Blog post

The Bibliophile of Bruges

Exploring the Manuscript Collection of Louis of Bruges

Illuminated initial and a miniature of a group of knights
Paloma Pucci (opens in new window) (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

The 14th and 15th centuries witnessed the rise of great princely and aristocratic libraries all over Europe. These were composed of books that had been inherited, received as gifts, purchased or personally commissioned, either for private devotion and personal education, for pleasure and amusement or for display. Courtly literature on romance and adventure (a large amount of which was usually written in vernacular) rubbed shoulders with scientific, moral, historical, biblical and hagiographic texts. Parts of these libraries usually followed their patrons in trunks on their voyages while the rest was scattered among their different residences; they were as much a part of their owner’s treasure as furniture, wall hangings or jewels. As they grew, private book collections were usually transferred to dedicated spaces.

King Charles V of France, for example, had his private collection moved from the Royal Palace on the Île de la Cité to a tower in the Louvre fortress in 1367. In this new location, he paid particular attention to adequate lighting and furniture so as to facilitate consultation. He also commissioned French translations of old and new texts covering a broad range of subjects, to make them more easily available to French-speaking readers. In fact, his personal library (consisting of about 1,000 - 1,300 books) was intended to be used not only privately but also semi-publicly.

Single leaflet containing a scene from the Legend of the Life of Saint Catherine of Sienna

These private book collections are very telling on the tastes and interests the high nobility cultivated, and how they established power and prestige. Books commissioned for such libraries were often richly illustrated and luxuriously ornamented to send out a clear message: the more luxurious the book, the more powerful and cultivated the patron. One such patron was the Flemish bibliophile Lodewijk van Gruuthuse, also known as Louis of Bruges (ca. 1427-1492).

During his brilliant career in the Low Countries at the service of the Dukes of Burgundy, Philip the Good and Charles the Bold, Louis of Bruges garnered one of the largest personal book collections of the time (with about 146 known volumes). His library was a clear reflection of himself, as an individual, of his mediaeval culture and of the extraordinary quality of Flemish artistic production in the 15th century. His library was composed of a great number of luxurious manuscripts (almost all in French) dating from the 13th to the first half of the 15th century and produced in Flanders, France and England.

These books were so valuable that they were often gifted and exchanged. Louis once gifted a copy of the Livre des tournois de René d'Anjou (on one of his favourite subjects - jousting tournaments) to the young king Charles VIII of France.

Two knights on their horses in mid confrontation

Like many of his fellow bibliophiles, Louis of Bruges would commission books specifically, but he was also known for buying books ‘off the shelf’. In fact, some books were left with blank spaces for bespoke illustration to fit a buyer’s personal tastes. A patron would often have his or her coat of arms painted into the decoration of dedicatory pages not only in order to easily identify whom the book belonged to as it circulated among the members of the nobility, but also in order to remind others of their intellectual interests. If a book was particularly associated with its patron’s political intentions, some collectors (Louis of Bruges himself) would have themselves represented on the front page, sometimes in the act of engaging with its authors or characters.

Louis would often have his personal identifiers painted into the decoration (crest, canon or mortar, his family insignia or the symbols of the Order of the Golden Fleece - to which he belonged). When books like these were bought, gifted or inherited, these personal identifiers would sometimes be scraped off and replaced by the new possessor’s family insignia, as in the front page of the Chronicles of King Charles VII of France, where Louis’s coat of arms has been replaced with those of Louis XII.

Decorated border with crest, canon and Louis XII coat of arms painted over the coat of arms of Louis of Bruges

Louis of Bruges enjoyed books on combat and jousting tournaments, and had a taste for Arthurian tales such as the Lancelot-Graal cycle and the Artus de Bretagne which he bought during his travels as an ambassador to England. Like most of his contemporaries, he enjoyed historical chronicles like the Chronicles of Flanders or the Book of Heracles (a history of the Crusades). A large part of his collection was also dedicated to French translations of classical texts that highlighted themes of governance and justice, as well as examples of good political action through exemplary characters and events.

Battle scene from the Lancelot-Grail, French Arthurian literary cycle

Louis’s collection also had moral and religious treatises, as well as illustrated moralised Bibles and the lives of saints. Here, once again, he preferred French translations to the original Latin versions (only four books in his surviving library are in Latin), favouring contemporary as well as local illustrated copies such as the Fortress of Faith (translated in Lille, not far from Bruges) or The Penitence of Adam (translated by Colard Mansion, a book producer, translator and scribe in Bruges).

As with most late mediaeval collectors, Louis passed his collection on to his son, Jean of Bruges. It is unclear whether Jean donated or sold his father’s collection to Louis XII, king of France. However, thanks to this property transfer, 117 volumes of his collection are now kept at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. The majority of the Gruuthuse collection is kept at the Royal Library of the Netherlands in The Hague (including the famous Gruuthuse Musical Manuscript) and the Royal Library of Belgium in Brussels.

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.

Art of Reading in the Middle Ages manuscripts