Dirty Books Reveal Medieval Reading Habits

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Dirty pages of centuries-old books have revealed the fears, desires and humanity of medieval Europeans, suggesting that they were as self-interested and afraid of illness as people are today.

Kathryn Rudy, lecturer in the School of Art History at the University of St Andrews, analyzed a number of 15th- and early 16th-century European prayer books to reconstruct the reading habits of people who lived in medieval times.

The book turned out to be a kind of forensic analysis of what interested people of the time. She soon realized that the darkness of thumbed pages correlated to the intensity of their use and handling. The dirtiest pages were most likely also the most read, while relatively clean pages were probably neglected.

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Using a densitometer, a machine that measures the darkness of a reflecting surface, Rudy was able to intepret how a reader handled a book, which sections were the most popular and which were ignored.

"Although it is often difficult to study the habits, private rituals and emotional states of people, this new technique can let us into the minds of people from the past," Rudy said.

The densitometer spiked at a manuscript dedicated to St. Sebastian, who was often prayed to for protection against the plague.

According to Rudy, the result shows that the reader was terrified of the plague and repeated the prayer in a bid to ward off the disease.

Similarly, pages which contained prayers for personal salvation were much more soiled and worn than those asking for other people's redemption.

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"Religion was inseparable from physical health, time management and interpersonal relationships in medieval times. In the century before printing, people ordered tens of thousands of prayer books — sometimes quite beautifully illuminated ones — even though they might cost as much as a house," Rudy said.

Treasured and read several times a day at key prayer times, those religious book appear to have produced some "side effects" — they put the reader to sleep.

Rudy's analysis revealed that a particular prayer said in the wee hours of the morning was only dirty for the first few pages, likely indicating readers repeatedly opened the book and began praying, but did not finish.

"Most readers fell asleep at the same point," Rudy said.

Photo: Quantifying fingerprints on a medieval prayer book. Credit: University of St Andrews.

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