Size Matters

Throughout the early Middle Ages, only about 5% of the population could read and write. In an era where literacy was a rare and precious commodity, all books—regardless of size—served as symbols of power, wealth, and prestige. If owning and showing off a small book was the medieval way of saying ‘I’m important and kind of awesome,’ then a guy lugging around a book of this weight and size (see it’s relationship in size to a student ID card below) basically screamed ‘VIP.’ Like now, books were produced in the Middle Ages to preserve and disseminate knowledge. Large books like this one also had the added function of making people who didn’t have access to books or know how to read feel incredibly impotent. This book spent its medieval life perched on the lectern at the front of a large church. The priest who used this book could have made do with a book a fraction of this size, but his authority was constructed in part by the fact that everyone in the church—even in those sitting in the way back—could see that he had a book…and they didn’t.

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Mini books

Medieval books come in all sizes, and for good reason. In the fourteenth century, bibles written in Middle English were banned, leaving readers with the challenge of devising innovative ways to get their hands on these forbidden books…and read them without getting caught. One strategy involved making really, really small books that could be hidden in one’s pocket (hence, the term ‘pocket bible’). Needless to say, tiny texts similar in size to these filled the medieval black market. Think the act of hiding books is all in the past? Think again. Today, technology makes it easy to read Fifty Shades of Grey on our e-readers without anyone knowing.

Fifty Shades of Grey

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50ShadesofGreyCoverArt.jpg

 

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Olin Library Special Collections, Rollins College

 

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Supersized Manuscripts

Due to its commanding size, the manuscript page below suggests that it came from an important book. However, upon closer inspection, we see that size doesn’t always equal value.

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Olin Library Special Collections, Rollins College

 

The process of creating and preparing the material on which manuscripts were written—vellum—involved, in some cases, the murder of hundreds of cows and sheep. After an extensive process of stripping hair from the hide, treating the hide with lye and stretching the skin to better scrape away any impurities, the vellum was sent to a scribe. The hair follicles of the deceased animal are still visible on parts of this manuscript page, telling us that the book from which this page came was equivalent in quality to a mass market paperback—that is, cheaply produced and with inexpensive materials.

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Olin Library Special Collections, Rollins College

 

The lighter-colored patches the above manuscript mark where the skin has been scraped smooth. If you look closely at the darker patches, you can see hair follicles (and even bits of hair) that have been left behind.