The Price of a Book in the Middle Ages

A Carolingian binding

References to the price and labour involved in producing early medieval books in Western Europe are hard to come by. However, thanks to Helmut Gneuss’s reconstruction of a scribal comment (aka colophon) now lost (but transcribed by a modern cataloguer before the loss of the manuscript), we have a unique reference to the price of a book in early English material (it may well be the earliest reference of its sort in western Europe).*

It reads (as reconstructed):

Đeos Boc wæs geal gewriten on feower
Wyken and kostede þreo and fifti syllinges
This whole book was written in four weeks and cost fifty-three shillings.

The hand-written catalogue description of this lost manuscript (probably written very roughly around 1100) has not been printed but Gneuss relates that it was 21×15 cm and contained a Latin psalter and canticles over 152 folios (with another seven folios added later). However, the statement itself gives no indication as to whether the cost involved the materials or only the labour.

Nonetheless, it seems worth gathering some (provisional) points of comparison (about which corrections are welcome; I am especially uncertain about conversion rates and the like). In 900 in England, a sheep was valued at 5 pence (?or about 1 shilling) and a pig at 10 pence (?or about 2 shillings).**

In the medieval Islamic world, an ordinary book could cost 10 silver dirhams (?7 dinars by weight) and a fine one 100 dirhams (?70 dinars). The annual income necessary to support a middle-class family was around 24 dinars. The library in Cairo under al-Hakim (r. 996-1020) had an annual budget of 207 dinars per year, 90 of which went to paper for copyists and 48 for the librarian’s salary. The keeper of the supplies and the repairer of books each earned 12 dinars.***

In Byzantium, annotations from around 900 in the books of Arethas, Archbishop of Caesarea, value his copy of Plato at 21 nomismata (6 8 [Thanks to Marilena Maniaci for the correction!) for the parchment) and Euclid at 14 nomismata (perhaps not including the parchment). Manual workers in Byzantium were paid 6 to 10 nomismata per year. Those in the civil service appear to have earned about 72 nomismata per year at the lower end of the scale (the average perhaps in the hundreds).****

This only represents the early end, which interests me in considering a/the development and/or shift from sacred book to commodity. More examples and comparanda kindly solicited.

* Helmut Gneuss, “More Old English from Manuscripts” in Intertexts: Studies in Anglo-Saxon Culture presented to Paul E. Szarmach ((Tempe, AZ: ACMRS in collaboration with Brepols, 2008), pp. 411-421 at p. 419.

** from VI Æthelstan, see s.v. coinage in Lapidge et al., The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999).

*** from Jonathan Bloom, Paper before Print The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2001), pp. 117 and 121.

**** from Robin Cormack, Byzantine Art (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000), p. 132.


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  2. Aretha’s Plato costed 8 nomismata (not 6!) for the parchment and 13 for the scribe Iohannes.

  3. Oi! Thank you very much for the correction, Marilena. Much appreciated!

  4. Thank you, Steven. I recall reading or being told that the A-S shilling was variable, but approximately 5 pence and that the 12p to a shilling rate was fixed later (and carried on through most of the twentieth century). I will have to dig around and see where I picked this up. I may have missed something, it might be a mistake or there might be something with weights and equivalences. I have to try to retrace some inter-library loan steps before however.

  5. Returning to the pence shilling issue:

    “Homilists, sermon-writers, lawyers refer consistently to unites of monetary assessment that are part and parcel of an ordered and stable structure, pounds and pence in a standard ratio of 240 pence to the pound and intermediate units, mancuses (30d), shillings (varying from the 12d of the Carolingian scale to 5d in Wessex and 4d in Mercia) and especially but not exclusively in the more Scandinavianized part of Britain the ora (16d-20d)”

    Henry Loyn, “Progress in Anglo-Saxon Monetary History”, Anglo-Saxon Monetary History: Essays in Memory of Michael Dolley, ed. by M. A. S. Blackburn (Leicester, 1986), pp. 1-10 at p. 2.

    This doesn’t elucidate the bases for the ratio, but, unless more work and argumentation suggest otherwise, perhaps it’s best to say that either ratio (or any one of the three) is possible.

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  7. Okay, given that the colophon was given a date of around 1100, if we assume the basis for its shilling is 12 pence (thank you, Steven Pemberton!). The book in question then would have run 636d, which makes it nearly twice as expensive in absolute terms than the book describes in Ælfric Bata’a colloquy ( On the other hand, if the basis is 5 or 6 pennies to the shilling then the book described in the colloquy would be just about the same as this psalter.

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  9. There were 12 pennies (d) in a shilling (s) and 20 shillings in a pound (£).

    In February 1972, the UK moved to the decimal system, with 100 new pennies (represented by p, rather than d) in the pound.

    At that point, a shilling (12d) was worth five new pennies (5p). That is why people say a shilling equals 5p. Of course, that value really only applies to 1972. These days, 5p would buy you very little, far less than a shilling used to purchase

  10. Dear Aidan,

    Thank you for the valuable information. But the information that you give about the relationship between the dirham and the dinar is a bit misleading. That’s because 10 dirhams equaled 7 dinars in weight but NOT in actual monetary value. 10 dirhams were around 30 grams and 7 dinars were also around 30 grams, so they were equal in weight. However, their values were hugely different because dirham was silver money and dinar golden money.

    What was the ratio of the value of a unit of gold to the same unit of silver at that time? I have read that it used to be around 1/9 or 1/10 so that the value of 12 or 15 silver dirhams would equal the value of a single golden dinar. Hence, a 10 dirham book would actually cost a bit less than 1 dinar and a fine 100 dirham book would cost less than 10 dinars. Remember that book prices in the Muslim world were cheaper than before by this time because the technology of paper had been imported from China in around the mid-8th century and improved by the Arabs by the time you refer to.

    Best regards

  11. A belated thank you for the information on the dirham and dinar!

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