The People Of ‘Oridrace’

In this extract from the beginning of Alexander and Dindimus, we are introduced to the strange land that Alexander is visiting:

Click here to listen  (Read by Prof. Ad Putter)


Transcribed text: Whan þis weith at his wil weduring / hadde. Fful raþe rommede he rydinge / þedirre. To  oridrace wiþ his ost / alixandre wendus þere wilde contre / was wist & wondurful peple. / þat weren proued ful proude & prys of hem helde. / Of bodi wente þei bar wiþoute any wede. / & hadde graue on þe ground many grete cauys. / Þere here wonnynge was wyntyrus & somerus. / No syte nor no sur stede soþli þei ne hadde. / But holus holwe in þe ground to hiden hem inne. / Þe proude genosophistiens were þe gomus called / Now is þat name to mene þe nakid wise.

Modern English Translation: When this man had the weather he wanted, he very soon roamed thither, riding.  With his army, Alexander travelled to Oridrace, where wild lands were known of, and extraordinary people who were known to be very proud and thought much of themselves.  They lived bare-bodied, without any clothes, and had dug in the ground many large caves where they lived, winter and summer.  Truly, they had no city nor safe place, but hollow holes in the ground to hide themselves in.  The people were called the proud Genophistians; and that name means ‘nakedly’.

Note: In our transcription, / indicates a line-break in the manuscript, and letters in italics are expanded from abbreviations used by the scribe to save time and space.

If you listen carefully, you can also hear that in our recording we have changed one of the words in this extract.  That’s because as it stands in the manuscript, one of these lines doesn’t fit with the usual ‘rules’ of writing alliterative poetry in this period.  But if you swap the word written in the manuscript with another word that means the same thing, the rules about how the line has to sound are satisfied.

Click here to follow the story of this manuscript.

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

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.

Very Punny, Mister Rutebuef

Here is an example of the poet Rutebeuf playing with the humorous potential of his name (or possibly pseudonym), in the last 40 lines of La Vie de Sainte Elyzabel (the first text in the Rutebeuf section of BNF fr. 837). You can see the text as it appears in the manuscript, read a transcription of it and a translation of that transcription, and also listen to it being read aloud.

Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, fonds français 837 (pre 1300), f. 294v
Reproduced by courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France:

‘Se Rustebues rudement rime
Et se rudece en sa rime a,
Prenez garde qui la rima.

Rustebuef, qui rudement oevre
Qui rudement fet la rude oevre
Qu’assez en sa rudece ment,
Rima la rime rudement.
Quar por nule riens ne croiroie
Que bués ne feïst rude roie,
Tant i meïst len grant estude.
Se Rustebues fet rime rude,
Je n’i part plus, mes Rustebues
Est ausi rudes comme uns bues.’

If Rudebull rhymes crudely
And his rhymes are somewhat rudimentary
Then you should bear in mind who the rhymer is.

Rudebull, who works crudely,
Who crudely fashions the rude work,
And whose version of events is so rudimentary as to be wrong, sometimes,
crudely rhymed the rhymes.
For nothing would induce me to believe
That a bull would do anything but plough along crudely
However much effort he put into it.
If Rudebull makes crude rhymes
I won’t make any more of it, but Rudebull
is as rude as a bull.

Click here to listen to the recording (read by Karen Pratt)