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.

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