging, Presentation and Consumption (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2013), pp. 14–31.

Thomson, Rodney M., ‘Technology of Production of the Manuscript Book: Parchment and Paper, Ruling and Ink’, in Nigel Morgan and Rodney M. Thomson, eds, The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, Volume 2: 1100–1400 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), pp. 7584.

Sian Witherden, University of Oxford

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