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

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 😛 …).

* 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…

Scribal Errors, Furniture Edition

A few weeks ago I found myself in a furniture store with my wife when we ran across this:

Huh, what's that meant to say?

Recognizing the seal and the garter (as the royal coat of arms of the UK and the garter from the chivalric Order of the Garter, which I only know because of the notes to Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight), I puzzled for a bit over the “HOVI SOIT QOI MAL YPE HSE” before I fully recognized that yes, in fact, it was meant to be a rendering of the motto of the Order of the Garter. Of course, I went through the steps to get to the errors, ‘V’ for ‘N’, ‘O’ for ‘U’, faulty separation in ‘YPE HSE’ for ‘Y PENSE’ in which is also seen ‘H’ for ‘N’. All of which are pretty feasible to account for individually. But it’s quite amazing to see such a high rate of error in such a short amount of text.

Perhaps the furniture artist was working from an image in which the words were particularly difficult to read, I thought. But then we came across the same model chair a bit further down the warehouse:

Oh, that's what it's supposed to say!

Interestingly, the artist of the second chair provides a much more accurate transcription, but the spacing and the heights of the letters is far less consistent. Assuming the two artists worked from the same image, I think a natural preconception would be that the more careful artist (in terms of layout and spacing) would likely be the better scribe. But clearly this is not the case. It looks like an example which shows that working fluently, that is quickly, naturally but not hastily produces more accurate copying (assuming that you grant that the work on the second chair looks like is was executed more quickly as evidenced by less detail, for example, in the Irish harp). Or perhaps, the two artists worked from reproductions of the image that varied in quality? Given the number of errors should we assume something in the exemplar to explain their frequency?

Whatever the reason it passed for humor in these parts!

(Imagining) How Scribes Worked #2

Previously, I mentioned Malcolm Parkes’s transfer units and again in relation to how scribes worked. I’d like to not a relatively recent article that gives some modern, empirical support to the transfer unit, albeit somewhat indirectly.

In “Syllables as functional units in a copying task” (Language and Cognitive Processes 21.4 (2006): 432-452), Sonia Kandel and Sylviane Valdois examined children from different classes in elementary school while executing a copying task. A word appeared on the screen and the children copied it using a graphic tablet; the children were filmed to record the points at which they lifted their gaze. The idea behind the task was that “the child produces a gase lift because he/she does not have enough information on the spelling of the following letter-string” (436). It concludes that ‘the younger children used syllables to articulate visual parsing and motor programming. The older children used whole word visual units but still organised their graphic production according to the syllable structure” (432).

In short, if we can imagine young children copying syllable by syllable and then increasingly word by word (with age and practice), the sense unit, a clause or phrase that can be seen as a unit of meaning, appears to be a good heuristic for thinking of the way a well trained and experienced scribe would work.

Also of passing note, the article notes the paucity of copying tasks in the study of handwriting production, stating “A copying task seems to be a precious research and pedagogical instrument to investigate the links between perceptual and action mechanisms underlying spelling processes” (448). So perhaps we can look forward to more contemporary research that may have bearing on past practice.

Artificial Textual Traditions

When we read a medieval text (or one from many other periods), we read a reconstruction that represents the work of modern editors (even an authorial autograph has errors, corrections and corrigenda; in most cases textual witnesses are several steps removed from the author). While there are many methods to achieve what one believes is the ‘best’ text, which can be variously defined, for pre-modern works perhaps the two best-known and most prominent (in part because they are seen to define opposite ends of the spectrum) are 1) the stemmatic method (associated with Karl Lachmann) and 2) the ‘best manuscript’ or codex optimus tradition (represented by Joseph Bédier). The second endeavours to locate a good manuscript (or witness), emend minimally when necessary and if possible based on consultation with other manuscripts. This is essentailly parallel to copy-text editing, variations of which dominated twentieth-century editorial theory and practice for modern works in the Anglophone world. The first attempts to take all the witnesses, e.g. manuscripts, of a text and by comparing and evaluating these (based most importantly on the presence or absence of significant errors) reconstructs an archetype. Depending on the stance of the editor and the text itself, this archetype may claim to approximate the authorial text or alternatively may be the best that one can reconstruct based on what survives.

Recently a growing number of scholarly editors have considered techniques from evolutionary biology in relation to textual transmission. Known as cladistics and/or phylogenetics, these methods, as one might guess, have drawn a fair amount of criticism from more traditional quarters.

However, it is not possible to test which of these methods (stemmatics or cladistics) is most accurate for reconstructing the entire textual history of a medieval work because among other things we don’t know how much has been lost, the number of steps between various manuscripts, etc. (I should note that, as I have been informed, in some cases, say among a group of professional copyists of a particular text, we can find a discrete part of a tradition that might be testable; for example, if a group of ten professional copyists all worked ultimately from one copy (A) of X-text, whether they copied directly from (A) or from another copyist, and were known not to have copied from outside witnesses, they might form a testable subset).

Given the problems in testing historical traditions, recent work has generated artificial traditions, ones in which we know the lines of transmission, in an effort to see where and how various models fail and/or succeed. As far as I know these have tended not to be printed in traditional Anglophonic medieval studies venues (think Speculum), but rather sometimes in continental European volumes and/or publications devoted to the use of computing in the humanities. For me, this means that they aren’t as prominent on my radar as they could be (In other words, I do flip through the table of contents of Speculum to see if there is anything of interest, but I don’t for better or worse regularly check literary computing journals for medieval content as a matter of habit), but now I am reading:

C. Macé, P. Baret, P. Robinson. “Testing Methods on an Artificially Created Textual Tradition.” Linguistica Computazionale XXIV-XXV (2005): 255-283.

Matthew Spencer, Elizabeth A. Davidson, Adrian C. Barbrook and Christopher J. Howe, “Phylogenetics of Artificial Manuscripts.” Journal of Theoretical Biology 227 (2004): 503-511.

Teemu Roos and Tuomas Heikkilä, “Evaluating Methods for Computer-Assisted Stemmatology Using Artificial Benchmark Data Sets.” Literary and Linguistic Computing 24.4 (2009): 417-433.

A large concern for the artifical traditions is the issue of ‘contamination’ or where a copyist, working from one exemplar incorporates readings from another witness/branch of the tradition. In very concrete terms, this might happen where a scribe begins copying from one manuscript but, finding that end of the text is damaged and missing, completes his/her copy by using a different manuscript. This has been seen as a problem both for cladistics and stemmatics. Complaints have been voiced about genetic computer models that do not allow textual branches to (re)join the tradition once they have split. A similar situation arises in stemmatics, where ‘contamination’ has long been recognized as a problem for the mechanical evaluation of variants, but can be indicated if/when the editor’s judgement discerns its effects. Editors frequently indicate where ‘contamination’ or inter-branch influence or vertical transmission, is believed to have ocurred with a dotted line (from the different tradition branch to the manuscript/group affected by the contamination) as in this example from Sebastiano Timpanaro’s discussion of the issue (The Genesis of Lachmann’s Method, edited and translated by Glenn W. Most (Chicago, 2005), p. 180; I’m very happy to have this translation, which was not available when I was doing coursework!):

Why Medieval Book Prices Matter

Recently, a colleague was discussing the procurement of personal preachers in particular places during the later Middle Ages, which piqued my interest. So I asked about the arrangement, that is whether these people were paid or if the relationship was based on mutual ties and benefit. When in turn I was asked why this might matter, I ventured that if we are interested in the social relations between the parties the nature of the exchange matters. This impressed upon me that the importance of book prices might not be as self-evident as they seem to me.

If the book is regarded as a sacred object, a reader’s or the audience’s relationship to its authority is fundamentally different from one in which the book is seen as a bought-and-sold commodity. In other words, the attitude towards and indeed the access (or lack thereof) to the material embodiment of the text plays an important role in one’s reading of the text (and/or the authority through which interpretation is transmitted).

In charting the early iconography of the Christian book, namely the shift in depictions whereby the once open book becomes a closed and ornamented object, Armando Petrucci argues for an ‘ideological process of sacralization’.* And in turn sees connected to this development a ‘conception that saw writing not as in the service of reading but as an end in itself’, divorcing the practice of writing from that of reading, enabling scribes to write with little concern or regard for the needs of reading or readers.** (While I admittedly have a hard time getting my head around the notion of writing as an end in itself, this point of view does help explain some of the errors that any reader of medieval manuscripts comes across; you can’t help but think when looking at a text that clearly was corrected either by the initial scribe or subsequent users, ‘Why didn’t they fix That! Surely, everybody noticed that Gedeon shouldn’t be spelled Zedeon?!’). If this accurately describes written culture in the very early Middle Ages, a shift whereby one might ‘buy’ what was a sacred object, written as an end unto itself, strikes me as a rather important and dramatic process.

In addition to issues of access to texts and authority in interpretation, the shift from sacred object to commodity is also an important part of economic history. In discussing Dobb’s Studies in the Development of Capitalism (1946), Stephan Epstein noted, “Two critical questions were never posed: First, why did the transition to capitalism occur originally in western Europe, even though parts of Asia were previously economically more advanced?”*** There seems to be a parallel question asked for the history of the book. Why did printing develop in western Europe when other societies had the technological tools for the same development and in some cases were (or had been) more ‘advanced’ both in the economies of book production and the technologies of print? Interestingly, it is often suggested that it was Gutenburg’s (and by extension western Europe’s) business sense, or search for profit that engendered the desire and drive to create the press, and that the book market that had developed prior in the Middle Ages enabled its subsequent success.


Seeing that we are witnessing pretty radical re-assessments of the ‘stasis’ of the medieval economic world, including the write up of a paper that posits dramatically higher income in late medieval England than previously imagined, it seems that we might revisit the knowledge economy of the Middle Ages, keeping in mind the extensive networks that book production required and created well beyond the scriptorium. For the Bury St Edmunds bible (c. 1135) for example some parchment was sourced (or at least a desire was expressed for parchment sourced) from Scotland, testimony to the possibilities for rather far reaching trade at a rather early date.**** The regional differences, or the uneven distribution, in the development of a/the book trade (along with other social considerations such as urbanization et al) might serve as a useful way of gauging differing points of entry into differing realizations of modernities.

* ‘The Christian conception of the book in the sixth and seventh centuries’ in Writers and readers in
medieval Italy. Studies in the history of written culture
, ed. and trans. by C.M. Radding (New Haven, 1995), 29. Originally published as: ‘La concezione cristiana del libro’, Studi medievali, third series, 14 (1973),

** ‘Christian conception’, 32–33; See also, Petrucci’s ‘Reading in the Middle Ages’, in Writers and readers. Originally published as: ‘Lire au Moyen Age’, Mélanges de l’Ecole Française de Rome, 96
(1984), 603–16.

*** in “Rodney Hilton, Marxism and the Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism, Past & Present, Supplement (Volume 2) (2007), pp. 248-269 at 250.

**** Rodney Thomson, The Bury Bible (Woodbridge, 2001), pp. 25-26.

How much for a Gutenberg Bible?

As you can see, I am trying to note medieval book prices as I come across them after Gneuss’s psalter colophon piqued my interest (and so I thought to give categorize the notes).

For the Gutenberg Bible, customers paid around 20 gulden for paper and 50 for parchment. For the sake of comparison, we are told that a stone house in Mainz in the mid-fifteenth century ran 80-100 gulden and a master craftsman earned in the neighborhood of 20-30 gulden a year.*

So rather expensive at a year’s + pay. But I’ve yet to work out how to compare that to the cost of the lost psalter described by Gneuss (perhaps the ZaÅ‚uski psalter is a good nickname).

* Andrew Pettegree, The Book in the Renaissance (New Haven: Yale UP, 2010), 29 (citing Albert Kapr, Johann Gutenberg. The Man and his Invention (Aldershot: Ashgate Press, 1996), 180-183).

More Book Prices from the Middle Ages

Szarmai's evolution of spine shapes

A little later than the note reported by Helmut Gneuss is a notice found in the pastedown of a manuscript in Pembroke College, Cambridge (dated ?1170).*

It states:**

Pentatuchus. Iob. duodecim prophete. Math. et luc. cum pergameno
salterii et epistolorum et note. xxviii. libre. et x. sol

The Pentatech, Job, Twelve Prophets, Matthew and Luke with parchment for the psalter and the epistles and note(?; prob. the notes or glosses of Peter Lombard on the psalter and epistles); 28 livres and 10 sous.

As de Hamel mentions, it is unclear who would have written this inscription, but it does seem that it marks the progress of a major commission. Some books of the Old and New Testaments have been written, and parchment acquired for Peter Lombard’s glossed books of the psalter and epistles, which have not yet been written. De Hamel asserts that nowhere but Paris had the resources for writing books of this complexity and on this scale. The Rouses use the note as evidence of a structure of some sort that will foster the development of the booktrade later in Paris. To them, it looks like the large urban abbeys of Paris, specifically St-Victor, fostered the growth of a booktrade by engaging lay scribes and illuminators.

Similar activity is suggested in England, especially with reference to the re-stocking of libraries after the Norman conquest, in Michael Gullick’s “Professional Scribes in Eleventh- and Twelfth Century England” in English Manuscript Studies 1100-1700 7 (1998): 1-24.

*discussed in Rouse, Richard H., and Mary A. Rouse. Manuscripts and Their Makers : Commercial Book Producers in Medieval Paris, 1200–1500. 2 vols (Turnhout, Belgium: Harvey Miller, 2000), I, p. 26.

**quoted from Christopher de Hamel, Glossed Books of the Bible and the Origins of the Paris Booktrade (Woodbridge : Brewer, 1984), p. 54.

UiB Research Days

Forskningsdagene, aka Norwegian National Science Week, involves a number of events intended to make research (most often scientific) available to the public and also to create public awareness about research in Norwegian universities and enterprises. In one event in Bergen (with parallels elsewhere), the University together with affiliated groups and other institutions (such as the architectural school) set up booths within a series of large tents and entertain children and some parents over the course of a Friday and Saturday.

The booth before opening, its only empty period

This year, largely at the instigation of Ã…slaug Ommundsen, who wrote and designed all the banners, the Centre for Medieval Studies participated. Activities included paper and parchment samples which children used to distinguish one from the other, writing in runes and (my responsibility) hand paper making.

Åslaug and I worked the booth for the full stints both days. We were aided by Eldar Heide and Frode Hervik on Friday, and Stian Hamre on Saturday. Thomas Foerster and Leidulf Melve helped with the rigging; Biörn Tjällén and Susan Foran, a new postdoc at CMS, with the demolition. Our inestimable director, Sverre Bagge stopped by with two grandchildren on Saturday as did Sigbjørn Sønnesyn and clan. Continue Reading