University Library

The Manuscript Heritage

    The Vitalis papers: animal and human interactions

    By Susan Broomhall

    This collection of medieval and early modern manuscripts, held by the Vitalis family in the south of France, provides examples of who created manuscripts and how they were used in the age before print technologies existed. They also reveal the material and social interplay of animal and human interactions in interesting ways. The oldest manuscript in this collection is the will of Pascal Vitalis in Latin, dated 24 June 1417, in which he left his goods to his son, Pierre.

    This document was written on prepared animal skins known as membrane, a long-lasting material that was highly suitable for an important legal text that needed to be retained by subsequent generations. This is quite a stiff membrane, a kind of parchment that was usually made from the skin of animals bred in close proximity by humans such as cows, sheep and goats. It has spent so long in its tightly closed form that it is now difficult to unfold to read without a number of pairs of hands.

    Another example from the mid-sixteenth century shows how paper and animal skins could both be used in a hybrid material and textual form.

    Papermaking became widespread in Europe by the fifteenth century. Paper was usually made from recycling textile fibres, rather than wood pulp that is more commonly used today. Paper was far cheaper than animal skins and thus was more suitable for information that needed to be communicated immediately. This document, in French, records a list of who has paid taxes within the region, information that was certainly important but which would most likely be collated into official documentary sources. However, as the collection and recording of taxes might have required travel across the region, the paper text has been bound in a cover made from a recycled document written on membrane that gave it better protection from the elements and in movement.

    Membranes retained their significance as the appropriate textual support for key legal and financial documents, even in print societies. This seventeenth-century contract, in French, has been recorded on a very fine quality membrane, perhaps vellum – a term that is used for very fine, prepared skins of, usually, young calves. The modern English term, veal, comes from the same Latin origin.

    Enclosing knowledge

    By Susan Broomhall

    Beyond choosing the right kind of textual support for information, a range of different covers could be made to protect the precious knowledge within. Several of the manuscripts dating from the mid-sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in the Vitalis collection are handwritten on paper but bound in animal membranes that were hardy and served as well-wearing protective covers. This particular example still retains parts of the original leather buckles that once kept the document inside safe from the elements.

    As this text shows, old manuscript texts on membrane that were no longer perceived to be relevant might find a new life as a front cover, protecting a new text. In a few cases, our only knowledge of a text comes from a copy that was preserved as a cover by later generations.

    Sometimes, a hard wooden board could be used as a cover, and as with this example, the board could be itself covered with a thin layer of leather that protected the board. This English translation of Martin Luther’s ‘discourses at his table, &c., which hee held with divers learned men’, was published in London in 1652.

    For efficiency, covers themselves were often labeled and over time, became increasingly decorative.

    The front cover of this work, a first edition of volume three of Martin Luther’s complete works published at Wittemberg in 1549, has been finely tooled with biblical imagery and narratives.

    Here can be seen Adam and Eve.

    Its leather-bound wooden cover has metal closures for further protection. Such a book offers more than one way to communicate its message even before one looks inside.

    The advent of print

    By Susan Broomhall

    These reproductions combine two important elements of religious practices at the time Martin Luther (1483–1546) was developing his theses. They are printed copies of what were known as indulgences. In Roman Catholic Church theology of the later middle ages, Christ and saints had accrued what we might think of as ‘extra credit’ stored in a treasury of merits that could be used to offset an individual’s sin. By performing a specific spiritual action such as prayers or good works, it could permissible to receive a remission of time to be spent in penance for a particular sin. Indulgences became so widespread and popular that there were official Church pardoners to regulate the system and early printers realized that there was money to be made by pre-preparing paper slips complete with blank spaces in which the relevant, specific details could simply be hand-written.

    This particular example was printed by one of the best-known early printers, Johannes Gutenberg (c. 1400–1468), working in Mainz, now in Germany. He is perhaps best known for his role in the introduction into Europe of moveable type and varied innovations to the printing press. Gutenberg had a range of skills from his work as a blacksmith and goldsmith and knowledge of contemporary wine presses that he combined in the development of print. By creating individual metal type for each letter, which could then be set in whatever order the text required in a mould, an infinite variety of texts could be set rapidly. Previously, a large section or page of text would be carved into a single wood block. Metal type was more durable, and individual letters slotted into a mould gave far greater flexibility. Once the mould was set up, any document that needed to be reproduced in large quantities, just like these indulgences, could be printed relatively cheaply and efficiently.

    The market for printed indulgences was by no means limited to Gutenberg and his fellow publishers in Mainz. In this example printed at Westminster in 1480, we see the earliest printer operating in England, William Caxton (c. 1422–c. 1491), producing the same mass texts for the English religious market.