Historical story

Medieval college notes found

A scrap note has been found in the Leiden university library on which a student from the thirteenth century took notes during a lecture. It is the first time that one has been found in the Netherlands.

The note is a strip of 100 mm wide and 50 mm high. That students used these kinds of scraps in their studies was known from medieval sources, but because they were usually thrown away, very few have survived.

Study according to the Disciplina Scholarum

Around 1230 a work was produced at the University of Paris explaining how to study (De disciplina scholarum). In that text you can read how the student had to take strips of parchment (schedulae) with him to his lectures, so that he could take notes. Recent research by the Leiden book historian Erik Kwakkel has shown that students often used waste parchment for their notes. After returning home, they worked out the notes on actual sheets of parchment or added them to the margins of their textbooks. The cheap notes were then thrown away. Very occasionally, however, the student kept the original sheet of paper in his textbook by folding it around a sheet. That's how it hitched a ride through time.

The Leiden scrapbook

It is very special that such a stowaway has been found in the Leiden University Library. Not only is it the first time that a sheet with medieval lecture notes has been identified in a Dutch collection, but few are known outside the national borders as well. The Leiden copy clearly shows that such a scrap sheet is residual material that was released during the production of parchment. The strip is unusually brown in color and appears thick and hard. Moreover, it is not rectangular in shape, but with its jagged shape it reflects the outermost edge of the skin, which was cut away during parchment production because of its bad properties. The notepad in Leiden is now glued to the inside of a book cover. This was probably done in the nineteenth century when the manuscript was rebind (signature BPL 191 D).

Relationship between sin and free will in shorthand

The small sheet is special because it is an eyewitness to medieval teaching practice at early university. For example, it provides insight into the way in which notes were taken. Just like now, this had to be done under great time pressure, while the teacher was speaking. This is clear from the 'fast' type of notebook in which the student wrote down his notes (cursive script), but also from the many abbreviations he used. The student appears to have attended lectures at the theological faculty. The Latin notes deal with the relationship between sin and free will, referring to Anselm of Canterbury, an 11th-century scholar who wrote extensively on the subject. Also discussed is the separation of something that forms a unit. Difficult subjects such as these were particularly popular within thirteenth century university education, where debate was central.

Research into parchment

Erik Kwakkel discovered the note sheet by accident when he was preparing a lecture. Having written a study on leftover parchment, he recognized its strange shape and physical characteristics in the leaves. He also recognized the typical handwriting of a student. It soon became clear that this was a leaf that is referred to in the didactic manual from around 1230. The existence of the leaf was announced during the Friends Day of the University Library on 12 May. It will be removed from the binding by the restorer of the Leiden University Library so that the back can also be studied.