Codicology The Aberdeen Bestiary

Introduction History Bestiary Codicology Bibliography


Work stopped on the Bestiary at f94r at the end of the twelfth century. The book was completed in a more casual fashion about a hundred years later. This may explain why the book retains so much evidence about its production: the pages were never finally trimmed and the tiny workshop indicators never erased. The book is 302mm x 210mm; the text area is 185 x 110/115mm.

a) Gatherings, quire marks, folio marks

To make a normal gathering, a sheet of vellum (the skin of a calf, lamb or kid) would be folded over twice and cut around the edges. This would make a gathering or quire of eight folios with sixteen sides. In the Bestiary there are fifteen quires, thirteen of which are made with the usual eight folios. The last two quires, added in the late thirteenth century, have six and four folios respectively. The folios are not precisely cut but in the most regular quires (B and C) they measure 30cm high and 21 cm wide.

In order to assemble the quires in the correct sequence they were labelled with letters of the alphabet. Some are missing with the result that the sequence runs -,B,C,D,E,F,G,H,I,K,-(folio missing),M,N. The last two quires (O and P) are the later additions and are not marked. The quire system was examined by James when the book was being rebound and he was able to produce the following analysis of the gatherings: A8 (wants folio 2, 8); B8 (4,5); C8 (4,8); D8 (4,5); E8-L8 (1); M8; N8; O6; P4 (4).

Individual sheets in the quire needed to be marked. Although there were eight folios only the first four needed marking because they were folded with the last four. Each sheet was distinctively marked to make sure the quires could not get muddled up. The asterisk sign is repeated in quires B and M but they remain distinct because the B sign is in the top right corner while the M signs are all in the bottom left corner.

Folio Marks


b) Pricking

Image of PrickingOnce the quires were arranged they had to be prepared for writing by drawing up the lines. Tiny parallel pinpricks were made on the outer and inner edges of each page and horizontal lines ruled between them. In a completed book these pinpricks should have been trimmed off during the final stages of production but in the Aberdeen Bestairy they have survived in 12 out of the 15 quires (only E , G and M are fully trimmed). Careful measuring shows that the holes were pricked with the quires folded up, using a long pointed pricker, because they are the same distance apart throughout an entire quire. In quires B and C there is a double hole on the penultimate line, indicating to the person ruling lines that the page is about to end. In these two quires the holes have a coarse triangular shape and are set up to 6mm in from the edge. Elsewhere the holes are smaller, circular and much closer to the edge.

Pinpricks were also made at the top and bottom of the pages to provide vertical margins. These survive in every quire. In quires A.F,H,J,K,L,M and N there are single pricks for the vertical lines. In B and C there are double pricks and double margins while in G there are double pricks and a variety of single and double ruled lines. On f48r (quire G) where there are double pricks for the margins, the wrong holes have been joined and the faulty diagonal line has been redrawn correctly.


c) Ruling

Image of Ruling Detail

After the leaves had been pricked, they were ready for ruling. Most pages up to quire F have 29 lines (except for the heavily illustrated quire A). The remaining quires use 28, 30 or 31 lines. The most regular ruling is found in B and C: the two top and bottom lines extend across the whole page. The lines in A, B and C are ruled in a grey colour. From D onwards the lines are a darker brown. The horizontal lines here are also neater, not overlapping the vertical margins. This would suggest that the ruling in A,B and C was done by a different person from the rest. In D and E there is a triple spaced double line across the top and bottom of the page but thereafter the ruling patterns become somewhat arbitrary. Sometimes there are double spaced top and bottom lines, sometimes the number of lines varies.

The ruling appears to have been made without any plan for the illuminations: on f3 there are perforations and ruling on a full page illustration; on f16r the ruled lines pass under the illustration.

d) Scribal corrections

When the ruling was complete the quires were ready to receive the text. At this point the scribe had a fairly clear idea about the layout of each page. He had to leave the correct amount of space for the rubrics, capitals and illuminations to be added. The script remains fairly uniform up to the break at f94r. However the scribe sometimes made mistakes which were picked up later. On f17r you can see corrections written lightly in the margin with part of the text erased and corrected accordingly.


In order to keep the text in its correct sequence, the quires with all their special numbering would have been kept together throughout the writing stage. For the art work they could have been split up, both to allow the pages to lie flat and to allow different people to work on the folios. It appears for instance that the rubrics were done separately from the text and illustrations.

a ) Initial Indicators.

Image of Edge of Sheet Image of Illuminated Letter
Edge of sheet Illuminated letter

When the scribe was writing he would leave a gap on the page where an initial was supposed to be inserted. To make sure that the illuminated letter was correct, the scribe would write a very small initial in the margin. They are written on the outside edge of the sheet. Over 30 of these small letters survive. Up to quire C they are marked with the same black ink as the text. After that both black and red ink are used.

b) Rubrics.

Ruberics Image

Rubrics are the red letters marking the beginning of each chapter. The scribe writing in black ink would leave the necessary gap at the head of each chapter and then return to the space later to fill in the red lettering. In quire H (f49r-56v) many spaces for the rubrics have been left empty. The scribe filled in the blackbird and owl (f49v, f50) but left out the hoopoe, bat, goose, heron, partridge (two sections), coot, phoenix (two sections) and caladrius. Within this section on birds only the nightingale has the rubrics written correctly (f52v). It would appear the scribe had to pass on quire H, probably to the illuminator, before he finished the rubrics.

c) Overlaps


It is clear that the illustrations were added after the text was complete. This can be seen for instance on f12r, the Bonnacon, where the axe passes outside the frame and covers some text. In this case the initial was done before the illustration because the capital I is overlapped by the spear. On f8v the frame of the illumination has to accommodate the illuminated P already in position. In most instances the illustration was made first: on f50r the frame of the illustration left too little space for the adjacent capital Y which has had to be trimmed to fit. On f31v inadequate space has been left for the stem of the letter P so the illuminator has wrapped it around the text. On 59v the frame came first and the initial P had to be squeezed beside it. On f63r the stem of the letter A wraps itself around the frame of the illustration. On f69v the man's foot extends beyond the picture frame and the capital A beneath it had to be painted around the foot. However it is possible that in this instance the letter was made first and the foot painted over it.

d) Initials

There are four types of initial in the Aberdeen Bestiary.

TYPE 1 appears towards the end of the manuscript. They are coloured blue or red and have no gold. They are found on f79r- 80v.

Type 2 Initial

TYPE 2 is much more common. The letter is made with burnished gold, filled with a blue or brown background which is decorated with a delicate white tracery. Many of these are embellished with red or blue traces or sprays. The Aberdeen Bestiary is a very early example of the use of sprays which culminates in the art of William de Brailles in the mid-thirteenth century (Morgan 1982,no.68). An elaborate spray is on f41r. The fine white tracery pattern is also found on some of the illuminations (f3r,11r, 12r) suggesting that the main illuminator also made these initials. This type generally occupies two lines.

Type 3 Initial

TYPE 3 is the most luxurious. Although it seems to crop up at random throughout the book, all six initials in quire A are of this type. The gold letter is framed by a blue or brown patterned square. The white fine line tracery takes many forms including elaborate acanthus patterns and animals. The acanthus leaves on f36v are like those on type 2, f37r. Also on f36v are tiny red circles found on the clothing of God and Adam in quire A. Therefore the initials of type 3 are also by the main illuminator. Type 3 may occupy only two lines as in quire A or up to eight lines on f77v.

TYPE 4 occurs in the last section of the book, from f92r onwards. These initials are red or blue. On any given page they alternate red and blue regularly. Blue initials are embellished with red tassels and vice versa. The colouring and form of the letters is not very even and appears rather hurried in places.

e) Sketches

Several very faint sketches can be seen in the margins of the book. Most of these are preliminaries for final drawings. On f32r the frames for the illustration have been blocked in. On f12v, bottom right, is a sketch of a dog like that at the foot of f5r. On f28r there are two sketches of circles in squares and in the bottom roundel is a cat like that on f5r. There is a faint circular outline on the right of f44v.

The most important sketches are those on f93v. These show variations on the two firestones scenes which relate very closely to parallel illustrations in Ashmolean 1511. They are described in detail on f93.

f)Colour indications

Some colour guides have been provided for both the illuminations and the initials. On f68v, the illustration of the hydrus, the word ictrie can be seen on the body of the crocodile. The word probably relates to icturus, jaundiced, indicating the yellow hue of the crocodile. On f81r, showing Isidore at work, the word harie (or hane) is written on Isidore's desk. This probably means aerus or sky blue. A similar word harie/aerie appears to the left of the firestones scene on f93v (this is interpreted as mine for minium, red by Clark 1992, 269). In the upper sketch on f93v there are also rather indistinct letters bis[ors(?)]. Bis means grey in Old French. On f32v the lettersni (niteur, clear) may be deciphered. In the margin beside some initials are the letters a, v, and or. These stand for azur, blue; vermeil/vermiculum, pink and gold. Indicators for the initials are found on ff 28v, 31v, 41v, 47v, 72v.

g) Pouncing

Pouncing Detail

Pouncing is a method of copying images from one sheet of vellum to another by making a series of tiny prick marks around the required image. The image would be pricked straight through to a sheet below. This would become the template from which several copies could be made without further harm to the original. The pricked sheet would be sprinkled with a very fine dust like charcoal or pumice, which would trickle through the holes producing the required image below. It was a convenient way to duplicate images in a scriptorium where many similar copies of a book were required. Although the Ashmolean Bestiary has very similar images to the Aberdeen Bestiary, in general their different proportions show that they were not a direct copy. The evidence of pouncing in the Aberdeen Bestiary suggests that there was yet another member of this family of manuscripts, directly dependent on the Aberdeen design. Images marked in this way are on f3r the creation of Eve (more visible on f3v), f11v hyena, f37r magpies, f59r ducks, f59v peacock, f66v vipers.

In most cases it is impossible to tell when the pouncing took place but the Aberdeen Bestiary has evidence that some pictures were done while the book was being made and some were done after completion (Clark 1992,107). The Creation of Eve (f3r) and the phoenix (f56r) are both punched and blank on the verso. The two pages after the phoenix are blank and glued together, thus preventing the pricks on f56r from damaging the new f56v. The same can be observed at f3r which is followed by two blanks and the Next image on 4v. Clearly these were intended to be stuck together to minimise the effect of pricking around Eve. Decisions to leave the blank pages must have been made while the drawings were being produced. Elsewhere the pouncing damages the rear of the sheet and was probably done after the book was complete.


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