The art of reading in the Middle Ages


Circulation of manuscripts in the Middle Ages

Manuscript illustration of a man reading a book to a group of people

Reading (whether silently or aloud to an audience) was something that people of every class all across medieval Europe shared an appreciation for, and so they also shared their books. Indeed, there existed a vast network of medieval book circulation from the early Middle Ages (with the Merovingians and Carolingians) through to the late Middle Ages (including networks of female patrons).

The dominance of Latin as a written language shared by the Christian literate elite was one aspect of early medieval literary culture that fostered the sharing of books. In fact, 'literate', or litteratus, in Latin originally referred specifically to people who could read and write Latin. Having a lingua franca allowed people from different cultures and different vernacular languages to communicate and share knowledge and writing. A particularly important example of this kind of exchange is Alcuin of York (735-804), a Northumbrian scholar appointed head of the religious school at Saint Martin de Tours in France by the Frankish emperor, Charlemagne. Alcuin was a great lover of books and an instrumental figure in the educational reform instigated by Charlemagne during his reign. In one of his letters to the emperor, Alcuin specifically requests permission to send some of his students to York to retrieve several books from the Minster Library 'and return to France with the flowers of Britain, that the garden may not be confined to York only, but bear fruit in Tours’.

A composite manuscript composed of two volumes of collected works, written during the 9th and 10th centuries in eastern France or southwest Germany.

While Alcuin is a well known example of this movement, he is far from the only Englishman to leave his homeland to bring his faith and learning to the continent. This was a frequent occurrence in the early Middle Ages. Surviving correspondence between Saint Boniface (672-754) and English missionary nuns (eg. Leoba, abbess of Tauberbischofsheim) in 'Germany' belies the vital importance of literate women as educators of the conquered pagans as well. Missionaries of this kind who founded and travelled between monasteries necessarily brought books with them as well as the insular style of writing, thus influencing the production of manuscripts on the continent.

Manuscript page of Gospels known as Echternach or Saint Willibrord

The above manuscript was written around the year 700 in insular minuscule, a script which originated and was used widely in the British Isles (hence ‘insular’). It is difficult to name for sure where it was written: it could have been either in Ireland or Northumbria, or even at Echternach by monks trained in the insular tradition. In any case, we are certain it was housed in the library of the monastery at Echternach (in present-day Luxembourg), which was founded by the English missionary St. Willibrord of Northumbria (658-739). This manuscript and others like it show that the movement of manuscripts across geographical and linguistic borders was not uncommon.

While we have given examples here of insular books making their way all over the continent, it is absolutely essential to remember that this process was not unique to English missionaries, but was practiced by people from every cultural region.

In the High Middle Ages (11th-13th centuries) manuscript transmission continued to be practiced similarly. However, during these centuries new methods and paths for sharing books evolved. In particular, three key groups which significantly impacted medieval book sharing came into play in the 13th century: universities, Mendicant Orders, and Beguines (and other female religious).

The Mendicant Orders were groups of friars who devoted themselves to a lifestyle of poverty and ministry (teaching the Gospels). They did not live in a fixed place, but were in constant movement, travelling from one city to another and teaching to the poor. As such, it was necessary that Mendicant friars possessed books that could be easily transported long distances and read without the aid of a lectern. Book circulation in the Middle Ages did not depend solely on people reading the physical book, it was just as important that people listening to someone reading or reciting a book to them.

Historiated initial displaying a hermit with rosary and a book.

A Mendicant friar, therefore, by means of carrying his Bible around with him as he travelled from city to city, 'shared' it with anyone who listened to him while ministering. Mendicant friars were far from the only medieval people to require and use portable books.The 13th century sees a shift in book production from large format to small format books (especially Bibles) to meet the increasing need for easy transportation.

The Beguines - groups of semi-religious women who lived in urban areas, caring for and sometimes ministering to the populace - were another influential group in manuscript transmission.. Beguines could read and write in the vernacular and, as a result, they valourised the use of vernacular writing for religious purposes. In addition, they contributed to the transmission of vernacular religious and secular texts through their writing, teaching and wider network of religious and secular patrons.

Manuscript illustration of a woman reading from a book. In front of her, there is a group of four men.

Throughout the Middle Ages, different social groups engaged in the collection of books, most notably (though not exclusively): monasteries, university libraries (and cathedral schools) and aristocrats. In the case of aristocrats, these collections (or libraries) then got passed down to their descendants or distributed to relatives, friends or institutions like monasteries or churches upon their deaths. In the late Middle Ages, around the 14th century, we find an increasing number of extensive and detailed inventories recording the books belonging to certain libraries (personal and institutional).

Inventory of "books of very sovereign and very excellent Prince Roy Charles the Fifth"

Thanks to these book inventories, it is possible to see what books certain groups of medieval people were reading - both what they inherited (older manuscripts) and what they bought (contemporarily produced). Some very important royal collections account for many outstanding manuscripts that have been conserved through to the present day. Charles V (King of France), Jean de Berry (Duke of Berry), Philippe le Bon (Duke of Burgundy), Louis de Bruges (or Louis de Gruuthuse) are just some of the late medieval bibliophiles who are responsible for larger collections.

In the later Middle Ages, women continued to play a significant role in book transmission. Noble women especially contributed to the expansion of important collections, through marriage and inheritance. Isabeau de Bavière (1370-1453), wife of Charles V, inherited a small library, which became part of Charles’ collection through their marriage. Louise de Savoie (1476-1531), mother of François Ier, not only passed her own books on to her son (eg. the Roman de Fauvel), but appears to have been an active participant in his literary life, indicated by frequent references and dedications to her in books written for François.

Manuscript transmission occurred widely in every social milieu irrespective of gender, language or literacy. Books moved frequently and unceasingly across languages and geographical space throughout the entirety of the Middle Ages - movement which can be traced within the manuscripts themselves - as reading created networks and communities in a culture which loved the written word.