Features of the Text

The Alberta manuscript is a beautiful text, second only to the Paris copy in its quality and lavish production. It is bound with oak boards covered in velvet (either originally dark brown or aged to its present colour over time); the binding is damaged, and the boards are loose. Four brass bosses (studs) appear on the front cover and five on the back; these were used to prevent the luxury velvet binding from becoming worn through contact with hard surfaces. Four brass corner supports remain on the front and three on the back; the top-left corner is missing. There are remains of a closing apparatus: the clasps and bands are gone, but two pins remain on the back.

The back cover—which would have appeared on top when the book lay on a surface—also contains a fenestra, or bookplate. An English inscription appears in the lettre bourguignonne hand that was common to the Low Countries in the late fifteenth century: “a booke in frenche of the creat[i]on and fall of aungells.” This inscription is an important clue to the early provenance and travels of the book.

The book retains its original binding and stitching; the binding is now damaged, and the boards are loose. Between them appears a manuscript on inked high-quality animal-skin parchment featuring clean and regular text in a lettre bourguignonne hand. This script, also known as “Burgundian bastard,” blends elements of the narrow, vertical “Gothic” script common since the mid-twelfth century with more fluid, cursive components. Its elegant “leaning” characters can be found in many manuscripts produced in the Burgundian Low Countries during the reign of the Valois dukes.

Though decorations have been applied sparingly to the manuscript, those that do appear are beautiful and elegant. The table of contents (fols. 7r to 8r) features illuminated capitals, line illustrations, and a floral design extending from the first capital (fol. 7r). Throughout the manuscript, illuminated paragraph markers appear on alternating blue and red fields. There is gilding in the decorated letters that appear in the text and in the table of contents. This gold leaf was costly; it, in addition to the physical and calligraphic quality of the text, testifies that this was a luxury manuscript.

Because of the care and attention brought to its production, the manuscript betrays fewer signs of how it was made than less “princely” volumes often do. But careful readers can still see the evidence of late-medieval book production within its pages. For example, in order to ensure the regularity of their writing, medieval scribes first “pricked” their parchment at regular intervals then drew lines, or rules, to guide their hands. The entire book, with the exception of the first quire (or bundle of leaves), is ruled in reddish-brown ink. The pricking is only visible on fol. 9 and in quire 8 (fols. 57-64), where it is visible on the long side of the page. A catchword, used by artisans to match the end of one quire with the beginning of another, appears at the end of quire 8.

Perhaps most intriguingly, the Alberta manuscript also offers evidence of a binding technique that strikes us moderns as nothing short of tragic. Late medieval and early modern bookbinders frequently used manuscript sheets that were hundreds of years old as “scrap paper”—using fragments of the sheets, for instance, in the interior parts of the bindings of new books.

One such fragment occurs on the inside of the binding; its text, in a tiny thirteenth-century hand, is still visible on a parchment measuring approximately 25 mm in height and 15 mm in width. This fragment may have been a page out of a so-called Paris Bible, produced en masse in the 1200s.

Next: The Missing Illustration: A Portrait of the 'Witches' Sabbath'