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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