Medieval Bookmarks Lead the Way
Frank X. Roberts
The ancestry of all modern bookmarks can be traced back to three basic types of bookmarks used in the Middle Ages. Some of these are still extant in medieval manuscript books preserved in cathedral and university libraries in England, in Europe and in the United States.
The first type, the register bookmark, was made of thin cords of vellum, leather or string, either sewn into the headband or knotted through a tab at the top of the binding of a manuscript. The register cords extended, between any two pages, to below the bottom of the book. Each cord had a knot in its lower end, for ease of handling.
Medieval manuscripts were usually written with two columns of text on both sides of each leaf or page. Some register bookmarks were designed specifically as aides-memoire for readers or copyists in medieval scriptoria using manuscripts with this two-columned page layout. Attached to the cord of this kind of register bookmark was a parchment disk pierced through its center and held by a knotted string between two other pieces of parchment. These two outer pieces were either semi-circular or cut back on one edge to expose a part of the rim of the inner disk. When rotated the disk revealed, one at a time, the Roman numerals I – IIII (sic), written close to its outer edge, in the position of the four points of the compass. The numeral left showing, later reminded the user at which column (working from the left, i.e., column I, to the right, i.e., column IIII) reading or copy-work had stopped for the day. Register bookmarks with rotating disks, while rare, still exist in, for example, manuscripts in the libraries of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge University (MS 49 Biblia 13th century), St. John’s College, Cambridge (MS 90 Gregorii Liber Pastoralis, 12th century), Hereford Cathedral library (MS P.V1.11 Moralia Job, 12th century), and at the Houghton Library, Harvard University (MS Typ 277 Gilbert of Poitiers).
A unique medieval register bookmark can be seen at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, in a fifteenth-century manuscript (MS Lyell 60, Monastic Rubes, etc.) written with only one column of text on each page, like a modern book. The bookmark is unique in its rarity, but also because the parchment pieces attached to the register cord are in the shape of a cross, rather than a circle or disk. This cruciform attachment is made of two small rectangular pieces of parchment, the vertical arm of which slides easily up and down through two slits cut in its horizontal arm. On the vertical arm the figures 1, 2, 3, 4 are written, one above the other. As the arm is moved up or down, one of these numbers shows in the center of the horizontal arm of the tiny cross. The number showing indicates the area of the page, on the left or right where the book is open, marked by the reader when work on the manuscript was interrupted. This particular medieval register bookmark in the Bodleian manuscript is, as far as is known, the only one of its kind extant.
Another more common (though still rare) kind of medieval register bookmark is the unattached or portable variety. The example shown in the illustration is from a thirteenth-century manuscript in the library of Exeter Cathedral (MS 3515 Missale). This portable register bookmark consists of a small rod or post made of tightly rolled vellum. Attached to the post are five vellum thongs which are meant to hang between various leaves or pages of a manuscript book to mark places in it. The small rod or post to which the thongs are attached would rest loosely on the top edge of a bound manuscript thus making the whole device portable and easily moved to another book. A similar bookmark, but with six thongs lives in a twelfth-century manuscript owned by Pembroke College, Cambridge University (MS 180 Hilarius). And there is another of this kind in the library of St. John’s College, Cambridge (MS 9 Augustinus m Johannes, 12th century) but which has in place of vellum register thongs, three white linen strings and two red, white and blue braided strings attached to a wooden pin which rests loosely on the top edge of the manuscript. Like the portable register bookmark in the Exeter Cathedral manuscript, these latter two bookmarks could also easily be moved about for use in other books.
From the Middle Ages to today, readers have used a variety of common and exotic items between the pages of books to mark a place. In the Middle Ages such loose or portable bookmarks (the third type) included scraps of parchment, vellum, leather, string, small twigs, stems of plants and pieces of straw. Crumbled remains of these materials are still found in ancient manuscripts by librarians and scholars. In the library of Balliol College, Oxford University there is still in place in a fifteenth-century manuscript book (MS 161 Andreas Billia) a slip of parchment with Latin in a medieval hand written on it. And in another fifteenth-century book at Balliol (MS 209 Dun Scotus) there resides a larger parchment piece folded in two with writing in a medieval hand between the fold. Both of these scraps are no doubt long-forgotten bookmarks. Six more “bookmarkers” of like nature can be found in the library of Peterhouse College, Cambridge University. They were first described by R.H.B. Mynors in 1948 in a short article entitled “Some Bookmarkers at Peterhouse.” Perhaps because of Mynors’ article, or for whatever reason, there is now in a thirteenth-century manuscript in the Peterhouse College library (MS 132 Legenda Aurea), where three of these six bookmarkers reside, the following cautionary plea: “The three markers should be kept in their proper places in the MS at f. 61, f. 66 and f.102.” It is interesting to note that after nearly 800 years these bookmarks, which started life as nondescript scraps employed to do a temporary service, have become an integral part of the book in which they were placed so long ago, and that now the manuscript would somehow be a different document without them in their “proper places.”
Much more could be said about the makeup and use of medieval bookmarks if space allowed. But it is hoped that this brief discussion will give readers some idea and appreciation of an interesting and unique area of the history of bookmarks which relates closely to the broader topics of the history of the book and of reading.
Bookmarks are one of the ubiquitous artifacts of our contemporary culture, but like many everyday objects, we rarely give them a second thought. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, are made from both natural and manmade materials, such as plastic. They have become collectors’ items, and are used not only to mark a place in a book but also to advertise and propagandize.
Today’s register bookmarks, usually made of silk ribbon or cord, are found mainly in bibles, hymn books, large dictionaries, one-volume encyclopedias and book-club editions of the classics. The medieval fore-edge bookmark has evolved into our thumb-index. Modern loose or portable bookmarks, besides being reading tools, frequently provide users with humorous or philosophical comments and appealing illustrations. And now, unlike in medieval times, purpose-made portable bookmarks are readily obtainable from libraries, from bookshops and other commercial establishments, and from tourist sites everywhere.
Bookmark specifications: Unavailable for obvious reasons.