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As you know if you’ve read my story The Voynich Affair, I love a mysterious manuscript. I am drawn to the idea that books and manuscripts have, in a very real sense, lives of their own. Manuscripts, especially, retain an aura of the person who penned them. The oldest books have passed through many hands, traveled the world by land and sea, and survived all manner of risk to reach this moment in time. And every so often, a book will establish an unusual rapport with an individual. In these cases, it’s not that you’ve found a special book. The book has found you–for reasons of its own.


An early Carolingian minuscule: Life of St. Marcellinus, St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 549. Ca. 800 CE. Source: e-Codices.

13. A Fine Minuscule

Tabitha brought a sheaf of dark folders back to the desk in her cubicle. After weeks of steady work, she was still only beginning to become acquainted with the Porteous holdings in her area of study. She had reviewed all the complete codices, as book-shaped manuscripts were called. Now she turned to the many single leaves of the collection, which were stored in archival plastic sleeves within the folders. Tabitha disliked single leaves, which all too often had been disassembled from full books by unscrupulous dealers. Individual leaves were easy to sell to the general public, who might well spend $500 in order to own a piece of the medieval world, but certainly not $30,000. Sold separately, they often fetched higher prices than the complete book would. And if a book happened to be stolen, the division into leaves would make it difficult to trace. True, many books broken down in this way were damaged and incomplete to begin with, but to Tabitha’s mind this was irrelevant. Books should never be disassembled, she believed, for one could only appreciate what a handmade book had to offer by viewing it as an integral whole. Before the advent of printing, each book was unique.

It was the peculiar fate of the prayer aids called Books of Hours to be broken down, because they were so often decorated with illuminated initials and colorful border designs. Tabitha’s sheaf of folders contained many individual leaves with breathtaking miniature paintings. Eyecatching as these were, she disapproved of the fact that the value of such manuscripts was dictated entirely by the number, size, and quality of the miniatures. To her, the script was just as lovely, and nothing could exceed the beauty of a distinctive yet regular hand. She liked to imagine the monks at work, spending all the daylight hours crouched over sheets of creamy vellum in silent scriptoria, their hands and eyes aching as they performed their strange magic for the greater glory of God.

She came to a section of odds and ends, including a set of two damaged vellum leaves which had once been part of a small codex. These immediately captured her attention. They lacked illustrations, though some initials were enlarged and written in red. The letters were fat, rounded, and legible, and the ink was a mellowed light brown color. This was an example of the Carolingian minuscule, the writing developed in the court of Charlemagne. It was the offspring of the old Roman scripts, a new style of writing introduced from Ireland, whose energetic, erudite missionaries had settled throughout the continent, spreading their monastic fervor.

Checking the accession notes, she found a description: Fragment of a narrative history or fable, probably from a compendium. Northern France, perhaps Tours. 2 leaves, 320mm by 255mm, Carolingian minuscule, 2-line initials in red, blank margins, minor insect damage. The item had been acquired from a Sotheby’s sale and had previously been in the hands of a rather well-known private collector.

Nigel came by to see how she was getting along, and she pointed to the leaves. “What’s this? It’s gorgeous, but we scarcely have any information on the content.”

He glanced at the documents. “A piece of luck that you turned this up; it’s the one item I forgot to include when we went over your list of top priorities. Beyond the fact that it’s probably tenth-century, I have nothing to add to our knowledge. Consider it your next assignment.”

“It will be my pleasure,” she replied, her eyes still on the enigmatic leaves.

Nigel grinned. “You’re a sucker for a fine minuscule. I can always tell.”

Copyright 2016 by Linnet Moss

Notes: In the story, Tabitha rejects manuscript illustrations in favor of handwriting, which interests her far more. But it has to be admitted that manuscript miniatures can be ravishing. One of my favorites is a treasure in the British Library, the Isabella Breviary, made as a wedding gift for Isabella of Castile in the late 15th century. Its lavish decorations are delicate, feminine, and whimsical.


Detail from a breviary made for Isabella of Castile, Bruges, 1497.