You’d Better Love It, ‘Cause It’s With You Forever

Getting a tattoo is a big deal because whatever image or text you etch into your skin—and where on your body you put it—will be there forever. The process of getting inked today mirrors in striking ways the process of writing on parchment in the Middle Ages, but instead of marking up a human body you use an animal hide, and instead of a finished product that takes the form of a mangled dolphin or butterfly on the ankle, you end up with something like the texts on display {insert gasp of awe}. Because books were made out of and written on bodies (of animals), physical reminders of the materiality of the medieval book abound on almost every page, including this one. Several hundred years ago, someone turned the page a little too enthusiastically and accidentally tore off the bottom right hand corner in the process (see close up). The way that this wound was fixed in the premodern era is the same way that we fix our own cuts and scrapes today: namely, we stitch them up.

Olin Library Special Collections, Rollins College


Oops I Did It Again….

Before the advent of computers, everything was handwritten. Misspelled words and grammatical errors now can be fixed with the click of a keyboard button, but no such luck in the Middle Ages. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, manuscripts were made out of animal skin (the fancy term is ‘vellum’) and written upon with permanent ink made out of charcoal or oak tree gall. As a result, the editing options available to medieval scribes who messed up on their manuscripts were basically the same as the choices available to first-year college students who wake up the morning after a raucous night on the town to find themselves sporting a surprise tattoo. Uh oh.

Option A: You can cross out the mistake.


Option B: You can get creative and turn the mistake into a decoration.

Inked5Dino Tattoo

Option C: You can literally cut out the mistake with a scalpel (Middle Ages) or zap it off with a laser (today).

Inked 6Inked7


It’s All in the Packaging

Hunger Games book coverHunger Games movie book cover

Just as the marketing team behind The Hunger Games realized that they could sell more book copies by putting a flirty photo of its heroine on the cover, medieval bookmakers employed similar marketing strategies to push their own bestsellers. While Katniss exudes sex appeal, how did medieval illuminators go about turning the fourteenth-century’s must-reads—the bible and books of hours (devotional day planners)—into hot commodities?

Enter gold leafing.

In addition to turning Jesus and the bible into irresistible eye candy, this gorgeous but foul-tasting material also served a secondary function as a handy insect repellent that warded off flesh-eating bugs that considered parchment to be a tasty delicacy. Thus, the origin of the term ‘bookworm.’


Olin Library Special Collections, Rollins College

The two manuscript leaves pictured above come from two different books of hours. The content of both source texts is largely the same, but which one would you rather read?

We thought so.