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The book in the middle ages was an essential tool for the transmission of culture. The books were then mainly written by men of the Church for other men of the Church and for the sovereigns. European libraries contain a large part of our cultural and artistic heritage, to which the advent of Christianity has greatly contributed by giving the book a sacred aura. Thanks to the slow and laborious work of the scribes and the talent of the illuminators, the passion for books, a rare and precious object, is therefore a legacy from the Middle Ages. The places of this creation, their relocation from monasteries to cities has changed the book-reader relationship towards new uses.
The Book of the Middle Ages
It should not be forgotten, however, that the great majority of men and women of that time could not read and did not have the material means to access culture, the prerogative of the wealthy lords and ecclesiastics. The book is then a support for the monk's sacred meditation on the scriptures, entertainment for the princes in the form of novels or hunting treatises, and later, a tool for the studious schoolboy who struggles with a Latin grammar manual.
The book is not only a text that takes more and more varied forms, but also a fabulous repertoire of images. The illustration of devotional books or secular works acquired at this time a particular importance: the image accompanies and nourishes the text, the greatest artists participate in the decorations of the manuscripts. The painting is in the books!
The history of the book has evolved a lot before reaching its final form in the Middle Ages. This story fits between two major technical developments: the appearance of the codex in the first century BC and the invention of printing around 1460. In antiquity, the media for writing were as varied as they were. ingenious: wooden planks coated with wax, earthen tablets, tree bark, strips of silk fabric in China, papyrus rolls in Egypt, Greece or Rome. These media continued to be used for writing ephemeral documents, such as the “beresty” drafts scribbled on birch bark by Russian merchants.
The media of writing in the Middle Ages
What were the three main media for writing in the Middle Ages? Papyrus, parchment and paper. The papyrus associated with ancient Egypt, from which it comes, has long been used in the Mediterranean world, in particular by the papal chancellery. Around 1051, it was supplanted by parchment (which takes its name from the city of Pergamon in Asia Minor). It spread in the 3rd and 4th century thanks to technical improvements. All kinds of animals can provide skins for its manufacture: goats and sheep give an ordinary quality called "sheepskin." "Veal is made from the veal, a fine and prized quality, but also the most expensive.
The parchment workers settle in the cities, or near the monasteries. The manufacture of parchment is long and meticulous. The skins are sold in bundles, folded in half or in quarters (the fold determines the formats). They can be tinted red or black, with gold or silver lettering for luxury manuscripts. The skin is stronger and more resistant to fires, it can be used for bindings, or scratched and rewritten.
Paper, which appeared at the end of the Middle Ages, was invented in China around 105 AD, its distribution followed the Silk Road. Made from rags dipped in a lime bath, it is made of crossed fibers and stretched over frames. The use of the paper mill and the press advanced the technique. Paper ended up being essential because of its very competitive price (thirteen times cheaper than parchment in the 15th century).
Writings destined to last were written down on papyrus or parchment scrolls. The appearance of the codex (a parallelepipedal book mentioned around 84-86 AD) quickly became a real success. More practical than the roll, it allows you to write on a table or desk. Bibles in the form of codices are mentioned as early as the second century.
The scribe and his tools
The scribe is the great specialist in writing, a slow and tedious task. He trains on wax tablets that he engraves with a metal, bone or ivory point. To trace his letters on parchment or paper, he has three essential tools: the point, a lead pencil, silver or tin which is used for drafts and the drawing of rulers in order to present homogeneous pages, the "catalame" (cut reed) and finally the bird feather.
Duck, raven, swan, vulture or pelican feathers are used for writing, the best being the quill pen! The scribe cuts the quill with a penknife. Strong rhythms, accentuated verticals and finer horizontals, alternations of full and hairlines are determined by the size.
Black ink is obtained by the decoction of plant substances such as gall nut and the addition of lead or iron sulfates. Red ink is reserved for the titles of works and chapters (this custom has given its name to “sections”, a term derived from the Latin “ruber” which means red). In the absence of a table of contents, they allow the reader to find his way more quickly in the manuscript. This can be divided into notebooks distributed to several scribes who share the work, in order to speed up copying.
Illuminations and miniatures
Books with illustrations are in the minority because of their high costs Illumination has a dual function: decorative, it embellishes the book, educational it illuminates the text. The illuminator receives a sheet of parchment already written on which spaces have been delimited by the scribe so that he can carry out his paintings. Several hands are involved in the decoration of a manuscript: the illuminator of the letters, that of the borders and the "historier" or painter of history who composes the historiated scenes.
In the Romanesque period (11th and 12th centuries) the capital letters can also serve as a framework for a real composition, the jambs of the initial allowing the decoration to develop there. In the 14th century, the margins were populated with plant motifs, acanthus or bouquets of flowers, real or fantastic animals, characters, coats of arms, and sometimes small scenes in medallions.
From monasteries to urban workshops
Concentrated in the monasteries during the first centuries, the manuscripts (produced in a workshop called scriptorium) were established in the city, giving birth to a real book market.
Punctuation and word separation made their appearance in northern France in the mid-eleventh century, as did the practice of silent reading. The episcopal schools desired by Charlemagne developed during the 12th century at the same time as the cities. Booksellers make their appearance at the beginning of the thirteenth century, they order manuscripts from copyists and sell them to school teachers and to the university.
Booksellers or stationaries dominate the four trades linked to book production: copyists, parchment-makers, illuminators and bookbinders. If the first libraries appear in the monasteries, they subsequently become public or private. Even if it is not illuminated, the book is expensive. After purchasing the parchment, you then have to pay for the copy, a slow and tedious task, and then the binding. Some improvements made to its manufacture towards the end of the Middle Ages made it possible to lower the price of the book: reduction of formats, use of paper, impoverishment of the decor, more modest bindings. Booksellers also offer second-hand books.
University works are concerned with theology, law or medicine, while kings, princes and lords collect volumes devoted to religious and moral edification, political knowledge and entertainment (novels, poems).
The rise of urban schools in the 12th century, then the creation of universities in the following century, aroused a new audience of readers. Teachers and schoolchildren regarded books as the main tools of knowledge. Hardly fortunate, the intellectuals of the Middle Ages manage to own the fundamental works, some manage to bring together a small private library, but most fall back on second-hand copies, or recopy borrowed manuscripts.
The best-known collection of university books is that founded by Robert de Sorbon (confessor of Louis IX in 1250) for poor students destined for theological studies at the University of Paris (a thousand volumes). The diversity of the images, the richness and the whimsy of the decorations, the world of unalterable colors that time and wear and tear have not been able to tarnish, are all elements that explain the fascination that books exert on us. from the Middle Ages.
The distance that separates us from their creation, their miraculous conservation make them almost sacred objects, which libraries or private collectors jealously preserve. A few exhibitions sometimes reveal the richness of this heritage to a dazzled public. These works have left an indelible mark on our vision of this period.
From the elegance and fantasy of the "very rich hours of the Duke of Berry" to the imagination of the "Mozarabic Apocalypses" and Roman Bibles, all the manuscripts of the Middle Ages introduce us to a dream world as they had it. centuries ago with their first readers.
Sources and illustrations: The passion for books in the Middle Ages by Sophie Cassagnes-Brouquet. Ouest-France editions, 2010.
Books on the Middle Ages
- France in the Middle Ages from the 5th to the 15th century, by Claude Gauvard. PUF, 2019.
- Cultural history of France. The Middle Ages, by Jean-pierre Rioux. Points Histoire, 2005.