May 31st, 1486 turned out to be an unseasonably hot day on the Rhine. Count Philip was holding court. A duke was droning on and on, and the Count was fast losing interest. He patted beads of sweat from his temple with his handkerchief and absent-mindedly studied the stuffy courtroom. His gaze caught on a vase filled with wilting roses and yellowing water. Immediately, he wrote a note asking for a fresh batch to be fetched from Heidelberg.
As he was writing, the Duke finally stopped talking. He probably thinks I’m writing down something to do with his case, the Count thought and an almost imperceptible smile played on his lips. He took advantage of the welcome break to jot down one last instruction before handing the note to his servant:
But make sure to also include some that are not yet flowering.
An extraordinary find
The above account may be fictitious, but the note in question is quite real and shown at the top of the page. It is a small miracle that we still have this Medieval equivalent of a tweet or a yellow sticky note. It was discovered in a book binding by students of Leiden’s Book and Digital Media Studies MA-program, for which Erik Kwakkel – who shared this delightful discovery on his excellent blog on Medieval manuscripts – teaches. A total of 132 paper slips were pressed together to form a board made out of “cardboard”.
Quite unusual is the origins of the material: the recycling bin of a small court near Heidelberg, belonging to an unknown duke. A bookbinder in the sixteenth century used the scraps to form the paper boards of a 1577 print. Many of these slips were produced from recycled charters or account books. The messages were either written on their back (verso), or on a strip that was cut from their (blank) margin. Why use a good sheet of paper if the message would be deleted immediately after use?
The material mostly concerns “yellow sticky notes” that were sent from one servant to another, such as the one seen below. The scrap was written by the court Hofmeister (chamberlain) and requests the amount of six guilders from the duke, whose servant is the recipient of the message.
The extraordinary beauty of these finds lies in their untainted nature: they do not try to be literary or witty, but merely convey a short message. They are part of a type of writing that was produced for short-term use and, ultimately, destruction.
You can find out more about medieval books on Erik Kwakkel’s Medieval Books. Erik Kwakkel is a book historian and lecturer at Leiden University. His blog brings the world of medieval manuscripts to life in a wonderful way.
This post is part of a multi-part series of posts on ancient and Medieval wonders, to celebrate my 99c Pearseus: Rise of the Prince promo. As Pearseus has been described as “Ancient Greece in space,” it seemed strangely appropriate.