Large to small

Books in 13th century

Hannah Johnson (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

A diverse array of readerships existed over the span of the approximately 1000 years that makes up the Middle Ages. Manuscripts show how the needs of the readership (their reading habits) influence the way books were made. One of the more radical and notable changes occurred in the 13th century : that is, the increasingly frequent production of small format books.

Small Format Bibles

Bibles are, unsurprisingly, the most frequently produced books in the Middle Ages (and still are today). While the late Antique and early Medieval period saw the production of portable gospels (that is, a portable book containing a single Gospel), manuscripts produced in this period containing all the biblical texts (called Roman Bibles) consist of three main characteristics: (usually) good quality parchment, sumptuous decorations, large size (parchment and text).

The average Roman Bible was about 50 cm in height. These books were heavy and cumbersome, and not meant for transportation. It was not infrequent that one manuscript only contained (at most) half of the Bible; if someone wanted the whole text of the Bible, they would have to carry around not one but two of these large books.

 In principio - a Roman Bible from the late 12th century (dimensions: 51.5 x 36.5 cm)

Roman bibles were more than likely meant for use in refectories, or in cathedrals, churches, or chapels. They were stationary objects that congregations would gather around, rather than being brought out to the crowds. However, with the 13th century came Mendicant Orders (wandering monks) and university students: two mobile reader groups who required books that could be easily transported.

The Mendicants were wandering friars, who travelled from township to township preaching. They had no fixed place of residence, and relied on charity for survival.

In the 13th century, the vast majority of university students would come from all corners of Europe to study at the University of Paris. During their time at the university, many would send books back to their hometown as gifts to institutions or to keep in their personal libraries, and also would take their books back home with them when their studies finished.

While university students required portable books of a wide variety, the Bible remained a staple piece of literature for anyone passing through the university, as well as being the sole literary requirement for mendicant friars. As such, small format bibles, called Gothic Bibles, were created en masse in Paris to accommodate the needs of these two groups. In fact, Parisian production of these manuscripts was so prolific that the medieval name for small format Gothic Bibles was ‘the Paris Bible’.

In comparison to the Roman Bible pictured above (Image 1.Biblia Latina - Prima Pars), this Gothic Bible displays a different mise en page typical of small format bibles of the time. In contrast to the luxurious decoration in large format bibles, small format bibles feature minimal marginal decoration and more compacted script. Additionally, Gothic Bibles were frequently produced on lower quality, thinner parchment making the manuscript lighter and easier to carry.

Bat books/Almanacs

In addition to bibles, the wandering savants of the Middle Ages relied heavily on astronomical and calendrical calculations for their work. During the Middle Ages, the calendar was organised around the lunar cycle, and thus important time-structuring events (like saints’ feast days) shifted from year to year. Astronomers wrote Almanacs - books full of complex tables detailing astronomical movements (waxing/waning of the moon, eclipses, and so on) - which functioned, effectively, as calendars.

Portable versions of these Almanacs - known as ‘bat books’ by modern scholars - were also created and widely used in the 13th century. Little is known about them, but it is clear that they were likely used by mendicant friars or other travelling church officials and physicians. Bat books allowed ecclesiastics to organise the liturgy from year to year, and allowed physicians to consult the zodiac influence on possible medical prescriptions.

Just like Gothic Bibles, bat books contained necessary information in a compact, small format for ease of transportation. As seen in the above photo, the bat book is 12cm in height and approximately 3-4cm in width when folded. While, like with Gothic Bibles, bat books are written in miniscule, compact script on thin paper, they are even more compact because they are meant to be folded for travel and opened for consultation. Furthermore, they typically contain around 15 pieces of parchment in total, making them light and ideal for travel. Though anyone using a bat book would have known how to read the tables, they also usually included instructions for reading, meaning that every bat book - like every Gothic Bible - contained all the information its owner would need to be able to reference on the go.

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.