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.

A second type of bookmark used in the Middle Ages was the fore-edge bookmark attached in various ways to the outer margin of a manuscript page. A fifteenth-century manuscript from Pembroke College, Oxford (MS 1 Missale), exhibits three kinds of fore-edge bookmarks, attached in three different ways. On the fore-edge of one leaf of the manuscript a piece of black thread has been knotted through horizontal slits, and protrudes about a quarter of an inch to act as a marker. At a number of other leaves in the manuscript, small pieces of vellum have been doubled over and roughly sewn to the edge of the pages, sticking out slightly to mark various places. But an even rougher method (an early and extreme example of dog-earing) was also used. The fore-edge of a leaf in the manuscript was cannibalized by making a vertical cut down from its top edge, leaving a long strip of vellum hanging loose, but still attached. This hanging piece was then threaded back and forth through horizontal slits cut below it in the margin of the book, so that a small portion of its leading end projected beyond the fore-edge of the page to form a place-marker.

Not all fore-edge bookmarks in medieval manuscripts were such book-destroying and poorly crafted affairs. A fifteenth-century psalter (a book of psalms used in religious ceremonies) owned by the University of Leeds in Yorkshire contains fore-edge bookmarks which appear to have been produced with care, and with some art. Each marker is made of a doubled-over strip of vellum about one-half inch long and three-sixteenths of an inch wide, with a small colored bead attached to one end. The strips have been slid over and glued down to both sides of the fore-edge of different leaves in the manuscript, where required. The colored bead on the end of each strip protrudes beyond the edge of its page to mark a place. The psalter is skillfully hand-written, with colored illustrations, and large gold-leafed initials at the beginning of its major sections. These carefully crafted fore-edge bookmarks add both utility and beauty to the manuscript.

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.

Frank is a semi-regular contributor to BiblioBuffet. His extensive career in teaching and librarianship began when he taught English in the U.S. From 1961 to 1963, as part of a Columbia University program called “Teachers for East Africa,” he taught English and American Literature in East Africa. There he met his wife, Dorothy. They returned to the U.S. where he simultaneously taught and finished two Masters’ degrees in Education and in Librarianship. In 1968 they returned to England where Frank taught Library Studies, and adopted Hodge, a cat who later traveled around the world with them. In 1972, Frank was “seconded” for two years to teach at Makerere University in Uganda, East Africa, but left reluctantly after one year when the tyranny of Idi Amin became intolerable. From there it was back to England, then Australia and finally  to America in 1979, to Buffalo where Frank earned his doctorate. Later they moved to Colorado, where he was Professor of Library Studies at the University of Northern Colorado until retiring in 1997. Frank published James A. Michener: A Checklist of his Work with a Selected Annotated Bibliography (Greenwood Press) in 1995. He has written on bookmarks, specifically on medieval bookmarks, his special area of interest. A poet by avocation, he writes eclectically but traditionally. He can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
Contact Us || Site Map || || Article Search || © 2006 - 2012 BiblioBuffet