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  • The Cost of Doing Scribal BusinessPrices of Manuscript Books in England, 1300–1483
  • Joanne Filippone Overty (bio)

No dearness of price ought to hinder a man from the buying of books, if he has the money that is demanded for them.

—Richard de Bury, Philobiblon

Since the 1970s, scholars of medieval manuscripts have increasingly focused on issues of production and use.1 An outgrowth of the wider examination of lay literacy and its effect on the rapid proliferation and copying of texts in the fifteenth century, work in these areas has been conducted primarily by scholars of English literature, who have sought to link demand for vernacular literature with increased professionalization and specialization of the urban book trade.2 While this work has proved invaluable for understanding the relationship between literacy and the demand for manuscripts, less attention has been devoted to quantitative analyses of the book trade as a whole. Consequently, supply-and-demand-side issues, most notably the costs associated with manuscript production, have often been overlooked.3 Yet this information is vital for understanding not only the ability of the book trade to meet the demands of an increasingly literate society, but also the ability of institutions and individuals to obtain manuscript books at affordable prices.

It is with these costs in mind that this study will explore manuscript prices and valuations in England during the period 1300–1483, when manuscript production shifted from ecclesiastical institutions, such as monasteries, to more professional urban-based organizations.4 Three questions in particular will be addressed: Were labor or materials more significant in [End Page 1] determining a manuscript's price? How did fluctuations in the availability of professional scribes affect production costs, and thus prices of manuscript books, especially after the Black Death? And did increased demand and subsequent specialization in manuscript production (that is, a shift toward economies of scale) lower the price of manuscript books?

The arguments presented in this paper rely primarily on several library inventories compiled between 1300 and 1483 that provide manuscript valuations. The majority were assembled by F. M. Powicke from two fourteenth century library catalogs of Merton College, Oxford: a catalog of philosophical works compiled between 1320 and 1340, and a catalog of theological works completed around 1360. Together, these inventories include the valuations of over three hundred works.5 R. A. B. Mynors and R. M. Thomson's modern catalog of medieval manuscripts in the famous "chained" library of Hereford Cathedral provide additional data, including a series of valuations written into forty-three manuscripts by a single scribe in about 1300. 6 Remarkably, thirty-three of these valuations were updated early in the fifteenth century, again by a single scribe, providing a rare glimpse into the appreciation of a specific set of manuscripts. Finally, a 1483 inventory of some fifty manuscripts valued at Oxford by the university stationer Thomas Hunt, recovered from the flyleaf of a later manuscript, yields additional valuations.7

Medieval book prices are not easily quantifiable, by virtue of a manuscript's nature as a unique hand-produced item. The book trade before the advent of printing was a bespoke trade, where buyers would likely contract with several different practitioners of the book arts (such as a parchment maker, scribe, illuminator, and binder), either directly or through a stationer, to purchase products that precisely met their specifications and budget.8 Thus any examination of manuscript prices can often take on the clichéd difficulty of comparing apples and oranges, since scripts, illumination, parchment, and binding may differ considerably between manuscripts compared in a single data series.

Despite these problems, comparisons can be attempted with data that reflect similar attributes. The inventories and valuations of manuscripts used in this survey were, for the most part, assigned value based on a common system, having been compiled by librarians in response to lending privileges at medieval institutions. For example, students of medieval universiti could not afford books of their own were permitted to borrow one of the many copies owned by the university. (The most valuable copy of a manuscript was often chained in the main library for common use, while less expensive copies were loaned out to individual borrowers...


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