PREFACE TO GUTENBERG A social history of medieval books By Lester K. Little Lester K. Little is professor of history at Smith.
His article is a revised version of the first in a series of three lectures in medieval studies presented on campus last October. The other two were delivered by Thomas Kelly of the music department and Vincent Pollina of the French department. These lecturers, along with several of their colleagues, have recently drawn up a plan for a new, interdisciplinary major in medieval studies. Well before 1450, when Johannes Gutenberg perfected the technique of printing with movable metal type, many of the essential traits of books as we know them today had developed. Indeed the entire millennium traditionally called the Middle Ages is rich in the lore of books. In order to retain some sense of that great span of time without sacrificing depth altogether, I propose to take three soundings, all at critical points of transition: from scroll to book, from book to treasure, and from treasure to tool. Two famous archeological finds of the 1940’s will help introduce the first of these soundings: the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Coptic Library. In 1947 a Bedouin boy discovered several tall jars made of clay in caves close by the western shore of the Dead Sea. These jars were found to contain rolls of leather with Hebrew writing. The longest of these measured twentyfour feet and consisted of several pieces, each about a foot high, stitched together to form a continuous scroll; this, the longest one, had fifty-four columns of writing. The text was identified as the Book of Isaiah and the date of the handwriting was established as from about 100 B.C. Other scrolls in the same find contained dramatically new material, especially about the Jewish sect of the Essenes. Apparently the scrolls had been taken from the Essene community of Qumran and placed in those cases for safekeeping during the Roman-Jewish War of 68-70 A.D. At Nag Hammadi, three hundred miles south of Cairo, a similarly accidental discovery turned up jars containing not scrolls but books. These contained works composed by Christian Gnostic sectarians and translated from Greek into Coptic in fourth-century handwriting; included are the famous Gnostic Gospels, which have stirred considerable public discussion in the past year. These famous and relatively recent discoveries bring to our attention the two major forms that came down to us from the ancient world for preserving lengthy written texts: the scroll and the book. What, precisely, was a scroll? Those I have mentioned already were atypical, for the material most commonly used was papyrus. Between roughly twenty and fifty sheets of papyrus were glued end to end. Different qualities of papyrus were often mixed in the making of a scroll, going from the stronger and better pieces down to the weaker ones. The writing began at the strong end; any leftover at the weak end could be cut off, and the scroll would be rerolled from the weak end, thus leaving the piece with the strongest fibers on the outside, to protect all the rest. With few exceptions, only one side of the scroll was written upon. The main alternative to papyrus for scroll material was vellum or parchment: pieces of skin of sheep, goats, or calves that are washed, dressed, and rubbed smooth. Like the scrolls of leather mentioned before, scrolls of vellum consist of several pieces stitched together. In the second century B.C. the rulers of Pergamum, a city in western Anatolia, sought to challenge the intellectual primacy of Alexandria. The Egyptians forbade the export of papyrus. At Pergamum, the technique of preparing sheepskin for writing-perhaps long
since invented-was greatly refined and extensively used. The Latin for parchment recalls this period of development at Pergamum: the word is pergamena. The utility of vellum was never fully realized in the scroll but only later on, in the book. The technical term for book, in English as well as in Latin, is codex (plural: codices). A codex is a collection of sheets of any material folded and fastened together at the back or spine and usually protected by covers. The forerunner to the book (and the initial meaning of codex) was the stack of wax tablets in wooden frames held together with leather thongs, a cumbersome arrangement but the original scratch pad nonetheless. The infant codex was a contemporary, roughly speaking, of those other two famous children of antiquity: Christianity and the Roman Empire. That is, in about the first century A.D., the first codices were made, some of papyrus and others of vellum. Either a single sheet was folded down the middle and then several such folded sheets were sewn together at the fold, or else superposed sheets were folded, forming a quire, and the quire was stitched together along the fold and also stitched into a binding case along with other quires. The codex has certain distinct advantages over the scroll. In a codex, both sides of every leaf can be andfusually are used. Moreover, a codex can contain a much longer text, not only because two sides of each leaf are used but because a great many more leaves can be put together in a book than conveniently strung out in a scroll. We would not normally expect to find a work longer, say, than the Book of Isaiah, already mentioned, in a single scroll. Yet it was a common practice to put all the Gospels together, perhaps with the Acts of the Apostles as well, in one codex. The thirteen codices of the Nag Hammadi library contain fifty-two treatises; these had originally been composed with the smaller format of the scroll in mind; but by the time they were copied, the larger format of the codex had come into use. Still another advantage of the book is that it is far more convenient to consult. One can open it at any point and thus find a passage in it far more handily than one can in a scroll. On this particular point, scrolls have most of the inconveniences of microfilm. In the course of the fourth century A.D., the codex won out definitively over the scroll. That it did so was not merely a matter of technological superiority, for there were important associations with each type that either facilitated or inhibited their being judged useful. All the important writings of antiquity were preserved on scrolls. The first codices, meanwhile, were notebooks, having inherited from wax tablets such characteristics as impermanence and variety. Whereas a scroll contained a coherent composition meant to be read sequentially from start to finish, the earliest codices contained bits and pieces. Some early codices were used for cheap, popular literature, so to the notion of impermanence is added a taint of cultural inferiority. More serious uses of the codex included scientific and legal writings, still not the main stuff of classical paideia, but busy, workaday stuff. The decisive impetus in the triumph of the codex came from the early Christians, who thereby gave an ideological stamp to this issue. They deliberately chose the commercial papyrus or vellum notebook to circulate the Christian Gospels. The earliest surviving texts of the New Testament are almost all codices. Henceforth the fate of the codex was firmly tied to that of Christianity; they came of age together in the fourth century. Just as lawyers did with the legal texts found in codices, Christian preachers and polemicists could continually make comparisons and cross-references, as well as cite specific passages, with far greater facility when those were written in codices. Like the Roman senatorial class, which was the last major holdout against Christianity, pagan literature was the last holdout against the codex. There were a few exceptions, but the point remains that the success of Christianity was the principal source of trie success of the
codex. The preferred material was vellum, stronger and longer lasting than papyrus; this preference was already manifest before the supply line of papyrus from Egypt was cut. In the year 538, the great Roman senatorial aristocrat and civil servant Cassiodorus retired to his estate overlooking the Ionian Sea and set up a monastery with the specific function of copying books. There were servants to do the chores, but to the educated, once worldly aristocrats who lived in this community fell the task of preserving the written heritage of antiquity, pagan and Christian alike. Besides this material support for the production of codices, Cassiodorus provided precise instruction on how to assemble them as well as a justification for the work of the Christian scribe: ”Every word of the Lord written by the scribe is a wound inflicted on Satan.” The transition from scroll to book was complete. It may be helpful to recall that the writings from the Dead Sea, works of a Jewish sect put down in the first century B.C., are found in scrolls. The Gnostic Gospels were Christian works, copied in the fourth century, in codices. The beginning of the Middle Ages, which some people still think of as a dark, barbarous era when high culture languished, was marked by the invention of the book. Our second sounding will be taken during the feudal period, let us say in the tenth century. Imagine if you will a Viking raid on a monastery; the monks, if alerted in time, will try to get away with the community’s most precious belongings: relics and books. The relics are the physical remains of the patron saint of the monastery. The entire life of the monastery revolved about these relics. The saint was a spiritual hero who lived on in them; he was a living presence who could grant protection and other favors, as well as get angry at and punish his devotees. The relics were contained in a reliquary, usually in this time a small metal or wooden box covered with gold, silver, and jewels. The word contained in Holy Scripture was as live or active a force as the saint was in his relics. And this active, sacred being was housed in a container appropriately precious. I have in mind some of the Bibles from this period I have handled in European libraries: a yard high, two feet wide, ten inches thick, containing some three hundred vellum leaves, and with a richly decorated cover. The jewels and ivory and precious metals on the cover apart, when we try to estimate the value of such a book in this extremely poor, subsistence-level economy, we must understand that the main writing surface represents the skins off the backs of an entire flock, and a large flock at that, of sheep. The writing is large and admirably clear. The main divisions are marked by exquisitely executed illuminations, especially around the capital letters. The codex had thus become a sacred object, an object of treasure, and we need to inquire briefly into how this came about. The monastic rule composed by St. Benedict, a contemporary of Cassiodorus, implied that monks were to be literate. The monks had to know how to read to prepare for the many hours they would spend each day in reciting psalms and prayers in the monastic church. Moreover, St. Benedict provided for regular reading in the monastery, mostly of the Bible and the Church Fathers. The monks were supposed to study these texts all right, but the reading was known as ”spiritual” reading, and this was in essence an act of worship. The monks were venerating what they regarded as sacred texts (even Benedict’s rule they called the ”Holy Rule”) and so the codices containing them became liturgical objects. The artistic forms and styles employed in the monumental, illuminated books of feudal society derived from the arts of the Celts and of the Germanic peoples during their migration period. The Goths, Franks, Angles, Saxons, Lombards and others invested their greatest artistic skill in appropriately small, portable objects at the time of their long travels, between the fourth century and the sixth, out of central Asia and eastern Europe into the western
provinces of the Roman Empire. Fortunately our museums contain at least a few of their pins, clasps, buckles, cups, weapon handles, and the like for us to study and admire. The same objects have informed the art historians’ understanding of the jeweller’s art that went into the making of reliquaries and book covers, and subsequently into the designs that appear on manuscript pages, some exclusively abstract and geometric, and others with a mixture of animal forms, mostly eagles and fish, and only rarely human beings. The early Germanic tribes were warrior societies whose people lived by fighting and gathering booty. They consumed and redistributed the loot they gained in war, with a measure reserved for the gods and for their dead. We know from the pages of Beowulf and from the archeological discoveries at Sutton Hoo in England and several sites in Scandinavia about the treasure that accompanied the dead, whether set out onto the open sea or into the ground, ships and all. A major and dramatic (although side) effect of Christianization was the prohibition against the burying of treasure. And as this Christianization remained superficial, the effect of the prohibition in turn was not to halt the flow of precious objects but to redirect it, into those great centers for the perpetuation of ancestor cults, the monasteries. The proper gesture for a victorious Germanic chieftan who had converted to Christianity was to heap some of the booty gained upon the guardians of the relics of saints. In this way the monasteries in feudal society acquired vast accumulations of precious metals and jewels (as well as of land) and the most venerated objects they honored were expressed in the traditional idiom of the jewellers and the gold- and silversmiths. As Christianity was a religion of the book, whose entire message was contained in a book, books played a critical role in the spread of Christianity itself. Perhaps the most famous missionary of early medieval Europe, St. Boniface, an Anglo-Saxon monk who directed a mission in Germany during the first half of the eighth century, often wrote home for books. His letter to the Abbess Eadburger gives an astonishing glimpse into his mission: And I beg you further to add to what you have done already by making a copy written in gold of the epistles of my master, St. Peter the Apostle, to impress honor and reverence for the sacred scriptures visibly upon the carnally minded to whom I preach. Boniface was going to dazzle his illiterate, pagan audience with gold letters. The book, to Boniface and his companions, was a relic, an object of veneration, a treasure. The medium was the message. We turn to the thirteenth century to take our third, and final, sounding. There were some large, elaborately decorated, and richly bound books produced in the thirteenth century, and so were there in Gutenberg’s time, and so are there still today. But the margin of newness in the thirteenth century is what holds our attention, and what is new is the small book. The example I have in mind is a handbook for confessors that is four inches wide, six inches high, and containing a hundred leaves; these are of vellum, although others like it produced later in the thirteenth century will be made of paper. The text is in Latin but very hard to read. The script of this century, called Gothic just like the principal architectural style, is difficult to read without training or at least considerable practice, even when it is neat. But our book, to be typical, is sloppy, showing unmistakable signs of rapid execution. The writing is small, the margins are small, there are ink blots and a forbidding quantity, for the modern reader, of abbreviations. Moreover, the handwriting in our book is not consistent; it changes several times between start and finish. We must inquire about how this book was made.
It came from one of the two dozen or so university stationers located in or near the Rue de la Parcheminerie in Paris. These were shops where masters and students bought books, but also where students could make some money by copying. The stationer would dismantle a book and then let out a portion of it on security to the copyist along with the requisite copying materials. The copyist would later deliver the original plus the new copy and pick up his pay. This is how we get a profusion of hands in a single codex. The universities of the modern world had their origins in the thirteenth century. They were established only in cities and were an integral part of the process of urbanization then taking place all across Europe. This same process was accompanied and also assisted by a threefold rise in population, the establishment of a market economy with the concomitant growth of a merchant class, and a greatly expanded use and circulation of money as an instrument of exchange. In the universities, students paid fees (or received scholarships from conscientious bishops) and masters received pay. This was the great age of scholastic inquiry, especially in law and theology and, at the intersection of these two, in the sub-discipline of moral theology. The scholastic doctors showed great respect for the Bible and the writings of the Fathers, but they were not above pointing out discrepancies in these and raising questions about their meaning. The critics of the scholastics, oldfashioned scholars, thought that these money-grubbing, urban merchants of learning were really more interested in their questions than in the sacred texts themselves. St. Bernard once stormed into Paris and preached to students with Old Testament furor as well as imagery, urging them to flee wicked Babylon: ”You will find much more in the forest than in books. The woods and rocks will teach you more than any master can.” Stephen of Tournai lamented: ”Even on street corners the indivisible Trinity is taken apart and wrangled over.” And Peter of Celle warned against the uniwhile speaking in favor of the monastery, which is the true school of Christ: O blessed scholl, where Christ teaches our hearts by the word of his virtue, where we learn without studying and reading how we ought to lead blessed lives eternally. No book has to be bought there, the master of the scriptorium does not get paid, there is no onslaught in disputations, no weaving of sophistries. It is free from involvement in all reasoning and argument. This is mainly an attack against the new learning, but we cannot fail to notice how Peter singled out the book trade as one facet of the new learning. The new book furthered the work of the university, or in the example I chose, the work of a new apostolic ministry to the laity. But whether in works of scholarly erudition or in handbooks for preachers and confessors, we find remarkable technical innovations in the thirteenth century. One group of scholars at Paris invented the Biblical concordance, which is nothing less than a word index of the entire Bible. And similarly the new collections of sermons, collections of parables to insert in sermons, guidelines for constructing sermons, and guides to problems that frequently arise in confessions all began to appear with indices. Scholars were thus not any longer worshipping texts but rather studying them critically. They tended less and less to memorize long passages of books while becoming more profident in doing research in them. We might not take the side of the old-fashioned monastic scholars, but we can appreciate their point of view. And yet, the scholastics surely did not intend disrespect toward the Bible, the Trinity, or the Fathers. They expounded the Word, worshipped God, and believed in the Trinity, all the while distinguishing these abstract
objects of veneration from the physical materials that preserved and transmitted information about them. For the thirteenth-century university scholars, the book was an instrument of learning, to be studied over carefully, examined critically, dissected and discussed thoroughly. The book perhaps dealt with matters sacred but was itself not an object of veneration; it was a tool. Echoes of all three soundings remain, although with differing intensities. Despite a staggering array of challenges, the essential form of the codex is still with us, and remains unsurpassed. The Rare Book Room in Neilson Library contains some of the treasures oi book production; these are frequently consulted by historians and art historians, students and professors alike, as interested in their form as in their content. Meanwhile the stacks and the reference room are given over to an immense (and rapidly expanding) set of tools, carefully catalogued and indexed for use by all those who study in this community. IMÁGENES DEL DOCUMENTO: 1) A woodcut in a German edition of the works of Horace offers this 15th-century rendering of a classical poet holding his scroll. Quintus Horatius Flaccus, Opera, Strassburg, Johann Gritninger, 1498. All illustrations in this article are reproductions of woodcuts from books in the Smith College Library Rare Book Room. Although these books are of a later vintage than those discussed in the article, the woodcuts help to evoke the earlier era. Photos by Stephen Petegorsky, except for the one on the facing page, which was taken by John Lancaster. 2) In a German allegorical text, the Soul has a vision of the Trinity with the Sacred Book. Buch der Kunst, Augsburg, Johann Bamler, 1491 3) The book is part of the nun’s accouterments in the costume book by Jost Amman, Gynaeceum, sive Theatrum mulierum, Frankfurt-am-Main, Sigmund Feyerabend, 1586. 4) The woodcut above, found in a memory book, shows the bookseller’s shop along with other commercial operations just outside the abbey walls. Lodovico Dolce, Dialogo nelquale si ragiona del modo di accrescere et conservar la memoria, Venice, Sessa heirs, 1575. 5) Finely bound books, with metal bosses, draw attention in this woodcut reproduced from a volume on the lives of the moral philosophers. Diogenes Laertius, Vite de philosophi moralissime, Venice, Niccolo Zoppino, 1524. 6) A classical poet is given lhe furnishings of a medieval scholar in the Gruninger edition of Horace. 7) Sebastian Brant’s Ship of Fools begins with th((book fool, at left, or the fool as scholar. Narrensciff, Basel. 1506. 8) Students in a lecture room listen to a professor. Giulio Pomponio Leto, Romanae historiae compendium, Paris. Jean Du Pre, 1501.