Blog post

How manuscript circulation in the Middle Ages influenced production

Learn about how aiming for more efficient manuscript production led to repeated iconography

Scribe working surrounded by books
Hannah Johnson (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

In the Middle Ages, manuscript circulation occurred in two ways : amongst artisans who created new manuscripts, which then circulated amongst the reading population. Several copies of a single text - which were created and shared within a specific social network - tend to depict the same scenes in illuminations (though often in different artistic styles). This phenomenon reveals a lot about reading culture and manuscript transmission in late medieval urban culture.

The production process

Differences in artistic style or handwriting from one manuscript to another (or even within a single manuscript, which is not uncommon without a change in the contents indicates that a division of labour was implemented in the production process. In the later Middle Ages (from the 13th century onwards), the rapidly developing book market streamlined the process of manuscript production into an efficient, almost mechanical process.

A minimum of four different ‘types’ of labourers were involved: parchmenters (parcheminiers), scribes, artists or illuminators (enlumineurs), and finally booksellers (libraires) who organised and oversaw the whole process. Each labourer completed a different task in the process. Parchmenters supplied parchment, scribes copied written content, and illuminators added images to the text (miniatures, marginal illuminations).

Folio of a manuscript with an image of a scribe working in his studio

From the 13th-15th centuries, the Paris book market was the most important place for manuscript production in Western Europe. We know the identities of some Parisian libraires from this time, as well as the identities of scribes and illuminators they worked with. Clues in manuscripts reveal that libraires parsed texts for rapid production and illuminators engaged in ‘serial production’ of illuminations (as they, too, worked with multiple libraires), leading to the repetition of iconography and motifs from one work to another. Thus, it becomes clear that this repetition is due in part to a push for more efficient production.

Transmission and retention of content

However, the repetition of iconography is not only pragmatic. Two other important factors influenced the medieval tendency to repeat the same or similar images from one manuscript (or one text) to another.

Because physical books remained luxury objects which only literate elites (scholars, ecclesiastes, and aristocrats mostly) could afford to buy and keep, memorisation was an important aspect of reading in the middle ages. Thus, images served as a visual aid for memory, helping the reader to recall information in a specific passage either by looking directly at the image or by remembering the image itself. Images were meant to represent key motifs found in the text, rather than representing ‘reality’. Motifs were shared from one text to another, and thus from one image to another.

Additionally, this repetition is symptomatic of a closed literary circle in which a given text or manuscript circulates. For example, in the multiple editions of the Livre des propriétés des choses by Barthélemy l’Anglais translated into French by Jean Corbechon for Charles V, we see the same iconography used in the drawings introducing new sections.

In these two versions, the different artists have both depicted Genesis in four blocks, with the same creation scenes represented in both versions. The same phenomenon occurs with every miniature marking the beginning of a new section - for example, the physician is always depicted holding up a flask of urine (below).

Repetition like this in books that we know circulated in a specific, closed social milieu reveals a certain expectation of iconography. People expected to see a physician depicted a certain way. When a work circulates in a group with such shared expectations, these expectations are then reflected in the product. As such, artists sought to represent figures that would be easily recognisable to readers.

Reading in the Middle Ages was a social activity in more ways than one (reading out loud, sharing books in a closed group). As such, how books were created and produced indicates how they were being shared and read, and the influence of collective social expectations on the process.

This blog is part of the Art of Reading in the Middle Ages project which explores how medieval reading culture evolved and became a fundamental aspect of European culture.