Somer’s ‘Kalendarium’, Part 2: Arrangement of text and leaves

Ed. note: this is the second in a two-part series of extracts from the author’s recently published investigation into a rare example of a mediaeval folded manuscript. Part 1, examining the construction of the folded tabs, was published last month.

Most of the surviving copies of Somer’s Kalendarium are in codex form, so that the text is arranged on a manuscript bound together with the spine on the left and the pages turning from right to left. However, a few copies, including MS.8932, are presented in a different format, placing them within the genre of the folding book.1

MS.8932 is a compact manuscript comprising eight leaves of parchment,2 sitting within an embroidered cover that measures approximately 38 mm in width and 160 mm in length. One of the eight leaves has been damaged but presumably it was once the same size and shape as the others, though — as with most handcrafted objects — nothing is quite exact.3 Each leaf has been carefully folded to fit inside the cover and can be opened up to present an area of approximately 106 mm by 236 mm, with a tab of vellum extending down by approximately 30 mm below the page. All eight tabs disappear from view and are secured together beneath the tip of the embroidered cover. However, the tops of the tabs are visible and reveal that they are also folded, with their edges corresponding to the lower edge of the main leaf. It is therefore assumed that the vellum was originally around 106 mm by 275 mm and sliced twice to create both leaf and tab.

View of guideline on the folded tab. ©Jacqui Carey
Tabs inside the embroidered tip. ©Benjamin Gilbert/Wellcome

The leaves are bordered with fine pinholes that have been punctured through the vellum. They act as a measure for the faint guidelines that have been inked horizontally and vertically across the leaf. The guidelines continue down onto the tab, so it is assumed that a corresponding row of pinholes exists along the lower edge of the vellum. The guidelines are not uniform. Sometimes just horizontal lines are visible, providing the usual guides for the text. Elsewhere, horizontal and vertical lines combine to create grids of small squares that are used for the tables, whilst other sections of vellum remain unmarked. There appears to be no redundancy to the guidelines,4 so presumably they were worked to a predetermined arrangement.

It is customary to identify each side of a manuscript leaf or folio with the terms recto and verso, and these will be adhered to when describing MS.8932 in its unfolded state. However, such terminology for these two surfaces is limiting when one tries to understand how the manuscript functions as a book. Here, it is easier to relate to the twelve rectangular ‘compartments’ that are formed when each leaf is folded along two vertical lines and one horizontal line (Figs. 12.4 & 12.5).

Fig. 12.1 Fully folded with just the title compartment verso (vi) exposed. ©Jacqui Carey

The faint guidelines also divide the leaf into twelve compartments, though the folds do not always sit exactly on top of these guides. The three fold lines are clearly visible because the vellum has been stretched along the exterior of the fold and pinched along the interior. This distortion creates distinctive marks in the vellum that are visible even after a leaf has been completely flattened, as can be seen in another folded book that has been sliced and rebound in codex form.5 The fold lines are also defined by an accumulation of dirt, illustrating that the manuscript was typically in its folded position, because the most soiled parts of the fold lines are on the exposed outer edges.

The arrangement of Somer’s text reveals how MS.8932 should be read, with the tab at the base and the eight folded leaves flipping top to bottom. The front view of each folded leaf is a single rectangular compartment bearing its title, written in red with blue capitals.

The title is written on the front compartment of the first folded leaf.
When the leaf is fully opened, the title will be found on the verso side, corresponding to compartment verso (vi) in Fig. 12.5. ©Benjamin Gilbert/Wellcome

To read the contents of a leaf it can be partially or fully opened. Undoing one fold will reveal two new compartments, (Fig. 12.2) and opening up another fold will reveal two more (Fig. 12.3) At this point, three adjoining compartments lie exposed to the reader and the arrangement of the text within MS.8932 shows that the manuscript was intended to be read at this stage. Opening up the last fold reveals six new compartments, with the textual content arranged in two blocks of three adjacent compartments (Fig. 12.4). This final viewpoint is the recto side of the unfolded leaf.

Judging from the layout of the Kalendarium, reading the verso side as a single page was not intended, because it reveals only one compartment that has yet to be exposed and some of the text would be upside down (Fig. 12.5). Therefore, there are three standard positions for reading MS.8932 (Figs. 12.1, 12.3 and 12.4). However, the scribe obviously had difficulty in compressing all of the text into these particular compartments. Consequently, there are some layout oddities on three of the leaves (one, six and eight).

On the first leaf, Somer’s introductory text conveniently breaks at the end of the third compartment [verso (i) in Fig. 12.3], ready to start a new sentence when the leaf is fully opened [starting at the top of recto (i) in Fig. 12.4]. However, just the final few words of the canon are missing from the three-compartment block [at the end of recto (iii) in Fig. 12.4], and they can be found on the verso [compartment verso (iv) in Fig. 12.5]. It is possible that this was intentional, as the last bit of text consists of a short expression for remembering eclipse calculations.6 Its positioning on the verso (iv) compartment may be deliberate, because the summary would be easily accessible after opening just one fold (Fig. 12.2).

A similar arrangement is found on leaf eight, as the content extends beyond the normal layout, though here the wording found on the verso (iv) compartment is the entire text that introduces the solar and lunar eclipse tables that fill all of the usual compartments on that leaf. Again, the use of the verso (iv) compartment could be construed as a convenient placement of the text. Typically, the content on leaf eight is set before the lunar eclipse tables that are found on leaf seven. However, the displacement does not unduly hamper the reading of the data.

The text overflows more extensively on leaf six, and this is the only leaf that uses the rear compartment verso (v). In order to read the excess text, the almanac needs to be turned over after opening two folds, keeping the tab at the base. Once more, there appears to be some forethought about the practicalities of using the Kalendarium. The text is a brief canon describing the tables found on the same leaf. The canon fills a total of three compartments, and they could easily sit together in the usual block that is visible after opening two folds [versos (i, ii, & iii) in Fig. 12.3.]. Nevertheless, the text is divided so that it starts in compartment verso (i), before going overleaf to compartments verso (iv) and (v). The advantage of this arrangement is that compartments verso (ii) and (iii) are then available to give precedence to the more useful “Table of the Planets”.

The arrangement of Somer’s text over the eight leaves suggests that the maker of MS.8932 considered both its form and function. The text appears to have been thoughtfully placed to optimise the almanac’s efficacy, implying that the scribe was aware of the significance of Somer’s content and how the data would be best positioned when the leaves were finally folded.

A video that shows how the leaves of MS.8932 fold and unfold can be found here.

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

Featured image ©Benjamin Gilbert/Wellcome.


  1. Seven of the thirty-three complete copies listed by Mooney (1998:48) are in folded format, as are two of the nine incomplete versions. In Professor Gumbert’s book, he refers to this style of manuscript as a bat book.
  2. Roberts (1982:277) defines this as “a translucent or opaque material produced from calfskin that has been soaked, limed and unhaired, and then dried at normal temperature under tension.”
  3. For example, the width of the cover varies along its length, and there are subtle differences in the page sizes. Measurements are taken from the accession notes, and these vary slightly from the Christie’s auction notes.
  4. There are a few areas that could be considered as exceptions, such as the empty lines that continue below the halfway line on the seventh leaf.
  5. An almanac for the year 1463, thought to have been rebound after the 1600s. British Library, Lansdowne MS.331.
  6. “Puncta cadente mora, duracio tempus & hora.” Translated as “Points, setting, delay, duration, time and hour.” Mooney (1998:110).

Gumbert, J. Peter. Bat Books: A Catalogue of Folded Manuscripts Containing Almanacs or Other Text, Bibliologia 41. Turnhout: Brepols, 2016.
Mooney, Linne R., ed. The Kalendarium of John Somer. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998.
Roberts, Matt T., and Don Etherington. Bookbinding and the Conservation of Books : A Dictionary of Descriptive Terminology. Washington: Library of Congress, 1982.

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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