Linguistic Stylization and Learning the Quran

Irteqa Khan

One of many stylized front covers of an Uthmani or Majeedi Quran. Lettering in the center is Arabic calligraphy that says “Al- Quran Al- Kareem” or “The Noble Quran.” Image: Nooresunnat, “Al-Quran – The Message of Allah Almighty – Recitation, Lectures and Books.”

It is evident that the world we inhabit today has swiftly become acquainted with Islam’s most central text, the Holy Quran, due to issues involving its translation, interpretation, and context. However, for Muslims the reality is that the Quran is the spiritual word of God revealed to Muhammad ﷺ  fourteen hundred years ago in the Arabian Peninsula. It is a comprehensive and detailed guideline for daily living and matters such as dressing, etiquette, sleeping, eating and relationships as much as it is religious instruction for praying, fasting, ablution, charity, and pilgrimage.

As a Muslim and having read it, what I find interesting about the Quran is what a testament it is to both the universality and linguistic specificity of the reading process. Muslims all over the world spend many years of their lives learning how to read and recite it, understand it, and memorize it. If a person has read the Quran once, it is a feat deserving of celebration; if a person has learned its full meaning it is believed that they are secure in life; and if a person has completely memorized it, they have a special designation as “hafiz” or “guardian” and are highly esteemed.

According to Islamic tradition, the Quran was revealed to Muhammad ﷺ by the angel Gabriel [RA] over the course of 23 years and completely by word of mouth. Muhammad ﷺ would recite and memorize the revelations and then deliver them to scribes, who wrote them down despite the disjointed order and structure of the verses. As the years progressed, the scribes began to compile the Quranic verses into a single coherent manuscript and by the time Muhammad ﷺ had died, had procured the very first manuscript copy of the Quran. It was inherited by Muhammad’s ﷺ successors who transferred it into codex format and canonized it, thus establishing the Quran that Muslims read today (called the Uthmanic Codex). Divided into 114 chapters or “surahs” and roughly 6000 verses or “ayahs”, the Quran is written completely in Arabic and maintains its purity in this language alone. The versions of the Quran that are written in other languages are most often translations, or accompanying translations next to the original Arabic on the same page.

A page from a Noorani Qaida, or a beginner’s book of Arabic alphabets with Urdu translations and explanations. Image: International Online Quran Academy, “Noorani Qaida Online.”

While learning how to read and recite the Quran when I was younger, I began to understand the distinction between its universality and linguistic specificity based on the versions of it that I was exposed to. I understood that the text remained exactly the same, pure in meaning and written in Arabic, but the way in which the typeface was stylized was completely different depending on the country and language in which it was printed, therefore considerably impacting the way in which a person learned how to read and recite the Quran. At the local mosque, where I attended Islamic school and read my very first Quran, pure Arabic Qurans lined the bookshelves and were read fluently and recited by students in uniform and flawless “tajwid.”

Coming from a South Asian background where Urdu accents often transformed the pronunciation of the verses, I had never heard such beautifully pronounced Arabic. With this, my parents wanted my siblings and me to fully grasp not only the reading and recitation of the Quran, but also its meaning. We were subsequently enrolled in online Quran reading classes based out of Pakistan and India for the next three years. In the online reading school, all of the teachers were “hafiz” and Islamic scholars who had been teaching for most of their lives. Through software like Skype and TeamViewer, they would display to us scanned pages of a Noorani Qaida (an Urdu book of Arabic alphabets) to give us a foundation for learning how to read and form sentences. When moving on to learning the actual Quran, however, I found that the typeface was precisely the same.

A page from the Quran illustrating the Uthmani typeface. From the third chapter of the Quran, “Al-Imran” or “The Family of Imran.” Image: Online-Islamic-Store, “Holy Qur’an in Arabic, Al Quran al Karim Full Size 7.5 x 10.5” Hardcover (Uthmani Script Mushaf) 15 Line Arab Word Style.” The Quran, Al-Imran.

In this context, the typeface of the Arabic that I learned from my online instructors was characteristic of an Indo-Pak or Persian-based language where readers are not fluent in Arabic and require specific linguistic cues when learning how to read and recite; this is versus the pure Arabic typeface produced in countries like Saudi Arabia where the Arabic language is dominantly spoken and read. The traditional Arabic Qurans from which most Muslims read are printed in Uthmani typeface in printing plants based out of Saudi Arabia like the famous King Fahd Complex for the Printing of the Holy Quran in Medina.

Likewise, the Arabic Qurans from which non-Arab readers (in this case South Asia) learn are based on a Persian Majeedi typeface akin to Urdu, often in printing plants like Taj Company Ltd. based out of cities like Lahore or New Delhi. In addition to language, a person’s positioning as either an advanced or beginner reader also influences the Quranic typeface they choose to learn from.

A page from the Quran illustrating the Majeedi typeface. From the 41st chapter of the Quran, “Al-Fussilat” or “Explained in Detail.” Image: Gateway to Quran, “Color Coded Quran Para 26.” The Quran, Al-Fussilat.

A Majeedi Quran is characterized by large writing, bold lettering, and is very uniquely color coded. Due to these qualities and the fact that this type of Quran is printed with the interests of non-Arabic speakers at the forefront, beginners choose to start their learning journey with it. Both Uthmani and Majeedi Qurans contain an index listing the page numbers of certain Quranic chapters, a chart outlining diacritics (for pronunciation), and prayers for both beginning and completing reading. In the margins of a Majeedi Quran however, there are often Urdu notes explaining pronunciation and the meaning of every Arabic verse.

The verses are also bold and colorful so the reader is able to differentiate vowels, consonants, and sounds while maintaining their pace of reading. Since diacritics or phonetic guides (“tashkeel” or “harakat” in Arabic) (Fadi, “Arabic Vowel Marks”) play a crucial role in dictating how to pronounce certain words, the Uthmani typeface makes minimal use of them, assuming the reader is fluent in Arabic and therefore conscious of pronunciation. By contrast, the Majeedi typeface assumes that the reader is unfamiliar with the mechanics of Arabic diacritics and infuses each and every word with detailed marks and signs.

That being said, the universality of the Quran’s message is never taken for granted by Muslims despite the various culturally adjusted typefaces that it is reproduced in. The very point of print plants creating these distinct typefaces is for all learners to overcome the challenge of understanding and reading a completely new language. This ultimately makes reading, reciting, and understanding the Quran’s central message a profound and painstaking endeavor. The Uthmani and Majeedi typefaces, for me, are a form of art tailored for diverse readers of the Quran to begin their foray into a world of beauty, simplicity, and universality.

Works Referred

Fadi, S. “Lesson 4: Arabic Vowel Marks (Tashkeel or Harakat).” Arabion, URL:

Furqaan Bookstore. “Quran in Majeedi Script Regular Size – 12 Lines.” Furqaan Bookstore: Home of the Qur’an and other Islamic Media, URL: Accessed March 26, 2017.

Luc Devroye. “Type Design in Saudi Arabia.” Type Design Information Page, URL: Accessed March 25, 2017.

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Buddy Wakefield’s Gentleman Practice: Page Poetry vs. Stage Poetry

Caragana Ennis

Gentleman Practice by Buddy Wakefield. Image: Caragana Ennis.

Gentleman Practice is a book of poetry by spoken word poet Buddy Wakefield. Spoken word is a form of poetry that is meant to be performed instead of read, although some artists also publish written forms of their work. The book is comprised of long and short poems as well as snippets of thought and conversation that Wakefield has had and it is largely about his own personal growth. It is difficult to determine whether the printed form is a remediation of the spoken form or vice versa. Of course Wakefield wrote down the poems when he was first composing them, so in that way the written version came first. However, he was performing many of the poems in the book before it was published. Either way, the two versions are linked, but extremely different. Having experienced Wakefield’s poetry both in print and on stage, I see the value in both forms but believe that the poetry he has written is most effective in spoken form. While a printed poem is unchanging and reading it is a solitary activity, a performed poem is changeable, interactive, and alive.

Buddy Wakefield performing. Image: Andi D.M.B. Literature Junky: The Nomad Poet-Buddy Wakefield. 2011. Literature Junky.

Each time Buddy Wakefield performs a certain poem, he performs it in a different way. This ranges from leaving out a word or saying ‘somebody’ instead of ‘someone’ to adding or forgoing multiple lines or even diverging from the original version of poem entirely. In one performance of the poem ‘In Landscape’, for example, Wakefield stops the poem entirely to talk about how he and is partner have chickens and their constant struggle to keep them off the porch (West Side School). In a performance of the poem ‘Jean Heath’, he makes a more transformative change to the poem.  He changes the line “I got a hunger for ya / I got a hunger for ya / but I never / but I never / but I never really came through” (Wakefield 52) to “I got over ya / I got over ya / and you better believe I’m gonna pull through” (RPinPDX). It’s a small change but it represents complete transformation and influences the poem as a whole. These changes and additions allow the poem to grow and change with the artist. The changes can be as simple as repeating a word a second time for emphasis or as extreme as stopping the poem to talk about something he is thinking about in the moment. Seeing the poems live is a constant surprise. Even if you have read the poem before, you can’t predict how Wakefield will be moved to perform it that day.

Reading from Gentleman Practice is a solitary activity; however, watching Wakefield perform his poetry live is a communal one. When reading his poetry, you can control the pace at which you absorb the words and spend as much time analyzing the various metaphors and sound devices as you’d like. Seeing the poems performed live, however, is a completely different experience. Wakefield responds to the audience and the audience responds to him. Not only is the performance spontaneous, it is completely interactive. He may pause longer when he can tell the audience is completely absorbed, or continue to joke and improvise when the audience is particularly amused. He sometimes even speaks directly to audience members that he notices for one reason or another, even occasionally bringing audience members onto the stage to accompany his poetry with music. This allows the audience to experience the poetry collectively. They are being constantly surprised by Wakefield and he is being constantly surprised by them. The poems change in the interaction between audience and performer. Although you can spend more time analyzing the poems when you read them in print, you miss the collective experience that is unique to a live performance.

Although Gentleman Practice has undeniable value as a book, I find that the poems within it are most impactful when they are performed on a stage by the man who wrote them. In a book that is largely about self-transformation and growth, it is fitting that the poems be shared in a way that is also subject to constant change. When Buddy Wakefield performs, he can choose where he will pause, the emotion he will put into a certain line, and where he will speed up, forcing the audience to struggle to keep up. The body language, tone of voice, and emphasis that Wakefield employs when performing give the audience more information about the poem’s meaning and intent than they would get reading it in print. The poem becomes a living thing rather than a fixed piece of writing. It almost seems as though the book was written to mimic a spoken performance. There are little stories between longer poems that mimic the spontaneous banter he may deliver on stage. He spells certain words in a way that mimics the way he pronounces them when speaking (such as ‘ya’ instead of ‘you’) and in one poem, even leaves over half a page blank to represent a long pause in a spoken performance (Wakefield). In some ways, his poetry is a continuation of oral tradition, when poetry was spoken rather than written and experienced collectively rather than read in solitude. It seems that the printed document is merely a way to keep record of a collection of poetry that is, in its truest form, constantly changing.

Works Cited

RPinPDX. “Buddy Wakefield “Jean Heath”.” 26 April 2011. <>.

Wakefield, Buddy. Gentleman Practice . Long Beach : Write Bloody Publishing , 2011.

West Side School for the Desperate. “Buddy Wakefield – In Landscape.” 10 April 2013. . <>.

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The Myths of Using Screen Interfaces

Tanner Bayne

In my January 2017 article “Screen Saver: A Defense of Reading on Screen Supports,” I attempt to dispel some of the illusions surrounding screen support reading, specifically those illusions that attest that reading on screens is empirically “worse” than reading on paper. I facilitate this contestation because of the fact that many of the same arguments against screen reading can be used against paper as well.

Image: Darius Sankowski, Pixabay. Public domain.

The argument that I make in this article is derived from the idea that the concept of “the reading process” is quite abstract. So, a concise definition is needed in order to have a substantial conversation about screen and paper reading supports. The definition that I use is taken from language psychologists Sarah Margolin et al, in their article “E-readers, Computer Screens, or Paper: Does Reading Comprehension Change across Media Platforms?” The article explains that reading is an ever-progressing process where readers engage with the textual meanings of words as well as the word’s implications (Margolin et al. paragraph two).

As stated earlier, my article also devotes time to consider how many of the arguments against screen interfaces can also be used against paper ones. One of the more prevalent arguments against screen supports is the idea that they are dangerous to readers. This claim is evidently not unique to screens, as fatigue, eye strain, and headaches can affect readers of paper interfaces as well. In 2012 and 2014, Caroline Myrberg and Ninna Wiberg conducted two studies where they had a set of students read on screens, a group read on paper, and another group that was able to choose between the interfaces, and found that the only potential health risk unique to screen supports is that they can disturb sleeping patterns due to the blue light they emit (Myrberg and Wiberg paragraph five).

The primary argument that I deconstruct in my essay is the one that claims that reading comprehension is reduced when reading on screen interfaces. The answer to this argument, however, is more nuanced than the previous one, as there are plenty of factors at play in the reading process that may impact comprehension. In the late 1980’s Margolin’s team conducted experiments to determine how the reading process was impacted by screens, and found that there was no discernable difference in reading comprehension, although people tended to read faster on paper (Margolin et al. paragraph six). Additionally, in the previously mentioned test by Myrberg and Wiberg they found that those who scored poorly for reading comprehension in the earlier study actually improved in the latter study (Myrberg and Wiberg, paragraph 15). This is significant as it reveals that reading comprehension is contingent on how familiar one is with their interface, and that the process is always improving.

Ultimately, my article “Screen Saver: A Defense of Reading on Screen Supports” serves as a way to clear some of the misinformation surrounding screen interfaces. In breaking down the myths that surround screen interfaces it is possible to understand that screen reading is just as meaningful as reading on paper interfaces. Furthermore, by continuing to tackle the many unfounded opinions against screen supports, there is the possibility that reading on screens just may become as popular as reading on paper.

Works Cited:

Margolin, S.J., Driscoll, C., Toland, M.J. and Kegler, J.L. “E-readers, Computer Screens, or Paper: Does Reading Comprehension Change Across Media Platforms?” Applied Cognitive Psychology, Vol. 27, Issue 4, 2013. Web.

Myrberg, Caroline, and Wiberg, Ninna. “Screen Vs. Paper: What is the Difference For Reading and Learning?UKSG Insights. 2015. Web.

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Paper and its Advantages as a Reading Support Compared to Screens

Amanda Thompson

Paper as a reading support has been used for thousands of years originating in China before 100 BC (Yin Liu). Along with the writing supports of stone, clay, wood, parchment, papyrus, the relatively new invention of screens and so forth, paper has and continues to be used in many people’s day to day lives. All the while, the advantages of paper are often overlooked. In this blog post I will be talking about the advantages paper has in comparison to the new and very popular invention today, screens.

To start off, let’s look at the concept of memory retention in paper compared to screens. Books provide physical cues to readers which aid in memory retention. Screens have not yet matched this physical aid. “Touching paper and turning pages aids the memory, making it easier to remember where you read something. Having to scroll on the computer screen makes remembering more difficult” (Myrberg and Wiberg 50). When flipping through the pages of a book it’s easier to tell where about you are in the book. In comparison, when scrolling through a text on a computer screen, there is no physical cue or marker indicating how far you through the text. In a study done on tenth-graders in Norway in 2013, students were divided into two groups where one group read two texts in print and the other group read the same texts as PDFs on a computer screen. The results of the study concluded that “the students who read on paper scored significantly better than those who read the texts digitally. It was easier for those who read on paper to remember what they had read” (50). Subconsciously, the turning of pages and the ability to actually place a physical marker into a book such as a book mark enables the reader to better see how far they are through the text. To expand, when reading a novel, a student may remember, “Oh yes I remember when Old Yeller was shot. It was in the last couple pages of the text”. Paper provides readers with sensory aspects that aid in memory retention.

Paper as better choice of material interface for reading than screens can also be supported with the use of annotations. Walsh states that “Whilst annotation functions on e-readers and PDF reading programs are improving, they do not yet match the functionality of their print counterparts . . . for lengthy, information rich documents students still preferred handwritten annotations in the margins of their printed page” (166). Paper documents give readers the power to make notes on and highlight the text however they desire. “Annotation is an integral part of academic reading and annotating electronic material is not as effective as highlighting and margin notes on paper copies . . . Students have learnt to study with a range of paper documents around them that they mark up as they research, and there still is not an easy way to replicate this behaviour in the electronic environment” (166). With greater advancements in technology this point may become ineffective with time, but as for now it is still easier for most readers to make annotations on their reading via paper.

Paper can also be argued as the preferred reading support for most readers because of the similar form e-books have taken. The possibilities of e-books are being limited when they are simply created to be used in the same way as a paper book! There are many benefits of e-books, such as being able to access many books without carrying a heavy load. However, “One big problem is that e-books are made to be read like a linear text, so the possibilities of the digital medium are not being utilized. The e-book just turns into a copy of the printed version, and why would anyone want to read a digital version if they are more comfortable reading a printed version?” (Wiberg and Myrberg, 52). The sole purpose of e-books as being an alternative medium for reading is not being used properly. E-books have a great potential to present texts in a different way than paper books, and should do so rather than copying the form of paper books.

E-reader made to look like a book. Image: I Think Solutions.

Finally, paper is still to this day the preferred form of reading compared to screens because of its freedom from distraction. Electronic screens enable readers access to many different tabs at one time. Screens also often include pop-ups, hyperlinks, advertisements, and so forth which can distract a reader and make him or her less focussed. The majority of computer screens created are designed for multitasking. Users are able to open up various tabs at once, have multiple documents open, play audio while researching, etc. In comparison, when reading a text on paper, distractions are more limited. If the reader becomes distracted it is most likely the result of the reader’s own actions, rather than it being the result of an unwanted advertisement or pop-up showing up on the screen outside of the reader’s control.

Although the relatively new invention of computers and screens may be taking the world by storm, I still think it is fair to say that many readers remain “old fashioned” in their ways and prefer to read from paper. I find it relatively interesting how the reading support that has been around for centuries still remains one of the most useful and beneficial reading supports to this day! Paper – what a wonderful thing!


Liu, Yin. “Paper”. Lecture notes. Nov 29 2017.

Myrberg, C. & Wiberg, N. “Screen vs. paper: what is the difference for reading and learning?”. Insights. (2015). 49–54. DOI:

Walsh, Gemma. “Screen and Paper Reading Research – A Literature Review”. Australian library & information Association. (2016). 47:3, 160-173.

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White People Almost Kissing: Racism and Romance Novels

Jordana Lalonde

After working at the public library for four years, you start to notice some glaring similarities between the book covers of a certain genre. Mystery novels are instantly recognizable by a shadowy figure of a man in front of a bridge, bench, or abandoned car. Religious fiction usually shows us some version of a woman in a bonnet on a farm, smiling chastely. Western paperbacks are as expected: a man, his horse, and his cowboy hat. For the most part, cover art is predictable and makes my job of sorting genres out onto carts much easier. But a few weeks back, as I was checking in a pile of books, I noticed something troubling.

“Is it just me or is every single person on the cover of these books white?” I asked my co-worker, holding up a paperback romance novel. She laughed and agreed and we went back to our work.

So later when I went out to shelve a cart of paperbacks, I was curious and decided to check it out. Sure enough, every book that I randomly pulled off the romance shelf featured either a white woman, white man, or passionate white couple. It reminded me of a meme that circulated the internet when I was about 14. As a young teenager who thought Nicholas Sparks was the pinnacle of literary achievement, I’m sure I believed that there was nothing inherently wrong with his *very* white book covers. After all, the author was able to write The Notebook– how could anything associated with that masterpiece be wrong? But maybe the image stuck with me all these years later because I realized how strange it was that such popular novels could not be bothered to feature a single person of colour.

The sole non-white romance cover. Image: (c) Jordana Lalonde.

So I made like one of the shadowy men from the aforementioned mystery novels and I investigated. Of the 378 romance novels we had on the shelves at work (Alice Turner public library), 332 of them featured real people on the cover. The rest of the romance covers were usually some sort of park bench and river combination, with the occasional vase of fresh flowers added for good measure.

And then we get to the really interesting numbers. Of the 332 novels I looked at, only one featured a person of colour. 0.003% of the romance novels had a non-white person on the cover. That number is shockingly low. I managed to find 8 covers that featured someone of racial ambiguity. And by racial ambiguity I mean that the glistening abs of the model could have belonged to someone of any number of races. 8 out of 332 brings us up to a whopping 0.25% of non-white book covers.

Racially ambiguous. Hopefully diversity… probably a spray tan. Image: (c) Jordana Lalonde.

Of course there is the possibility that some avid romance novel reader came to the library and happened to check out every single book featuring a non-white model on the cover. But I really don’t find that likely. After working at the library for this long and having checked in piles upon piles of romance novels, I have never noticed one of those piles featuring anyone of colour on the cover. The closest I have seen to any celebration of culture in romance novels is a strange collection of books that fetishizes Scottish culture. But alas, it is still a very white culture.

A shining example of cultural diversity. Image: (c) Jordana Lalonde.


Don’t worry– even the babies are white! Image: (c) Jordana Lalonde.









I will admit that I have never subjected myself to reading one of these novels, so I have no clear idea whether the characters themselves are white or if the covers just present them that way. The photos chosen for the covers are not the fault of the author either; the publisher is responsible for the overwhelming whiteness.

Many claim that romance novels are no more than “trash” and after evaluating the stunning lack of diversity in their covers, the critics just may be right.

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Introducing the Medieval Codex

Nimra Sheikh

The word “codex” (pl. “codices”) comes from the Latin “caudex” or tree trunk. The codex united several texts in something recognizable as a modern book. Codices were typically covered, made of parchment, and contained pages (or folia) or relatively uniform size. The earliest mention of a codex was the first century, but it came to be widely used from the fourth through fifteenth centuries.[1] Many scholars associate their increased popularity with the spread of Christianity as it provided a way for texts to be grouped together – something commonly associated with the Christian bible.[2] However, codices had other advantages over the earlier scrolls, in that they were portable and could be easily searched.

Generally, medieval manuscripts were put together in a scriptorium (pl. scriptoria), which literally means, “place for writing.” These soon came to be a standard feature of medieval monastic houses. By the fifteenth century, it was also common for codices (or manuscript books) to be produced in commercial workshops. In both cases, the scribes wrote by hand. For this reason, the codex is also known as a manuscript book from the Latin for “hand” (manus) and “written” (scriptus). They were generally written on parchment, or animal skin. This could be of varying quality. The skin side, or what had been the external skin of the animal was rougher and darker than the flesh side.[3]

Scribes used a stylus, or a quill pen dipped in ink. There were several different ways of making ink, most commonly carbon or charcoal mixed with resin. Many scribes added material to color the ink. Red ink, dyed with vermillion or rust, was used to add subheadings to the text such as titles, or directions for the reader to perform in liturgy or on stage. These were known as rubrics (red-letters). Blue and green ink was also used, but these were more expensive and used mainly for decoration.[4]

As well as being practical, codices were extremely beautiful. It was common for certain manuscripts, particularly liturgical texts, books of hours, important chronicles, or even literary works to be illuminated. The word illuminated comes from the Latin illuminare meaning “to light up.” The process of illumination technically refers to gold leaf being applied to the page. The area that was to be illuminated was covered in an adhesive substance known as gesso. A very thin sheet of gold leaf was applied to the area the excess was removed by blowing softly. The gold leaf was used to illuminate both script and images.[5] It was also common for illuminated manuscripts to be decorated with bright paints or inks.[6]

As a book, the most important feature of a codex was the text. Early writing was an art.  Each text in a codex generally began with an elaborate initial capital. These could be animated, containing figures (either human or animal) that did not necessarily have any relation to the text. In other cases, the animated initial could depict a particular event (generally a bible story) thought to have some relevance to history. These are generally known as “historiated initials.” The initial capital could also be decorated with colors, symbols, or gold leaf. The same practice was common to mark important sections of the text, or important events (such as the death of Christ in the Passion Gospels). It was also common for the first page of a codex or text in a codex to be especially ornate.[7] The image below is taken from an Italian Psalter (Prayer book) from the second half of the twelfth century.

London, British Library, Yates Thompson MS 40, f. 9v

Early medieval texts were typically written in uncials, or mainly capitals. Later scripts became more complex and often included elaborate marks indicating where a word was abbreviated. The art of reading medieval scripts is known as paleography. The writing in manuscripts reveals much about the time and place it was written.[8]

As well as initials, codices generally contained a number of images. In medieval texts, the relationship between word and image was more pronounced than in the modern world and they should not be seen simply as decoration. In some instances, the role of images in conveying the message was particularly important, as the owners of the codex may not have been completely literate. It was common for codices to contain full-page illustrations.

It was particularly common for codices to contain symbols that were important to the owners. To modern scholars, this can provide information about the ownership or origins of the manuscript. For example, a manuscript produced in or owned by a Franciscan house might include images of friars or nuns related wearing Franciscan habits in biblical scenes. For example, it was common for Francis of Assisi (†1226) to be depicted at Christ’s Crucifixion. In other cases, for example for books of hours or prayer books it was common for the patron or owner to be depicted at prayer or even participating in the biblical story. The image below shows a historiated initial from a fifteenth-century Franciscan prayer book. It depicts Francis of Assisi surrounded by three angels representing poverty, chastity, and obedience.

[image unavailable: source unknown]

Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, Marley Collection.

Political or literary events were usually more literal, but still conveyed important ideas about the hierarchy, or the scribe’s political views. From the twelfth century onwards it was also common to find manuscripts decorated with heraldic imagery. This was closely connected with the concept of chivalry. It often contained images of knights in full armor and particular devices such as crests or figures such as the lion and unicorn supporting a shield. The shields were typically emblazoned with distinct patterns showing allegiance to particular families, guilds, or societies.[9]

Another important aspect of the medieval codex was marginalia. In many cases, this was simply an explanation of, or attempt to draw attention to, the contents of a particular section. Images in the margins could include animals, flowers, leaves, or symbols. Marginalia did not always relate to the text, and could even be irreverent or humorous.  On common theme in medieval marginalia was of a knight battling a large snail or a monkey playing bagpipes.[10] The image below depicts the latter found in a manuscript known as the Isabella Breviary, a fourteenth-century prayer book from the South Netherlands (modern day Belgium).

Detail from a full strew border of a monkey playing bagpipes, from the Isabella Breviary, Southern Netherlands (Bruges), late 1480s and before 1497, British Library, Additional 18851, f. 13 [?]

Codices – particularly illuminated codices – were primarily religious in the earlier middle ages. In the later middle ages, more secular texts such as romances, medical books, or chronicles also became common.[11] By the sixteenth century, the printing press made books available more cheaply and wider distribution became possible. Manuscript codices became more rare in the early modern world and are primarily characteristic of the medieval period.

[1] Roberts, Colin and T.C. Skeat, The Birth of the Codex (London: Oxford University Press, 1983).

[2] James E. Bowley, “Bible,” in The Oxford Enclyclopedia of Books of the Bible  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 73-8.

[3] Raymond Clemens and Timothy Graham, Introduction to the Medieval Manuscript (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2007), p. 77.

[4] Ibid, pp. 18-20.

[5] Ibid, pp. 33-4. Cf. Christopher De Hamel, The British Library Guide to Manuscript Illumination (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001).

[6] Clemens and Graham, Introduction, pp. 18-34,

[7] Ibid, 25-8.

[8] Leila Avrin, Scribes, Script, and Books: The Book Arts from Antiquity to the Renaissance (Chicago: American Library Association, 2010), pp. 182-91

[9] Cf. Adrian Ailes, “Heraldry in Medieval England: Symbols of Politics and Propaganda,” in Heraldry, Pageantry and Social Display in Medieval England, ed. Peter Coos ad Maurice Keen (Oxford: Boy dell Press, 2002), pp. 83-104.

[10]Michael Camille, Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art (London: Reaktion Books, 2013). For the snail see pages 32-5.

[11] For a discussion of various genres see, Clemens and Graham, Introduction, pp. 181-258.

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