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  • Counting ScribesQuantifying the Secularization of Medieval Book Production
  • Jaakko Tahkokallio (bio)

The mode of book production is one factor by which we judge the character of any literate society. The commercially produced printed book has been, and remains, a quintessential symbol of the modern era—of the Renaissance, the Reformation, mass literacy, and the democratization of knowledge. In contrast, medieval bookmaking was long seen as a predominantly monastic activity, emblematic of the power of the Church over information and thought, and indeed this idea still has wide currency among the general public. Medievalists and specialists of the early printed book are of course well aware that the disparity between medieval and early modern book culture was not quite so stark.1 Several studies have demonstrated that the making of books became a largely commercial enterprise during the last medieval centuries,2 and in narratives about late medieval book culture the urban stationers, ateliers, scribes, and scriveners have come to hold something of a transitional position between the monastic early Middle Ages and the era of Gutenberg. Such narratives can be accused of teleologism, but there is no denying that the development of the movable type was a response to the greatly increasing demand for books.

While the urban professional bookmaking of the later Middle Ages has become a recognized and much-studied phenomenon, our overall understanding of the manuscript production taking place outside religious institutions remains nevertheless far from perfect. First, we do not have certain knowledge about the beginnings of urban production and its scale in relation to the output of religious institutions.3 The archival evidence brings book-making craftsmen to the fore soon after 1200, first in Paris and then in other cities, but the fact that a craft starts to leave archival traces at a certain point in time is hardly an argument for its absence before that date. Furthermore, records concerning all kinds of bookmaking remain so random [End Page 1] throughout the Middle Ages that there is no hope of making quantitative comparisons to estimate the percentage of commercially produced books as a proportion of all those produced.

Besides the records, paleographical and codicological study of the surviving manuscripts has been used to access the world of late medieval nonmonastic books. In France, the beginnings of the professionalization of book decoration have been traced to the decades around the middle of the twelfth century and, starting from Paris around 1200, it is possible to identify books made by professional artisans on the basis of artistic style, since the practices of decoration and layout became notably uniform in the major urban centers of production.4 The stylistic criteria, however, are just as problematic as the documents. They let us identify books that were made by artisans on commission, but only for a particular type of production: properly commercial bookmaking, taking place in urban centers where the craft was organized and where the styles of individual craftsmen were governed by generally shared ideas about what was worth paying for, in short, by fashion. Consequently, it is not possible to assess noninstitutional manuscript production on stylistic grounds outside the few well-studied centers, such as Paris or Bologna. The same limitation applies even more forcefully to the period before the establishment of urban centers of production. Anecdotal evidence demonstrates that secular craftsmen were involved in bookmaking already in the eleventh century, but since such activity was not as organized as later on their work does not stand out stylistically as clearly as later urban production.5

In other words, only certain types of secularly produced books—those commissioned in late medieval urban centers—can be identified on the basis of their physical appearance. While we can be sure that noninstitutional ways of bookmaking were much more varied, we lack analytical tools for approaching such production. In fact, we do not even have a set language to discuss it. The words "commercial" and "professional", often used in the context of noninstitutional production, are ambiguous. "Commercial" implies that book production is taking place under market conditions and it also suggests (although does not necessitate) that those involved in the trade are making their living by it. "Professional", on...


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