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.

Remarkably, of the 23,774 entries that comprise the six volumes just under 50 offer an unequivocal reference to a specific price (this is rather approximate as it is based on a first read through the books). In other words, under a quarter of a percent. Almost all of these fall within seven relatively formulaic types: 1. I wrote this book and it cost…, 2. So-and-so wrote this book and it cost… (which in some cases may be the equivalent of 1 if the scribe refers to him/herself in the third person), 3. I had this book written and it cost…, 4. So-and-so had this book written and it cost…, 5. I bought this book for…, 6. This book belongs to and it cost…, 7. straightforward breakdowns of price.

The five colophons that represent straightforward breakdowns (type 7) detail the labour and tasks, noting the cost of writing, illumination, parchment or paper, binding and in some cases the correction and application of gold leaf. For example, no 22991:

Pro pergameno 8 sol. 8 den. parv. pro scriptura 29 sol. 4 den.; pro correctura 2 sol. 10 den.; pro illuminatura 13 den.; pro ligatura 18 den. cum custodia; (summa:) 42 sol. 4 den. parv.
Paris BN fr. 24402, s. 13

Only two of the price colophons are written in the first person (nos 6299 and 9951), although another 5 may represent scribes writing in the third person. Much more common are notes that emphasize the role of the owner or person responsible for commissioning the writing of the book. Five entries explicitly state I had this book written or I paid a certain amount for materials, such as no. 3419:

Hunc librum scribi feci ego Dominicus eps Trocellanus a. 1464 et exposui fere duc…6 scilicet.
pro minatura prima carl. 6.
pro ligatura carl. 6
pro aliis litteris et parafis bol. 23
reliquum est pro scriptura
Berlin Hamilton 198

Another seven entries present a third-person version of this (for example nos 454 and 15910) such as ‘The master had this book written, it belongs to the library.’ A number of these appear to be recorded by the owner interested in preserving the information for a personal or institutional collection.

While most of these books seem to have been commissioned, several of the colophons in which the buyer notes the purchase and price (that is type 6) appear to refer to ready-made or previously owned books. For example, no 15580 refers to the purchase of a book by Pierre de Virey (who later became abbot of Clairvaux and who appears in various guises in about 35 colophons within the catalogue):

Iste liber pertinet fratri Petro G. de Vireyo scolari Maceriarum quem emit Parisius pretio XVI sol. parisiens. a. d. 1451
Troyes 1941

While there are not an overwhelming number of colophons relating to book prices, those we have do a rather nice job of pointing out the types of social interactions and relationships that attend books. Many of the books purchased were bought not for individuals but for a donation to an institutional library, even as we see the number of professional (and non-monastic) scribes increasing. There are a number of ways this information might play into the story of medieval book production, which remain too tentative at the moment, but I think it offers a window into how some traditional arrangements remain in place even as other elements of the network, such as the production in this case, demonstrate rather dramatic change. Initially, I had imagined these references might be useful data for charting book prices in the medieval West, but increasingly I think they might be as or more interesting as pieces of information that show us how people related to the books they owned and wrote as well as to other individuals in the process of book production and acquisition.

On a final note, there are also a couple of manuscripts from before 1300 (3 among the 50 price colophons, although one is a later purchase of a 13th century book), a period which is poorly attested in other studies. Bell’s “The Price of Books in Medieval England” (The Library 1936: 312-332) collected a dozen from before 1300 (out of 1500 total), most of which were picturesque or descriptive rather than detailing a monetary transaction. Uwe Neddermeyer’s study of book production (Von der Handschrift zum gedrukten Buch: Shriftlichkeit und Leseinteresse im Mittelalter und in der frühen Neuzeit (1998)) presents a table (vol. 2, pp. 833-836) of 86 manuscript prices, one of which is from before 1300. The colophons then (perhaps together with the Zaluski psalter) give us further information on the largely absent pre-1300 period.

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General readers might also be interested in Joanne Filippone Overty, “The Cost of Doing Business: Prices of Manuscript Books in England, 1300-1483,” Book History 11 (2008): 1-32.

Other related posts here, there , hither and tither.

I’ll happily send a copy of the collected colophons to anyone interested, but as it is presently not proofread and doubtlessly contains a number of oversights, it should be used with caution.

6 comments

  1. Excusing haste and absent-mindedness…Read also Erik Kwakkel’s “Commercial Organization and Economic Innovation” in The Production of Books in England, 1350-1500 (Cambridge, 2011), 173-191. Now in paperback =)

  2. Also pertinent to this line of enquiry would be records of the cost in *time* of producing a book. I haven’t made a purposeful search, but have come across this in Rome, Biblioteca Angelica, MS 121 (c.1490), 1r: “Summa cartarum totius huius libri capit in totis cartis 305, in spatio quinque mensium et circa quolibet die 3½”. If the last part (which isn’t entirely clear) means 3½ leaves a day, that’s 87 days of work in five months, or four days a week. About an hour a page?

  3. Hi Jeffrey, Thanks for this. You might be interested in Michael Gullick’s “How Fast Did Scribes Write? Evidence from Romanesque Manuscripts”, which I’ll send to you. Although he looks at earlier manuscripts, he suggests a rate of 150-200 lines per day. I think many of the mss had about 30 lines per side (sometimes a little less, sometimes rather more), which would yield about five+ sides a day give or take. I don’t remember the length of the working day he assumed, but all in all it seems in line with your suggestion based on MS 121. Thanks, again!

  4. Dear Aidan, thank’s for sharing this intersting article. I will be pleased if you can send me a copy of the collected colophons as you kindly offer. Greeting from Spain! (any colophon of interest I could find I will send you!)

  5. Thank you for your interest! List is on its way. Greetings from dark, yet unseasonably warm, Norway!

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