Marking Time

My grandfather collected miniature books. Unfortunately, due to a stroke that robbed him of most of his speech before I was born and family tensions with his second wife, I never got to talk to him about his collection. In fact, I didn’t even know about it when he was alive. It wasn’t until after his widow passed away that I found them: piles and piles of tiny tomes filling a wall-mounted bookcase and a dresser drawer in his home in Maryland. Mostly they were cheap and cute little books from the mid-20th century. Nutshell Libraries, “Little Little Golden Books,” and things like that. But then I came across a couple pocket almanacs from the 17th century and realized that, on occasion, he must have decided to splurge on something older. Not long after, I found a small 15th-century Book of Hours.

The “Tilghman Hours.” Photo by Colette Lunday Brautigam.

This is not a particularly fancy book. That’s not to shrug it off–I mean, it’s a bona fide medieval manuscript and the grad-student me who discovered it was over the moon with excitement–but by the standards of late medieval Books of Hours, this is a pretty modest thing. There are no miniatures, the foliate ornament is limited to just five pages and looks fairly tossed off, and the pigments aren’t of the highest quality. Even the fact that it’s small is a sign of its modesty, since it didn’t require as much parchment to make.

Despite those shortcomings (in many ways, because of them), it’s great for teaching, and when I moved out to Wisconsin this past fall to teach at Lawrence University, my father and his brothers generously allowed me to bring the book with me. This past term, each of the students in my manuscripts seminar came by my office to spend a little time with it, getting a feel for the parchment, familiarizing themselves with the script, and just generally developing a sense of how manuscripts are like, and very much not like, the other books in our lives. They were trepidatious at first, but that unease seemed to sharpen their sense of how the physical experience of a book–opening it, holding it, handling it–is crucial to how we read and look at it.

Beaupré Antiphonary, showing damage in the margins (note the feet of an erased creature at top). Walters Art Museum, W.760, f.173r. © 2011 Walters Art Museum, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license:


The students were particularly interested in the evident damage the book has endured: the first and last leaves clearly got damp at some point, and there are crude repairs where the ink ate through the parchment. They loved that readers darkened several corners with the grime of their thumbs, and had rubbed down the gilding on several pages to its underlying size. We also discussed how the folios were trimmed down and their edges gilded when an antiquarian rebound the book for sale sometime in the 19th century (judging from the handwriting on a flyleaf). This sense of the book as a site of physical encounter came to the fore the day we discussed excellent essays by Kate Rudy, Beatrice Radden Keefe, and Jennifer Borland on erasures, revisions, and damage to medieval manuscripts.[1] We talked about charters and other documents enshrined on the pages of early gospel books, and the possibility that the erased marginalia in the Beaupré Antiphonary were victims of John Ruskin’s penknife. At one point in the discussion, a student asked me, “Have you ever been tempted to do something to your grandfather’s manuscript?”

Well… no.

It suddenly occurred to me that the book bears no traces of its years in my grandfather’s care, and I have been very careful so far not to leave any of my own. After all, I’m a historian entrusted with the care and maintenance of our cultural heritage: of course I’m not going to write in it, or mark it up, or erase anything.

But really, why shouldn’t I? The marks of readers, the traces of the past lives of artworks are some of my favorite things about works of art. I love imagining all the people who have come into contact with a work of art, who have touched it and been touched back by it.

The more I think about it, the more I think I should do something to this book. In my classes and my scholarship, I try to make the case that every work of art, no matter how old, is a work of contemporary art, and that we rob ourselves of great pleasure and insight when we insist on sealing artworks into the moment they were made. Shouldn’t I practice what I preach? Shouldn’t I somehow mark this new chapter in the life of this book?

The “Tilghman Hours” under duress. Photo by Colette Lunday Brautigam.

So, friends, I ask you: should I? Should I, as Billy Collins puts it, “catch a ride into the future / on a vessel more lasting than myself?” If so, any thoughts on what I should do? Pencil in my name? Add an ode to my cat in the margin? Perhaps update the decoration a bit, or scrape off some errant flecks of paint? I’m open to suggestions.

[1] Kathryn M. Rudy, “Kissing Images, Unfurling Rolls, Measuring Wounds, Sewing Badges and Carrying Talismans: Considering Some Harley Manuscripts Through the Physical Rituals They Reveal,” Electronic British Library Journal (2011): 1-56; Beatrice Radden Keefe, “Surveying Damage in the Walters Rose (W.143),” Journal of the Walters Art Museum 68/69 (2010/11), 97-106; Jennifer Borland, “Unruly Reading: The Consuming Role of Touch in the Experiences of a Medieval Manuscript,” in Scraped, Stroked, and Bound Materially Engaged Readings of Medieval Manuscripts, ed.  Jonathan Wilcox (Brepols, 2013) (forthcoming).

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24 Responses to “Marking Time”

  1. Martha Easton April 2, 2013 at 3:02 pm #

    I dare you.

  2. Kerr Houston April 2, 2013 at 3:27 pm #

    A really nice post, Ben. And, since you quoted Billy Collins, might I respond by citing my favorite Kay Ryan poem?

    Why isn’t it all/ more marked,/ why isn’t every wall/ graffitied, every park tree/ stripped like the stark limbs/in the house of/ the chimpanzees?

    Not simply, then, why mark the Tilghman Hours? But also, and just as pressingly, why would you not?

  3. Samantha April 2, 2013 at 5:55 pm #

    What about putting your thumb (or any other finger but this is a usual suspect for me when gripping pages) in some ink–whatever shade, perhaps grey for greater subtlety–and then lightly pressing just a portion of your fingerprint onto the bottom corner of a page? It’s hard not to feel the need to qualify this suggestion with puns about ‘heavy-handedness’, but I think the overall point is to leave some trace of your physicality, the ways in which your reading was very much embodied. Thanks for the post!

    • Ben Tilghman April 3, 2013 at 11:44 am #

      I like this idea a lot. Since I lean towards Kerr’s attitude (why would I not?), my real hesitation is about what kind of mark to leave. I’ve had precisely the same hesitation about getting a tattoo (which I’ve been dithering on for 18 years now…). I’ve got no problem with the idea of getting a tattoo, I just can’t decide what tattoo to get. But the thumbprint is nice.

  4. Asa Mittman April 2, 2013 at 10:54 pm #

    A) This is great.
    C) Why isn’t there a “Mittman Hours”?
    D) When will you publish on this book?
    E) Ok, here’s the meat of the question: If you do write on it, thereby defying the enshrinement of the object in a dead past or on a contemporary pedestal as a Work of Art, can you do so without falling into a different trap? You *own* a medieval manuscript! This is beyond the dreams of the vast majority of the world (or at least, of those who want such odd things). [Full disclosure: I have two leaves, neither illuminated. One was a gift — a page from a Gothic bible, given to me when I got my BA. The other I bought in grad school as part of a project for a course I took at the Stanford Law School on art law. I have been meaning to publish that essay for, well, a lot of years. That one is a cheap and scrappy folio from a large, late (16th cen?) antiphonary that had been reused as a binding, owned by Cornell, and then sold off.

    But back to the main issue: you OWN it, which means that if you mark (“damage”?) it, you are asserting your property rights, when, in fact, the book is arguably not yours — or not merely yours — but (also) cultural property. So, if you mark it, you are asserting your status as property owner (the “Tilghman Hours”???). I’ve just been through Marxism with my theories and methods class, so this is all very much in my head.

    I am torn (better me than the book): I want you to mark it, somehow, and I don’t want you to mark it. There is a feeling of subversiveness in this post, and yet the idea of an owner marking his property (ugh, marking the *skin of your property* gets us into Michel de Certeau territory), is the least subversive of all activities. It is reactionary, even. Now, if *I* were to borrow your book and then mark it, THAT would be subversive… Just suggesting…

    • Ben Tilghman April 3, 2013 at 11:58 am #

      So, was that whole Marxist takedown just a build-up to me handing the book over to you to much with?

      You do get right to the heart of something that makes me queasy, though: the inherited privilege embodied in the book. I tried to side-step that in the essay, but you’re right to call it out. It’s something I’ve often struggled with in relation to some other parts of my life, and I have no good conclusions to offer. I don’t mean this to sound reactionary, but there are few good models for precisely how the heir of white male privilege is supposed to behave in this culture. I mean, beyond, “Don’t be evil.” How do I care for and interact with the things I have inherited (and there are things still in my grandfather’s house that might have ickier provenances than this book) in an ethical way?

      I have the sense that this is all tied up in identity, or lack thereof, and also in distance. It’s charming to find that an anonymous someone added little doodles to a manuscript, and it’s fascinating to see a 15th-century aristocratic owner changing the heraldry in a 14th-century book. But Ben Tilghman in 2013, who wants to lay a mark in the book in part to make an intellectual point? Somehow, as you point out, not as cool.

  5. Martha Easton April 3, 2013 at 6:05 am #

    O.K., now I’ll write a more serious response. Just yesterday in class my students and I were talking Notre Dame in Paris and the interventions of Viollet-le-Duc, and this led to broader discussions about not only medievalism and authenticity, but how objects and buildings are ‘layered,’ and how, at least traditionally, art/architectural historians are mostly interested in that ‘original’ layer of appearance, function, etc. Of course the restorations of a building like Notre Dame are far more pervasive, and less obvious to the eye, than the later markings and signs of use in a manuscript, but perhaps we evaluate them in the same ways — we strip away, at least mentally, what is not ‘real,’ and focus on the pristine state of the object, without the signs of human interaction, outside of the creator. We talk about the tympana and nave at Vezelay, but not about the later Gothic choir, for example. Or the Viollet-le-Duc west facade.

    It’s an interesting question — should you do something to the book? As Asa says, you’re the OWNER now, so why not? I wonder how far you’d go? A mark? A thumbprint? What about the owners who cut up manuscripts? I own a couple of leaves myself, nothing fancy — but I’ve been criticized for participating in the destruction of the object, because, let’s be honest, that destruction is still happening even though as dealers claim that it’s not. What about the children who cut up the book of hours to make cut and paste alphabet letters (the name of the MS is escaping me)?

    Anyway, much food for thought here…and dude! You own a manuscript!

  6. Ben Tilghman April 3, 2013 at 12:04 pm #

    Perhaps I should note that there are eight total 19th-c. flyleaves and endleaves in the book. But, considering the stakes as I lay them out here (and as Asa and Martha raise them), putting something there would kind of feel like half-assing it, wouldn’t it?

  7. Maggie Williams April 3, 2013 at 12:35 pm #

    Thanks for the great post, Ben. I’m really not sure what I think you should do to/with the ms, but I just wanted to say how cool the dialogic framework of your piece is. Neat idea.

  8. Tim Riley April 3, 2013 at 12:59 pm #

    A very interesting question, indeed. As one who also owns several individual leaves (that makes me a fellow member of the “Envious-That-You-Have-a-Complete-Codex” Club), I am a beneficiary of post-medieval cutting sessions. At Lawrence, my own mentor—your predecessor—painted for me a picture of hack booksellers as undesirables complete with their 19th-century versions of X-Acto knives. Still, the only originals available at Lawrence were orphaned leaves. I learned to read between the lines (literally) by looking at the various markings, scribbles, corrections made over time. I remain fascinated by this sort of thing to this day.

    If you choose to leave a mark on your Hours, then refrain from a deliberate smudge or an inky thumbprint. Your fingerprints are already on the pages, after all. 500 years from now I suspect there will be ways to detect vestiges of what came from your eccrine glands (and trace it back to you!).

    Instead, I say find a common 15th-century abbreviation, say “ds,” something that is today decidedly out of fashion. Then, using your favorite 21st-century script, write in the margin “= dominus.” At once you’ll be teaching your current students the maddening world of medieval abbreviations and marking your own time (Hours) for the ages.

    P.S. Martha Easton, while my fingerprints are on them, I don’t own single leaves from the Belles Heures!

    • Ben Tilghman April 3, 2013 at 2:57 pm #

      Tim, that’s a lovely suggestion, one well worth thinking about. Maybe I could draw in a manicule? And who’s to say that I can’t do a few different things?

      BTW, I learned to view booksellers the same way from the same man: I’m LU class of ’99. Orr’s manuscript class got me started on medieval art and book history, and look where it’s got me: right back where I started!

  9. Asa Mittman April 3, 2013 at 2:08 pm #

    Martha — at some point we should have a discussion about cutting up MSS — I have a lot to say on the subject, and was once thrown out of Pirages’ stall at Kalamazoo, for just asking some innocuous questions about where these individual leaves all come from….!

    • Ben Tilghman April 3, 2013 at 2:53 pm #

      I am appalled every year that they allow that stall in Kalamazoo. We should petition to get them banned.

  10. Jennifer Borland April 5, 2013 at 1:23 pm #

    Lovely piece, and fascinating question. I’m in agreement with everyone – you should leave a mark of some kind. What it is, I don’t know. Will keep thinking about it. But seriously, how cool it is to have this to teach with – I am SO envious! Also, I think the modesty is was makes it so interesting – students often don’t learn about the more everyday pieces in classes, and this is such a useful tool on that teaching front as well.

  11. Jennifer Borland April 5, 2013 at 2:27 pm #

    And of course now it is clear that I posted this before I saw all of the other comments. So I am not in agreement with everyone. But I think Martha’s comments are similar to mine – I think such a move, in whatever form, speaks to the living nature of a/the book. It’s really not about ownership to me so much as as evidence of the object’s life. The more I’ve thought about medievalism and interventions, the less concern I’ve developed for the “original” object. I don’t mean we should all go back to 19th century restoration processes, but I also think we should resist fetishizing the “original” that no longer exists (and maybe never did).

  12. mary garrison May 19, 2013 at 6:06 am #

    What a treasure. You are actually adding to the life and information of the book each time you handle it: wear, DNA traces, no need for pen or pencil… Having been cherished and worn through use across a millennium, how does a 21st century ‘Kilroy was here’ speak to the book’s afterlife and the intentions of its makers?

    • Ben Tilghman May 23, 2013 at 9:36 am #

      Thanks, Mary, for the comments. I know what you mean about simply handling it as a mark, but that evidence is so subtle that it will likely escape future reader’s notice. If I believe that they might want to know something about how has owned the book since the 19th c., shouldn’t there be something else?

      I guess what I’m curious about is the way we value the original intentions of the makers against later users. Like you (I’m guessing), I’m much more interested in the Middle Ages than the 19th c., but it seems dishonest to pretend like the later life of the book didn’t happen.

  13. mary garrison May 19, 2013 at 6:10 am #

    ownership of an artefact that will outlast many lives: you are its guardian

  14. Ben Tilghman May 23, 2013 at 9:37 am #

    Looking at the book again with a student, I noticed something that (I’m astonished to say) I hadn’t before: it’s only foliated through the first 13 leaves. I’m considering foliating the rest, particularly since I’ll be using it with students for teaching and it will be useful to know the folio numbers. Thoughts?

  15. Kate Rudy January 6, 2017 at 12:06 pm #

    There’s no better feeling that foliating a manuscript with your best handwriting, using your favorite mechanical pencil. The graphite slides onto the parchment with a little mattress of book block below. I recommend doing it in total silence with full concentration. Foliated, the manuscript will be easier to work with.

    • Ben Tilghman March 6, 2017 at 12:10 pm #

      We did foliate it! A chemistry professor here has been doing some work with students to analyze the pigments, so we found ourselves very much needing foliation. So the professor and I sat down with a couple of students and took turns foliating some of the pages. It was a thrill for all of us.

  16. Asa Mittman March 4, 2017 at 7:48 am #

    I was talking about this post with a student just today, and that got me wondering — did you ever DO IT? Did you mark you book? Did you foliate it as Kate suggested? Put a thumbprint in? I know you didn’t loan it to me to mark it up…

  17. Ben Tilghman March 6, 2017 at 12:16 pm #

    Besides adding foliation, the one other thing we’ve done to it is to use an eraser to extract some proteins off the parchment for analysis (based on this study: It very slightly brightens a small spot on the page, but the parchment is so mottled that you’d only notice it if you know where to look. Still, I like the idea of it now featuring this very very subtle (though documented!) sign of its modern-day use as an object for teaching and collaborative research.

    • Asa Mittman March 10, 2017 at 8:18 am #

      Very cool! Send a picture of one of your foliations!

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