Until Nicholas Elyot, bookseller in fourteenth century Oxford, walked into my life, I had no more than a hazy knowledge of medieval books. The general impression I had gained, like most other people (I would guess), was that medieval books were limited in number, restricted as to contents, and confined to religious institutions and a very few royal and aristocratic houses.
Part of the problem lies in the terminology. ‘Medieval’ is a loosely defined term at the best of times, equivalent to ‘pertaining to the Middle Ages’, which can be extended to cover all the centuries from the end of the Roman Empire to the dawn of early modern Europe, another imprecise date. However, for our purposes, let us take it as beginning in England with the Norman Conquest and petering out in the Tudor period. As the new technology of printing was introduced toward the end of this period, in the late fifteenth century, I am interested in looking at medieval books before printing, the kind of books Nicholas sold and, increasingly, produced.
It is clear from the sheer numbers of exquisite medieval books which still survive in libraries, museums, and private collections that this is but the proverbial tip of the iceberg. If we take into account the destruction wreaked by time, mice, damp, insects, and the savage attacks by zealots like Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell in England and Savonarola in Italy, the original number of medieval books must have been much, much greater than those which survive. The number was not so limited after all. Accustomed as we are to modern printing, it is difficult for us to grasp that every one of these books was handwritten, but a monastic scribe or a secular scrivener, working day after day, could produce a remarkable amount of work.
The content of medieval books covered a very wide range. In the first place, we can easily divide them into two main groups – those intended as practical and business records and those intended for scholarly or leisure reading.
The former group includes all those manorial records which are full of fascinating details about the buying and selling of land, rents, the employment of servants, crops, game, household expenses (three yards of silk for a christening gown, twenty hogsheads of canary wine…) and the like. It also includes the chartularies of the monastic houses which may cover similar details but more particularly the gifts of benefactors and the rights and privileges of the institution. The surviving records of government run to thousands and thousands. As time passed and the merchant class expanded and grew rich, their businesses required detailed record keeping as well.
Many of these are not ‘books’ as we would recognise them, for they were more conveniently kept as scrolls, so that additional pieces could be sewn on as required. Their numbers are staggering, as you will realise if you have ever seen a picture of how they are stored.
The records of business houses, however, would often be kept in bound ledgers, rather than scrolls, in the middle and later medieval period. The Italian banking houses led the way, with their new and sophisticated book-keeping, but the practice soon spread to the rest of Europe, so that even quite small businesses kept records. As government taxation became better organised, it was in the small shopkeeper’s interests to keep reliable records (and even know how to hide assets from hungry government tax collectors!).
However the other type of book is of more interest to me, as it was for Nicholas – the book for reading.
The earliest books were almost exclusively of a religious nature, perhaps because it was felt that the effort required in producing a book could only be justified as a form of religious observance. And they were produced in religious houses, mostly by monks, although a few were written by literate nuns. The lives of saints, psalteries (collections of psalms), copies of the writings of the early Church fathers, and of course the Bible – all of these were produced.
But gradually things began to change. With the rediscovery of classical texts, the so-called Renaissance of the twelfth century, and the foundation of the early universities, the range of medieval books expanded rapidly. They included translations from Greek, Latin, and Arabic, and covered subjects as diverse as science, medicine, architecture, philosophy, logic, mathematics, music, history, geography, and astronomy, as well as literature, both poetry and prose. It was in the twelfth century that the extraordinary polymath, Hildegard of Bingen, lived, and the twelfth century cathedral schools became centres of learning, paving the way for the founding of the earliest European universities soon after.
At the same time the exchanges of trade and business throughout Europe were creating a need for basic literacy in an ever-widening portion of society, not only amongst churchmen and government officials but amongst the rising ‘middle class’, that is merchants and professionals. Literacy began to spread to the women in their families. Certainly by no means everyone was literate – there was probably little literacy amongst those who laboured on the land! – but in the towns and amongst those who had some leisure in their days, it was growing, so that by the time Nicholas’s bookshop was open in fourteenth century Oxford, his customers would include not only the students and dons of the university, but the wealthier citizens and their wives and daughters.
With this growth of reading for leisure came the books recounting the tales of Arthur and his knights and the hero tales which had long been an oral tradition but which now found their way into more polished literary versions. Moral tales were also popular, particularly those with a humorous twist – the tales of cunning or foolish animals. Up to the fourteenth century, leisure reading for the upper classes had generally been in French, but now English authors began to write more and more in English, of which notable contemporary examples are Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Piers Plowman, and the works of Chaucer, including the most famous, The Canterbury Tales.
Even new religious books were produced. New lives of saints continued to appear, as did the newly most popular religious book amongst the laity, the book of hours, a guide to daily prayers, much cherished in this age of real piety.
Small, easily portable, and often very beautiful, they could be produced to the customer’s requirements. An example of the increased literacy of the times occurs in a court case when one servant accused another of stealing his book of hours. Both servants were literate. This was probably a very simple book, not one of those with exquisite illuminations, but it proves how popular these aids to prayer had become.
With the growth in demand for books, both for scholarly study and leisure reading, came the growth in bookshops, especially in the university towns, where a bookshop with a licence from the university had a steady business catering for student needs, but also dealt with secular customers, as well as providing stationery. Such a bookshop is that owned by Nicholas Elyot in the High Street of Oxford.
With scriveners employed in producing peciae – the extracts copied from set texts which students could hire – the bookshop was ideally suited to copying and producing texts for all its customers, from religious works like books of hours and lives of saints to tales of Arthurian heroes or traditional folktales. The bookshops thus became the forerunners of later publishers and printers. In these days before the printing press, production was necessarily on a small scale, but fourteenth century bookshops like Nicholas’s provided a vital transition between the time when literacy was found only amongst the privileged few to the explosion in literacy after the introduction of printing.
Next time I will be looking at the physical production of books.
Till next time,