A pocket Bible

A  leaf from Biblia Sacra (The Holy Bible), handwritten on vellum,
probably in Paris in about 1250 (455 x 310 mm)

The scribe who penned this leaf probably lived and worked in France in the middle of the 13th century. He or she would have written the text (from Ezekiel, chapters 36-38) with a quill pen, cut from a goose feather or something smaller, using black ink of which oak-apples were an important ingredient.

hand holding this ms to show scale

Two features of the leaf are particularly striking. One is the small size of the leaf itself (see picture above) and of the text written on it, in tiny letters little more than a millimetre high. This raising the question of whether scribe or reader might have used a magnifying lens, or even worn glasses. (Just about possible at this time, apparently.)

The second feature is the fineness of the vellum on which it is written, similar to tissue paper today, ready to blow away in the slightest puff of air. Add to these the extensive use of abbreviations to condense the text, and it became possible to copy the entire Latin Bible into one compact volume, something never done before this time. Bibles of this type were produced in large numbers in the Paris region in the thirteenth century. The text of each book of the Bible was divided into chapters for the first time, though numbered verses came much later, and the whole book enlivened with red and blue headings and decorative penwork.

Eight centuries later pocket Bibles like this can still be bought new, printed of course and without the colouring, but much the same shape and size and preserving the two-column format.

A small mystery attaches to this leaf. In the right-hand margin on the recto (front) page the scribe has written /dicunt (in abbreviated form). This appears to relate to the upturned caret mark between the words dixit and ad me, indicating that the word dicunt has been missed out at that point. The mystery is that as far as I can tell the text as written, dixit ad me, is correct. The Vulgate version of the Bible, from which this text is taken, does not require the word dicunt, or any other word, at this point. So why has the scribe gone to the trouble of correcting a non-existent mistake?