Patrons of the arts

Throughout the Middle Ages, wealthy and powerful patrons commissioned the creation of literary works. Without alternative sources of income – such as stipends or artists’ pensions – most poets were rarely rich enough to survive without the support of a benefactor.

However, the connection between an artist and his Maecenas (a patron of literature or art) was not simply one-way. Their relationship could even be described as symbiotic.

Poets rarely missed the opportunity to acknowledge their patron’s support. Indeed, why would you wish to bite the hand that feeds you?! This acknowledgement frequently took the form of lengthy passages in praise of their benefactor’s virtues at the beginning or end of their text.

As a consequence, patrons had a keen interest to promote artists. In a world without mass media or other means of advertisement, a poet’s praise was invaluable to a sovereign or ambitious aristocrat. Hence, the list of patrons mentioned in literary works is long (take a glimpse at this index of patrons and dedicatees associated with a range of medieval texts [in French]).


Author portrait of Heinrich von Veldeke.
Heidelberg, UB, Cpg 848 (1300–1340), f. 30r.
Roproduction by courtesy of UB Heidelberg,

There is a very famous example of the importance of patronage in the Middle Ages, which simultaneously represents an intriguing medieval tale of theft! Twelfth-century German poet Heinrich von Veldeke informs us of this anecdote at the end of his ‘Eneasroman’ (‘Romance of Aeneas’). By 1174, Heinrich had been working on the romance for a considerable amount of time and had completed about 80% of it. Around this time, he attended the wedding of Countess Margarete and Landgrave Ludwig von Thuringia. The Countess (who was probably Heinrich’s patroness) was in possession of the original manuscript when it was stolen. The book was eventually returned to Heinrich nine years later by Hermann von Thuringia, who had somehow acquired the codex. Consequently, Hermann became his new patron and Heinrich was finally able to complete the romance. The poet’s two patrons thus played a role in the theft, recovery and completion of the romance.


Love and Luck

The text, ‘Liebe und Glück’ (‘Love and Luck’) tells a typical story of a young man taking a walk and meeting a group of women. One of them – she turns out to be Lady Love – talks to him (she knows he is the poet Wameshafft and greets him by his name) and introduces her friends, all personifications of virtues like steadfastness, luck etc. As the young man wants to leave (this is where our excerpt starts), another man arrives, and Lady Love aks him to stay.

Click here to listen to Liebe und Glück (read by Matthias Meyer).

ich wollt mit urlaüb ffon in gan                         I wanted to take my leave
da walt mich frau lieb nit lassen                      but Lady Love did not want to let me go.
sie sprach ssye dort hin aff die straßen          She said: “Look down the road,
dort her sso cumpt eyn jungelinck                  there comes a young man,
der hat zu myer gar groß geding                     who has high hopes for me
und auch zu den gespyellen myn// 63r          and my dear friends.
wolt im fraü glick behulffen ssin                      If Lady Luck would help him
so wird ssin ssach bald gut                            his life would take a turn to the better.
die sselb im ssullichen schaden duot            But she is doing him such harm
als er dan sselber hat gespruchen                 that he himself has said that she
ssye hat sich woll an im gerochen                  really has avenged herself well, even
vnd het er yr eyn gross getan                          if he would have done her great injustice.”
so kam herczu der junge man                        Thus, the young man arrived.
er grust die fraüen all mit sytten                      He greeted the ladies as he should
idlich yr hant begund ym byetten                    and every lady offered him her hand,
genummen uß fraü glick alda                          except Lady Luck.
deß wart der jünglinck gar unffro                    Thus, the young man became very unhappy
und sprach nü will ichß got clagen                  and said: “Now I want to complain to God!
sul ich myn kümmer lenger dragen                 Shall I carry my sorrow much longer?
will eß nit nemen noch eyn end                       Will it never end?
von leyd so wand er ssine hend                      From pain he wrought his hands,
ssin ffarb im alle da entweych                         his colour left him,
von großem schrecken wart er bleich.            from sheer terror he turned pale.


The end of the story, however, is a happy one, even for the young man whose ambitions in love so far have been thwarted by Lady Luck, for he will in future adhere to the right measure, mâze in Middle High German, and then Luck will relent and love (or Lady Love) will follow.


You could also look at the manuscript pages containing the text.


Short Verse Narratives

Our project focuses on specific texts: short verse narratives. What does that mean?

Short. Scribes tended to treat short texts differently from longer ones, for a simple and obvious reason: unlike longer texts – such as romances – they cannot fill a whole manuscript but have to be combined with other texts. This leads to several revealing aspects of a manuscript that scholars can investigate now, such as:

  • Which texts are combined by the scribes and in which order?
  • What markers are used for the beginning and the ending of a text?
  • If they have different known authors, (how) are they designated?

Whether it is important to distinguish between short and very short texts can be seen in one of our French examples.

Verse. Starting in the 13th century, vernacular authors began to compose texts in prose. Prose (as opposed to verse) was associated with chronicles and had therefore an aura of truthfulness and authenticity. However, some genres would still be composed in verse (and still are today). Manuscripts tend to combine prose with prose and verse with verse, so it makes sense to choose one thing or the other. For the project, we chose verse.

Narrative. Thirdly, we are looking at texts with narrative content, meaning texts that tell a story. This is an important distinction as there are many other kinds of texts: didactic ones (telling people how to behave), religious tracts, reflective or contemplative texts. In fact, the distinction between narrative and non-narrative is important in modern philology. It remains to see whether it was equally important to medieval scribes who were composing books.

In the Geraardsbergen Manuscript we find a few examples: e.g. Text 89.


Literary scholars talk of ‘genre’ when they refer to a specific type of literature. In modern literature examples might include the legal thriller, the love poem, the graphic novel or the cookbook.

It is not always clear which categories (if any) people in the Middle Ages found important. However, we can try and find out from the manuscripts whether scribes have assigned the texts they copied to certain categories.

Discourses on love (Minnereden), for instance, are texts with clear identifiers, and they are very often transmitted with one another. This can lead us to believe that medieval scribes, like us, thought that they were similar and belonged to a group (even if there is no medieval name for them).

Our French manuscript, fr. 837, contains many texts that are labelled with words that look like generic identifiers. However, some of these labels have much clearer meanings than others.

Some texts seem to belong to different genres in different manuscripts: ‘fol est qui fol boute’ is treated as a play on words in one manuscript, and a proverb in another manuscript.

You may also be interested in letters, sermons, captions, travel itineraries and poster texts, or you can check out which role riddles played already in the Middle Ages.




Have you ever tried to write a love letter by hand? What did you choose to do: write it in separate letters or joined-up letters? Which one would make the best impression? And, very importantly, which one would be most legible?

All through the Middle Ages texts were written by hand. Even after the invention of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century the handwritten book did not disappear immediately. Every scribe (?) could choose from several script styles to write his (or her!) text. It all depended on the purposes the text was meant for (just like our love letter). For a book for a rich and well-paying nobleman you would automatically choose a well executed book-hand; for a personal administrative document a quick cursive (?) script was good enough.

Scripts evolved slowly through the ages. The manuscripts in this exhibition are all written in a gothic script. Gothic scripts were used from c.1200 until c.1500 (even longer in some places). Three major categories of gothic script can be distinguished, all of which could be executed meticulously, or jotted down sloppily:

  1. Textualis: the general book hand, until c. 1400 used in all types of books. We find this script in Oxford Bodley 264 and Paris BNF fr. 837. One of its main characteristics is the ‘a’ instead of an ‘a-without a roof’.
  2. Cursiva: the script generally used for administrative purposes. It can be executed more rapidly. Examples in this exhibition are Berlin Ms.Germ.Qu. 719 with a rapid cursive, while the Geraardsbergen manuscript has a more stylized cursive script. Characteristic are the loops on the l, k, h and b.
  3. Hybrida: introduced in the second quarter of the fifteenth century. It has characteristics of both textualis and cursiva. The cursive script in the Geraardsbergen manuscript is very close to a hybrid script.

Until c.1400 most manuscripts were written in a textualis, while cursive script was used for administrative documents, but after 1400 the cursiva intruded more and more on textualis territorium. The manuscripts in this exhibition clearly show this change in applied script for ‘literary’ manuscripts: the textualis manuscripts are pre-1400 and the cursive manuscripts are post-1400. After the introduction of the hybrid script in the textualis lost even more ground. For more information on these changes in scripts, see Clerks vs. Monks.

The field of research that studies scripts is called paleography (?). Paleographers have drawn the outlines of the evolution of script. Even though there are general trends in this evolution in western Europe, many regional styles, or characteristics only found in a special monastery, do occur. This enables us to date and locate manuscripts, and sometimes, if we are lucky, we can recognize a certain scribe by his or her personal traits.

For information on manuscript pages and their decoration, click here.

Or you can return to the entrance of this room.

The Making of: Pages

When the medieval scribe (?) was planning to make a manuscript he had to make several decisions. Depending on the length of his text(s), he had to decide how big the leaves (?) should be, and how many leaves he wanted to use. However, he could cheat a little. By writing very small, he could fit a long text in an ordinary-sized manuscript, and by writing bigger than usual a more voluminous codex could be filled up with a short text. It all depended on what the manuscript was meant to be used for. If it was intended to be a portable book for a traveler, then it had to be of a modest size and weight. But if a choir needed it as a song book that could be read by all its members while singing, it had to be big.

Before the scribe could start writing, the leaves had to be ruled. In the left and right margins of his bifolium (?) he pricked little holes at regular intervals. Between these prickings he laid a ruler and with drypoint (?) or leadpoint (?) he drew the lines. He also had to choose how many columns of text he wanted, and had to make another set of prickings for them in the upper and lower margins.

Private Collection (by courtesy of the owner): leadpoint ruling

Private Collection (by courtesy of the owner): leadpoint ruling

After ruling the pages horizontally and vertically the scribe had to make a few other decisions before he was ready to start writing the text. For the layout of a manuscript page he had to consider several things, most importantly of all which script to use and whether to decorate the page. If he wanted decorations, he would to leave some space for them, because they were applied only after the copying of the text was done. The decoration was often executed by other craftsmen: the rubricator (?) who filled in the ‘reds’ such as headings and simple initials, and the illuminator (?) who painted the miniatures (?) and the important initials. The scribe could help his colleagues by writing short instructions in leadpoint in the open spaces (e.g. a small letter ‘A’ where an initial ‘A’ was needed).

One last thing the scribe had to take care of was keeping the bifolia and the gatherings (?) in the right order. He could do this by giving each gathering a letter (a, b, c, etc.), and by numbering each leaf in the gathering with roman numerals (a i, a ii, a iii, etc.). Numbering the first half of the leaves this way was already enough, since the second half of the leaves was connected to the first half. Another way of keeping the gatherings in the right order is by adding the first word of the next gathering as a catchword (?) in the lower margin of the last leaf of the previous gathering.

To read more about the making of medieval books, click here.

Or return to the entrance of this room.

The Making of: Books

Unless you are visiting our virtual exhibition on your iPad on the train or on the beach, you are probably reading this text on a computer screen, with a printer nearby. As you know, medieval books were hand made, so let’s do a little exercise: reach out your hand and take a sheet of paper out of your printer. Fold it in half. Congratulations: you have just made your first book!

The basic principle of making codices is the folding of a sheet of parchment or paper in half. By folding the sheet once you get one bifolium (?) of two leaves (?) or four pages, and every time you fold this bifolium in half again, the number of leaves and pages doubles, but the size diminishes. The result is a gathering (?): a number of bifolia, one inside another.

A number of gatherings bound together is a codex. The method used in binding a book has not changed much over the centuries: all you need is a few holes in the folds of the gatherings; some cords, leather bands or parchment strips to put along the outside of these holes; and some sewing thread. From the inside of the gathering, the needle is pushed through the hole to the outside, around the cord, band or strip, and back in again. At the top or bottom of the gathering, there is an extra hole through which the thread is passed from the inside to the outside, and then on to the next gathering. When all the required gatherings have been sewn onto the cords/bands/strips, these then are attached to the covers of the book (made from wood or parchment, or in later ages cardboard) .

Between both covers of a book modern readers would expect to find a single text (e.g. a novel or play) or a sharply-defined collection of texts (e.g. a set of poems by one named author), but in the Middle Ages the contents of a book could be more diverse. There were books with one long text; with a long text followed by some short texts; with many short texts; or some other combination. Sometimes these texts were planned to be together, but in other cases the scribe (or someone else) added a few texts to a pre-existing codex. It was also common to put together several smaller books, so-called booklets (?), in one binding. These booklets consisted of only one, or a few gatherings, with often only one fairly short text in them. They were too thin for wooden boards, and probably could circulate unbound for some time. This made them very vulnerable. Not many unbound booklets survive nowadays; it was only when they were bound together with several other booklets that their chances of survival increased. An example of a manuscript with a number of booklets bound together can be found in the German case study.

For the present day codicologist (?) one of the main challenges is to find out whether the book s/he studies is still in its original construction or not. Many things could have happened to it during the ages. Sometimes parts of the original codex have been taken out, and sometimes manuscripts from different ages or places, or with very different contents were put together by owners in the Middle Ages, collectors in the eighteenth century or libraries in the twentieth century. Such a codex, in which at some point in time (parts of) two or more different manuscripts ended up together, is called a composite manuscript (?). The constituent parts are called codicological units (?), and can be recognized by their difference in layout, script, scribal hand (?), writing support (?), or simply their size. An example of a composite manuscript with two codicological units can be found in the Dutch case study.

For information on manuscript pages and their decoration, click here.

Or you can return to the entrance of this room.


Some manuscripts have closer links with a particular place than others. MS Brussels, Royal Library, 837-45’s link to Geraardsbergen is so much a part of its identity among scholars that it is known as the Geraardsbergen Manuscript. Click here to see how we know about this link.

Bodley 264 is a product of more than one place, a manuscript that travelled from France to England, and all three of its texts are concerned with travel to strange and distant places.

MS Germ. quart. 719 is tied to one particular region, since all the texts are by authors local to Württemberg (see the Wikipedia article on the counts of Württemberg) or Königstein-Eppstein in the Taunus (Hesse) (see the Wikipedia article on the Lords of Eppstein), and produced within a fairly narrow timeframe. Its main geographical connection is formed by people: the authors and people named in the book are members of the courts of Württemberg or of Königstein-Eppstein, something that can be deduced by looking at the manuscript.

Fr. 837, on the other hand, does not have such strong geographical or personal ties. It was probably made in Paris, but it also seems to have some links with Arras. Not only does it have many texts by known writers who are associated with Arras, it also has lots of different texts with the same format or theme, notably the patrenostres, credos and ABCs. This rather suggests that it may include the collected results of several poetry contests, where the theme (or format, or first line) was given to a group of poets who would compete to make the best poem fitting that description. Arras was known for such poetry contests.


While we group our manuscripts according to their most important language, that does not necessarily mean that they only contain texts in that language. Most educated medieval people understood Latin, and some also understood other vernacular (?) languages besides their own. The manuscripts they read sometimes reflect this.

BNF, fr. 837, for example, is almost exclusively made up of French texts. However, it also contains some texts which are written in a mixture of French and Latin, such as the patrenostres and credos.

Likewise, the Geraardsbergen Manuscript is mostly made up of Dutch texts, but the collection of captions includes both Dutch and Latin ones, and the manuscript also contains a short French text, ‘Fol est qui fol boute’.

Our English manuscript, on the other hand, is a truly multilingual codex, thanks to an English scribe who decided to supplement a French romance with a ‘missing episode’ in English.

On the other hand, both MS germ. qu. 719 and MS germ. qu. 2370 are monolingual. Indeed, short verse narratives tend to be transmitted in monolingual contexts in the German-speaking area (as opposed, for instance, to religious texts or chronicles).


If people use the word ‘text’ today, they can mean quite different things. The word can designate a whole book, or parts of it; if stories are collected and presented in the frame of a larger story, ‘text’ can refer either to the frame story or to the smaller stories. And although we usually think of texts as written, they can also be spoken.

The Middle Ages did not have a similarly broad concept of text. There is a large variety of terms designating what we would translate by ‘text’ (book, story, tale, history, news, etc.). Nevertheless, by looking at tables of contents (see Medieval Inventions) we can see that people had quite a clear concept of ‘textual item’: texts were counted, numbered, referred to, even if they were not called ‘texts’.

To make things simple, we use the modern term ‘text’ in this exhibition to designate one item in a book, meaning a coherent number of sentences, normally divided from another text by at least some blank space in the manuscript, often also an initial (?) and sometimes a rubric (?) giving a title or an author or summarizing the content of the following. In this example, the blank space clearly indicates where one text ends and the next one begins (the scribe has left some space for an initial to be filled in later by the rubricator (?), but this never happened).

Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Ms.germ.fol. 922, fol. 17r.

Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Ms.germ.fol. 922, fol. 17r.

In our project, we are looking at the treatment in the manuscripts of a specific kind of text: the short verse narrative.