Reading the Manuscript Page: Design Features of the Medieval Book

Modern readers today rely on design features found in the pages of printed books to navigate their way through the text, but did you know that medieval manuscripts were read in much the same way? This post looks at the design features added by scribes to medieval pages, using a 14th-century Latin Vulgate Bible produced in East Anglia (TCD MS 35) and recently digitised as part of the Manuscripts for Medieval Studies project: click here to see the manuscript in full. This decorated single-volume Bible features layout elements typically found in books of the Middle Ages to guide readers when consulting their manuscripts.

An interactive guide to the design features of a medieval page, from a 14th-century illuminated Bible (TCD MS 35, f. 17v)

Running Titles

By the later Middle Ages, the Bible was widely available in a single volume with the biblical books arranged in the same approximate order that modern audiences read today. The pages of medieval manuscripts were rarely numbered, so readers first looked to running titles at the top of the page to locate individual books or chapters of works. This medieval Bible features running titles in Latin for each biblical book, in eye-catching blue ink with red penwork decoration such as DANIELIS for the Book of Daniel. Medieval readers also often used bookmarks like silk ribbon or parchment tabs to mark frequently consulted portions of text.

The running title of the Book of Daniel (DANIELIS) in blue ink with red penwork decoration (TCD MS 35, f. 251r)


The opening of new passages in manuscripts is commonly highlighted with text in red ink known as rubric, to stand out from the page for the notice of readers. The opening of the Book of Daniel in this Bible is indicated by the indicating phrase Incipit liber danielis (‘Here begins the Book of Daniel’) in red ink with the ‘I’ initial of Incipit in blue. The name of these rubric indicators derives from the Latin name for red ink, rubrica, meaning ‘red earth’. Red inks were generally made from natural minerals, including lead.

The rubric opening (Incipit liber danielis) of the Book of Daniel (TCD MS 35, f. 251r)

Decorated Initials

Luxury manuscripts feature decoration to accompany the main text, and some forms of decoration functioned as visual navigational aids to the reader. The beginning of each new book in this medieval Bible opens with a decorated initial of the first letter of the opening word of text. The Book of Jonah opens with a decorated ‘E’(t) initial, inhabited by several figures. Jonah is depicted first on the left, turned from God above to avoid His command to travel to Nineveh. Jonah is depicted again on the right, being thrown from the galley ship by sailors into the mouth of the whale. The image is decorated in rich colours including gold, signalling to the reader the start of the Book of Jonah.

As well as scenes relating directly to the main text, some initials also feature scenes from the life of Christ such as the opening of 2 Maccabees which opens with a decorated ‘F’(ratribus) initial of a man kneeling in prayer before the Virgin and Child. Biblical prologues also open with smaller initials with gold decoration. The use of gold in manuscripts is often referred to as illumination, as the gold literally illuminates or lights up the page to readers.

Decorated initials of the letter ‘E'(t) from the Book of Jonah (left, TCD MS 35, f. 263v) and the letter ‘F'(ratribus) from 2 Maccabees (f. 281r)

Chapter Numbers

To arrange the text clearly for the reader, each biblical book is then sub-divided into numbered chapters. Each new section begins in this manuscript with blue initials decorated with red pen-flourishing and accompanied by chapter numbers in blue ink. For example, the 13th chapter of 2 Corinthians (2 Cor. 13) opens with the ‘E’(cce) initial and the first line of text is followed by the Roman numerals XIII representing 13.

Opening of 2 Corinthians 13 with decorated initial and chapter number and blue and red inks (TCD MS 35, f. 331v)

Reader-added marginalia

Readers of medieval manuscripts frequently added their own navigational aids to books to highlight useful or interesting passages, and this Bible contains signs that indicate it was actively used as a reference text. One reader had evidently studied the text of 2 Paralipomenon with care as they added marginal notations to passages of the text, including nota marks to note for future reference. A second reader also drew hands pointing to the text, known as manicula (‘little hands’). We hope this guide helps modern readers to take note themselves and explore the fascinating features of medieval manuscripts – start by browsing our Digitised Collections online!

Reader marginalia such as these nota marks and pointed-hand manicula are frequently found in medieval manuscripts (TCD MS 35, f. 121v)

Dr Alison Ray

Follow us on Twitter @TCDResearchColl

The work of the Manuscripts for Medieval Studies project has been made possible by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Further reading:

M.P. Brown, and revised by E.C. Teviotdale and N.K. Turner, Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts: A Guide to Technical Terms (Los Angeles, 2018)

P. Lovett, The Art & History of Calligraphy (London, 2017)

R. Clemens and T. Graham, Introduction to Manuscript Studies (New York, 2007)

Virtual Trinity Library is a digitisation initiative of the Library of Trinity College Dublin’s most valued collections. It will conserve, catalogue, curate, digitise and research these unique collections of national importance, making them accessible to a global audience, from schoolchildren to scholars.

‘Like the culverted waters of the Farset and the Poddle, queerness flows through us by way of subterranean channels…’

Human experience and rivers both tend to meander, and shapes people and cities. Our guest authors introduce an artistic project in which the comparison of archival and contemporary maps of city rivers echoes marginalised human experience.

For our contribution to this year’s Student Forum III project at the Douglas Hyde Gallery, my co-creator Ben Malcolmson and I interpreted the Forum’s central theme of access and accessibility by unearthing the rivers of queerness we trace through our respective cities of Dublin and Belfast. As an environmental historian, I was interested in consulting archival maps of our cities and of Ireland as a whole, using GIS software to visually compare them with one another and virtually embed our GPS-captured contemporary movements in the cartographic history of these places. This process had previously yielded interesting findings for me when comparing historical maps of my hometown, and applying it to a more artistic project proved just as rewarding.

The metaphor of the culverted river was central to our interests for this project so it was lovely to see so many different depictions of Dublin’s and Belfast’s waterways as their courses were buried, channelized, or landfilled. Comparing maps through time shows these rivers to be dynamic: subject to meandering, modification and, occasionally, cartographic error. One of our sources, the Plans of the principal towns, forts and harbours in Ireland, (OLS Papyrus Case 1 no.10, c1784) map from Trinity’s Early Printed Books collection depicts a more simplified version of the river Lagan in Belfast that appears to more closely follow the route of the now culverted Blackstaff as it curves around the city’s southern walls.

Figure 1: ‘Plans of the principal towns…’ print (Early Printed Books OLS Papyrus Case 1 no.10, c.1784), ‘The ground plott of Belfast…’ watercolor by Thomas Phillips (National Library of Ireland MS 2557/32, 1685) & polygons depicting the contemporary Lagan, Farset, and Blackstaff

One of my favorite maps to work with work John Questebrone’s map of Dublin from Trinity’s Manuscripts & Archives Research Library (TCD MS 2208). Phoenix Park is important to my personal queer map of Dublin as it’s where I go to meet up with the queer running group Dublin Front Runners throughout the week. Most of the Dublin maps we consulted omit Phoenix Park or only depict the easternmost corner but the Questebrone map depicts it prominently in yellow, rivaling the city center in prominence. The rivers in this map are also depicted prominently: the Liffey, Dodder, Tolka, and the Poddle all stand out boldly when compared to the dotted lines connecting Drumcondra to Clontarf or Templeogue to Killiney.

Figure 2: A wonkily georeferenced version of John Questebrone’s map of Dublin overlaid with routes taken by the Dublin Front Runners (white) and Dublin’s contemporary waterways (blue)

This is one of my takeaways from collaborating with Ben on this project: that the dynamic and changeable nature of rivers is what allows them to define a city through time. Even from underground, the river Farset makes its presence known through the listing of the Albert Memorial Clock in Belfast. Human experience is like that: powerful in its tendency to meander. The more we can “daylight” the experiences of those who have been made to hide underground, not by forcing folk to adhere to the rigid ways of the street but by acknowledging and reifying the desire paths we follow, the stronger and more resilient our places become.

Gabriel Coleman and Benjamin Malcolmson’s piece Atlas of Residual Traces will be exhibited in the Douglas Hyde Gallery on September 17th from 16:00-21:00 as part of Culture Night and as part of the Student Forum III’s online magazine Rendering New Realities: Access and Alterity.

You can discover more about Ben’s work at and Gabriel’s at

A Manuscript’s Journey through the English Civil Wars

TCD MS 174, f. 50r

The Manuscripts for Medieval Studies project has now digitised an early medieval collection of saints’ lives (TCD MS 174), produced between the late 11th- and early 12th centuries as one of four companion volumes at the Old Sarum Cathedral of Salisbury. See the manuscript in full here. So how did this manuscript reach Trinity College Dublin? To find out, we must follow this manuscript’s journey through the English Civil Wars (1642-1651).

Old English inscription reading of searbyrig ic eom (‘I am of Salisbury’), from TCD MS 174, flyleaf i-recto

The saints’ lives collection originally formed part of the library of the Old Sarum foundation established under St Osmund, bishop of Salisbury (r. 1078-1099) with the ownership of the manuscript demonstrated in an Old English inscription on the front flyleaf reading of searbyrig ic eom (‘I am of Salisbury’). The multi-volume work was produced in four manuscripts to be used for liturgical readings throughout the year, and includes the life stories of early saints such as St Guthlac of Crowland (c. 674-c. 715), St Julian of Le Mans (fl. 3rd-4th century AD), St Servatius of Tongeren (d. 384), and St Bathild (c. 626-680).  The four companion volumes remained at Salisbury Cathedral until 1640, when they were borrowed from Dean Richard Baylie with a group of manuscripts by The Most Reverend James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland (r. 1625-1656), as evident from a receipt now at Salisbury: ‘Bookes borrowed out of the Library of that Church of Sarum for the use of the Lord Primate of Ireland: and delivered by Dr. Baylie dean of the Church unto his Grace’.  

Opening page of Radboud’s Sermon on the Anniversary of St Servatius of Tongeren (TCD MS 174, f. 58r)

However, what was intended as a routine study trip soon turned disastrous with the outbreak of rebellion in Ireland in 1641 and the first English Civil War in 1642. Ussher’s position in the Anglican Church and as a royal ally to King Charles I of England (r. 1625-1649) left him vulnerable to targeted attacks, including the destruction of the Archbishop’s Palace in Drogheda. He was forced to move frequently, and his travelling book collection was seized in 1643 by Parliament from Chelsea College in retaliation for Ussher’s delivery of a pro-royal sermon, including the Salisbury manuscripts. Three of the Salisbury saints’ lives volumes were soon recovered with the collection (now Salisbury Cathedral MSS 221-223), but the fourth volume was presumed lost.

Portrait of Archbishop James Ussher by Willem Flessiers, dated 1644; Photo credit: Bodleian Libraries; image supplied by Art UK. Source.

The fourth volume of the saints’ lives collection was eventually found and returned to Ussher’s library, as cathedral deans and chapters were abolished by Parliament in 1649. The library was purchased and sent to Dublin in 1657 on the orders of Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth (r. 1653-1658) and gifted by King Charles II of England (r. 1660-1685) to Trinity College Dublin following the Restoration of 1660. Ussher’s library now forms the heart of the medieval collections at Trinity, including the Salisbury volume, a remarkable survival of a turbulent history.

Opening page of Felix of Crowland’s Life of St Guthlac (TCD MS 174, f. 73r)

Dr Alison Ray

Follow us on Twitter @TCDResearchColl

The work of the Manuscripts for Medieval Studies project has been made possible by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Virtual Trinity Library is a digitisation initiative of the Library of Trinity College Dublin’s most valued collections. It will conserve, catalogue, curate, digitise and research these unique collections of national importance, making them accessible to a global audience, from schoolchildren to scholars.

Green white enamel: The poetry of Ethna MacCarthy

The life and poetry of Ethna MacCarthy, linguist, doctor, poet, will be showcased on The Lyric Feature on Sunday, 5 September 2021, at 18:00.

Ethna MacCarthy (1903-59) was one of the intellectual superstars in her generation. She graduated from Trinity College in 1926, having won a prestigious Schol, and immediately began lecturing in French literature. Returning to College in the mid 1930s, she graduated as a medical doctor and worked in the Royal City of Dublin Hospital, as a pediatrician.

All through her adult life MacCarthy wrote poetry, some of which was published in literary magazines in her lifetime. In 2019, for the first time, a collection of her poetry was published. The collection is edited by Gerald Dawe and Eoin O’Brien, and was published by Lilliput Press, and received a favourable review in the Sunday Times. The publication was made possible by the careful preservation of MacCarthy’s literary archives, firstly by her husband Con Leventhal, by Leventhal’s third wife Marion Leigh, and subsequently by a close family friend. Eoin O’Brien, widely known in literary circles for his work on Samuel Beckett, has ensured the survival of MacCarthy’s reputation by preserving and publishing her work, and by donating the original material to the Library, where it is now available for research. His fellow editor, the poet Gerry Dawe, traces the origin of the publication to his meeting with Professor O’Brien twenty years ago. Our earlier post, from the occasion of the launch of this publication, gives further information on MacCarthy’s life and quotes Gerry Dawe’s opinion that, in some of her work, MacCarthy foreshadowed Sylvia Plath.

Green white enamel, to be broadcast next Sunday evening on Lyric FM radio, tells the story of this fascinating woman, richly illustrated with her poems, against the backdrop of the privileged Dublin circles she moved in, and the poverty-stricken Dublin where she practised as a doctor.

We hear about her life, from her early years, born in Northern Ireland, and growing up in Dublin, and her portrayal of the city in her poetry. Contributors tell us about her friendship with Beckett and her time studying, and later teaching, at Trinity College. We hear about her work as a doctor, her compassion for those living in poverty, and how she explores this in her poetry. We also hear of her marriage to Con Leventhal, her early death, and how her work was in danger of being forgotten until the recent publication of her collected work revealed her to a new audience.

Green white enamel is presented and produced by Claire Cunningham and features contributions from Eoin O’Brien, Gerald Dawe, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Jessica Traynor, Maria Johnston and Jane Maxwell.

The programme is richly illustrated with readings from the poems of Ethna MacCarthy by actor Cathy Belton. The words of Samuel Beckett are read by Owen Roe.

The programme is presented and produced by Claire Cunningham and is a Rockfinch Production for RTÉ lyric fm funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland from the Television Licence Fee. Sound supervision by Tinpot Productions.

A medieval manuscript in two parts

TCD MS 514, f. 3r detail

When modern readers encounter medieval books, they are not always in their original form and the contents of many manuscripts have been altered over time by owners and institutions. One such example is a miscellany book of historical and religious works (now TCD MS 514), with a section of text missing and now part of a second compilation manuscript (now Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Digby 77). In this post, we explore the ways of identifying the separated manuscript portion through written and visual signs.

The Trinity miscellany is made up of 15 separate texts relating to history and theology, including Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (‘The History of the Kings of Britain’), A history by Dares Phrygius on the fall of Troy, Pope Innocent III’s De miseria humanae conditionis (‘On the Misery of the Human Condition’), and Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger’s Naturales quaestiones (‘Natural Questions’). This manuscript was compiled in the early 14th century by John of London (fl. c. 1290-133), a monk of St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury. He later donated this book to the abbey and the volume is recorded as item number 900 on the 15th-century library catalogue of St Augustine’s Abbey (now TCD MS 360) explored in a previous blog.

Opening page of De excidio Troiae historia by Dares Phrygius (TCD MS 514, f. 3r)

Following the Dissolution of the abbey in 1538, the books of the library were destroyed or dispersed with many volumes acquired by private individual owners. The miscellany may have been later owned by English mathematician and antiquarian Sir Thomas Allen (1542-1632), who was an avid collector of works of history and sciences from monastic centres. It was during this period that the portion of the miscellany manuscript was separated and added to the second book. The miscellany was acquired by Allen’s acquaintance and fellow antiquarian, James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland (r. 1625-1656), whose collection is now housed in Trinity College Library, Dublin. The missing portion of text was bound with a second manuscript later owned by Sir Kenelm Digby (1603-1665), Allen’s former student to whom he bequeathed the majority of his books, now housed in the Bodleian Libraries as the Digby collection.

There are several signs that demonstrate the portion of the Digby manuscript formerly belonged in the Trinity miscellany (B.C. Barker-Benfield, (ed.), Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues: St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury (London, 2008) volume 2, item BA1.900). The text of Pope Innocent III’s De miseria humanae conditionis ends imperfectly, breaking off in chapter 3, book 26 ‘Discedite a me maligni in ignem’ on the last line (TCD MS 514, f. 204v). The text continues without break in the same hand on the top line of the Digby manuscript, ‘eternum. Non erunt…’ (Bodleian Library, MS Digby 77, f. 83r).

The text of the Trinity manuscript (TCD MS 514, f. 204v) continues without break in the Digby portion in the same scribal hand, showing it was originally one work (Bodleian Library, MS Digby 77, f. 83r: photo by Matthew Holford, Bodleian Library)

The Digby portion of the text is followed by another work, De essentiis essentiarum of Thomas Cappellanus, an alchemical treatise on the essences of God, minerals and animals. This text also originally featured in the Trinity manuscript, as the work is included in a list of contents written in the hand of John of London as ‘Item de esse et essentia tractatus nobilis’ (TCD MS 514, f. 2v). The original manuscript was additionally marked and foliated in the 15th century by the librarian of St Augustine’s Abbey, Clement of Canterbury (fl. 1463-1495), including a drawn face and pointed hand manicule that highlight passages of text in a copy of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae with a similar drawing also surviving in the Digby portion.  

Face Off: Two manicule drawings featuring a face with pointed hand by abbey librarian Clement of Canterbury feature in both the Trinity manuscript (TCD MS 514, f. 76r) and the Digby portion (Bodleian Library, MS Digby 77, f. 96r: photo by Matthew Holford, Bodleian Library)

Clement’s foliation numbers survive in both manuscripts, showing that the medieval folios numbered 204-229 are missing from the Trinity miscellany, and the exact folio numbers appear in the Digby manuscript (now Digby 77, ff. 83-108). The Digby manuscript further contains another portion of text from a second book (now Oxford, Merton College MS 251) that was previously owned by Thomas Allen (Digby 77, ff. 150-197). Although it is not possible to reunite these works in their physical forms, we could reconnect these works in the near future using digital technologies such as the International Image Interoperability Framework (III-F) for readers to study and enjoy online.

Dr Alison Ray

Follow us on Twitter @TCDResearchColl

The work of the Manuscripts for Medieval Studies project has been made possible by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Further reading:

B.C. Barker-Benfield (ed.), Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues: St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury (London, 2008) volume 2, item BA1.900

Medieval Libraries of Great Britain online (MLGB3), entry for Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Digby 77, ff. 83-108

Virtual Trinity Library is a digitisation initiative of the Library of Trinity College Dublin’s most valued collections. It will conserve, catalogue, curate, digitise and research these unique collections of national importance, making them accessible to a global audience, from schoolchildren to scholars.