Clerks vs. Monks

Once upon a time in the Middle Ages… there was a humble monk, living in a monastery, who devoted his time to copying texts for his brothers to read. All his life he copied and copied the same texts over and over again, highly esteemed by his fellow monks for this strenuous task. When he was young he had been allowed to copy the texts from the original manuscript once, before it was locked in a wooden chest again. All the other copies he provided were based on that first copy he had made all those years ago. When he felt, at a respectable age, that the end was near, he asked the prior to be granted one last wish: to see the original once more. With trembling hands he turned the parchment leaves and read the text he knew by heart. For the first time in his life he felt proud of what he had achieved, but just before he closed the book his eye fell on one word he did not recognize… He then realized that he had made a mistake: he had always written ‘celibate’ instead of ‘celebrate’.

This is an old joke, but it clearly shows the general image most people nowadays have of medieval book production: monks copying religious texts (and making mistakes). But book production in the later Middle Ages was more dynamic than you would expect.

Certainly, until the twelfth century most writing was done in monasteries. Monks had the knowledge, the skills and the infrastructure. However, with the rise of towns and trade after 1200 more and more people needed to be able to read and write. At first these skills were only needed for administrative purposes, but once the number of readers started to increase, the demand for books to be read soon followed. The cities also harboured new centres of learning: universities.  Their demand for books surpassed the production in monasteries. As more and more people learned to write, so more people started making a living from it: teachers, notaries, parish priests and town clerks could earn a little extra money by copying texts. In some cities, like Paris, Oxford, London, Ghent, Bruges and Brussels, Nuremberg, Augsburg and Strasbourg, the mercantile, intellectual and governmental centres, large scale commercial book production flourished in the later Middle Ages. In late thirteenth century Paris, for instance, several streets were inhabited by parchmenters, scribes (?) and illuminators (?), all working together on the most beautiful manuscripts.  All of the case studies in this exhibition are written in towns.

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Private Collection (by courtesy of the owner): Initial A in gold leaf (2 lines high)

Private Collection (by courtesy of the owner): Initial A in gold leaf (2 lines high)

The medieval manuscripts that are admired the most are often those with lavish decorations. Their detailed paintings with gold leaf are one of the highlights in western art. But we should keep in mind that not everybody could buy these manuscripts in the Middle Ages. Many less richly decorated manuscripts must have circulated at the time. The decoration often tells us something about the social status of the patron of the codex.

Most manuscripts have at least some sort of decoration. These decorations range from simple rubrications (?) – such as highlighted capitals, underscored words, headings (?) and paragraph marks – to miniatures (?) with lush illustrations the size of a full page with gold leaf additions. These decorations are often not mere illustrations to the text, but are an aid to understand its structure.

Private Collection: Initial C in gold leaf (2 lines high)
Private Collection (by courtesy of the owner): Initial C in gold leaf (2 lines high)

Decorated initials, for instance, are nearly always used in hierarchical order. The most beautiful initial in the manuscript can usually be found at the beginning of the first text. Every new text may open with a similar beautiful initial, but the chapters of every text will have a more simple initial, while every new paragraph will have an initial that is more simple still.

Whereas plain red initials are at the bottom of the hierarchy, the painted initials (with or without gold leaf) are at the top. They can be found on the first page of a manuscript or, when the patron could afford to pay for it, at the beginning of every text in the codex. Often these initials contain animals and people that may be connected to the text.

For more pictures of beautiful manuscripts, you can visit the websites of many important national and university libraries. Most of them will have an online exhibit of their treasures (e.g. the Royal Library in The Hague). For a glimpse at some marvellous pictures of the most well known type of decorated manuscript, the fifteenth century bestseller, the book of hours, click here.

For information on manuscript pages and script, click here.

Or you can return to the entrance of this room.

Parchment vs. Paper

When you see some sheep outside in the fields you do not automatically think about reading a book, nor do you instantly think about sheep when you look at a bookshelf. But in the Middle Ages the relations between book and sheep (calf, goat, or other animals) was much closer than nowadays. Not only were their hides turned into leather for the covers, but also into parchment for the leaves.

Parchment was first used in Asia Minor in the second century BC, deriving its name from the ancient Greek town of Pergamon (now in Turkey). In the following centuries it replaced papyrus as the main writing support. The physical qualities of parchment made it possible to be put to use differently than papyrus. Since the former did not break when folded, it could be used to make gatherings (?) and as a result for codices.

Parchment was a valuable material. Leaves from worn out manuscripts could be recycled as supports in bookbindings, or could be used as glue. But also leftovers after cutting sheets from animal skins (since animals are not square) could still be put to use as is shown in this video. In the Middle Ages people did not throw away things as easy as we do.

Paper may have been invented about the same time as parchment, approximately at the other side of the world: in China. Slowly the knowledge of paper making spread over the world. Via trade routes connecting the Chinese, Arabic and European worlds paper first appeared in Europe in the eleventh century. Spain, still under Muslim rule, was the first European country where a paper mill was opened. The first Italian paper mill was established about 1270 in Fabriano (where they are still making paper!). For a long time Europe north of the Alps, imported paper, but after the fourteenth century in France, Germany, the Low Countries and England more and more paper mills appeared.

Paper was cheaper than parchment, and in a continent that seemed to have become addicted to writing, this enabled more and more people to read, write, and buy books. From the late fourteenth century onwards paper became the most used writing support for ‘literary’ texts, and in the administration.

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Medieval Inventions

The very first codices had little in common with modern books. Of course, they already consisted of two boards with many pages between them (which is still the same principle today, except for paperbacks). But they lacked all sorts of things we take for granted in a book. It was still during the Middle Ages, however, that people worked hard to improve the user friendliness and came up with some inventions we have come to associate with a book and which we even need to be able to use a book today.

Titles. If there are several texts in a book, how would you manage to find one of them if they had no titles?!? People in the Middle Ages obviously did not care about that, at first. There are many examples of multi text codices (?) in which there is just one text after the other. Sometimes there is a little space between them, sometimes they are just marked by a somewhat larger initial (?), but sometimes they just seem glued to each other. The reason for this is quite obvious: Parchment was expensive, and free space was considered a waste. Perhaps you were not supposed to look for one text specifically, but to read one item after the other, in which case you would hopefully notice the beginning of something new.
Of course, there are examples of headings already in very early books. Over time, scribes started to use them more and more often: The rubrics (?) could contain information on the content of the following story, even if they were not always very specific (‘About the knight and the woman’). Sometimes they just told you that another story of the same kind was to follow (‘Another one’ or ‘More of the same’). And sometimes, they contained titles in a modern sense (‘The Belt’ or ‘The Emperor with the Long Beard’).

Tables of Contents. The invention of titles was the basis for tables of contents, obviously. It is only in the 13th century that the first tables in vernacular mauscripts appear (latin manuscripts being earlier, as is often the case). They helped with gaining an overview of the texts contained in one book or of finding a specific text. And who knows which other purpose the tables of contents might have served? Perhaps people used them to show off to their friends (‘look at all the texts I have got’). They might also have come in useful when you had borrowed a book to copy the texts you had not already got in your library. Like one 16th century reader did when he marked some texts as already being in his library (see post on comparing Minnereden).

Foliation. If you wanted to be able to find a text quicker through your table of contents, it sure made sense to have page numbers to refer to. This seems evident to us, but the majority of medieval manuscripts did not use numbers, neither to count its leaves (lat. folia, from which the term foliation) nor the items contained in it. All the more important this invention has to be considered. After all, it can tell us something about the medieval users: The moment there is foliation in a medieval book, we can assume that the envisaged reader did not simply want to read one text after the other, but to be able to jump to specific texts.

Paper. One of the most important medieval inventions is without any doubt the invention of paper. Once people started to use this much cheaper (albeit much less durable) material, they were much freer to add information to a text, use larger scripts, work with blank space if they wanted to (e.g. in order to leave room for possible additions). Now, it did not matter any longer if your text was precious enough to be copied down; people just copied more and more things. The book production exploded. (For more detail see Parchment vs. Paper).

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Minnereden (Discourses on Love)

This is a very important genre in late medieval German literature. What are they exactly?

We have chosen one example to give you a closer idea of this genre. Click here to read an excerpt (and its translation) and listen to how it might have been sounded in the 15th century

A collection of minnereden can be found for instance in Berlin, SBB-PK, Ms.germ.qu. 719 or Berlin, SBB-PK, Ms.germ.qu. 2370.



Intriguing 'topless' illustration next to the tale 'Ivresse' from the Old French verse Vie des Pères Paris, BNF, fr. 20040, f. 89r Reproduced by courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France :

Intriguing ‘topless’ illustration next to the tale ‘Ivresse’ from the Old French verse Vie des Pères
Paris, BNF, fr. 20040, f. 89r
Reproduced by courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France :

Medieval (and post-medieval) readers frequently could not resist commenting upon, highlighting or correcting the works in their codex.

Ranging from a simple nota bene (?) to marginal illustrations inspired by the textual content, the traces left behind by readers offer us fascinating insights into the reception of medieval texts as well as a variety of different impulses, both vaguely familiar and utterly bewildering.

Go to one reader comparing the texts of two German manuscripts.

BNF. fr. 12581, f. 357v Reproduced by courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France:

BNF. fr. 12581, f. 357v
Reproduced by courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France:

Or take a look at the variety of reader interventions in the French manuscript BNF, fr. 837.

Interested in learning more about medieval texts?


These two manuscripts together show how this ‘modern’ discourse on love has, by 1500, displaced Minnesang as a form of noble self-representation. This means that literature was functioning as a status symbol. Both manuscripts also show a lack of interest in the material aspects of the book – and a beginning of philological interest. This is, in fact, one type of multi text codex that leaves room for individual interests (in the scope of the texts finally bound together as a book, making a choice from existing booklets), but has a clear focus on a core genre of late medieval textuality.
Go back to menu.

Comparing Minnereden

Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz (SBB-PK), Ms.germ.qu. 2370

We know the book was a gift – a gift from one noble collector to another. Someone, the giver or the recipient, has done his homework: All the Minnereden were read and, in the 16th century, compared to an existing collection. In some instances a 16th century hand has written corrections on the margin, and it is most likely the same hand that put in other remarks.

Annotation ‘Das hab ich’ in the margin; Berlin (SBB-PK), Ms.germ.qu. 2370, fol. XXX (detail).

Most of the Minnereden in this manuscript have titles, and alongside some of these titles (but not all!) are written remarks like: Den hab ich. Das hon ich, Ich habs – grammatical variations of ‘I’ve got this’ (which probably means ‘I have got this text in other manuscripts in my library’).



Go to the final conclusion of this exhibition room.

Content of Ms.germ.qu. 2370

Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz (SBB-PK), Ms.germ.qu. 2370

fol. 1r-4v = ‘Lehre von den Zeichen des Hirsches’
fol. 5r-9v = ‘Lehre vom Arbeiten der Leithunde’
fol. 10r-13v = blank
fol. 14r-18v = ‘Was allerlei Blätter bedeuten’
fol. 18v = ‘Wankelmut und Blumenfarben’
fol. 18v-19r = ‘Vergißmeinnicht und Augentrost’
fol. 19v-25v = blank
fol. 26r-33r = Fünfzehn Weingrüße und zwei Biergrüße
fol. 33v-35r = Sieben ‘Klopfan’-Sprüche
fol. 35v = Obszönrede: ‘Von einer schönen Frau’ (‘Der Pfeiffer’)
fol. 35v = Obszönrede eines Klerikers
fol. 36r-37v = Peter Schmieher: ‘Der Student von Prag’
fol. 37v = Priamel
fol. 38r-38v = ‘Das Scheiden’
fol. 38v-39r = ‘Abschiedsgruß’
fol. 39r-42v = ‘Das Meiden’
fol. 42v-46r = ‘Streitgespräch zweier Frauen über die Minne’
fol. 46r-52v = ‘Die Beständige und die Wankelmütige’
fol. 52v-57r = ‘Der Knappe und die Frau’
fol. 57r-59v = ‘Der schwere Traum’
fol. 59v-64v = ‘Die Beichte einer Frau’
fol. 64v-69r = Hermann von Sachsenheim: ‘Die Grasmetze’
fol. 69v-73r = ‘Traumerscheinung einer schönen Frau’
fol. 73v = blank
fol. 74r-80r = ‘Die sechs Kronen’
fol. 80v-84v = ‘Der schlafende Hund’

The first two texts are treatises on the hunt. Even if hunting is often a metaphor for the pursuit of love, these texts were intended as texts on hunting.
The next group brings together texts that make use on allegorical, but also real life properties on plants where love often plays an important part.
The third part is rather bawdy, with texts about wine and beer – and obscene texts about women. The last part is made up of more or less classical Minnereden – and note that tha manuscript contains one text that is also transmitted in the other manuscript in this part of the exhibition.


What do we know about how this book was used?

Exchanging Books

Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz (SBB-PK), Ms.germ.qu. 2370
Our second exhibit, also a Berlin manuscript, was a gift to Christoph Mellinger by Count Wilhelm Werner von Zimmern, given in 1553 as a very detailed ex libris tells us. It also states that father and grandfather of the giver (Johann Werner and Werner von Zimmern) were responsible for producing the manuscript. Again, we have a manuscript made in the late 15th century, consisting of four separate fascicles (?), this time with clearly diverging interests.
Take a look at the list of texts contained in this manuscript.
What does this manuscript tell us about its users?