The art of reading in the Middle Ages

The pastime of the people

Reading culture in Medieval cities

Reading was not done exclusively in monasteries or by/for the aristocracy. Indeed, a lively reading culture existed in medieval urban populations during the whole of the Middle Ages, since cities were hubs for intellectual and material exchange then as now.

As far back as the Carolingian period (in the 9th and 10th centuries), medieval schools could be found at the heart of cities. For example, the abbeys of Fulda (in present-day Germany) and of Saint Martin de Tours (where Alcuin of York taught during Charlemagne’s reign) both housed renowned monastic schools during the early Middle Ages. The Scholastic period in the 13th and 14th centuries saw the rise and expansion of universities as we know them today. However, it is important to note that they were influential on reading culture in cities as well. On the one hand, universities encouraged the development of book production outside of religious scriptoria, in part by altering the extant readership and, in some cities, by formally taking control of the book market as early as the mid-13th century. On the other hand, clerks working in scribal centres were university-educated (especially in the late Middle Ages), bringing scholastic reading techniques they had learned at university into the administrative world.

For several centuries, the Paris book market was the most prolific and most popular late medieval book market with Paris a stimulating environment for the burgeoning commercial book trade of the late Middle Ages. Four factors made it so. Paris was an extremely populous city (potentially the most populated city in Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries). French royalty lived within its city limits between the 12th and 14th centuries. The University of Paris was the most important university in Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries. Paris was an episcopal city, with Notre Dame cathedral a particularly wealthy establishment.

The expansion of the Paris book trade was due in part to university supply (students copying excerpts into compendia) and demand (students requiring copies of excerpts for study).

However, though universities helped shape a new readership, the University of Paris in particular also levied a more direct influence on the book market. By the 1270s, the university made booksellers (libraires) swear an oath of obedience, without which a libraire was not allowed to sell books. This effectively stopped the development of a booktrade guild in Paris (which existed in other large European cities like London and Brugge). The university primarily sought to control costs through these efforts, with the aim of making books more affordable.

As such, the Paris book trade was the most lucrative of the time. Libraires were not only selling to students or university masters. As a densely populated European city in the late Middle Ages and as an intellectual, episcopal, and royal 'hub', the Paris booktrade served a vast and varied readership: nobility, prelates, bourgeois, even literate merchants (to name a few social groups)

Depiction of life in Paris. At the bottom of the page, people in the boat are reading music or poetry out loud from a parchment.

The abundant readership and varied demands encouraged libraires to streamline the production process for efficiency. Book production thus involved a number of different artisans and from the late 13th to the mid-14th centuries, the pecia rental method was in use - that is, splitting one exemplar of a text into sections which were then rented out to different scribes. This allowed for more rapid production. Illuminators would work similarly, taking their cues for what to draw more from the rubrics than from the texts, resulting in a certain amount of stock imagery.

Textual cues like rubrics, then, were as much for the readers’ benefit as the illuminators’, and the 'mechanisation' of the production process resulted in more 'standardised' products with mostly consistent iconography and layout.

People were not only reading books in the Middle Ages. They also read for pragmatic and administrative purposes - charters, royal writs, leases, petitions, wills, etc. Naturally, scribal centres (sometimes called ‘chanceries’ or ‘secretariats’) were attached to kings’ courts to produce royal decrees (amongst other things), but urban and rural locations also had scribal centres which wrote and copied such documents and also kept registries - essentially a database of charters that had passed through that scribal centre. In addition, clerks in these centres were responsible for the public reading of official documents, such as guild charters or royal decrees, to the people.

Trust in the authority of the written document was one of the most important things scribes had to maintain in charters. They are formulaic in nature, increasingly more so as time goes on, and it is precisely the use of formulaic language which validates the authority of the written document. However, because this authority is essentially a collaboration of writing, reading, seeing and hearing, its nature shifts depending on the time period in question. In the 11th and 12th centuries, the event (and its witnesses) is the authority and the document is merely the written record. But by the late Middle Ages, the document itself became the authority.

Below: Two burghers of Vienna promulgate the sale of a rent to the abbey of Heiligenkreuz (Austria). The charter shows all the characteristics of a 14th-century civic charter: written in the vernacular, no decoration (with the exception of the initial), heavily formulaic in wording, and the personal seals of the promulgators.

Because clerks in these centres were university educated (especially in the late Middle Ages), their training in scholastic reading shows in the textual organisation of registries for ease of finding a specific place in text - or, in this case, the record of a specific charter. Of particular interest is the late medieval tendency for scribes to write the folio number where the record of the charter could be found in the registry onto the charters themselves next to their signature. Since registries (being the official record of charters kept in 'professional' hands rather than of a particular) held more authority than the charters themselves in the late Middle Ages, if someone were to provide a charter as evidence during a judicial dispute, for example, to prove its authenticity, it was necessary to be able to find its entry in the registry easily. So, while the proprietors of the charter would not have understood the folio marking, the clerks could - this reveals a specialised administrative literacy in late medieval urban centres.