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Basics: Latin Paleography

Section 7: Page Layout, Pricking and Ruling


To guide their work, medieval scribes made lines on the parchment on which they were going to write: horizontal lines to guide the lines of writing and vertical lines to define the outside edge of the written area. Sometimes vertical lines were added to provide a space for marginal annotations or decorative elements.

These lines are called ruling. In order to rule the page, scribes would use a knife to make prickings — little holes — in the far outer margins of the page, and then line up a straight edge from pricking to pricking in order to make straight lines.

In late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, ruling was generally done in dry point: the scribe would use a sharp stylus to incise furrows in the thickness of the parchment to guide the writing. The resulting dry-point ruling was visible to the scribe working close to the page, but did not stand out to the reader, so the ruling pattern did not interfere with the look of the script on the page.

The 11th-century Gospel manuscript seen here (Walters W.7) has dry-point ruling. The ruling is invisible when you look at the page as a whole, so the written area and the illuminated initial stand out against a large, plain background. This is typical of book aesthetics in this period.

If you zoom in and explore the image in detail, you can see the dry-point ruling, especially along the top of the page, above the gold letters in the top line.

Walters Art Museum, W.7, f. 10r. © 2011 Walters Art Museum, used under a CC BY-SA license.

From the 12th century on, ruling with plummet, or lead, became common. In the next manuscript (Köln Cod. 139) you can zoom in and see both horizontal and vertical ruling.

You can also clearly see the prickings that were made to guide the ruling of the lines. Look along the outer margin of the page and at the top of the two vertical rules, right at the top edge of the page.

The fact that you can so clearly see the prickings here, and that they are well inset from the right edge of the page, is a good sign that the manuscript has not been trimmed in rebinding, and therefore that we are looking at the original proportions of the page, or something close to them. Many medieval manuscripts have been rebound several times over the centuries, usually with some loss of the original edges of the page.

Köln, Erzbischöfliche Diözesan- und Dombibliothek, Cod. 139, f. 21r.

In the later Middle Ages, ruling with ink became normal. Sometimes the ink is very dark and is clearly visible as part of the design of the page. In this 15th-century manuscript, the ruling is done in light brown ink, but you can still see how it helps create a page design with strong, rectangular forms. If you zoom in and explore, you can see that the ruling is more complex than in the earlier manuscripts. It outlines the spaces not only for the text, but for the marginal decoration as well.

Geneva, Bibliothèque de Genève, MS fr. 1/2, f. 1r.


When you are comfortable with the terms and concepts discussed in the last three lesson sections, click to the next section to try a quick quiz on terms for parts of the codex and on ruling methods.