31 Days of Medieval Manuscripts (2015) · Medieval Art and Architecture

Medieval University Students’ Textbooks – Day Eight of Medieval Manuscripts

Priscian, Cicero, and Pseudo-Cicero, Boethius, Aristotle, Euclid, Adelard of Bath, Ptolemy, translated by Gerard of Cremona. France, Central (Paris, c. 1309-1316. Attributed to the Meliacin Master. British Library. (BL. Ms. Burney 275 f. 336).

It’s day eight, and I think it’s also high time that I start discussing some non-religious manuscripts. Books of hours, psalters, choir books, and Bibles get a lot of the attention because many are so rich in decoration, color, and subject matter ripe for illustration. However, it would be a huge oversight to suggest that they are the only class of illuminated manuscript that exists or deserves to be studied.

Ezekiel and Daniel, with the Glossa ordinaria England, S. (Oxford?); 3rd quarter of the 13th century. British Library. (BL. Royal Ms. 3.E.V., f.90-v-91).

Christopher de Hamel’s A History of Illuminated Manuscripts, which I frequently consult while writing these posts, dedicates a chapter to each of the numerous types of users of medieval manuscripts. In addition to those we might expect based on the manuscripts I featured last week, there is a chapter entitled “Books for Students”. The Middle Ages saw the foundation of several prominent universities in cities across Europe, so it makes sense that these early classes of college students needed books to study from just as we do today.

Rouen, Bibliotheque Municipale, ms. 96, fol.91r (detail). Photo from Husband 118.
Rouen, Bibliotheque Municipale, ms. 96, fol.91r (detail). Photo from de Hamel, p. 118.

It should come as no surprise that medieval university students’ law, religion, and philosophy texts were nowhere near as luxurious as those owned by, say, the Duke of Berry. It took a certain amount of financial means and social status to attend a university in medieval period, but we can still assume that most college students of the time were now spending vast sums of money on elaborately-gilt and decorated books. Besides, the content of these books would have been what was most important.

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. lat.th.b.4, fol.168r. Decretals of Gregory IX. Photo from Husband, p. 138.
Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. lat.th.b.4, fol.168r. Decretals of Gregory IX. Photo from de Hamel, p. 138.

As you can see from these images, these books do contain some illustrations, many featuring scholarly monks and saints, but they tend to be on the smaller and simpler side. These pages also contain a much higher concentration of text than do those in luxury manuscripts. In my opinion, these textbooks look somewhat like early printed books (called incunabula) would look in the period after Johannes Gutenberg’s 1439 invention of the printing press.

Source: de Hamel, Christopher. A History of Illuminated Manuscripts. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1994.

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