The Making Of

In an age in which digital media and e-books have become common equipment for readers and writers, and even the presence of oldfashioned books in bookshops should not always be taken for granted anymore, the handwritten and handmade book seems truly … ‘medieval’.

It may be hard to believe, but it is the Middle Ages in which the most important innovations in book production took place. For the shape and lay out of our books and e-readers we are indebted to scribes and bookbinders all over Europe who with great patience and skill designed a format that has lasted for many centuries.

If you want to learn more about the making of medieval books, click on one of the links below, or you can start by taking a little detour via the excellent virtual manuscript maker of the Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge). Mind the sheep!




The history of a manuscript, from its production to where we find it today, may involve a number of different owners and a range of different locations. In some cases, the manuscript’s possessor might leave us clues on pages of the book. In other cases, we can discern who the manuscript belonged to at a given time from the information recorded in library inventories.

In the Geraardsbergen Manuscript, certain clues suggest that the original owner was also the scribe. Indeed, he notes the birth of his daughter Alyonore in the codex, which would be an odd thing to do if it did not belong to him! Find out more here.

Frequently, those who acquired the manuscript were keen to mark the stamp of their ownership and wrote their name on any available blank space in the codex. The subsequent post-medieval owners of the Geraardsbergen Manuscript left various signs of ownership. Likewise, in Bodley 264, the English aristocrat Richard Woodville brands the codex with his signature.

In the medieval period, manuscripts were important commodities and objects of trade, often travelling great distances. Bodley 264 offers one example of the movement of manuscripts between continental Europe and England. Find out more here.

Some manuscripts were exchanged as gifts, as in the case of the book given by Count Wilhelm Werner von Zimmern to Christoph Mellinger. In this German example, it is still possible to see the reflexes of ownership. We do not know exactly who, but one of the book’s users took great care to mark the texts which he already owned in another manuscript. Read more.

To find out more about the traces left by readers enter the next part of the exhibition room.




Makers and Writers

The Renclus de Molliens, pictured writing in his cell in Paris, Bib. de l'Arsenal, MS 3142, f. 203r.  Reproduced by courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France :

The Renclus de Molliens, pictured writing in his cell in Paris, Bib. de l’Arsenal, MS 3142, f. 203r.
Reproduced by courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France :

We do not know the identity of many medieval writers and a large proportion of vernacular (?) works are anonymous. However, some authors cultivated a recognisable literary persona, frequently through self-attribution within their texts. For example, Jan van Hulst names himself in an acrostic in three of his texts in the Gruuthuse Manuscript. Certain authors list the other works they have composed within their latest text (commonly in the prologue or epilogue). This both establishes the author’s corpus and authorises their newest text.


Manuscript compilers also assisted in the creation of author figures. By the late thirteenth century, the question of authorship began to play a role in the compilation of vernacular manuscripts. For example, the identity of the author might be noted in the paratext (?), such as by naming the author in the introductory rubric (?) or closing explicit (?). In illustrated manuscripts, they might even visually portray the poet inside a historiated initial (?) or in a miniature (?), as demonstrated by this author portrait of the Renclus de Molliens.

However, the naming of authors in manuscripts was not always consistent or systematic. Pieteren den Brant is one of the few named authors in the Geraardsbergen Manuscript. In the Berlin manuscript, one of the three named authors might not have used his real name but an aptronym; the other two, though, offer interesting insights into the cultural context of the codex. Find out more here.

In the large thirteenth-century French codex, BNF, fr. 837, the majority of works are anonymous, but one author gets to play a starring role. The works of the famous thirteenth-century poet, Rutebeuf, are grouped together and form a ‘book’ within the codex. Learn more about this early example of an author collection.

Whereas authors composed texts, scribes were responsible for copying their works and ensuring their wider transmission. However, the distinction between ‘scribe’ and ‘author’ is not always clearcut.

Unlike the printing press, scribes were very inconsistent copying machines. The lines they transcribed bear the indelible imprint of human wiles and idiosyncrasies and the evidence of both good days and bad days. In the Geraardsbergen Manuscript, the scribe (who may also have been the owner of the codex) realises that he has missed two lines from a text and corrects his mistake. Find out more here.

The scribe names himself after having transcribed Brunetto Latini's Li Livres dou Trésor.  Paris, BNF, fr. 12581, f. 229v.  Reproduced by courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France :

The scribe names himself after having transcribed Brunetto Latini’s Li Livres dou Trésor.
Paris, BNF, fr. 12581, f. 229v.
Reproduced by courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France :

Certain scribes appear to take a deliberately interventionist approach, adapting the material in their exemplars (?) or appropriating the texts according to their own designs. The scribe who acquired Bodley 264 attempts to ‘complete’ the Roman d’Alexandre with an episode from an English poem. Click here for more information about this intriguing addition.

As the book trade developed, scribes were no longer located only in scriptoria (?), but were professionals based in urban workshops. You can find out more about developments in book production here. Some scribes therefore had commercial gain in mind and exploited every occasion to market their skills by naming themselves.

The role of the illuminator (?) had also developed into a professional activity by the thirteenth century. These artists therefore shared the same commercial concerns as their colleagues in the workshop. In the lavishly decorated manuscript, Bodley 264, the illuminator Jehan de Grise, evidently proud of his work, names himself and the date he completed his beautiful illustrations.

In addition to scribes and illuminators, rubricators (?) also played a role in manuscript production, adding rubrics (?), simple coloured initials or paragraph markers. Depending on the context of production, sometimes the scribe also completed the rubrication. You can find out more about the decoration of manuscripts here.

Return to People or continue to Patrons.

Patrons and the Production of Manuscripts

Paris, Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal, MS 3142 f. 72r Reproduced by courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France :

The famous French thirteenth-century poet, Adenet le Roi, is pictured presenting his finished book to his patron.
Paris, Bib. de l’Arsenal, MS 3142, f. 72r
Reproduced by courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France :

Throughout the Middle Ages, wealthy and powerful patrons commissioned the creation of literary works. Poets were rarely self-employed, and thus frequently composed works for a patron. Click here to find out more about the relationship between artists and patrons of the arts.

Of course, financial support was needed not only to fund the production of literary texts, but also to finance the book in which they were written. The book presented to the patron in this illustration could be read as a symbol of both the (immaterial) poetry and the (material) manuscript.

Rich patrons were frequently at the source of manuscript production. These highly expensive objects were beyond the reach of most of the populace and only prosperous figures, such as noblemen, high-ranking ecclesiastical figures, or members of the upwardly-mobile bourgeoisie, had the funds available to custom-buy these valuable artefacts. The extortionate price-tag reflected both the range of materials required as well as the hours of labour involved in the creation of a single codex. You can find out more about the making of manuscripts here.

Just as the poet did not forget to include lengthy acknowledgements of his or her benefactors, the manuscript’s makers frequently incorporated images of the patron into the codex. It has been suggested that the only illustration in the French codex BNF, fr. 837 depicts the manuscript’s original commissioner.

By the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century, an increasing number of independent workshops materialised in urban centres which specialised in manuscript production. Their workforce included professional scribes (?), book binders, illuminators (?) and rubricators (?). Thus an early form of the book trade emerged. During this period, books were no longer written purely on demand. Instead, in anticipation of the desires of their potential buyers, workshops kept completed whole manuscripts or booklets in stock.

Probably the most famous example of this type of production, at least in the German speaking area, is the highly specialized and successful workshop of the fifteenth-century scribe Diebold Lauber. (Click here to visit the fabulous virtual exhibition on Lauber by the Heidelberg University Library [in German]). This workshop produced a great number of cheap paper manuscripts all of which contained numerous illustrations. Around 80 manuscripts have survived, and we can be certain that there were once significantly more.


The beginning of Boner’s poem ‘Der Edelstein’ (‘The gemstone’) in a manuscript from Diebold Lauber’s workshop.
Heidelberg, UB, Cpg 314, f. 1r.
Reproduced by courtesy of UB Heidelberg,

Lauber had a broad clientele who appreciated the uniform layout of his manuscripts, which included multiple references and tables to keep track of the manuscripts’ contents. At the same time this standardized layout allowed him and his employees to work quickly – and it allows us to recognize Lauber manuscripts at first glance even today.

The manuscript in this photograph holds another intriguing piece of evidence which might explain how this workshop operated: on f. 4ar an advertisement is glued to the manuscript listing some of the many other texts this workshop offers. This could be seen as an early example of the advertisements found in the final pages of modern books which highlight additional publications produced by the same publisher. More medieval inventions can be found here.

A unique image

The first text, the Dit du Barisel, is preceded by the only illustration in the codex.

Paris, BNF, fr. 837 (pre 1300), f. 1ra
Reproduced by courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France:

The illustration is in the form of a large historiated initial (?). The image inside the initial depicts a seated figure in a chair on the left, in what appears to be a hooded gown. On the right, another figure kneels before him, holding forth an object that resembles a book. The scene could relate to the story of the  Dit du Barisel. However, it could also be depicting something quite different. In this period, it was not uncommon for a manuscript’s commissioner to be portrayed in the opening pages of a codex. This illustration could therefore be read as a depiction of the presentation of the finished book to its patron and may provide some clues about the identity of the original patron of BNF, fr. 837. Owing to the unfortunate wear and tear, the faces of the figures are no longer visible. However, the attire of the seated figure suggests a possible ecclesiastical connection.

You can find out more information on the significance of the manuscript’s first text, the Dit du Barisel, here.

Uniformity despite diversity

Despite the diversity of the content, there is an incredible level of uniformity in the presentation of this codex. To learn more about the heterogeneous reading material in BNF, fr. 837 click here.

A single scribe transcribed the whole manuscript, presenting the text in two columns throughout and only leaving a small amount of blank space between items. In this space, the scribe marked the end of each piece with an explicit (?), which included a ‘title’. In the fourteenth century, one of the manuscript’s owners added additional titles before each item. You can learn more about the marks left by the different readers of this codex here.

At the start of each item, a large champie initial (?) marks the beginning. The colours used and style of champie initial led Alison Stones to associate this codex with the Hospitaller Master and his entourage.

In addition, smaller red and blue decorated initials (?) are also used.

Paris, BNF, fr.837 (pre 1300), ff.23v-24r
Reproduced by courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France:

Unlike the other texts in BNF, fr. 837, one item in the codex is preceded by an illustration – find out more here.

Who was Rutebeuf?

We know very little about the poet named ‘Rutebeuf’ outside of his poetry. He is believed to be from the Champagne region in France and to have trained as cleric in Paris. He worked as a professional poet, often writing on commission, and the majority of his poetic output is dated between 1248 and 1272.

Rutebeuf was one of the earliest poets to write in the first-person voice and not on the subject of love. His strongly satirical and unique voice represents a personal and historical witness of his time. The abundant manuscript transmission of his texts is evidence of Rutebeuf’s contemporary popularity.  Like his contemporaries, Rutebeuf’s works were often transmitted in diverse text collections such as BNF fr. 837. Indeed, single-author manuscripts and autograph manuscripts (transcribed by the author) are not a common occurrence until the fourteenth century onwards.

The name Rutebeuf may not represent the poet’s real name, but could possibly represent a pseudonym for his poetic persona. Of the 56 texts attributed to him, he names himself in 15 of them. Whether the name ‘Rutebeuf’ is a creation or not, the author often exploited the pun embedded in the name and played with the false etymologies. You can see and hear an example of this here.

You can find out more about Rutebeuf’s author collection in BNF fr. 837 here.

Are you interested in other medieval authors?

Alternatively, click here to continue to the conclusion for the manuscript.

Click here to return to the contents list for the manuscript.

Ci commencent li dit Rustebuef…

In contrast to the other poets in BNF fr. 837, Rutebeuf’s texts are deliberately grouped together and presented as his complete corpus. In fr. 837, authorship is rarely referred to in the paratext. However, Rutebeuf’s collection of texts is introduced by the rubric: ‘Ci commencent li dit Rustebuef’ [‘Here begin the works of Rutebeuf’]. The series of thirty-one texts is then concluded by the closing statement ‘Expliciunt tuit li dit Rustebuef’ [Here end all the works of Rutebeuf’].

Which texts were included?

The original rubricator of the manuscript highlights the beginning of the texts by Rutebeuf.
Paris, BNF,  fr. 837, f. 283vb
Reproduced by courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France:

The scribe marks the end of ‘all’ Rutebeuf’s texts.
Paris, BNF, fr. 837, f.332va
Reproduced by courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France :

The (almost) complete corpus…

Rutebeuf’s work is multifarious; his poems range from accounts of his horse, his wife, his friends and debts, to contemporary politics and satire on the mendicant orders. His texts reflect a variety of genres as diverse as the contents of BNF, fr. 837, including fabliaux, saints’ lives and even an Ave Maria. Waguih Azzam suggests that the organisation of the Rutebeuf section in BNF, fr. 837 corresponds to the way in which the texts are organised in the manuscript as a whole, and could be a key to understanding the logic of this highly disparate and diverse codex.

Here is the list of his works in BNF, fr. 837:

La Vie sainte Elysabel (ff. 283vb-294vb)
Du Soucretain et de la fame au chevalier (ff. 294vb-298va)
Le Miracle de Theophile  (ff. 298va-302va)
La Complainte d’outremer   (ff.302vb-303va)
De Monseignor Gieffroi de Surgines (ff. 303va-304va)
La Griesche d’esté (ff. 304va-305ra)
La Griesche d’yver (f. 305ra-va)
De la damoisele qui fist les III tors entor le moustier (ff. 305va-306va)
De Monseignor Anseau de l’Isle (ff. 306va-vb)
Des Jacobins (ff. 306vb-307ra)
La Descorde de l’Université et des Jacobins (f. 307va-vb)
Le Mariage Rustebuef (ff. 307vb-308va)
La Complainte Rustebuef (ff. 308va-309va)
La Voie de Paradis (ff. 309va-314ra)
Du pharisien ou D’ypocrisie (f. 314ra-va)
Les Ordres (ff. 314va-315ra)
Le Pet au vilain (f. 315ra-rb)
De Brichemer (f. 315va)
De Mestre Guillaume de Saint Amor [=Complainte de Maistre Guilliaume de Saint Amour] (ff. 315va-316va)
La Vie Marie l’Egypciene (ff. 316va-323ra)
La Desputison de Charlot et du barbier (f. 323ra-va)
Les Plaies du monde (ff. 323vb-324rb)
De mestre Guillaume de Saint Amor [=Diz de Maistre Guilliaume de Saint Amor] (ff. 324rb-325ra)
Les Regles (f. 325ra-vb)
La Complainte de Constantinoble (ff. 325vb-326vb)
La Bataille des vices contre les vertuz (ff. 326vb-327vb)
L’Ave Maria Rustebuef (f. 328ra-vb)
Renart le bestorné (ff. 328vb-329va)
De Frere Denise (ff. 329va-331rb)
L‘Estat du monde (ff. 331rb-332rb)
La Mort Rustebuef (f. 332rb-va)

Interestingly in BNF, fr. 837, there is one text by Rutebeuf that escapes the frame of his authorship. Les Ordres de Paris (f. 181ra-vb) appears earlier in the codex and the author is referred to neither in the text or paratext. Why did the compiler not include this text in the specially designated Rutebeuf section on folios 283vb to 332va?

Continue to find out more about Rutebuef.