Luxury vs. functionality

How a manuscript can indicate its readership

Hannah Johnson (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

Today, we make a distinction between books for pleasure and books for study. Modern scholars read differently than someone reading as a leisure activity. In the Middle Ages, there was a similar distinction between the reading habits of scholars and of the reading public. We can tell the kind of audience a manuscript was destined for by its design and we can tell how it was used by the images and words inscribed on the parchment.

There are two main ‘categories’ of manuscript based on the form it inherits from its readership: there are the livre-objet (book as object) and the livre-outil (book as tool).


Typically the livre-objet is best exemplified by manuscripts created for the nobility or bourgeoisie to be used for entertainment or private devotional purposes. Such manuscripts tend to be luxuriously decorated with miniatures, stylised initials (letters marking a new section/paragraph), and richly illuminated margins.

The above image from a Book of Hours is sumptuously decorated. More space is dedicated to the principal and marginal illumination than to text. Almost no marginal space has been left blank for note-taking since that was not typically how readers interacted with this kind of book. Consequently, this particular illumination depicts Mary reading what looks remarkably like a typical Book of Hours, which further indicates the manner in which this particular kind of luxurious devotional object would have been read.

In addition to Books of Hours and romances, we also find luxury copies of scientific works in royal collections. Similarly to Books of Hours, these scientific works tend to be written in a nice, clean script with a clear and spacious mise-en-page for ease of reading. They feature decorated initials as well as relatively frequent and prominent representational images (all of which may be seen in the image below).

Images depicting how the Earth is round yet we do not fall off of it


Unlike the livre-objet, manuscripts destined for students, ‘gens de savoir’ (men of knowledge), and theologians for scholarly use (livre-outil) tend not to be decorated. Instead of stylised initials and marginal illuminations, we see interlinear glosses and marginal notes in these kinds of manuscripts.

Manicula and marginal diagram

The pages of these manuscripts tend to be densely filled with text, with marginal space filled by notes (as seen below) and diagrams (as seen above in the top margin of the page, and below in the bottom margin of the page). Readers would draw diagrams corresponding to the text to help visualise and comprehend the complex content of the reading material. Readers would also draw attention to important points by quite literally pointing to it with the image of a hand (these are called manicula), an example of which can be seen above in the centre of the left-hand margin.

A page of text with interlinear glosses, marginal notes and diagrams

The above manuscript contains content similar to the Image du monde. But the form of the manuscript is markedly different, revealing how it was certainly used as a tool for scholarly study by how the reader engaged in thinking* with* the text directly on the page.

Marginal note-taking as a key aspect of scholarly reading did not cease in the late Middle Ages with early printed books. Rather, scholarly readers continued to use their books as tools whether printed or manuscript.

Printed text with handwritten marginal notes

The above example of an early printed book displays marginal notes made by the reader studying the text. As with manuscripts, such marginal notations differentiate an early printed book used as a tool (outil) for study from an early printed book used as an object (objet) of leisurely reading.

As can be seen in the examples here, how a reader engaged in reading a text in the Middle Ages determined the physical form a manuscript or early printed book would take, which may now be used to identify the readership group likely associated with a given manuscript.

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.