Starting from scratch #10a – Fold-outs in Europe

When we see fold-outs (of any type) in a fifteenth-century Latin European work on vellum, we can be pretty sure of two things:

First – the object was most likely made for people who worked out-of-doors:  farmers, itinerant physicians and preaching friars, travellers and merchants – even shysters – but not to forget the mariners and navigators.

Secondly – that the users’ profession required an observation of right times for their various actions, whether planting or blood-letting, attending distant markets, preaching the market-place sermon of the day, fortune-telling (though that begins rather late) or making the right connections and winds to sail safely and in due season. Oddly enough, I have yet to see any purely astronomical/astrological Latin work in which similar foldouts are included.

Fold-outs evolved from the scroll, but their format suited the sort of ready-reference needed by persons who regularly consulted texts (and usually charts) outside the library environment – and so they became part of the smaller, portable book, known in Europe as a folded book or as a ‘vademecum‘ – a book to take along with one. The fold-outs in our manuscript are unusually long – in one case extraordinarily so – and much longer than any Latin example of that time on membrane.* Their use as they are bound in our manuscript too is not convenient unless one has a table to rest the book on, yet it is clear from the style and presentation that this is not intended as a book for the library.

More usual is the style of the German manuscript linked above, an otherwise conventional-looking volume: typically ruled out, with rubricated initials, characteristically fine German vellum and all meticulously presented. Its foldouts are sensibly not larger than double the standard folio size and it is quite suited to use and display in a library.  The most important distinction between these foldouts and those in MS Beinecke 408 is that the German manuscript’s are made as folded pages, “letter-like”, and are not related to the folded scroll, or ‘concertina’ style informing our manuscript. Christie’s description attributes the fortune-telling manual to southern Germany, possibly Augsburg, c.1450.  The content appears to combine the usual type of medical tables and charts with others which could be direct copies of what we see in the Catalan Atlas, or in works from the eastern side of the Mediterranean.

While it is not impossible that MS Beinecke 408 is a prognosticatory text, we should have to suppose it related to phytomancy, or to prediction of goods and yields, since the greater part of our manuscript is given over to botanical imagery, and imagery of exotic plants at that – as Baresch knew, and said plainly.

Mercantile predictions certainly were a popular form of prognostication in parts of the older Mediterranean, but the usual method was to form a grid of 27×9, assign one good to each compartment, and perform arcane mathematical computations thereafter.  I see no reason why the process would require use of a book having so many plant pictures.

* “longer than any Latin example…” so far as I know. If readers know an exception, do please leave a comment.

So what other sort of persons used vellum fold-outs?



With the greater part of our manuscript devoted to botanical imagery, we might consider the farmer or gardener an appropriate first owner, though again of its plants, Barsch said plainly that they were not European plants, but ‘exotics’ (“herbae peregrinae...”). As indeed they are,  though under the spell of Wilfrid’s romantic tale later researchers determinedly ignored that information, expending their energies in trying to interpret that section as  all-Mediterranean (or even less reasonably,  American) which led often to fairly random assignments of image to identification. These images very plainly do not belong to the genre of Latin herbal imagery, but perhaps the month-roundels are derived from the Latin calendars made on vellum.

As a rule, the farmer’s “fold-out” calendar was a single item, extremely simple in form and consisting of little more than the “works and days” or “labours of the month” – a series quite familiar from its replication in churches and other public places. Here’s a late version (16thC).  Folded concertina-style, it’s on vellum too; despite its length of 63 cm it could fit easily into a sleeve or pocket.

Fold out clog calendar Denmark

and see ‘Medieval Fragments'(blog) July 25th., 2014, where the almanac is referred to as: Copenhagen, Royal Library NKS 901, 1513

Introduction of the “labours” cycle has been attributed to the Carolingian period, but as a decorative motif in art and architecture it seems to have taken off in the twelfth century, our earliest example a remnant from Compostella.

It became quite the rage for ecclesiastical architecture in the twelfth to fourteenth centuries or so.  An early and apt example is  the mosaic in the cathedral of Ottranto[1] to which I’ve referred before.

There’s nothing inherently “astrological” about a “labours-” series; the calendar uses a word to name each month for the literate and for the illiterate, the symbol of that month’s constellation.  Another interesting example occurs as a portable fold-out dated to c.1400 and is shown below. These inscriptions are written in the vulgar tongue (in this case German, but the same holds in other regions).  “Dials” show the number of daylight and dark hours. In this illustration, by the way, we again see that old convention of suggesting curve and volume by slightly curved, near-parallel lines.  It is especially noticeable on the figure holding the fishes, on the bull’s back (an oddly caprine bull), and again on the pig’s back.

fold out pocket calendar with day lengthsAbout the sixteenth century we also see a revival of the Scandinavian ‘clog calendars’ and other examples from that time show that the two genres were associated in public perception. The example shown further below comes from the seventeenth century, yet it relates in turn to a fifteenth-century type found in England (Schoyen MS 1581, shown here), which is turn is thought to have originated in a still-earlier Scandinavian custom.


Calendar feasts activities rune signs good and evil days Shoyen MS 2913 Norway 1636On this calendar’s “golden numbers” and “Dominical letters” a nicely simple exposition at “Reading a Calendar -2 ” (undated blogpost), Medieval Writing (blog) here.

Might the ‘rune’ notations or golden numbers etc. be reflected in the markings set around the border of folio 67r-2? (I rather think, though, that they relate to the same information found in Brouscon’s charts, as mentioned in earlier posts to this blog – e.g. this one.)

border marking f67r-2

N.B.  The owner of the site showing images from the Otranto Cathedral mosaic does not wish the site hotlinked. The address is:



Next postmerchant? chart-maker? genealogist/herald?



Phytomancy: divination from plants and trees.  C.M. Villiers-Stuart defines it rather beautifully as “..the speech of trees” in her Gardens of the Great Mughals (p.255)

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