Saturday 22 April 2017

Notes of Alignment. [Alessandria and Umberto Eco's private library of books that lie]

 (this post was first published as Collective Investigations: Wednesday Post)

The fourth point on Arnolfini Ley is Alessandria, a city in Piedmont, Italy, known Borsalino hats and for being the birthplace of Umberto Eco. Umberto Eco is famous as a writer, philosopher and semiotician, as well as a collector of rare books.  Since we are dealing with leylines, it is his extraordinary collection of books on "wrong, zany and occult science, as well as on imaginary languages" (Carriere, p 131) and his views on false beliefs is what we are interested in. 
My collection is very focused. It is a Biblioteca Semiologica, Curiosa, Lunatica, Magica et Pneumatica, or 'a collection dedicated to the occult and mistaken sciences'. (Umberto Eco in Carriere, p 127)  

As a rare books collector I am fascinated by the human propensity for deviating thought. So I collect books about subjects in which I don’t believe, like kabbalah, alchemy, magic, invented languages. Books that lie, albeit unwittingly. I have Ptolemy, not Galileo, because Galileo told the truth. I prefer lunatic science. (in Zanganeh)

I have found remarkably little about Umberto Eco’s collection of books. My own knowledge comes from his conversation with Jean-Claude Carriere published as This is not the End of the Book. Eco himself had admitted that he did not show his collection to many people. “A book collection is a solitary, masturbatory kind of phenomenon, and you don’t often come across people who share your passions.” ((Carriere, p 327) Umberto Eco has 50000 books in his various homes as well as 1200 rare titles. Although a fast reader himself (with a phenomenal memory too) many of the books in his library he had not read. Most of the collection he had accumulated is for research. He does not go to bookshelves to choose what to read, he says. He goes to pick up the book he needs.

Here is a fascinating walk though his library:

 In This is not the End of the Book Eco and Carriere indulge in a series of brags on the size and contents of their collections. There we find out, that of 1200 rare titles, Eco only owns about thirty incunabula. Although they do include “the essentials”, he says. Of the more curious titles, we find out that Umberto Eco owned “an incunabulum of the influential and deadly which-hunting manual, the Malleuns Maleficarum.”, which was signed by it’s binder with an image of Moses with horns. (Carriere, p 111)

Malleus Maleficarum 1487
There is an interesting part in this brag, where both authors discuss the works of Athanasius Kircher, (insatiable in his lunatic curiosity, as Eco said in Serendipities), of which (of course) Eco has all, except for one - but that one is only a small book with no illustrations, totally devoid of charm, he says. Kircher, according to Carrier, was “a kind of Internet before its time - meaning that he knew everything that could be known, and within his knowledge there was 50 per cent accuracy and 50 per cent nonsence, or imagination.” (Carriere, p. 129)

An excellent visualisation of Kircher’s reasoning for why the Tower of Babel could never reach the moon. According to his calculations, such structure would cause the Earth revolve on its axis. From his Turris Babel, 1679 (St Andrews copy at r17f BS1238.B2K5)

The collection, of course, reflects Eco’s fascination with the potential of erroneous thinking, fantasy and mistakes. Like Flaubert, he says, they both adored silliness. (Carriere, p 131). This pursuit of utopias, fairy-tales and generally wishful thinking, is responsible for a number considerable inventions and discoveries. In Serendipities: Language And Lunacy Eco discusses such events. Christopher Columbus, for example, who stumbled upon America, when looking for India, believing that the Earth was much smaller than it was. Or the Donation of Constantine. Or Marco Polo discovering rhinoceros and believing he had found unicorns (which, were not as gentile animals, as he had expected). Or even the persistent search for Eldorado, which fuelled numerous expeditions.

 I am fascinated by error, by bad faith and idiocity. (Umberto Eco in Carriere, p 131)

 “Fascinated” is the correct word to describe Eco’s attitude towards the power of falsity. Eco is respectful and never depreciative, because “even the most lunatic experiments can produce strange side effects, stimulating research that proves perhaps less amusing but scientifically more serious” (Eco, Serendipities, p.8)

 At a certain historical moment, some people found the suspicion that the sun did not revolve around the earth just as crazy and deplorable as the suspicion that the universe does not exist. So we would be wise to keep aan open, fresh mind against the moment when the community of scientists decrees that the idea of the universe has been an illusion, just like the flat earth and the Rosicrucians. 

After all, the cultivated person’s first duty is to be always prepared to rewrite the encyclopaedia. (Eco, Serendipities, p.21)

Eco’s inquisitive and openminded attitude towards erroneous, fantastic and wishful theories is helpful when dealing with ley lines: they started as Watkins' mappings of ancient trackways and culminated as New Age fantasies and mysteries.

Our Arnolfini Ley relies on the same principle as Watkins' leys - it connects the points of importance, which by randomness, luck or divine intervention happened to be on a straight line. We understand that our ley might not be a scientifically sound mapping of objects - as you would expect from a mapping grounded in a theory of mysticism, false science and erroneous thinking.  However, this wishful theory when applied to our reading maps, has revealed sacred aspects of the book, and elegant physical as well as metaphysical alignments between body and book.

It is easy to dismiss ley lines as far fetched, but like with the cases of erroneous thinking mentioned above, there is always a possibility of changing the angle or context of interpretation to reveal the potential and inspiration for another discovery.

The attraction of cranks to leylines is naturally no encouragement to take them seriously: but neither it is a reason for the subject to be rejected. (Timpson, p.8)


Carriere, Jean-Claude; Umberto Eco (2009) This is not the End of the Book. London: Harvill Secker
Eco, Umberto (1998) Serendipities : Language and Lunacy. Translated from Italian by William Weaver. New York: Columbia University Press.
Timpson, John (2002) Timpson’s Leylines. A Layman Tracking the Leys. London: Cassell Paperbacks
Zanganeh, Lila Azam (2008) Umberto Eco, The Art of Fiction No. 197. The Paris Review. Issue 185. [Online]. Available at (Accessed:  18 March 2017)

Wednesday 22 March 2017

Notes of Alignment. [veneration of the book]

(this post was first published as Collective Investigations: Wednesday Post)

The first book I remember seeing was the sacred book, at Mass; it had been placed in full view on the altar, and the priest turned the pages with great respect. My first book was therefore an object of worship. (Carriere, p.294)


Ley lines mark alignments formed by sacred sites or sites of spiritual significance. Arnolfini Ley is a reading line, which runs between the Library of Trinity College in Dublin and the Library of Alexandria, connecting book related sites. They are special locations marked by the book - an object of spiritual veneration, yet a very material one.
Book indeed is an ambiguous object, reliant on the reader to transform it from an object to an abject. Its existence is defined not solely by its physical presence, but also by its immaterial content: book can be a heavy volume of the Bible as well the sacred word of God it contains; it can be an intricately luxurious Sangorski binding and the ethereal rubaiyats of Omar Khayyám included into it. Holding the book allows us to admire it as an object. Reading, however, allows transmission of the intangible between the book and the person. 

Levantine Jews were the first to turn the act of reading into a ritual, the practice, which will later be picked up by Christians and make the base of Christian liturgy.
Babylonians and Assyrians had greatly respected magical texts. […] The respect had never entailed veneration of the written word itself, that is, the sanctification of writing and its physical material. The Levantine Jews introduced just such a sanctification, thereby adding a whole new dimension to reading. (Fischer, p 60)

In discussing ritualistic reading of Leviticus, Wesley J. Bergen suggests, that reading can even replace ritual sacrifice. Text, he says, is not a ritual. It is a text about ritual and it is a sign of absent ritual. It was written to be read and performed, to encourage participation.  Like in the contemporary Christian liturgy, “text becomes part of sacred space and time, the reading of the text becomes part of the ritual.”
Thus, the ritual “reading” Leviticus’ becomes a subsitute for the ritual animal sacrifice. […] Thus, the textualisation of the ritual is balanced by the ritualisation of the text. The command by God to Moses (to speak these words) is fulfilled even while no animals are killed. The movement from animal sacrifice to reading of texts involves some loss and some gain, as all change does. So there is no loss of ritual, only it’s transformation. (Bergen, p7)

Book as the embodied word of God existed throughout the Middle Ages at the center of Christian ritual. Heavily adorned Bibles, often containing relicts of the saints, were seen as incarnations of Christ himself. Early parchment bindings must have made the “body of Christ” metaphor even more visual: the books were made of animal skins, with pores visible on the surface of the page along the words God.  There is certainly something macabre yet sublime in having earthly flesh support the holy scripture.
The analogy between the body of Christ and the letter of scripture would become a Christian commonplace, leading to a long Christian tradition that attempted to apprehend the mystery of Christ as Word through visions of Christ as book. (Kearney, p. 14)
First class relic of Saint Pope John Paul II incased in a Golden Bible
Curiously, I found the idea of incarnate Word explicitly reinforced as as recently as 1965,  by Pope Paul VI in Dei Verbum ( the Second Vatican Council).
The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord, since, especially in the sacred liturgy, she unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God's word and of Christ's body. She has always maintained them, and continues to do so, together with sacred tradition, as the supreme rule of faith, since, as inspired by God and committed once and for all to writing, they impart the word of God Himself without change, and make the voice of the Holy Spirit resound in the words of the prophets and Apostles. (Dei verbum

A good example of a ritual book is the Book of Kells, currently kept at the the Library of Trinity College in Dublin, our first point on Arnolfini Ley. This elaborately produced manuscript was produced with the purpose of it being displayed and worshiped. The book remained in Kells through Middle Ages, venerated as the gospel of St Colum Cille, a relic of the saint, brought to Kells together with another book (possibly Book of Durrow) (Library of Trinity College Dublin). The current binding of the Book of Kells exists as four  volumes. The original, however, was one heavy and substantial object. Not unlike religious architecture, such book was not meant to be carried around. It was also not designed to be used for study or even reading. Like churches and cathedrals which housed such manuscripts, medieval altar Bibles were there to evoke awe and reverence, elated to an ineffable and noetic religious experience. They were mediators between the God and the man, in the same way that other icons, relicts, and the the church itself were.

The Book of Kells

It was Reformation that shook up the idea of book as a venerated gilded icon: a process that led Christianity from piety focused upon image to piety focused upon word (Kearney, p. 25) As Erasmus said - scripture and not picture should be at the center of religious experience. Reformation, of course, overlapped with the invention of printing press and a remarkably rapid growth of available printed texts across Europe as well as the spread of literacy.  While Kearney calls this period "the crisis of the book”, it was a period of crisis only in understanding of its the place in faith and liturgy.  All agree, that reading is a transformative act, powerful enough to convert the reader to “true religion” (yet, the reader can be easily corrupted, of course). Seemingly, it was in this period that veneration of the ineffable content of the book overtook veneration of book as an icon. It is not a viewer in the presence of the scripture that benefits from the book, it is the reader.

Veneration of the book needs an active reader, to transform it from an object to an abject. Adoration is not directed purely at the material qualities of the book, but at the noetic aspects of the experience. Like sacred sites, relics, cathedrals (or even, us, people)  books stand not only as solid structures, but also as embodiments of the metaphysical ideas and experiences.


At a Book (c.1882). Marie Bashkirtseff (Ukrainian, 1858-1884). Oil on canvas. Kharkiv Art Museum.

There is an interesting story which takes worship of the Word of God one step further, bridging it into veneration of any material text.
Ernst Curtius records an anecdote concerning Francis of Assisi in which “the saint picked up every written piece of parchment which he found on the ground, even if it were from a pagan book. Asked by a disciple why he did so, Francis answered: “Fifi me, litteme sum ex quibus componitur gloriosissimum Dei nomen. [My son, these are the letters out of which the glorious name of God is formed].” Here, the incarnation of the logos means that all language - fragments of text, scraps of parchment - has been glorified. Writing itself is sacred. (Kearney, p15)

Bergen, Wesley (2005) Reading Ritual: Leviticus in Postmodern Culture.  New York: T & T Clark International
Carriere, Jean-Claude; Umberto Eco (2009) This is not the End of the Book. London: Harvill Secker
Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation: Dei Verbum: Solemnly Promulgated by His Holiness Pope Paul V on November 18, 1965 [Online]. Available at   (Accessed:  19 March 2017)
Fisher, Steven Rodger (2003) A History of Reading. London: Reaktion Books.
Kearney, James (2009) The Incarnate Text: Imagining the Book in Reformation England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
The Book of Kells [Online]. Available at     (Accessed:  19 March 2017)

Wednesday 22 February 2017

Notes of Alignment. [on The Old Straight Track]

(first published as Collective Investigations: Wednesday Post)

This post is about Alfred Watkins’  The Old Straight Track, some ideas and legends behind it, its rebirth in 1960s and some of the influences.

Alfred Watkins published The Old Straight Track in 1925 on the back of his lecture to the Woolhope Naturalists’ Field Club in Hereford, where he presented his idea of leys - lines of straight alignments (of stones, mounts, churches, etc) in the landscape, which are visible to this day as a record of the ancient trade routes used by our ancestors to travel across Britain.  Alfred Watkins had spent years photographing his native Hereforshire and mapping the walking routes (Daniels). Then, in 1920, as he was sitting in his car at a Blackwardine crossroads, he came up with the theory of leys.

(Watkins was no walker along ley-lines, at least for any distance; he favoured motor cars of various kinds, both steam and petrol powered vehicles, to get close to the key sites, to carry his camera and his assistant Mr McKaig, and to establish the scope of the system. (Daniels))

The book is an impressive, extensively researched effort to make sense of the landscape Watkins clearly loved.  The Old Straight Track is as elegant, as it is methodical.  When reading it, it is easy to get fascinated by his systematic account of mounts, stones, wells, ponds, histories and customs that surround them, links with the Bible narratives as well as straight lines in other countries, attempts at etymological explanations of toponyms and hydronyms. Then, there is a poetic quote at the start of each chapter and the book completes with a four-liner from Ruyard Kipling.  The Old Straight Track can appear romantic and far-fetched in places (some etymologies are incorrect, some alignments are rather imaginative), however Watkins constructed a vision of olde England, which defines the relationship of many English ramblers with their walking tracks today.

The Old Straight Track got forgotten a soon after Watkins’ death. Then, psychedelic 60s came. In 1961 Tony Weld - a former RAF pilot - suggested that there was a link between the leylines and UFO sightings, twisting the idea of ancient trackways into energy lines, thus giving birth to the subject of  “earth mysteries”. (Pennick, p.27)  Nothing illustrates better the leap from Watkins original archeology-based ideas to ancient astronauts and psychic channelling, than rewriting of the event at Blackwardine crossroads (see above). Now legend says, that

Alfred Watkins was riding around the Herefordshire hills in the early 1920s, when he pulled up his horse to gaze across the landscape, and he had a sudden revelation. In his vision, every landmark, whether natural or man-made, was linked by a network of straight lines, which he saw as glowing wires laid out over the surface of the land.  The lines passed through hill summits and cairns, linking church spires, prehistoric settlements and burial sites, old encampments and sacred monuments.   Following the route that they took were trackways, straight roads that had been ancient and well trodden long before the coming of the Romans, along which the first settlers of this country would have travelled by day and night, their eyes keenly aware of waymarkers. (Woolf)

New Age mystics highjacking the The Old Straight Track brought it to the forefront of discourse and visibility.  As Timpson says,

The attraction of cranks to leylines is naturally no encouragement to take them seriously: but neither it is a reason for the subject to be rejected (Timpson, p.8)

I found few direct references on how Watkins’ book influenced art. It is inevitable that it did so to some extent, considering that arrival of New Age magic coincided with the beginnings of “land art”  movement.  Looking at the land works of Richard Long and photography of Alfred Watkins it is easy to see visual similarities; however, they lie not in the mystical and the magical energies, but in the real and physical human presence on the land, such as human marks on the land made though walking.

Richard Long

Richard Long first found out about about ley-lines at the time of his solo exhibition at The Whitechapel Gallery in 1971:
Someone came up; he saw my lines of walking across Exmoor, the line made by walking and said, have you heard of this man, an eccentric geographer who had a strange theory about invisible lines that connected prehistoric sites across England. That was the first time I had heard of these ley-lines. (Daniels)

Hamish Fulton

Hamish Fulton, on the other hand, was not only affected by the concept of leys, but also by the designs of Alfred Watkins’ books. 

His Straight Line Walk, 1969, relates to the artist’s fascination with the prehistoric ‘ley’ system of walking paths. Around the same time, Fulton made a special visit to the Hertford [sic] Public Library to see Watkins’s original books. Fulton acknowledges this as a very important visit, not only because of his interest in the concept of a walked line for navigational purposes, but also because of the artist’s admiration for the sheer visual and physical beauty of Watkins’s books. Fulton remains fascinated by the clarity and elegance of 1930s and 1940s book layouts, with clear geometric blocks of text, augmented by delicately tinted, tipped in photographs. (Daniels).

Watkins was indeed an competent photographer and his books offer not only skilled pictures, but accomplished and clever layouts and compositions: some pages contain sweeping landscapes with mistied background hills, while others sit as combined images, united as a journey sequence of a common alignment. Simple and clear, parts of The Old Straight Track are tremendously enjoyable as a photo book.

Like Hamish Fulton, we too are fascinated by Watkins' books and their aesthetics - not just The Old Straight Track, but also Early British Trackways with its collaged and overlapping images and simple clear lettering. Alignment project might be borrowing some of those designs. 
Conceptually, there are ideas too which we will be taking further. In particular, the idea that the major sacred landmarks can be aligned into a straight track: mystic or mundane the causes might be. If either for sheer randomness or divine intention some sites fall into one line, could we find alignments of our own?


Daniels, Stephen (2006) Lines of Sight: Alfred Watkins, Photography and Topography in Early Twentieth-Century Britain.  Tate Papers Autumn. [Online]. Available at  (Accessed:  21 Ferbruary 2017)

Knight, Adam (2013) Ley-lines lead writer to wrong place in history. Hereford Times. 10 June.  [Online]. Available at  (Accessed:  21 Ferbruary 2017)

Neil, Alan (2015) Ley Lines of the South West. Launceston: Bossiney Books.

Mills, Billy (2015) The Old Straight Track by Alfred Watkins – walking through the past.  The Guardian. 8 August, [Online]. Available at (Accessed:  21 Ferbruary 2017)

Pennick, Nigel (1997) Leylines. Mysteries of the Ancient World. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Timpson, John (2002) Timpson’s Leylines. A Layman Tracking the Leys. London: Cassell Paperbacks

Watkins, Alfred (1974) The Straight Old Track. Its Mounds, Beacons, Moats, Sites and Mark Stones. London: Abacus.

Woolf, Jo Book review: ‘The Old Straight Track’ by Alfred Watkins. The Hazel Tree.  14 July, 2014. [Online]. Available at (Accessed:  21 Ferbruary 2017)

Unless otherwise stated, all images are rephotographed from:
Watkins, Alfred (1974) The Straight Old Track. Its Mounds, Beacons, Moats, Sites and Mark Stones. London: Abacus.

Thursday 12 May 2016

NOTES: metaphor as a viaduct

spread from the upcoming work stormy seas and calm waters

The other way to rethink the word-thing relation is to look at the material roots of metaphorical language, and metaphor stands at the heart of all useful, meaningful descriptive language. The Greek linguistic roots of the term metaphor denote a "carrying across." Just as physical bridges are built over rivers, there are verbal viaducts that carry us across the physical experiences of our lives. We use language to bring us to some farther shore, to help make sense of events and experiences. The metaphor of "metaphor" is that it is based on physical, spatial activity.

The Materiality of Metaphor: On Words and Things (In this extract from his recent book, A History of Religion in 5½ Objects, S. Brent Plate discusses the grounding of language and meaning, especially metaphor, in bodily experience)







Wednesday 27 April 2016

→ intimate and cathartic is the constellation of cancer

Speaking in Tongues: Speaking Digitally / Digitally Speaking (2015) by David Paton

"Intimate and cathartic" refers to both: the process of making a book and the process of reading. Book as an object encourages intimate interaction between the maker and the object, the object and the reader. Art as an activity veers towards the cathartic experiences between the artist and the object; the object and the viewer. Adding to that a medical context, results Medical Humanities and an approach, which considers artist’s books as a tool to aid healing and facilitate communication between doctors and patients.

Test Day II (1999) by Martha A. Hall


I was honoured to co-curate Prescriptions exhibition, which is now open until August 14 at The Beaney House of Art and Knowledge, Canterbury. The exhibition is part of Artists’ Books and the Medical Humanities project by the University of Kent’s School of English. It was originally structured around a set of Martha A Hall’s books, which she created from 1998 until her death in 2003 to document her experiences with breast cancer and interactions with the medical community. To extend Prescriptions further, an open-call was initiated, which resulted in over 200 artists worldwide submitting nearly 250 works, of which 88 bookworks were selected, reflecting on the themes of illness, grieving, disability, mental health, surgery, birth, aging, recovery, history of medicine, treatments and wellbeing. 

View of Prescriptions at The Beaney, Canterbury.

Illness, healing, grief are intimate processes. Like Martha A Hall, a number of Prescriptions artists have responded to their conditions by making books: whether it is their own diagnosis or grieving at the illness of a friend. Like Martha A Hall, 25 of the participants are dealing with cancers, of which 11 are breast cancer patients and further 4 are friends or family of a breast cancer patient. 


Cancer is one of the twelve constellations of the zodiac. Its name is Latin for crab and it is commonly represented as one. Its astrological symbol is ♋. Cancer is a medium-size constellation with an area of 506 square degrees and its stars are rather faint. Cancer is the dimmest of the zodiacal constellations, having only two stars above the fourth magnitude.

Cancer is frequently represented as a combination of five stars. 

1. Lizzie Brewer
The first star in my Cancer constellation is Lizzie Brewer. Lizzie's work Prescriptions is a set of embossed prints, which reflect on the amount of pills taken during the five years of her breast cancer treatment. Each tablet is one little step towards healing: her work shows a long journey. Repetition is what stands out in Lizzie’s work: tablets look the same, pages look the same. There is meditative quality to an ongoing expanse of sheet after sheet after sheet. Other then details of her surgical report there are no other texts and there are no images. The person behind this data is very much absent - repetition hides her like a smokescreen.

 2. Carole Cluer
Carol Cluer was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004. Unknown is another seemingly detached work, which hides individual well behind volume, number and data. Carole considers the number of people diagnosed with breast cancer in the same year as her. Based on the measurement grids and tattoos used when you have radiotherapy, she had drawn a grid by dragging a fine gold wire across paper, so each dot represents one person - anonymous person - like herself. The books consist of pages and pages and pages of identical looking hand drawn grids: simple to look at, but exquisitely executed. If Lizzie’s work zooms into individual’s experience, Carol’s work zooms out to globalize it, by re-contextualising herself into the worldwide stream of data.

3. Carol Pairaudeau
If individual is hiding behind the data in two previous two works, Carole Pairaudeau puts herself right into the center of her book. Not only is the work presented in a hospital sample bag with Carole's name printed on it, her book is a concertina, showing her scar and bruising on one side and words (about healing of the scar) running on the other. The photo images of bruised skin are otherworldly in their blues, greens and purples. Their beautiful and painterly quality contrasts with their painful origin. The text complements images: it transports reader through stitch to fade of the scar in three concertina folds, producing six steps. Like in Lizzie’s work, Carol’s work is about time and healing. The steps might be bigger and may take more time of complete, but the work feels cathartic and emotionally true.

4. Ruchika Wason Singh
Ruchika Wason Singh builds her book as a journey of acceptance at the loss of her breast. Physical and emotional healing is replicated in her creative process. Ruchika paints breasts and tears them into pieces, which she then restores by painting onto them. She resurrects the breast visually as she completes her inner transformation into an honest acknowledgment of her situation. Ruchika then pastes images onto sheets of paper to form a book, which further contributes to the idea of archiving the experience. Her set of collages is loosely held together by fabric, resembling bandages. The cover image is a stitched scar. The book is wholesome, bold and honest. Ruchika’s work elicits anguish and grief that feel resolved as the book is closed.

5. Mara Acoma
A photo book by Mara Acoma documents her own experience of having her mother diagnosed with breast cancer. The work, Mara says, allowed her to demystify her own emotional journey. She is using the visual language of near death experiences and folklore surrounding ghosts. The images are dark, produced to the backdrop of gothic sets of crumbling castles, gloomy forests, abandoned hospitals and misted up windows. A lone ghost of a heroine is moving from one location to the next across sprawling spreads of large size monochromatic photographs. Those imaginary locations represent her mental states, which - like Lizzie’s tablet’s or Carole’s bruises - are steps towards emotional healing. 


Intimate and cathartic is a diary for the writer, as it is for the reader. The books above are diaries in the most generic sense of the word. They are non-verbal diaries. Their authors reach beyond language to say the unsayable. The (almost) lack of language evokes universal readability of the artwork, which in turn, resonates with universal concerns of understanding illness and understanding healing as a process.



Wednesday 30 March 2016

→ introducing physicians' almanac binding

English folding almanac in LatinMS.8932. Wellcome Library, 2014.

In the world of medieval English bookmaking, 15th century saw emergence of a physician's folded almanac. The book, which was produced to be carried around; where each page expanded individually to allow the medical practitioner access essential information on stars, saints and signs of Zodiac.

English folding almanac in LatinMS.8932. Wellcome Library, 2014.

Folded almanac belongs to the late medieval period, when astrology, science and magic coexisted in medicine. Almanacs were utilitarian tools, which helped physicians check the alignments of starts before making a diagnosis or commencing a treatment. They contained calendar (with saints' days), charts as well as diagram of Zodiac Man, which indicated the parts of the body as they were ruled by the signs of Zodiac.

English folding almanac in LatinMS.8932. Wellcome Library, 2014.

English folding almanac in LatinMS.8932. Wellcome Library, 2014.

English folding almanac in LatinMS.8932. Wellcome Library, 2014.

English folding almanac in LatinMS.8932. Wellcome Library, 2014.

The almanacs must have been abundant in the 15th century. By the end of the 1500s, physicians across Europe were required by law to calculate the position of the moon before carrying out complicated medical procedures, such as surgery or bleeding(2).

English folding almanac in LatinMS.8932. Wellcome Library, 2014.

By the end of the 1500s, physicians across Europe were required by law to calculate the position of the moon before carrying out complicated medical procedures, such as surgery or bleeding. - See more at:
The almanacs had a "best before" date - the astronomical and astrological data was only calculated for a period of about ten years. A physician could only safely consult the manuscript during those years, after which he would need an updated version of the calculations (4).  It is thought(4), that this is the reason why so few of them survived to this day.

English folding almanac in LatinMS.8932. Wellcome Library, 2014.

By the end of the 1500s, physicians across Europe were required by law to calculate the position of the moon before carrying out complicated medical procedures, such as surgery or bleeding. - See more at:
Almanacs - like contemporary books - were portable objects: they were produced to be carried around, often hung on the belt. They were built out of individual sheets of parchment, which were folded and sewn together to create a fan-like structure that allowed each leaf to be unfolded individually(1) - not unlike maps. Almanacs’ practical function suggests that they were both ephemeral – readily discarded and replaced – and relatively inexpensive to produce with (often) crude illustrations(3). The more lavishly decorated ones (as the one from Wellcome Library shown here), suggest that their ownership extended to the wealthier patrons, who might have not necessarily practiced medicine.

English folding almanac in LatinMS.8932. Wellcome Library, 2014.

English folding almanac in LatinMS.8932. Wellcome Library, 2014.

As seen from the images, the structure is similar to the map fold: the book is contained in a small case, but each page can be expanded into the space well beyond the size of the book. My brief online research suggests, that there are a few variants of the fold, including a type of concerina. A wonderful blog post by Teffania shows her attempts to recreate the almanac structure.

Teffania's Stuff

Teffania's Stuff

Teffania's Stuff

Teffania's Stuff

Teffania's Stuff

Teffania's Stuff

Teffania's Stuff


1 Strådal, Sara Öberg (2016), Medieval Medical Diagrams: Meanings, Audiences and Functions. In Hectoren International: A Journal of Medical Humanities.

2 Bovey, Alixe. Medicine, Diagnosis and Treatment in the Middle Ages. In British Library

3 Brenner, Elma. The Enigma of the Medieval Almanac. In Welcome Library.

4 Albright, Adrienne. Art and Science 4 – Celestial Bodies: Astrological Medicine in a Folding Almanac. In Before the Art.