The earliest movable book?

Updated: Jun 12, 2019

The Chronica Majora (MS26) in Corpus Christi College Library, Cambridge is hard to categorise. It's a history of the world from the creation of the world up to 1253, written by the monk and scribe Matthew Paris. It's got moving parts. It could even be the first ever moveable book, as Emily Martin the printer and book artist argues. That's a big claim, considering all the many and varied non-codex book formats that have existed from the earliest times. But in terms of quirky pages it's certainly got it all: volvelles, flaps, erasure, holes and unreadable text. The holes weren't Paris's work, to be fair. They're parchment holes resulting from flaws in the hide of animal, and the unreadable text is manuscript waste used as endpapers. But still, the whole thing is a beautiful combination of accident and design.

The most striking thing is Paris's inventive use of pagespace. Writing before the modern conventions of the page were set, he's free to innovate in order to convey complex kinds of information. The start of the chronicle charts a pilgrimage route from London to Jerusalem, which requires the reader to navigate its pages. It is part map, part text, and part illustration. There are flaps stitched on where more space was needed. It was written in the thirteenth century, but its innovative layout makes it resemble something between a fold out map, a board game, a diagram, or the graphic novels of Chris Ware.

Daniel Connolly argues that Paris creates an ‘imagined pilgrimage’, which exploits the workings of the codex. Paris is thinking not only about how you represent a voyage, but more specifically, how you represent it in the shape of a book. We typically travel up the left hand side of the page then up the right hand side, always moving away, into the distance. Significant spaces - sea crossings or deserts - occur between one page and the next, allowing the book to perform a kind of ‘fast forward’ as we turn the leaf. But this isn’t just a map or an itinerary but something more complex, which combines geography with theology and history. The flaps fold out to reveal not more cartographic space but narrative time. The triangular flap unravels the area of Italy to include the Isle of Sicily, but on its other side is a description of Mt Etna, not just the physical mountain by the ‘gule de enfer’: a mouth of hell. The larger flap similarly folds biblical eschatology into secular space. On one side is it unravels a text on the history of Rome, but on the other side it folds the Caspian mountains into the space of Europe, and with them the apocalyptic threat of Gog and Magog (although Paris conflates them with the Jews).

Matthew deployed a ‘calligraphic strategy’ argues Connolly, which ‘realises the voyager’s bodily passage across the vellum of the world…reading becomes movement and is itself a protracted endeavor, taking up time in sounding out the word: ju~~r~r~r~~n~ee’. The stretched out word indicates both time and space, since it’s the distance one can travel in one day. It signifies both ‘jurnee’ (day) and the term’s modern derivation, journey. The flaps and volvelle were ‘dynamic tools’ that engaged the bodies of his readers. Not all the monks that read his book would be able to undertake the journey, but the activity of navigating the pages is a kind of stand-in, involving not only the eye but physical movement and manoeuvring of the flaps and leaves. The text has different orientations and directions, meaning readers have to turn the book, as much as the page, or re-orient their body in relation to it.

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