Episode 38: Take a Look, It’s in a Book (or a scroll, or a tablet, or…)


“When I was in library school, we never discussed outright conquest as a method of collection development.” In which we discuss books (and other recordkeeping methods), the growth of reading in conjunction with the consolidation of manuscripts, and also Em is a nerd about classification systems.


Paul Saenger “Silent Reading: Its Impact on Late Medieval Script and Society,” Viator 13 (1982): 367–414.

Paul Saenger Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading. Stanford University Press link.

Lambros Malafouris How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement. MIT Press link.

Lionel Casson, Libraries in the Ancient World. Amazon link.


1/ The “map of a cat” story was in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman. He has come up before on this podcast too–see episode 2, note 24.

2/ Melvil Dui’s issues could probably fill a three-volume series. Book 1: the problems with the Dewey Decimal System. Book 2: Spelling. Book 3: Sexism. Yanno.

Besides Dewey, other common classification systems are Library of Congress Classification (my favorite, despite its faults), Universal Decimal Classification, and Colon Classification (used a lot in India). I believe there may have once been a system called Cutter Classification, which is now only, or largely, extant in “Cutter numbers,” which are the numbers that get put after your classification number to shift it over on the shelf and make it unique while still keeping it in the category you need. Chinese and Russian libraries have their own systems. –Em

Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things begins with this famous passage:

This book first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought–our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography–breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other. This passage quotes a ‘certain Chinese encyclopedia’ in which it is written that ‘animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies’. In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the very thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.

3/ “More than twelve.” LOL there’s about 28, or 30 if you count the Wisconsin Historical Society archives and UW’s archives and records management. [Wow, awesome!–JN]

4/ Virtual unfolding! Here is the scientific article by J. Dambrogio et al explaining the process: “Unlocking history through automated virtual unfolding of sealed documents imaged by X-ray microtomography.” and here is an article with a simpler explanation of the scientific paper above: https://www.npr.org/2021/03/02/972607811/reading-a-letter-thats-been-sealed-for-more-than-300-years-without-opening-it — this was recently published when we recorded this episode.

And here is an article about scanning fragile papyrus scrolls from Herculaneum, where a private library of 2,000 scrolls was buried by Mt Vesuvius. (Pompeii wasn’t the only town buried!) https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/buried-ash-vesuvius-scrolls-are-being-read-new-xray-technique-180969358/

In episode 32, note 6 we discussed the use of modern technology to read palimpsests. Here’s a fun article on students doing this for a project: https://www.rit.edu/news/rit-students-discover-hidden-15th-century-text-medieval-manuscripts

5/ For general info on Nippur: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nippur

6/ Ebla tablets: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ebla_tablets

7/ Hattusa (see the section on the royal archives): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hattusa

Em: Nowadays, a colophon refers to a page at the end of a work that gives information on the typeface the work is printed in.

8/ Tiglath-Pileser I (reigned c.1115 to 1077 B.C.E.): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiglath-Pileser_I

9/ Ashurbanipal (reigned c. 668 BCE–631 BCE); his library: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Library_of_Ashurbanipal

10/42:xx The Enuma Elis, we have mentioned before, is the Babylonian creation epic on which the Torah’s creation story may have been partially based. See episode 4, note 3 for more!

11/ Provenance is very important to scholars (and it theoretically ensures that nothing was stolen). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Provenance

12/ 53ish: My (Em’s) librarian mind is a little blown by the curses. All the libraries I’ve ever worked in used something called tattle tape. Curses seem much better.

Jesse: It might be time for them to start trying some curses! These are mostly in Casson, pages 10–13.

13/ All hail banned books week! List of banned books: https://bannedbooksweek.org/banned-books-week-2021-books-unite-us/

And Tango Makes Three has frequently been banned: https://bannedbooksweek.org/banned-spotlight-and-tango-makes-three/
Here is its Amazon site: https://www.amazon.com/Tango-Makes-Three-Classic-Board/dp/1481446959

14/ I do want to give a shout out to Handel’s Alexander’s Feast, although I’m not sure that this is what Alexander had in mind.
Here’s the Spotify link: https://open.spotify.com/album/3Q7efFg6OJ5ePGnLlTAvgg?si=aUw7XuLcTcSzU0ICCLvErg&dl_branch=1

Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander%27s_Feast_(Handel)

Episode 32: You Better Work, Beeyatch


Em and Jesse reminisce about libraries they have known, discuss scriptoria and book-making before the printing press, and talk about women who worked in various Medieval professional guilds, how they got there, and what they did with their money.

Annotations and Corrections

Recommended text for this episode: Reassessing the Roles of Women as ‘Makers’ of Medieval Art and Architecture. Edited by Therese Martin. Leiden: Brill, 2012.

1/ Things that are artisanal: bread, cheese, beer, anything made in Brooklyn. . . .

2/ Christmas Book Flood!! Or the Jolabokaflod.

3/ The relationship between Finnish and Hungarian is actually pretty complicated. The Finno-Uralic language family has nine language groupings in it; the major languages are, in order of number of speakers, Hungarian, Finnish, Estonian, and then a bunch of minority languages that are spoken by very small groups (tribes, I guess), like Mari, Udmurt, Mordvin, and so on. These languages have some structural, lexicographical, and phonetic similarities, but how they’re actually related is still a subject of debate, as is the question of how they might be related to other Indo-European (or non-Indo-European languages). There are also linguists who claim that these are all just a bunch of weird languages that got stuck together and they’re not actually related, as well as weird theories that propose Finnish is related to Basque (probably the most famous isolate) or Hungarian is related to Etruscan.

4/ The movie was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Good movie, but, uh, wow. Some uncomfortable stuff in there, made more awkward because I was watching it in a kind of art house movie theatre with mostly a bunch of Boomers. . . .

5/ DIY Quarto https://www.folger.edu/publishing-shakespeare/diy-quarto

6/ This site has some examples of different handwriting styles.

Palaeography is the study of historic writing, handwriting systems, etc. We’re discussing medieval Palaeography!

For more on cats, scribes, and their fights, see episode 30 (especially notes 12 and 13), and also this blog: https://medievalfragments.wordpress.com/2013/02/22/paws-pee-and-mice-cats-among-medieval-manuscripts/

A palimpsest is text that’s hidden (invisible to the naked eye) under another text that’s been written over it. Modern technology (ultraviolet light/photography) has made palimpsests visible again without damaging the surface text.

7/ Luttrell Psalter (BL MS 42130): Here’s a link to f157r (that’s the front–recto–of page/leaf 157). Click forward to see amazing and delightful scenes from the Luttrell village, or backwards to see animals and Biblical scenes, and fantastic illuminations.

Here is the link to f. 202v (that’s the back of page/leaf 202): “A knight with the Luttrell arms, mounted, armed, and attended by two women identified by their heraldic surcoats as Agnes Sutton (d. 1340) and Beatrice Le Scrope (the wife and the daughter-in-law of Sir Geoffrey Luttrell)” according to the British Library description. The knight is presumably Sir Geoffrey himself (with his wife and daughter-in-law, yay).

See episode 8 note 24 for all the great info on the Master of Catherine of Cleves (active ca. 1435–60). Here’s the Morgan Library’s website on The Hours of Catherine of Cleves: https://www.themorgan.org/collection/Hours-of-Catherine-of-Cleves

Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry: This was created by the Limbourg Brothers.

The Lindisfarne Gospels: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lindisfarne_Gospels (Created by Eadfrith, who became Bishop of Lindisfarne.)

8/ Extensive reading: reading a lot of books. Intensive reading: reading one book really closely (many people read their bible this way, whatever their religion is).

9/Hildegard’s Ordo Virtutum was discussed in episode 6 (see notes 17 and 23).

10/ For more on women as illuminators, see Christine Havice, “Women and the Production of Art in the Middle Ages,” in Double Vision: Perspectives on Gender and the Visual Arts. Edited by Natalie Harris Bluestone. Associated University Presses, 1995. Pages 67–94.

Reassessing the Roles of Women as ‘Makers’ of Medieval Art and Architecture, edited by Therese Martin. Leiden: Brill, 2012.

For more on the nuns of St Katharine’s in Nuremberg, see Jane Carroll, “Subversive Obedience: Images of Spiritual Reform by and for Fifteenth-Century Nuns,” in Reassessing the Roles, ed. Martin pp. 705–737. (Full cite of Martin’s above.)

For more on Donella, see Loretta Vandi, “‘The Woman with the Flower.’ Social and Artistic Identity in Medieval Italy,” in Gesta 39.1 (2000): 73–77.

For more on Guda see Pierre Alain Mariaux, “Women in the making: Early Medieval Signatures and Artists’ Portraits (9th–12th c.),” in Reassessing the Roles, ed. Martin, pp. 393–427, esp. 413–415. (Full cite of Martin’s text above.)

11/ Not sure what I referring to here, so instead here’s a link to a really important article from 1971 on feminist art history, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists” by Linda Nochlin:

12/ Antonia Pulci (1452/54–1501) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonia_Tanini_Pulci

Plautilla Nelli’s Last Supper: https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/plautilla-nelli-last-supper

13/ Meredith Parsons Lillich, “Gothic Glaziers: Monks, Jews, Taxpayers, Bretons, Women,” in Journal of Glass Studies 27 (1985): 72–92.

Christine Hediger, “Female Donors of Medieval Stained-Glass Windows,” in Investigations in Medieval Stained Glass Materials, Methods, and Expressions edited by Elizabeth Carson Pastan and Brigitte Kurmann-Schwarz (Leiden: Brill, 2019): 239–250 (esp. 241, for servant story and prostitutes story, and 247 for the “restored” male heads story).

14/ Vigil Raber (1490–1552) ran his studio with his wife, who continued to run the studio after his death. See M.A. Katrizky, “What Did Vigil Raber’s Stage Really Look Like?,” in Vigil Raber: Zur 450 Wiederkehr seines Todesjahres eds. Michael Gebhardt and Max Siller (Innsbruck: Universitaetsverlag Wagner, 2004): 85–116 (p. 85).

See episode 6 note 33 too.

15/ For those curious, this site has a breakdown of percentage male/female in different careers worldwide (excluding China and India for which data were not available), using data from the International Labour Organization. An example of a career with a 12% male participation rate is personal care worker (i.e., health care assistant–I think in the US we would call this an LPN type of position). A career with 10% female participation is commissioned armed forces officer. A similar table from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics gives the figures for the US in 2020. One career here that has 11.8% women in it is electrical and electronics engineers. A career that is largely female is preschool and kindergarten teachers–only 1.2% male. Interestingly, a solid 25% of private detectives are female, and there are 800,000 of them in the country.

16/ Actual city of London: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LrObZ_HZZUc

17/ When I say it was less likely that women would paint people as opposed to still lifes, I meant during the Renaissance. Obviously women take nude drawing classes all the time now without much comment. (I have, anyway.)–Em