Teaching Medieval Page Design

Sian Witherden is at Balliol College, Oxford, working on a DPhil thesis about touch in late Medieval English drama. Here, she writes about teaching medieval page design. 

In November 2016, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to take six very enthusiastic undergraduate students into the Bodleian Library’s Special Collections for a manuscript class on page design. My goal was to equip them with some basic information about how medieval manuscripts were pricked and ruled, while also to encourage them to engage critically with the mise-en-page and its effects. My hope is that by sharing the experience here, this blog post might give a little bit of inspiration to people teaching similar classes in future.

Earlier in 2016 I wrote a “teachable feature” for this very site, highlighting a Chaucer manuscript with a blank ruling pattern that I thought would be particularly useful for teaching medieval page design. This class was my first chance to try out the material in practice. I am pleased to say that, as I anticipated, this manuscript was a valuable starting point for discussing how the medieval page was prepared for writing. Not only was I able to easily point out important features such as prickings and bounding lines, but the page also led to an interesting conversation about why parts of medieval manuscripts might be left blank in the first place. A popular suggestion from the students was that the scribe had ruled the pages in bulk, but did not ultimately require them all.  

e mus 54 f 30r

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

As my class was about page design, I wanted to give the students a sense of the wide range of layouts it is possible to find in medieval manuscripts, from the meticulously planned to the chaotic and ad hoc. MS Ashmole 1378 proved to be particularly captivating. It is a late medieval recipe book with no ruling at all, but it is riddled with manicules pointing out noteworthy sections to the reader. For example, a carefully drawn hand points towards this entertaining piece of advice on how to make a woman to love her husband and forsake all other men. (The answer, if you are curious, is to extract the bone marrow from a wolf’s rear left foot, and carry it around with you…!)


MS Ashmole 1378, p. 57. Photo Sian Witherden, courtesy Bodleian Libraries.

In order to show the students just how complicated medieval page design can get, I turned to Ashmole 391 part V, a witness of John Somer’s Kalendarium (c. 1460). This text contains a variety of useful information, including a chart of moveable feasts, specific dates for solar and lunar eclipses, and finally medical guidance. Crucially for my purposes, each page is meticulously crafted with a bespoke ruling pattern that suits the information at hand.

A particularly thought-provoking section of this manuscript is the Zodiac Man page. When I turned to it, I explained to the students that a Zodiac Man is an image of a man marked with signs of the Zodiac according to the parts of the body over which those astrological signs were thought to have influence. It was believed to be unwise to operate on a given part of the body when the moon was in the corresponding sign; for example, one should not cut into the head when the moon is in Aries.

I then clarified that while such diagrams were not uncommon in astro-medical literature of late-medieval England, what is unusual about MS Ashmole 391 is the piece of cloth that has been sewn in to cover up the diagram, which was probably added by an early user if not the original scribe himself. I proceeded to ask the students what they thought the purpose of this cloth might have been, without giving any hints.

MS Ashmole 391, Part V, fol. 9r. Photo Sian Witherden, courtesy Bodleian Libraries.

One answer proposed by the students was that the cloth protects the pigments in the diagram, especially the gold leaf around the arrow. Another suggestion was that the cloth helped to preserve the modesty of the naked man. Finally, one student tentatively suggested that a reader might use the cloth to cover up the diagram so they could test their knowledge, a theory that I was hoping someone would put forward.

After encouraging the students to brainstorm several possible solutions, I finally explained that there was in fact no “right answer,” and that we cannot be entirely sure what the function of the cloth is. Although it was quite possibly introduced into the manuscript to protect the image, later readers may well have used it other ways. In fact, all of the answers suggested by the students could potentially be correct. The primary purpose of this exercise was therefore to encourage the students to be open to ambiguity and uncertainty in manuscript page design, and to suggest that a medieval page can be just as difficult to interpret as any literary text.

I really enjoyed teaching this class, and I found that the manuscripts did a lot of the hard work for me. The students were always enthusiastic to hear more about the books in front of them, and were keen to learn by asking many questions of their own. By guiding the students to scrutinise the resources in front of them, I hope I was able to convey the complexities of page design by showing, not telling.

Further Information

Mooney, Linne, The Kalendarium of John Sommer (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1998).

Murray Jones, Peter, ‘Image, Word, and Medicine in the Middle Ages’, in Jean A. Givens, Karen M. Reeds, and Alain Touwaide, eds, Visualizing Medieval Medicine and Natural History, 12001550 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006).

———  Medieval Medicine in Illuminated Manuscripts, rev. ed (London: British Library, 1998).

O’Boyle, Cornelius, ‘Astrology and Medicine in Later Medieval England: The Calendars of John Somer and Nicholas of Lynn’, Sudhoffs Archiv 89:1 (2005), 1–22.

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.

Sciacca, Christine, ‘Raising the Curtain on the Use of Textiles in Manuscripts’, in Weaving, Veiling, and Dressing: Textiles and their Metaphors in the Late Middle Ages, ed. by Kathryn M. Rudy and Barbara Baert (Turnhout: Brepols, 2007), pp. 161–90.

Wakelin, Daniel, ed, Revolting Remedies from the Middle Ages (Forthcoming 2017).

Sian Witherden, Balliol College, Oxford

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