Kathryn Rudy, a lecturer in the School of Art History at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, has analyzed some 15th and early 16th-century European prayer books.

The point of the study was to learn the reading habits of people who lived in medieval times and turned out to be a kind of forensic analysis of what people focused on during these eras. The project is more complicated than it appears at first glance.

With the use of a piece of equipment, called a densitometer, that measures the darkness of a reflecting surface it was possible know how a reader handled a book and which parts were the most often read or ignored. In other words, the darkness of the thumbed pages marked from use and the neglected still clean.

It started to get interesting when the densitometer spiked at a manuscript dedicated to St. Sebastian, who was often prayed to for protection against the plague. People were terrified of the plague and a prayer for protection was well thumbed.

Pages containing prayers for personal redemption were more soiled and worn, evidently more used than the prayers asking for the salvation of others.

Before the first printing press the prayer books were often the beautifully laminated ones. They were read at key prayer times several times a day and a certain prayer said in “the wee small hours of the morning” the good folks all may have fallen asleep at the same time. This was evidenced because the first few pages were dirty and at the same point in the book became clean.

If you’d like to read more about the study click on Discovery News.

Photo above left: Quantifying fingerprints on a medieval prayer book. Credit: University of St Andrews.

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2 Comments on Dirty books reveal medieval reading habits

  1. I guess the dirt wasn’t visible to the naked eye. Otherwise it could be done with the naked eye–to state the obvious.

  2. Harry C. says:

    Sounds like human beings had the same reactions then as now.

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