A well-travelled manuscript

Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Bodl. 264, fol. 218r (detail)

Travel to exotic lands is a theme that links all three texts in this manuscript.

Books were comparatively rare and valuable objects in the Middle Ages, especially an unusually decorated codex like Bodley 264.  Owning a book like this was a mark of prestige, and an indicator of great wealth and some sophistication.  It’s not surprising that it should have passed through the hands of a series of wealthy owners – indeed, it probably travelled much more than the people who made it ever did.

There was a lot of traffic between England and continental Europe in this period. The rulers of England were, after all, descended from the nobility of France, and from 1337 to 1453 soldiers and statesmen travelled back and forth across the English Channel to fight and negotiate, carry messages or gather intelligence, as part of the long-running series of territorial and dynastic conflicts that we know as the Hundred Years’ War.  There was also a lot of trading between England and the continent, and churchmen would cross the sea to communicate with or visit each other, or to bear requests or instructions to and from the Papal authorities in Rome.

Books could be useful on all of these trips: as gifts to impress and gain favour; as written authorities or historical precedents to help win an argument; or as a leisure activity to ease the discomforts of staying in temporary shelter on the road or the battlefield after an arduous journey.  All three of the texts in Bodley 264 are concerned with travel to distant and exotic places, and meeting remote people with bizarre customs, so journeys are one of the themes of the book, too.   Travel also provided opportunities for books to be bought, sold, lent, borrowed, or robbed.  Perhaps Bodley 264 came to England in the luggage of a soldier returning from fighting in France? If so, was it a purchase, a gift, or the spoils of war?

Click here to learn about the languages in this manuscript.

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(Images reproduced by kind permission of the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

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