Touch as the Gateway to Rare Books Research

Keylight Books

Cover of Cities of Women (detail)

This is a guest post by Kathleen B. Jones, author of the recently published Cities of Women, on the importance of the physicality of books in an age of digitization.

Keylight Books

Cover of Cities of Women (detail)

The Queen’s Book, cataloged in the British Library as Harley 4431, is a collection of works by the 15th century writer Christine de Pizan, published in 1410-1414 and gifted to Queen Isabeau of Bavaria, wife of the French king, Charles VI, by de Pizan herself. One of the most magnificent paintings in the book is a portrait of de Pizan, kneeling to present her red, leather-bound book to the queen. Scholars have interpreted the image as a double authorization, of the Queen as regent, and de Pizan as political commentator. But I am fascinated with the rare medieval manuscript itself, especially as it appears as a character in my debut novel, Cities of Women.

Cities of Women follows a modern academic, Verity, who sees another portrait of de Pizan at work in her atelier in an exhibition at the Morgan Library, and becomes convinced that the artist who painted it must have been “a woman still hidden from history, waiting patiently through centuries of misapprehension for someone to grasp her existence in the shape and shimmer of the brushstrokes she’d left behind.” Armed with nothing more than a name - Anastasia - mentioned in de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies, Verity sets out on an archival wild goose chase to find traces of this woman, heading to London, where she hopes to touch The Queen’s Book, and then to Paris, where other books of de Pizan’s are held.

Keylight Publishing

Kathleen B. Jones

The book historian Christopher de Hamel once described the experience of handling rare books as a multi-sensorial encounter, akin to the emotional thrill of meeting an elusive celebrity in the flesh. Although some of the most celebrated medieval manuscripts have been digitized and made available to anyone with a computer to explore, no mechanical reproduction or digital copy is the same as the original. The three-dimensionality of a handmade, illuminated manuscript, the glitter and texture of gilded letters, the dance of images on floriated borders, the odor of ancient vellum, the residue left behind by the touch of ages of hands, the whisper of rustling pages - all this is absent from the digital view.

Yet, the book at the center of my novel, The Queen’s Book, is so rare I was unable to meet it directly, a disappointment I translated into scenes in the novel exploring obsession. That I had touched other illuminated manuscripts enabled me to imagine how much Verity wanted to touch this book, or another like it, and “feel time itself course through her like a sensuous river...” 

While I could not access The Queen’s Book in-person, to write my novel, a love letter to these medieval voluptuaries, I researched the medieval book industry. Besides de Hamel’s Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts, I poured over Richard and Mary Rouse’s expansive two-volume tome on the medieval book producers of Paris, gaining insight into the networks of artists of the book. The British Library’s rare book reading room brought me face to face with a copy of de Pizan’s Le livre des faits d'armes et de chevalerie, her book on military warfare.

I also immersed myself experientially, taking a course in book arts in San Diego and attending a workshop offered by the Morgan Library on the process of making vellum, medieval ink, and bookbinding. Kouky Fianu, a scholar of medieval books at the University of Ottawa, pointed me in the direction of a GIS project on the location of the ateliers of medieval Paris, which allowed me to virtually walk the streets of the old Paris book trades. 

These tactile experiences became the gateways for my imagination to wander into the life and work of the medieval Anastasia described in my novel, who witnesses vellum being formed from animal skin, recognizing in the tiny points where hair protruded from the hide that “a book begins as flesh.”