Proceedings 34        18 March 1993        1993        the Warburg Institute London

SOME MEDIEVAL CRANKS: an illustrated paper by Graham Hollister Short, member of the SHMTS

with the President of the Society in the chair. The Secretary sent apologies for his absence.


In the second half of the 16th century a vogue developed for beautifully illustrated books of machine drawings--known collectively as "the machine books". The most splendid exemplar was the work of the Italian engineer, Agostino Ramelli, pub!. in Paris under the title of Le diverse et ingeniose machine, 1588. The relationship between the engravings shown in such works and the practical realities of the ateliers was certainly problematical, and had scarcely been researched. Among the devices featured by Ramelli was a piece of library furniture, namely a vertically mounted reading wheel, able to hold a dozen books and maintain them, carousel wise, thanks to some very sophisticated gearing, at a constant angle as the wheel was revolved (ill. 1). A chance find of an illustration of a much earlier (1514), but simpler, type of (horizontal) revolving book-case reveals what Ramelli may have wished to achieve in all his designs, namely, the transformation of some mundane device into a virtuoso piece through the exercise of mechanical virtu.

The books shown resting on these wheels were large folios of considerable weight, apparently, and one had only to think of some work of concordance being carried out to see how they could save much heavy lifting. To bring texts successively into view the wheels needed to be turned a few degrees only. These pictures were not isolated rarities, it transpired. On a study tour in Slovakia, the speaker had seen reading aids shown being used by a pope, a bishop and a scholar depicted on a triptych (c.1450) over the altar of the Church of Sv. Mikulas (St Nicholas) at Pukanec. These comprised not revolving devices but cranked lecterns or writing tables, each holding a single codex. With these it was possible to bring a text close under one’s eyes with the throw o~ the crank ensuring that the book could be swung clear once a reference had been checked.

On a visit to Prague a little later the speaker found three cranked library devices depicted in paintings in the Hradcany Castle, National Gallery, two of them in portraits done by Master Theodorik, court painter to Emperor Charles IV, done before 1365. The "portrait" of St Augustine had a single cranked lectern on the Slovakian pattern but the other, of St Jerome, perhaps to mark his superior standing as the great bibliophile and translator of the Bible into Latin, had. a device with a double crank fitted to the top of his writing table. An Annunciation by an unknown master of about 1450 in the same gallery showed the Virgin Mary on a settle in front of which is what appears to be a cranked "dining" table, the crank arm being secured in a very heavy base.

The speaker had wondered whether these cranked devices were a central European phenomena and searched facsimiles of MSS in England e.g. the Luttrell Psalter. In a group of MSS produced for

the Bohun family, he found a 1371 psalter of the East Anglian school. On f38 recto an illuminated letter 'E' contained a saint reading from a text resting on a cranked lectern, similar to the Prague painting of c.145.

The double crank of the Prague St Jerome's lectern was of special interest in the light of present knowledge--the earliest picture of a double crank in Europe occurs in Guido de Vigevano's Texaurus of 1335. The road wheels of the fighting car figured there were designed to be driven by a windmill mounted on its roof. When the wind failed the crew was to propel the machine manually by-means of the double crank on the front axle. Even were the machine the purest fiction the double crank as such was not and raised the question where such devices were actually in operation. It seemed possible, at least, that Guido took the idea from the reading aids in the libraries where as a scholar he worked. The windmill idea was evidently taken from the tower windmill where only the wind cap revolved. Following the delivery of the paper, the speaker was fascinated to learn from Mr Francis Maddison, President of the Association, that he had a chair in the curator's room at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford. Illustrations of similar chairs were to be found in John Braund's 1858 Illustrations of Furniture and in George Smith's 1808 Collection of Design for Household Furniture and Interior Decoration. The long period from the last identified medieval example of 1450 might suggest a reinvention rather than a continuity of use. Further pictures supplied by Mr Maddison suggest cranked bookstands were known in Armenia and in the Byzantine Empire as early as 1200.

The speaker concluded with some comments on medieval pumps based on his paper 'On origins of the suction lift pump' to appear in The History of Technology (Mansells, Sept. 1993)

Digest by GSH from text and pictures by Dr Hollister Short.