Fire-breathing dragons on foam wedge cushions – a lesson in handling a psalter

Friederike Wolpert
Detail of a dragon and initial in the Cod. Guelf. 1147 Helmst., a psalter from the 15th century.

In the reading room at the Bibliotheca Augusta – the main library building of the Herzog August Library in Wolfenbüttel – researchers work with the research library's manuscript collections. I had ordered Cod. Guelf. 1147 Helmst., a fifteenth-century psalter and prayer book. The manuscript was delivered to my desk in a plain grey box, and I was surprised to see that it was considerably smaller than I had expected after viewing the digital scans. The manuscript measured about 15 cm in length and 13 cm in width and was supported by dark-grey wedge-shaped foam cushions. I was amazed to discover that these cushions were invented by the book conservator Christopher Clarkson for the reading rooms in the Bodleian Library – and they are, in fact, to be found everywhere in the many libraries in Oxford. These cushions ensure that the weight of the manuscript is evenly distributed and prevent added strain to the bindings of the often fragile volumes. This is extremely important, and every library user is given a short introduction on how to handle the manuscripts with care. Book conservation work is one of the major areas of activity at the Wolfenbüttel library.

Weighted cords are used to hold down the pages.


Working with old manuscripts, I am time and time again fascinated by their material features and their uniqueness.  The Cod. Guelf. 1147 Helmst. is bound in a simple, unstiffened, reddish cover.


Despite quite heavy wear and tear, one can still pick out the embossed design on the front cover, which the medieval bookbinder stamped onto the moistened leather with a heated metal plate.


The texts in the codex are mainly composed in Latin, but a number are also in Middle Low German; they have been written on paper of varying quality and by different scribal hands.
These texts range from prayers in a quite legible bastarda to chaotic scribbling which was used for practicing the forms of the letters (134r). In order to work with codices, one requires knowledge in reading very individual scripts. Sometimes this often involves a great deal of guesswork, as modern readers are no longer familiar with the text´s palaeographic, linguistic and cultural references. The Latin texts, in particular, contain numerous abbreviations that are alien to us nowadays.


The illustrated marginalia in the codex are extremely charming; on folio 13r and 14r, for instance, we encounter a fire-breathing dragon across the top margin that is blowing fire into the decorative, red-green initial.
Working with this manuscript requires the reader to decipher these distinct, individual scripts. One becomes keenly aware of their production process and the traces left behind by readers and writers of the past. This is an experience that I feel very fortunate to have gained this summer at the Herzog August Bibliothek.


Click here to page through the psalter – without any wedge cushions.

Friederike Wolpert is writing her dissertation at Oxford University on the image of the Orient in the late medieval prisoner’s report by the Bavarian crusader Johannes Schiltberger, who was captured during the battle at Nicopolis (1396) by the Ottoman sultan Bayezid I, and who later travelled around the Middle East with various leaders for the next 30 years. She spent two months at the Herzog August Library Wolfenbüttel as part of the programme Research Library Internships.