Somer’s ‘Kalendarium’, Part 1: folded tabs

Ed. note: this is the first in a two-part series of extracts from the author’s recently published investigation into a rare example of a mediaeval folded manuscript. Part 2, detailing the arrangement of the text leaves, follows next month.

Wellcome Collection’s MS.8932 is an exceptional artefact for many reasons, one of which is the style in which the vellum leaves are folded. In Prof. Gumbert’s 2016 book on the subject, he proposed that this type of manuscript be called a bat book, as its leaves open like wings and it rests folded upside down. Gumbert’s catalogue of sixty-three extant examples provides an excellent resource for comparative study, revealing that MS.8932 is folded in the most common format, with three fold lines that create twelve compartments. This format enables the content of MS.8932, an early copy of Somer’s Kalenderium, to be accessed in a compact and efficient manner, as each of the eight leaves can be partially or fully opened to reveal specific compartments. The arrangement of Somer’s text within the manuscript shows that there are three standard reading positions (Figs. 12.1, 12.3, 12.4)*. Consequently, the normal recto/verso orientation of a leaf is not applicable, which meant that the scribe’s job required more forethought to ensure the correct placement of the text within the manuscript.

Fig. 12.5 ©Jacqui Carey

A different approach is also required when assembling manuscripts of this type, and this article focuses on the construction of the tabs. Unlike the leaves of a typical codex, which are secured together along the entirety of one edge to form a spine, the eight leaves of MS.8932 are joined at the base of the page with a tab — a narrow section of vellum that extends approximately 30mm beyond the bottom of each page. MS.8932 appears to be unique among bat books, as the tabs are made from an extension of folded vellum, created when two slices are made at the base of the page (Fig. 12.4). The process of construction is shown in Figures 98-100. Pinholes and guidelines helped the scribe to work on individual leaves, enabling them to add content into the appropriate compartments. Some of the folds do not fully align with these guidelines and the content strays into the creases. Therefore, it is assumed that the three folds were made after the scribe’s work was finished. First, each leaf is folded along a horizontal line, so that the top of the page reaches the base of the page, and the two slices are cut along this edge (Fig. 98). These slices separate the sides of the tab from the compartments above them (recto and verso [iv] & [vi] in Figs. 12.4 & 5). The leaf and tab are both folded along two vertical lines, taking the right-hand side over first, followed by the left-hand side (Fig. 99). All of the folded leaves can then be stitched together through their tabs, before the tabs are trimmed to a taper (Fig. 100). The trimmed tabs are clearly visible along the side edge of MS.8932 (Fig.18), but their folded nature was only confirmed by the careful examination of the inner space between each leaf. Most of the tabs’tabs’ folded sections are still attached to the central section, but a few have been trimmed so closely that they are now detached. The fact that they remain in place supports the theory that the tabs were stitched together before they were trimmed.

Although Gumbert (2016:22) overlooked the folded tabs on MS.8932, he does mention “extra layers in the stub” of two bat books, and suggests that these may have helped offset some of the difference in thickness between the tabs and folded leaves. Both examples comprise many leaves that cause them to bulge outwards, so thicker tabs would have helped to elevate the strain at their meeting point. For one example (MS Classe V 154, held at the Biblioteca del Museo Correr, Venice), Gumbert describes the extra layers as “introduced” rather than as part of the existing tabs. No mention of attachment is made for the extra layers of the other example (Vitt. Em. 1001 in the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Rome), and Gumbert queries whether some are remnants of missing leaves, noting that restoration has potentially disturbed the evidence. It is here that MS.8932 can provide a useful guide, raising awareness of the existence of folded tabs and the possibility that an “extra layer” may be an integral part of the tab. Indeed, the illustration of how MS.8932’s construction method has left the folds vulnerable to breakage can alert future investigators to signs of vulnerable joins, so that care can be taken to minimise damage.

Fig. 18 ©Jacqui Carey

Furthermore, an expectation of finding a folded tab can alter one’s recognition of the evidence, and this may increase the detection of more examples as the folds of a tab begin to be differentiated from broken leaves and separate additions. British Library’s Sloane 807 is a case in point. Described by Gumbert as “small pieces of parchment sewn on the stub, of doubtful authenticity” (2016:166), the evidence has been reassessed as folded tabs. However, these folds differ from the format seen on MS.8932. Here, the tabs extend beyond the page to a depth of around 33 mm but are only the width of a single compartment. Nonetheless, each leaf has a folded tab with the parchment creased along two lines. The two base corners of the tab are folded inwards along diagonal lines until they meet in the centre, thus creating an elegant tapered point whilst padding out the stub of the manuscript (images online The pinholes along the edges of the tapered point are comparable with evidence found on MS.8932. This suggests that Sloane 807 originally had a binding secured around the fold lines with overcasting stitches and a tubular edging, but that is another story. In the meantime, it will be interesting to see how an appreciation of folded tabs brings more information to light.

*Note: figure numbering follows that of the original publication.

Featured image courtesy of Benjamin Gilbert/Wellcome.

Gumbert, J. Peter. Bat Books: A Catalogue of Folded Manuscripts Containing Almanacs or Other Text, Bibliologia 41. Turnhout: Brepols, 2016.

Jacqui Carey is a textile craftsperson with a passion for analysing historic artefacts in order to understand the what, why and how of past practice. Her Wellcome Trust Research Bursary to study the almanac has resulted in the book MS.8932: A Medieval Embroidered Folded Almanac.

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