Lines were ruled on the pages of medieval
manuscripts as a guide for the script. School children today have lines
ruled for their handwriting, and exercise-books and ledgers are printed
with ruled lines. It is, however, considered now to be not really good
manners to write formal letters on ruled paper,
as if there were something a bit shameful in needing guidelines for handwriting.
It was quite the reverse in the Middle Ages. The smarter the book, the
more elaborately it was ruled. Unruled manuscripts (and they exist) are
the cheap and ugly home-made transcripts. Splendidly illuminated manuscripts
have grids of guide lines. When printing was introduced and early customers
expected their books to resemble traditional manuscripts, the usual trick
was to rule in guide lines around every line of printed text because writing
presumably looked naked without it. There are examples of this at least
into the seventeenth century. Ruled guide lines were an expected feature
of a medieval book. The lines drawn on a page of a medieval manuscript
will depend very much on the text to be written. Either the scribe ruled
his own, or he selected ruled leaves in accordance with the scale and page
layout of his text.
There is a ninth-century instruction
for laying out pages mathematically. Suppose the page to be five units
high and four wide, it says. The height of the written-space should be
four such units. The inner and lower margins should be three times as wide
as the outer margin and as the gutter between the columns (if it is a two
column book) and a third wider than the width of the upper margin. The
lines should be spaced, the ninth-century directive concludes, according
to the size of the writing. It is quite difficult to measure out a page
according to these rules. It can be hard to confirm whether extant manuscripts
followed a formula of proportion, because their three outer margins are
likely to have been trimmed a number of times in rebinding over the centuries.
If nothing else, however, medieval book designers probably realised that
in a handsome manuscript the height of the written-space equalled the width
of the page.
Until the twelfth century, most
manuscripts were ruled in hardpoint,
that is, with blind lines scored with a stylus or back of the knife.
Scribes ruled hard and sometimes cut through the parchment
by mistake. Around the beginning of the twelfth century we first find
guide lines ruled in what looks like pencil: it could be graphite but is
more likely to be metallic lead or even silver. In thirteenth or fourteenth-century
there are probably plummet
markers for just such purposes as ruling manuscripts. From the thirteenth
century onwards, concurrently with plummet (sometimes even in one manuscript),
lines can be ruled in pen
find brown, red, green or purple ink used, and sometimes combinations of
colours giving a festive appearance. Very often the lines marking off the
block of text continue right to the edge of the page, and sometimes they
are double or treble. The horizontal lines for the script sometimes extend
to the edges too, or perhaps the first and last will, or the first, third,
antepenultimate, and last. It is interesting to look at a manuscript and
notice how it has been ruled, but it is not easy to draw any particular
generalisations about what one sees.
Ruling page by page before even
beginning to write was slow and tedious. Various devices were used to speed
the process. The most universal was to measure out the first page of the
gathering, or the first and last page together ) the gatheringwas laid
open, and to follow the lines with a rule to the extreme edge of the page
and there to prick very hard right through the whole stack of leaves. Then
all that was needed was to open the pages and join up the prickings
and the ruling pattern would be duplicated exactly from page to page.
Sometimes these holes were apparently pricked with the very tip of a knife
because they are the shape of tiny triangular wedges. Usually they must
have been pushed with a carpenter's awl, a metal spike on a wooden handle.
Prickings are not always visible as they are frequently trimmed off in
If they occur in the inner margins as well as the outer margins, the leaves
must have been ruled while the gatherings were folded into pages. Occasionally
one notices (especially if alerted to look out for it) that every eight
or ten lines or so one hole will be crooked or unduly widely spaced. If
this is consistent in several gatherings, it is a good clue that the prickings
had been made with some kind of wheel, like a tiny garden roller with spikes,
and that one spike had somehow become knocked out of alignment and thus
the defect recurred at regular intervals as the wheel went round. There
is sometimes evidence too in the later Middle Ages that the multiple lines
for the text were ruled with several pens
tied together, like the rostrum or rake used for making musical staves.
If for any reason these pens were knocked or quivered slightly as they
were drawn across the page, the quaver is reflected at exactly the same
point in several lines simultaneously. This is another clue worth looking
out for in a page of manuscript.
A final artificial device, used
only in the fifteenth century (as far as can be traced) and mostly in north-eastern
Italy, is the ruling frame. This is a familiar feature of Oriental and
Hebrew book production. Holes are drilled in a wooden board and wires are
ingeniously threaded through, emerging in a criss-cross pattern exactly
like that of the framework to be transferred onto the page. Then all that
is needed is to place the blank sheet over the board and rub it with the
fist, and the lines will be impressed identically onto the sheet. Once
more, as with other ruling devices, it is not necessarily easy to tell
when confronting a manuscript if a ruling board has been used. But imagine
how the wires must bisect each other on the board when they cross at right
angles. One must be threaded under the other or pushed right through the
wood and out again on the other side of the wire it crosses. One can see
this in the manuscript, as no line actually crosses another; the lines
stop fractionally short and pick up again a millimetre on the other side
of the crossing. When a line is ruled with a stylus, it simply ploughs
straight across, one way and the other. In the early Middle Ages, scribes
doubtlessly prepared many of the stages of the parchment
themselves. The cottage-industry of the monastic community left little
scope for teams of professional collaborators. Even the parchment was doubtless
a by-product of the monastery's kitchens, and paper
was unknown. But certainly by the fourteenth century it seems to have been
possible to purchase gatheringsof parchment ready prepared for writing.
Ruling continues under miniatures, and there is ruling on blank flyleaves.
For many scribes, the task of writing a manuscript must have begun with
neat stacks of paper or parchment gatherings, ready folded and ruled.