Tuesday, November 30, 2010

On the 23rd day of Christmas, Babbitt's Books gave to me . . .

. . . a two-sided vellum manuscript leaf. 

What exactly is a vellum manuscript leaf, you say?

Before the printing press was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-1400s, books and manuscripts were produced by hand, mainly in monasteries. Each book had to be painstakingly hand-lettered. The material used was usually not paper, but thin parchment made from the limed skin of calves, sheep or goats. Often the books were decorated with colorful illustrations or ornate borders. Today, such books are called illuminated manuscripts.  

A leaf from an illuminated manuscript.

After the invention of the printing press, book-making skyrocketed. Gradually the practice of lettering manuscripts by hand dropped off, then died altogether. It just didn't make sense, time-wise and money-wise. 

However, there were still manuscripts that had to be hand-lettered by necessity. Musical manuscripts, for instance. Nobody had quite figured out a good way to reproduce staffs, bar-lines, clefs and notes with a printing press, so music was hand-lettered well into the 18th century. 

. . . do you see where this is going now? 

Our particular manuscript leaves--I should point out now that you have your choice of over two dozen--are from 1707, when music was still transcribed by hand. Like leaves from illuminated manuscripts, they are written on parchment and have decorated capital letters.  The leaves were originally part of a book of Gregorian chants, and feature Latin words and square-note neumes. You can read more here if you'd like to brush up on your musical history. They're big, too. 13" by 20" big. At just $50 apiece, these 303-year-old beauties are a real bargain. 

Sure, you can get your music-lover or music major the requisite Bach CD for the holidays. Maybe a Beatles sweatshirt or a lapel pin shaped like a treble clef. But those gifts don't begin to approach the uniqueness and the loveliness of these Gregorian manuscript leaves, which would look wonderful framed in your loved one's studio or study. (No offense to Johann Sebastian or John, Paul, George and Ringo.)

Please bear in mind before you buy that the leaves have endured the wrath of three centuries, and are not in pristine condition. Each one has varying degrees of water damage, which mainly presents as darkening, smudging and wrinkling. The damage is well over two hundred years old, though, so you shouldn't have to worry about mold or other dampness. 

Ask to see these on your next visit to the bookshop; you won't be disappointed!

Title: Vellum Manuscript Leaf
Year: 1707
Features: Hand-Lettered 
Condition: Good
Price: $50

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