Why are books so big? (Google Penance)

It’s Google Penance time once again!*  Seems the Google algorithm ferried a confused soul to my post about the silly study that claimed you could tell how big portion sizes were throughout history by looking at famous pictures contained in a single coffee table book, when all said confused soul wanted to know was, “Why are medieval books so big?”**

Ah, my poor wayward Googler, medieval books are no bigger or smaller than modern books, generally speaking.  Gutenberg and the other early printers didn’t invent a whole new format for books, they just copied what people were already using.

The question then becomes, I guess, why were medieval books the size they were?  And the answer to that is simple: medieval books were the size they were because medieval sheep were the size they were.  Remember, paper wasn’t the original medium for page-creation.  Medieval books were constructed of parchment, which is a fancy word for sheep or goat skin (and primarily sheep skin, because there were a lot more of them around).  So take your average sheep:

Dolly the Sheep***

Skin her and trim off the curvy parts where her legs used to be, and you get one gigantic sheet of parchment, way too big for most bookmaking purposes.

But that’s fine, because you can fold it in half and you’ll get a huge but manageable pair of leaves (four pages counting front and back), which you can gather with a lot of other similarly sized leaves and make a “folio”-sized book, the sort of giant monstrosity of a book that you have to leave spread out on a table before you in order to read and which, not surprisingly, they don’t tend to make too many of these days.  It’s good size for a fancy atlas, but since we’ve all got Google Earth, who needs that?  Or if you need to make an edition of the complete works of somebody famous, like so:

Fold that single-folded sheet once more and you’ll have an eight-page-per-sheep book they call a quarto (for 4 leaves), which is the fancy dictionary or encyclopedia-sized book.

Fold it again and you get an octavo, which is about the size of a modern hardback, give or take.

Fold it one more time and you get a sixteenmo, or around the size of a mass-market paperback book.

One more fold gets you thirty-twomo, which is about the size of your standard notepad (or just a bit bigger than your smartphone), and at this point you’re talking books designed to hide away in your girdle or hang from a chain around your neck.  So if you’re going that small, why not fold it one last time and you get down to a sixty-fourmo, and impress all the cool kids at the cathedral next week?

So there you go: books are as big as they are because medieval sheep were as big as they were.  Next time you’re squinting at your mass-market copy of Dan Brown’s latest wishing the pages were just a smidge roomier, blame the medievals for not having bigger sheep.

*It occurs to me that newer readers–and since the Newt thing, there’s a lot more of you than usual–probably have no idea what Google Penance is.  You see, back in the early days of the blog, most of my pageviews came from people misdirected here by Google while searching for more useful sites.  In penance for this ill-gotten gain in hits, I occasionally try to answer whatever question it was that brought the unfortunate Googler hither.
**Actual search terms: “why are as big as medieval book??”
***Who, according to my commenters, isn’t the right sort of sheep at all.  But when I contacted the sheep modeling agency, they convinced me to go with her.  “Your readers deserve the best, most famous sheep we have on retainer,” they told me, and fool that I am, I believed them.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • ethelfleda

    Wouldn't your medieval sheep have looked a lot more like these guys then your picture?


    I'm fairly sure they were quite a bit smaller than modern ones, from size of sheep bones.

  • Got Medieval

    Yes, yes, but if I'd gone for an accurate sheep pic, then I wouldn't have been able to include my favorite sheep in the post.

    (What, you don't have a favorite sheep?)

  • Garden Groans

    Oh Great Wise Google Pardenor,

    How does foolscap the paper (not the watermark) fit into the picture…err, page? (I'm too lazy to Google it!)

  • Garden Groans

    Me again. You may inadvertently be starting a "sheep war" among the hand spinners who read you. Or at least I plan to escalate it into one. I think this breed is more accurate:


    Those frenchified Normans brought their own sheep over to improve the Danish/Saxon stock.

    Na (Who doesn't, at this time, take kickbacks from the Wool Clip.)

  • muslimsteampunk

    medieval books in EUROPE, you mean, of course. See: Jonathan Bloom's "Paper Before Print: The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World" (2001, Yale University Press)

  • ethelfleda

    Garden Groans, I'll totally go for them on looks/lineage, but in terms of size they seem bigger – the size estimates I've seen all put medieval sheep as under 50kg, and the info on that page puts them at 70kg.

    Favourite breeds of sheep is weird. Favourite breeds of pig is totally normal.

  • Harry Campbell

    Now will you do the one about the booster rockets on the Space Shuttle being based on the size of a horse's arse?*

    * Sorry, but "horse's ass" sounds ridiculous. Mulish.

  • Hilary Melton-Butcher

    Hi .. what a great post .. and the explanation is superb .. I tried over on my blog & compared to this it's a young child's try! Excellent exposition on why are books so big ..

    & I like your idea of answering the questions that coming winging your way on subjects not strictly connected!

    Is it a Texel sheep? one went in England last year for £230,000?!

    You've certainly got some stimulating comments ..

    great read – Hilary

  • Joyce Elson Moore

    What a post. I just figured they wrote big! Seriously, I saw a Gutenberg Bible in an exhibition at Lambeth Library in London. It took up a whole case and had big red cover. It may have been the first one off the press. So now it all comes together. Really enjoyed the topic.

  • Amanda

    But have you pointed out that both the largest and smallest books were produced especially for reasons of economy? Either they were very small (32vo) and used very little skin – although possibly very little skin of very little animals…"uterine vellum" is very controversial; but I've often heard "squirrel", as well- while very large folio codices were economic because the entire choir could sing from a single book. Oddly I've seen a lot of these huge books from Italy and Spain (have a few leaves myself) but few from France. I'm assuming they're there, though…

  • Rowena

    You left out the elephant folio, such as the original Audubon ornithology books.

  • Dalevich

    I think it's amazing that sheep used to be book shaped

  • Teri

    I knew all this, but you have made this a fun read. And the comments have also inspired mirth in me! I'll probably send my AP students to read you explanations, when we get to discussing the making of books. thanks for a entertaining read!

  • BHNF

    Can sheep make elephant noises? And how big would books have been if elephant hide was used for parchmant?

  • Elizabeth
  • halojones-fan

    @Harry Campbell: Bastard, you beat me to it. May you die the thousand deaths, etcetera.

    @OP: "Skin her and trim off the curvy parts where her legs used to be." I have my own fantasy life, thank you very much.

  • pinksheepcafe

    My Blog Mascot is slightly offended by all this, but I think given the informative nature of the post, I think he will forgive you in time!!

  • Olie

    I'm still a bit stuck on how you fold the parchment to get 2x as many pages. I see folding it in half and use the New & Improved Güttenberg staple to get 2 leaves (4 pages, front & back) but, if we fold again, we get only SIX pages (assuming 2 folds for a sort of "W" shape), unless there's some cutting involved.

    So is it really 2 more folds plus a cut? These seem important details to be leaving out, especially if I'm going to be double-folding & cutting all the way to a 64-mo — I might completely mis-budget my project, or hire all the wrong laborers for the job!

    Tricky business, this bookmaking! I might have to stick with cookies.

  • Terry Karney

    re the increase in page count.

    It's not a serial fold in one aspect, but a sequential fold in rotating aspects, and then cut.

    So fold, and get four pages on two leaves. Rotate 90° and fold again, etc.

  • LadyMacbeth86

    I thank you for putting as an example The Tragedie of Macbeth, since it was that book that sparked my interested in medieval Scotland (11th century), Macbeth and Malcolm III! Apart from that, is one of the best plays ever written. 😉

  • thanbo

    When I was a young man, a lady friend & I had a competition going, to find the oldest books in the stacks (i.e. not in Special Collections) in the Princeton library. We quickly found that most of the oldest books (late 1500s-early 1600s) were either quite large or quite small.

    I speculate that this was so, because all the normal sized books (quarto-octavo) were used by ordinary people, and were used until they wore out. Folios and miniature books were curiosities, and would not have been used every day, but kept safe in libraries or personal treasure cabinets, so that's what has lasted down to the modern era.

  • Sara

    At risk of cliche, "How many sheep died to make this book?"

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  • Morgan Otley

    Well thats fine but look at any book shelf and you see give or take in all sizes .At least you could have say 3 basic sizes but without variation . My question why are books in so many different sizes ?
    cheers John

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  • Lilandfrank

    And I thought they skinned sheep to make lovely warm coats!!!!

  • Morgan Otley

    Well i was hoping for an answer . I can all that about folding paper but it does not explain why so many in between sizes . They dont seem to bear relationship to any thing.

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  • arizona

    well, that was a rather amusing and informative read. “why are as big medieval books”?! wow, someone failed primary and dropped out shortly thereafter it sounds like, hahaha. how they were able to write that small as is demonstrated in your image of the sixty-fourmo simply amazes me. i would say they did it with a pointed pen for the smallest i’ve been able to write with a nibbed quill is 2 mm and that’s with 8 mm line spacing. my bog standard is 3 mm and 10 mm spacing. then again, i use a more formal littera bastarda and leave room for correcting typos too.

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  • Brent F.

    The length of the Compact Disc digital audio recording was set at 74 minutes because it could hold a known recording of Beethoven’s 9th symphony. Like any industrial standard, things tend to be the size they are because you work with what you have at your disposal. It gets even creepier with the Sumerians. They had 60 minutes in an hour. Which results in 60 hertz AC electrical frequency, 60 half-frames per second for black & white analog NTSC TV, 15 inches per second (60 divided by 4) reel-to-reel analog audio tape speed and later 44,100 data points per second for audio CD sampling (which was related to TV). It’s amazing that an engineering decision about 3,000 years ago can still be seen in technology today.

  • Ninja

    This is a very interesting article, however I have to ask this question: how did they fold the parchment?

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