An assembly of women reading, in 'L'Épître Othéa'.

Private and public reading

Different reading practices in the Middle Ages

Hannah Johnson (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

People have always practiced private reading (silent) and public reading (out loud, either as performance or reading to an intimate group). These two different ways to read were never mutually exclusive, and depended on one another for survival and transmission. Just as today we practice private reading with physical books or ebooks, but we also read out loud to one another or listen to audio books. Medieval people both read privately and were read to. The kind of reading a person practiced at a given time depended on the social situation and their level of education.

Private Reading

Private reading was most easily accomplished, then as now, in quiet and calm environments which allowed readers to focus on the reading material.

St. Catherine of Alexandria holding a sword and reading a book

Monasteries and abbeys, especially the scriptoria, offered this kind of environment. It is believed that early medieval (5th-7th century) scriptoria were loud places where one monk (or nun) would read aloud (dictate) to the scribe who then copied what they heard. However there are records from the 7th and 8th centuries which show that the rules were altered to demand that scriptoria be fully silent environments. This means that monks and nuns were silently reading and copying texts: an aspect of monastic literary culture that did not change again after that.

Either King Henry II directing Walter Map to write the death of Arthur, or King Arthur directing a scribe to write the adventures of the quest

Another place where private reading could be easily achieved were libraries. Again, monasteries housed libraries, but so did universities (starting in the 12th century) and private residences (late medieval royal or noble most notably). Universities amassed libraries where students could access copies of books that they were unable to buy for themselves, and which often also housed original copies (the most ‘correct’ versions, that is) of texts. They were not lending libraries, and some of the more important books were kept on chains to prevent students and professors from removing them from the premises. As a result, university libraries were places where people would read (as they still are today), and thus there was a rule of silence there, following the example of monastic scriptoria.

Private reading offered several advantages, first and foremost: the possibility for the reader to practice meditatio (meditation) and ruminatio (contemplation). These were some of the most important aspects of monastic reading (see blog: Monastic vs scholastic reading habits) which required the reader to ruminate over what they were reading. This was particularly useful for digesting complex texts that required close reading and rereading to understand, particularly important to university students in the later Middle Ages. This method of reading lent itself well to people who used the book as a tool (livre-outil).

A distinct disadvantage to private reading — especially according to university masters in the later middle ages — is that it allows the reader a certain degree of interpretive freedom. This made it harder to control heretical ideas.

Public Reading

Public reading was practiced by everyone in the Middle Ages, since it could be practiced almost anywhere and by practically anyone. Some common places where public readings happened were: at royal courts, in intimate groups (not specific to social status), during a performance, in refectories, and during university lectures.

Morof als Spielmann (troubadour) holding his harp and standing in front of two figures carrying spears

An entire profession existed around public reading in the high Middle Ages: troubadours and jongleurs. These were the men and women whose job it was to compose and perform stories (romances or epics) and poems to an audience - an audience which could be made up of either nobles or commoners.

Because so many of the tales that have been preserved in writing were meant to be read or recited aloud, they still contain oral traces in writing. Many romances will start with “oïez oïez” (hear ye, hear ye) and frequently include phrases such as, “listen to this tale” or “I tell you”. The fact that these tales were written down and also that copies of them exist accompanied by images in luxury manuscripts prove that they were also read privately by both performers and the general populace. They were originally and frequently read publicly, giving these texts a dynamic and vibrant readership that was not necessarily dependent on literacy.

Manuscript with a miniature at the top showing a university lecture: teacher reading a book in front of four students

Above: a miniature illustrating a university lecture.

Universities were also places where public reading occurred. While students and masters were expected to read privately and contemplate the complex material, university lectures were a public form of doing that. The master would read a text out loud while the students followed along, taking note of the verbal commentary (glosses) the master would make as he read. Thus the art of doing a close reading of a text was as much a public and communal action as a private one.

The advantages to public reading were in the entertainment value (during a performance) and in the discussions with others which could derive from it - both in a university setting and in a lay or courtly setting.

Public reading encouraged the exchange of ideas between readers engaging in the same material at the same time. It also allowed for a larger readership and therefore a more vast dissemination of information and ideas because public reading is not dependent on the literacy of everyone listening.

Rudolf the scribe, surrounded by four people (most likely his pupils)

Reading is both an aural/oral and a visual exercise, both a private and a public activity in the Middle Ages, which is an aspect about reading that fundamentally has not changed in over 1000 years.

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.