The Price of a Book in the Middle Ages: Colophons

Bouveret_withtabsA good amount about medieval book prices comes from colophons or notes left by scribes (or owners) in manuscripts they wrote (or acquired). These notes might detail the place and date of writing, offer a prayer on behalf of the scribe or warn future users of the book.

Over several decades in the second half of the 20th century, the Benedictines of Bouveret compiled an impressive number of colophons in six volumes published from 1965 to 1982 in the Colphons de Manuscrits Occidentaux des Origines au XIVeme Siècle. While the shortcomings of the work have been noted in a number of reviews, the corpus nevertheless represents the most extensive of its type and offers a broad view of colophons throughout Western Europe. Continue Reading

Ambrose’s Silent Reading as Zombie Idea

St.-Augustine-Head-Shot

Every field has its ‘zombie ideas’, ideas based on disproved notions (and so are not ‘alive’), but whose influence persists in large part due to their intuitive appeal (and so they aren’t ‘dead’). In the early history of reading, we have the assertion that Augustine’s surprise at seeing Ambrose read silently suggests that silent reading in antiquity was rare. The problems involved in using Augustine’s account in this way have been convincingly argued; indeed it is difficult to read the entire account and reach the conclusion that Augustine is surprised primarily by Ambrose’s silent reading per se. Continue Reading

Last Call…

for papers.

Together with Orietta DaRold and Philip Shaw at Leicester, we will be running a small conference in Bergen in early June entitled Writing Europe before 1450. It builds on the successes of two ‘Writing England’ conferences held in Leicester in 2007 and 2010. In broadening the geography, the scope has perhaps outstripped the allotted days, but I’m quite optimistic that this will be all the more engaging as a result. Because none of us will be expert in the traditions and histories of the various parts of Europe, we all stand to gain a fair amount from other speakers. The hope is that similar dispositions to different areas of study will lead to further and lasting co-operation between medievalists of various national traditions.

I am excited about the speakers who have agreed to come–they promise some great discussions about the nature of pre-modern reading and writing from a range of representative perspectives be it literary, documentary, medievalist, classicist, palaeographic, diplomatic, linguistic, historical and so on–and the abstracts that have already come in! So without further ado, the entire text of the call:

Writing Europe before 1450

The increasingly widespread recognition that print entered a world already characterized by a sophisticated market for the production, exchange and sale of written texts suggests that explorations of this textual culture can fruitfully elucidate the prolonged and varied processes through which Europe and its constituent localities entered into modern reading, writing and communicative practices. Writing Europe: A Colloquium aims to draw on a range of approaches and perspectives to exchange ideas about manuscript studies, material culture, multilingualism in texts and books, book history, readers, audience and scribes across the medieval period and beyond.

How did local writers, compilers and readers use writing to inscribe regional identity within broader conventions or, on the other hand, impress ‘universal’ practices and constructs on local populations? In what way did the spread of sacred writing from the Mediterranean to the northern and eastern edges of Europe contribute to or reflect the creations of (both material and cultural) peripheries and centers? What were the different markets for books; can we characterize their developments and differences? How do the dynamics (e.g. the production, consumption and regulation) of this textual culture in the Latin West compare with those found in other places and periods?  What new or existing methodologies can be employed to map the geographies of written words across Europe? Finally, to what extent does the examination of these issues support or undermine temporal and geographical bifurcations of the world into modern and ‘not’.

Plenary speakers

  • William Johnson (Duke University)
  • Kathryn A. Lowe (University of Glasgow)
  • Marilena Maniaci (Università di Cassino)
  • Call for Papers

    Building on the success of the Writing England conference held at the University of Leicester in 2010, we welcome proposals from scholars working on writers, book production and use, and responses to texts in any language up to 1450. Abstracts (300 words or less) for papers (20 minutes) should be submitted on-line using the form provided. Please follow this link to submit your proposal.

    Places are limited to allow us to subsidise costs, including registration, accommodation and meals. Please send your abstract by 31 January 2012. For further information please contact one of the organisers at the e-mail below.

    Bursaries

    To encourage participation from a range of individuals and institutions, a limited number of bursaries will be available to assist in covering travel expenses for participants with limited institutional support. Those who wish to be considered should include an additional statement in the relevant section of the abstract submission form. Selection will be based on need and on the relevance of the workshop to the participant’s research, and the statement should therefore address these criteria.

    Sponsors

    Writing Europe is a collaboration between the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Bergen and the School of English at the University of Leicester, and is generously subsidised by the Centre for Medieval Studies and by the School of English.

    Organising Committee

    Dr Aidan Conti, University of Bergen, Dr Orietta Da Rold and Dr Philip Shaw , University of Leicester.

    Palaeography Returns

    The news is a bit dated for anyone who subscribes to the relevant lists. Nonetheless, so that silence is not received as…well, whatever it might be seen as, I note that Julia Crick has been appointed Professor of Palaeography and Manuscript Studies at King’s College London. Whatever the circumstances of the controversy that surrounded the previous situation, Julia is (and no one needs me to say this) an outstanding scholar and individual who will undoubtedly serve the position, the field and colleagues well. For the time being, further details can be found on her Exeter profile. I’d just like to add a “Congratulations!” and “Good Luck!”.

    University in search of Latin Motto

    Frans Hals, Young Man holding a Skull (Vanitas) (1626-28)

    Earlier this term, Professor Gudmund Hernes speaking after the awarding of his honorary doctorate, gave the University of Bergen an assignment for the semester: Suggest a motto for UiB (You can make a suggestion here) (Norwegian version of article with submission form at bottom).

    Although I did make one serious submission, I must admit it was much easier to think of Latin phrases that are, erm, unlikely to become the motto for any university anytime soon. So without further ado, the top three motto suggestions (from historical sources) for universities with an acerbic sense of humor or a more-than-healthy penchant for honesty:

    Agamus igitur pingui Minerva
    (‘Let us proceed with our own poor wit,’ Cicero, De Amicitia V, 19)

    Opus opimum casibus
    (‘A work rich in disasters,’ Tacitus, Historiae I, 2)

    Ad nova tendentes semper discrimina
    (‘Always aiming towards new dangers’, Walter of Châtillon, Alexandreis 9. 525)

    Palaeography to Return to King’s College


    As suggested in an earlier post and predicted by the Palaeography Working Group’s final paper, King’s College, London is now advertising for its newly rebranded Chair in Palaeography and Manuscript Studies. Details can be found on the KCL website here, but the general description (summary + details) follows:



    King’s College London wishes to make a distinguished appointment to its new Chair of Palaeography & Manuscript Studies.
    The successful candidate will be expected to conduct and publish research of international quality, to teach, and to supervise research students. The post will be based in a department of the School of Arts & Humanities appropriate to the post-holder’s expertise; the post-holder will take a full and active part in the School’s activities. Applications are welcomed from scholars of international standing in any field of Palaeography & Manuscript Studies, regardless of language or period. The College has strengths in the study of the classical and medieval worlds, philosophy, music and theology & religious studies, as well as in digital humanities. We are looking for a dynamic individual to provide leadership in this important interdisciplinary field and take the subject forward in its next stage of development. The appointment will be made, dependent on relevant qualifications and experience, within the Professorial salary scale.

    The addition ‘and Manuscript Studies’, I suppose, means that it is not the very same job from which the College earlier dismissed, erm, came to a severance agreement with a distinguished appointment. That and the new description adds that applications will be considered ‘regardless of language or period,’ which opens the position not only to scholars of vernacular Western manuscripts, but also possibly those working on non-Western material. It seems the administration felt that widening the perspective of the chair was exigent enough that it had to oust one holder to get someone one else in immediately (at least in academic hiring terms).

    The risk they run of course is that they have already broadcast visibly to the palaeographical world that they will defund and dismiss a chair. In so doing, they will employ unclear (and perhaps disingenuous) reasoning, ignore widespread international protest, avail themselves of media outlets (such as Trainor’s interview with the Times business section), and lean on outside lobbying groups to argue their case for them (remember Miles Templeman, a marketing specialist and Director General of the Institute of Directors arguing for the elimination of the ‘different’, former position on BBC’s Radio 4 programme Today [runs 5:42]).

    Should we expect to see a marketing specialist, perhaps a Director of Directors, a President of Presidents, a new King of Kings!, return to Radio 4 to argue that yes, yes, it was justified and necessary to get rid of a chair of palaeography–austerity, budgets, tough times, financial crisis, you know!—but now we really truly need a new and improved chair in palaeography and manuscript studies?

    In the interval between announcing the cut of the position and the re-establishment of the position, erm rather the establishment of a new position, what was necessary to eliminate a year ago has surely, clearly now become a growth industry, the wave of the future, a dynamic new enterprise demanding excellent leadership, a ground-breaking intiative employing cutting edge technology to preserve the best of (take your pick) our nation’s/ our civilization’s/ the world’s past. At least for the foreseeable future, or, well, until it isn’t.

    ———–
    Apologies in advance to all the people working hard to see that palaeography is represented at King’s and are endeavouring to make the best of the situation. This is not meant to indict well-intentioned work.

    Medieval Book Prices again

    Ælfric Bata, about whom little is known other than he was a student of Ælfric of Eynsham and that he wrote Latin scholastic colloquies, offers a nice picture of monastic book sales presumably from around the first part of the eleventh century. His Colloquia preserve a scene in which a student offers to write a book and sell his work. At the beginning of the scene, one young student states that he will prick the quire that he made yesterday so that he can rule it, a nice description of the pre-binding process for laying out the page. The students and master also admire the work of an older scribe who can no longer write due to poor eyesight.

    The master then asks one of the students to write something for him and receives the following response:*

    You, scribe, good and handsome lad, I ask you humbly. Write me an exemplar on a roll or sheet, or on a parchment or tablet.
    If you’re willing to pay me.
    Fist write me a psalter or hymnal, or an epistolary or troper, or a missal or a good itinerary or capitulary, well composed and laid out, properly written and corrected, and I’ll give you good pay. Or I’ll buy all those things from you right now–I’ll give you their price in gold or silver, or in horses or mares, or oxen, sheep, swine, goats, clothing, wine, honey, grain or beans.
    Nothing would suit me more than for you to give me coins, since one who has coins or silver can get everything eh wants.
    Now you’re a sharp one.
    You’re much craftier than I, who am a simple little fellow.
    Stop that kind of talk. Let’s speak better! How many coins must I give you for one missal?
    If you want to have it, you must give me two pounds of pure silver. And if you don’t want it, somebody else will. This is an expensive thing and somebody else should buy it more dearly than you.
    Even if someone else wants to be so foolish, I don’t. I want to be careful and buy your book at the right price–at the price my friends will tell me it’s worth. That’s a fair price.
    But how much will you give me?
    I don’t want to give quite that much…
    What do you want then? How many coins will you pay, or how many mancuses?
    Believe me, I don’t dare give you more or buy it more dearly. Take this if you please. It’s not worth more. I’ll pay you twelve mancuses and count them into your hand. What else can I do? I’ll do only what you want.
    Count the coins here and now so I can tell if they’re valuable and whether they’re pure silver.
    I will.
    These really are good ones.
    Indeed they are.

    These twelve mancuses represent 360 pennies and depending on how one interprets the evidence from the Zaluski psalter, may be comparable to the later book or may represent a much discounted volume.

    In either case, the student’s comments are interesting given that the Rule of St Benedict (chapter 57) states: “with regard to the prices of such things [i.e. goods sold by monastic artisans], let not the vice of avarice creep in, but let the always be sold a little cheaper than by men in the world.” The student doesn’t offer to sell his work ‘a little cheaper’, but haggles fairly persistently for the highest price possible. Given that these are idealized dialogues, it may be too much to describe the student’s behaviour as the norm, but, nonetheless, his disposition hints at the extent to which, despite the rhetoric of isolation, contemplation and removal from worldly matters, the early medieval monastery played an important part in the local material economy.

    _______________
    * Translated by David Porter in Scott Gwara and David Porter, eds., Anglo-Saxon Conversations: The Colloquies of Ælfric Bata (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1997), on pp. 135-137.

    Intersections of Past and Present, an application from Egypt

    On February 7, a few of us in the department received an email from Egypt. At first glance, I thought this might be one of the periodic letters we get claiming a desire to learn about conversion and Christianization and an interest in our ‘school’. Although this mail requested general help, it did refer to a particular scholarship programme, a reference that made it seem more credible than the obvious spam. Nevertheless, I clicked through to the attachments with a small bit of doubt.

    What I found was an application from an Egyptian doctoral candidate who was looking to come to Norway but needed support from a Norwegian institution before the application could be considered complete. And the deadline for submission to the Norwegian Research Council was fast approaching.

    The proposal involved a look political thought of a medieval writer who was particularly concerned about the relationship between spiritual and temporal authority. In and of itself, a recurrent subject of interest, that is in a religious age how did these spheres overlap, how were they segregated and what kind of struggles arose from the tension. The medieval figure in question is often considered a harbinger of later political thought in that while he recognizes both secular and spiritual authority, he lobbies on behalf of secular authority. And, perhaps more importantly, argues for the supremacy of the people over both based on idea of civil community and citizenship.

    This is not my particular field and so I know little about the state of research into this particular figure and where the proposed study lies within the field, but a few things did catch my eye. First and perhaps foremost was the idea that as a pre-cursor to the larger Reformation the political thought of this medieval writer could usefully serve as a model for how civic-minded reform can be voiced within a theocratic society. In other words, the medieval dynamic can be seen as a parallel and contrast to contemporary societies where religious authorities assert temporal authority.

    A project that examines the ideas of a civil community in the medieval past that could be accepting of pluralism and difference among citizens of the state even as they are faithful to the church. It’s no great leap to envision how this project would reflect and could contribute to ideas important to the future of the applicant’s world. Given the political situation in Egypt up to this point, I wondered if the Western past provided in some sense a safe haven for exploring ideas that might be more difficult or dangerous to voice when they impinge on contemporary politics.

    I reckon it would have been easier for people to conveniently forget the email from Egypt, but a few of us lobbied to have the applicant invited to Bergen. Some faculty believe that we should screen who we invite for the ‘best’ applications (a notion that is particularly difficult when these applications come from very different academic cultures not least of all because varying degrees of access to academic resources generate different standards for what is considered quality work). Others take the point of view that we should be touched that people want the opportunity to come to our institution and so should invite all interested while letting the Research Council debate the merits of the application itself.

    My view was that if you are interested in using the European Middle Ages as a way of exploring political questions that resonate in a part of the modern world characterized by decades of authoritarian rule as well as sectarian strife, and if we can be of any help by providing access to academic resources and by offering constructive comments, then of course we would be happy to have you. Too often the medieval, and so the medievalist, is viewed as irrelevant, if not opposed to everything that is modern. And yet because much of the actual world does not live up to the modern ideal, we ought to be prepared to understand and acknowledge many forms of modernity, some of which might look in important aspects more medieval than we care to admit. So I spent the week of the seventh of February corresponding with applicant, securing an invitation and offering suggestions to the proposal itself so that everything came together before the deadline, just after Mubarak resigned.

    Image by Nick Bygon using photos of Reuters photojournalists Amr Abdallah Dalsh and Goran Tomasevic (see http://www.flickr.com/photos/nickbygon/5412410519/).

    Scribal Labor, Ancient Edition

    I recently started the lucid, engaging, careful and exciting Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire by William Johnson (Oxford UP, 2010). While the body chapters will be of most interest to those specifically engaged with particular authors, antiquity and papyrology, I think the introduction stands on its own as a succinct and compelling account of reading as a social practice which could be usefully read by a range of people interested in the history of reading and how the history of reading has been approached.

    For the present, I want to record the reference on the prices for hiring scribes for various writing (from the Edict of Diocletion (301)):*

    To a scribe for best writing, 25 denarii per 100 lines; for second quality writing, 20 denarii per 100 lines; to a notary for writing a petition or legal document, 10 denarii per 100 lines.

    Johnson’s discussion highlights the extent to which the ancient bookroll was an elite product “intended in its stark beauty and difficulty of access to instantiate what is is to be educated” (21). It seems possible, if one were so inclined, to draw this out a bit as an incipient precedent for Petrucci’s idea of writing ‘as an end to itself’ (mentioned here). But if overstated the writing as ‘end’ leaves out ‘reading’ broadly defined, that is whether the book itself was meant to be read or not, its contents must have been ‘read’, that is discussed and interpreted, for the writing to acquire any status. Perhaps I misreading Petrucci on this and taking that misreading too far.

    Johnson’s book deals elegantly with the sociocultural system of reading in the Trajanic period and under the Antonines (I can confidently say only 80 pages into it :P …).

    * Johnson 2010, 21 (who refers to the translation and discussion in Turner and Parsons, Greek Manuscripts of the Ancient World, 2nd ed, BICS supplement 46 (London, 1987), pp. 1-4)

    Edit: I failed to notice that the Diocletian edict was the historical economic hot-topic of the week (Brad DeLong via the Economic History Blog)! Serendipity…