Prof. G. Steinberg
Here are three examples of medieval manuscripts to show you what they looked like and what condition they typically are in. Note that two of these manuscripts are actually unusual in that they have margins and use spaces between words. Because parchment was so expensive, medieval manuscripts often used every bit of available space on each and every page, filling all margins with text and not even wasting space between words, sentences, or paragraphs. Words would be often be split at the end of a line and just continued on the next line. Abbreviations were common (especially for the Latin endings “-ibus” and “-orum,” for the word “and,” and for certain letters after vowels).
First, we have a page from a text by John Gower. It is in English, so you ought to be able to read it. It begins: “Wiž sondry herbes his figure / And žervpon he gan coniure / So that žurgh his enchantment / This lady which was innocent / And wiste nožing of žis gile....” The letter “ž” represents the “th” sound. Look at the word “coniure” ( = “conjure”) at the end of the second line in the lefthand column. The word consists of a “c” and an “o,” followed by five minims (single strokes of the scribe’s pen), and ends with “re.” The five minims could represent any number of combinations of the letters “i,” “u,” “n,” and “m” (i.e., “niu,” “nni,” “inn,” “imi,” “mu,” “iun,” “uin,” “iun,” “inu,” and so on). A reader just has to consider which combination makes sense in the context of the line (e.g., given the need to rhyme with “figure” in the preceding line).
Second, we have a text in Latin. The manuscript’s lack of margins and spaces is much more typical of most medieval manuscripts. Beginning with the last word of the first line, it reads, “...aut / continebit in ira sua mise/ricordias suas Et dixi n[un]c cepi: hec mutatio dextere ex/celsi Memor fui operum / domini: quia memor ero ab / initio mirabilium tuor[um] Et meditabor in omnib[us] op[er]ib[us] / tuis....”
Third, we have the opening of Piers Plowman. Note the horrible condition of the manuscript and how difficult it is to read. It's also in English. It begins: “In a somer seson whan softe was že sonne / I shoop me into shroudes as of a sheep weere / In habite as an heremite vnholy of werkes / Wente wide in žis world wondres [to] here....”