Into the Manuscript Matrix: Middle Letters for Readers of a Middle Sort

  • Martha Dana Rust
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


If the architectural motifs in manuscripts such as the Sherborne Missal, Hours of Mary of Burgundy, and the Beaufort or Beauchamp Hours intimate that for medieval readers a book may bring forth an imaginary dimension—a productive cell I term the manuscript matrix—then the elementary building blocks of that quasi-verbal, quasi-visual realm would have to be the assembled letters of the alphabet. The notion that these elements of writing might constitute the essential components of a liminal realm is implicit in their use in the ceremony for consecrating churches, for there they found truly architectural spaces as otherworldly domains. Directions for the “alphabet ceremony” portion of the consecration service, which survive in many English pontificals dating from the tenth century onward, instruct the officiating bishop to trace two alphabets along intersecting diagonal paths of sand or ashes spread on the church floor.1 While the origins of this ceremony remain a mystery, the significance it held for medieval Christians is clear from surviving commentaries; for instance, in his Tractatus de dedicatione ecclesiae, Remigius of Auxerre (d. 908) acknowledges that the ritual looks like a childish game at first glance—“Quae res puerilis ludus videretur”—but then goes on to ask, “Quid autem per alphabetum, nisi initia et rudimenta doctrinae sacrae intelligi convenit?” [What is properly understood through the alphabet if not the beginnings and rudiments of the sacred teachings convenit?].2


Imaginary World Middle Letter Novice Reader Successive Letter Alphabetical Character 


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  1. 6.
    Margaret Schlauch, English Medieval Literature and Its Social Foundations (Warsaw: Pa´nstwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1956), p. 233.Google Scholar
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    Hugh Aveling, “Westminster Abbey—The Beginnings to 1474,” in A House of Kings: The Official History of Westminster Abbey, ed. Edward Carpenter (London: John Day, 1966), p. 79 [3–84].Google Scholar
  3. 21.
    John Powell Ward, The Spell of the Song: Letters, Meaning, and English Poetry (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2004), p. 16.Google Scholar
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    Kathleen L. Scott, “Limning and Book-Producing Terms and Signs in situ in Late-Medieval English Manuscripts: A First Listing,” in New Science Out of OldBooks: Studies in Manuscripts and Early Printed Books in Honour of A. I. Doyle, ed. Richard Beadle and A. J. Piper (Brookfield: Scolar Press, 1995), p. 145 [142–88].Google Scholar
  5. Other terms for letters Scott discusses include “aurum,” “endented letter,” “sprynget,” and “vinet.” For editions and translations of illuminators’ contracts, most of which mention specific kinds of letters, see Jonathan J. G. Alexander, Medieval Illuminators and Their Methods of Work (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), pp. 179–83.Google Scholar
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  9. Sutton and Visser-Fuchs include a family tree for the Frowyks in their study; for additional information on the family, see Syliva L. Thrupp, The Merchant Class of Medieval London (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1948), pp. 342–44.Google Scholar

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© Martha Dana Rust 2007

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  • Martha Dana Rust

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