Rare Books on the Blog – Medieval Desktops
By Eric Kwikkel
“We are used to having multiple books open at the same time when looking things up at home or writing an essay for class. Whether PDFs, e-books or old-fashioned paper volumes, switching between books in a smooth movement is something we don’t often think about. This was very different in medieval times. In those days, books tended to resist when you tried to move them: they were heavy as a brick and easily twice that size. A related problem was one of space. The average medieval book has a wingspan of at least half a meter wide when open. Consequently, comfortably placing two books in front of you was a stretch, let alone multiple volumes. In an early-sixteenth-century depiction of Erasmus, the scholar cannot even place a single book on his desk as he is writing a letter … Interestingly, the challenges of medieval book consultation stands in stark contrast with what we know about reading and studying in the period. Readers browsed through a great number of volumes at the same time, interested as they were in learning different points of view with respect to their topic of inquiry.”
In his latest post Erik Kwikkel, book historian at Leiden University, explores the Medieval desktops. How many books could be consulted at the same time? How many of those heave medieval volumes were spread out on the desks in the libraries ready to be studied at the same time? “In short, how are we to understand the logistics behind the devouring of knowledge in the last four centuries of the Middle Ages?” Erik Kwikkel looks at contemporary and Renaissance works of art showing the medieval scholars at work.