Saturday, 10 January 2015

An Unpublished Medieval Scribe's Advertisement-Sheet

Looking through images on the website of the Free Library, Philadelphia, I encountered a fragment of a sheet of samples of script and decoration, later cut up for use as a pastedown, but originally presumably made by a 15th-century German scribe to advertise his skills to potential clients:
Despite the fact that it is identified on the website, it is, as far as I can ascertain, unpublished.[1]
[EDIT, 12 Jan 2015: The link above seemed not to work, so I have changed it. You can also try going to the search page, then under the "Browse Subjects by letter" heading, select "P" and then "Palaeography"]

Unfortunately, almost nothing survives of the upper script-sample, but arguably what remains is the most indicative part: the bottoms of the minims:
The lozenge-shaped minims show that this was a formal book-hand , of the type often called "quadrata".

The next sample has its medieval name, "fracta", written on a scroll directly above it:

The text itself appears at first glance to be gibberish, as if meant only to give a general visual impression of the script:
but it is instead probably one of those passages deliberately constructed from as few different letter-forms as possible, such as this:
"mimi numinum nivium
minimi munium nimium
vini muniminum imminui
vivi minimum volunt"
The complexity of the large decorated initials relates the the grade of script they accompany (as usual in medieval hierarchies of script and decoration). Next to the high-grade quadrata script are two "puzzle" initials (so-called because the red and blue parts interlock like a jigsaw puzzle):
using three colours of ink: red and blue for the initial, plus brown for the background foliate scrollwork:
while the somewhat lower-grade "fracta" script is accompanied by somewhat simpler initials, using only one colour for the initial and another for the background:

A comparable fragmentary sheet, now in The Hague, gives an idea of the wider range of scripts that might have been represented on the Philadelphia sheet before it was trimmed:
and (although very difficult to see in this reproduction) the same script-name "fracta" is used in the top left corner:

[1] Katherine Chandler of the Free Library kindly informs me that they have no record of the fragment having been published. The main studies of such objects are:
  • S.H. Steinberg, 'Medieval Writing Masters', The Library, 4th Series, 22 (1942), pp. 1-24.
  • S.H. Steinberg, 'A Hand-List of Specimens of Medieval Writing-Masters', The Library, 4th Series, 23 (1942), pp.191–94.
  • Carl Wehmer, 'Die Schreibmeisterblatter des spaten Mittelalters', Miscellanea Giovanni Mercati, VI, Studi e Testi 126 (1946), pp.152–53.
  • S.J.P. van Dijk, 'An Advertisement Sheet of an Early Fourteenth-Century Writing Master at Oxford', Scriptorium, 10 (1956), pp.47–64.
  • Martin Steinmann, 'Ein mittelalterliches Schriftmusterblatt', Archiv für Diplomatic, 21 (1975), pp.450–58.


  1. Thanks. A magnificent work for all letter lovers.

  2. It's always good to have attention drawn to these specimen sheets: thank you. Is this the 'kleines fragment' mentioned by Steinmann in his 'Textualis formata', Archiv fuer Diplomatik, xv (1980), p. 302? He saw it thanks to a photo owned by Bischoff but, of course, he does not publish it.

    1. I don't know, but it seems plausible that Bischoff would have gone to the Free Library to examine this lovely leaf: and discovered the scribal sheet, and then sent a photo of it to Steinmann after the publication of the latter's 1975 article.


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