Illuminating Medieval Manuscripts: Historical Perspective, Material Process, and the Curious Case of Richard De Bury’s Bibliophilia

Please excuse any redundant information, infidelity to the discourse from class, or lack of style.

Professor Mueller began the class by foregrounding the dominant sentiments felt towards texts in the medieval period: distrust and excessive love (which gave way to fetishization). We then considered that because Richard De Bury was an aristocrat, he could write, hence his is the position that survives. Because peasants were illiterate, their voices do not. Professor Mueller then made reference to the issue of the oppressive potential of documentary culture — “undocumented immigrants” was the contemporary manifestation of this problem he offered as an example. In short, those who control document culture assert control over culture / politics in general.

The class then listened to an overview of the period which much of the reading for the class session was concerned with.

Medieval Period (500-1500)

Periodization is contested. While many agree that the fall of the Roman Empire inaugurates the medieval period, there is less consensus regarding when the period ends (see other scribe). Regardless, this period encompasses a time which saw the emergence of the codex, monasticism, Benedictine (Benedict 480-547) monastic reform (mentioned in The Canterbury Tales), the rise of Christianity, Latin as the sacred language of the bible (and the language of books more generally), missionary work, the Irish innovation of space between words, and vernacular languages.

The 7th century witnessed the rise of Islam, and in 710 the Islamic conquest of Spain.

The years between 1000-1300 are characterized by population growth, increased urbanization, economic boom, and the development of more sophisticated trading systems.

In 1180 the Universities of Oxford, Paris (you can’t forget Paris), and Bologna are founded. They trained students to make commentaries in texts, i.e. glossitory — which provided commentary on legal texts (which could assist in codifying law). During this time, the Pecia system was developed as a means of reducing errors in copied texts. The Pecia system divided up the various leaves of a text to scribes who would then copy them. Each scribe was associated with a symbol. In one manuscript we viewed, that of Accursius, we found that his commentary was more extensive than the law which it commented on, and in fact functioned like the law. According to Professor Mueller, some documents contained commentaries on commentaries on commentaries about legal texts (very meta).

Professor Mueller went on to note that university libraries emerged as repositories for books during the high middle ages.

Again, dating is wonky, because Petrarch is considered a “renaissance” author, while Chaucer is considered “medieval” — even though Chaucer was born long after Petrarch. Professor Mueller contests the narrative that Petrarch trained in formulaic Ciceronian rhetoric modeled on Cicero’s De Oratore, discovered letters from Cicero to friends which did not conform to this style, and subsequently embarked on a program of dissuading compositionists from using the “medieval style” which adhered to De Oratore. All of this indicates the problems of popular historical narratives.

Professor Mueller prefaced the next phase of class by asking: what does illumination add or take away from a manuscript? We then watched a video (available on the course wiki) which detailed the process of manufacturing parchment, quills and ink. Professor Mueller made reference to the Exeter Book, which includes a riddle about the making of a manuscript.

Professor Mueller again made reference to the potential for the oppression of document culture. He noted that as of the late medieval period, translating the bible into the vernacular was still not allowed (Wycliff and Lollards broke this rule). Professor Mueller pointed out that the Latin bible is in fact a translation of the original Aramaic and Greek. In short, the arbiters of document culture — the clergy — wanted to control the scripture, and in turn the populations understanding of it.

We then illuminated texts (Please refer to the handout for details on this process).

We ended class by discussing the Philobiblon by Richard de Bury. Professor Mueller offered that the text was often used in schools as students advanced to Latin prose texts. He also noted that the text preserves the rhythms of earlier medieval Latin. He went on to note that the text finds sympathy with ars dictanimis (the art of dictation) in that the prologue establishes ethos or the authority to speak on the part of the author, seeks to ingratiate itself to its audience, etc. We went on to discuss the first six sections of the text, and then concluded class.

With this task now completed, I think I need a drink.

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7 thoughts on “Illuminating Medieval Manuscripts: Historical Perspective, Material Process, and the Curious Case of Richard De Bury’s Bibliophilia

  1. Bibliophilia is a great updated word for Philobiblon, Darisse. I must admit I was surprised by the class’ general agreement with Richard’s claims about the importance of books. It’s obvious that we all love books, but do we really believe they are the ultimate medium of knowledge? And if this is the case, what do we make of the fears about the disappearance of the codex book?

    • Professor,

      Jan-Dirk Muller points out in “The Body of the Book: The media transition from manuscript to print”, that while drawing reductive parallels between the advent of print culture and the advent of digital text is problematic, “reactions of [of those who lived during the advent of printing] are telling insofar as they reflect certain conditions of modern writing culture in terms of resentments and exagerated expectations, as well as the difficulty the established cultural system had in adjusting to these conditions” (BHR 183). The exagerated expectiations surrounding digital texts are perhaps bound up in the desire for the radical democratization of discourse, the elimination of illiteracy, and other laudible ends. The resentment many feel towards digital texts perhaps emmanates from the common critique of our time: we have flattened time and space. Also, some might argue – as early moderns did – that mass reproduction of texts is “for profit alone” (BHR 183). Similarly, the critique that there needs to be more oversite as to what is published is heard frequently these days. There is a tension between the desire to democratize discourse, and how this plays out in reality perhaps. The anxiety surrounding the disappearance of the codex reminds me of Plato’s anxiety during the advent of writing. Regardless of the various differences between these historical moments, they all evidence trouble “adjusting”. What are people going to do at the advent of the neo-oral cutlure in which graphemes are dead and we just upload youtube videos instead of writing?

  2. I find the idea that there would be commentary upon commentary on legal documents. From a former Criminal Justice student, one thing we had to do was look at the law, that is the written law upon which we would study, and furthermore, we would look at various other articles that judges would write based around a particular case law. The writing is very dry, but informative, and I find it interesting in that, the commentary on the law would be on the written on the actual book, on the pages they were addressing instead of separate articles or scrolls possibly in this case. Yet, given the system they had back then, it made sense since these documents would have been much harder to find.

    • I agree with this sentiment, and I find it very interesting that the laws were commented upon in such a manner. However, if we look at our own justice system, we often think of the law as an established and objective force that keeps society in check and criminals behind bars (if you’ll allow me to gloss over for a minute the supreme problems inherent in our criminal justice system), but our system of laws constantly allows for and requires interpretation. That’s the job of the Supreme Court as the highest court in the land. Lawyers must constantly look for precedents to prove the case that they are making.. precedents that descend from the plethora of interpretations from a variety of judges, sometimes from something as small as a phrase or word. Interestingly, this takes us back to a point that Alex made during that class and which Darisse echoed in his post which is that documents and document holders constantly control the politics and society in which they live. This class is already fascinating in the way it can make us recognize things that we see in our daily lives but often don’t think about such as the inherent instability of the law.

  3. I did like what De Bury said about the importance of books and that we should preserve them, but it was hard for me to get past “who” decides what books are worth saving and what books hold the most knowledge. If it’s the divine texts he thinks are the most important, I have to disagree. I think secular knowledge is the best kind. Alas, that is a debate I can never have with De Bury.

    In present times, I think this kind of debate could be correlated with the literary canon and who decides what “literature.” I know Darisse likes to talk about gatekeepers a lot. Is it then the responsibility of the gatekeepers to denote what is true “literature” and if so, who gives them authority? I think it’s perhaps irresponsible of De Bury to censor other books as ‘not as important’ or ‘not as knowledgeable.’

  4. I think that the point about De Bury being an aristocrat and therefore his words being the ones that endure is very important. It is unfortunate that it was largely only the upper classes that were literate in this time because as a result today we are missing the first hand perspectives of a huge chunk of Medieval society. What we know about the thoughts and opinions of the “regular” people in De Bury’s time only comes from what the literate classes said about them. It would be fascinating to have more opportunities to study their real perspectives rather than only getting the information second hand. As literacy has become more and more common throughout time, it has the advantage of giving us more first hand accounts from a wider range of people. Thus, we have to depend on second hand sources less and less, which is highly beneficial. It is unfortunate that such widespread literacy did not exist in the Medieval Period. It is very interesting to consider what texts may have been written if more people had the capability to compose them.

    • It’s definitely true that most of the literature we have from the medieval period is from the perspective of the upper class and privileged aristocrats (most of them male) or from the clergy (again, most of them male), but it does make me wonder. We know that works like the book of Margery Kempe exist, and that other works have been falsely attributed to a male author instead of the woman that actually wrote it – but how widespread was this? Would it be reasonable to suggest that possibly, and I do think I should stress that I doubt the likelihood of my own idea, some of the texts we have attributed to the aristocrats or the clergy were actually texts that were created by the lower classes? Would the way the writing of women was suppressed have extended to even the lower class, men and women alike? I’m not sure, but it could be possible. Obviously, literacy wasn’t widespread, so that probably stacks things against this idea, but it is food for thought, no?

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