How were these diverse languages written? After the fall of Rome in 476 the conquering barbarians adopted the Latin alphabet, and wrote it with a “cursive” or running hand that bound the letters together and gave most of them a curved form instead of the straight lines that had been found convenient in writing upon hard surfaces like stone or wood. The Church preferred in those centuries a “majuscule,” or large-letter writing, to facilitate the reading of missals and books of hours. When the copyists of Charlemagne’s time preserved Latin literature by making many copies of the classics, they saved costly parchment by adopting a “minuscule,” or small-letter writing; they agreed on set forms for the letters, and created the “set minuscule” lettering that became for four centuries the usual medium of medieval books. In the twelfth century, as if in accord with the exuberant decoration then developing in Gothic architecture, the letters acquired flourishes, hairlines, and hooks, and became the “Gothic” lettering that prevailed in Europe till the Renaissance, and in Germany till our time. Very few medieval manuscripts were punctuated; this breath-guiding device, known to the Hellenistic Greeks, had been lost in the barbarian upheaval; it reappeared in the thirteenth century, but was not generally adopted till printing established it in the fifteenth century. Printing was in some measure prepared as early as 1147 by the use of woodcuts, in Rhenish monasteries, for printing initial letters or patterns upon textiles.6 Divers forms of shorthand were practiced, much inferior to the “Tironian notes” developed by Cicero’s slave.

Writing was upon parchment, papyrus, vellum, or paper, with quill or reed pens using black or colored inks. Papyrus disappeared from common use in Europe after the Islamic conquest of Egypt. Vellum, prepared from the skin of young lambs, was expensive, and was reserved for luxurious manuscripts. Parchment, made from coarse sheepskin, was the usual medium of medieval writing. Till the twelfth century paper was a costly import from Islam; but in 1190 paper mills were set up in Germany and France, and in the thirteenth century Europe began to make paper from linen.

Many parchments were scraped to erase an old manuscript and receive a second composition (“palimpsest”). Old works were lost by such erasures, by misplacement of manuscripts, by war and pillage, by fire or decay. Huns sacked monastic libraries in Bavaria, Northmen in France, Saracens in Italy. Many Greek classics perished in the plunder of Constantinople in 1204. The Church had at first discountenanced the reading of the pagan classics; in nearly every century some fearful voice—Gregory I, Isidore of Seville, Peter Damian—was raised against them; Theophilus, Archbishop of Alexandria, destroyed all pagan manuscripts that he could find; and Greek priests, according to Demetrius Chalcondylas,7 persuaded Greek emperors to burn the works of the Greek erotic poets, including Sappho and Anacreon. But in those same centuries there were many ecclesiastics who cherished a fondness for the old pagans, and saw to it that their works were preserved. In some cases, to disarm censure, they read the most Christian sentiments into pagan poetry, and by genial allegory turned even Ovid’s amatory art into moral verse. An abundant heritage of classical literature was preserved by monastic copyists.8 Tired monks were told that God would forgive one of their sins for every line they copied; Ordericus Vitalis informs us that one monk escaped hell by the margin of a single letter.9 Second only to the monks as copyists were private or professional scribes, who were engaged by rich men, or by booksellers, or by monasteries. Their labor was wearisome, and evoked from them strange requests on the final page:

Explicit hoc totum;

This completes the whole;

Pro Christo da mihi potum.

For Christ’s sake give me a drink.10

Another scribe thought he deserved more, and wrote, as his colophon: Detur pro penna scriptori pulchra puella—“For the [work of the] pen let the writer receive a beautiful girl.”11

The medieval Church exercised no regular censorship over the publication of books. If a book proved both heretical and influential, like Abélard’s on the Trinity, it would be denounced by a Church council. But books were then too few to be a prime peril to orthodoxy. Even the Bible was rare outside of monasteries; a year was required to copy it, a year’s income of a parish priest to buy it; few clergymen had a full copy.12 The New Testament, and special books of the Old, had a wider circulation. Bibles of great size, magnificently decorated, were produced in the twelfth century; they could be handled only on a reading desk, usually in a monastic library, and might be chained to the desk for better preservation. The Church took fright when she found that the Waldensians and Albigensians were making and disseminating their own translations of scriptural books; and a Church council at Narbonne (1227), as we have seen, forbade laymen to possess any portion of the Scriptures.13 But in general, before the fourteenth century, the Church was not opposed to Bible reading on the part of the laity. She did not encourage it, for she distrusted popular interpretations of scriptural mysteries.

The size of a book and its pages was determined by the size of the available skins, each of which was folded to make a “folio.” After the fifth century books were no longer issued in rolls as in antiquity;* the skins were cut in rectangular sizes to make four (“quarto”), eight (“octavo”), twelve (“duodecimo”), or sixteen (“sextodecimo”) sheets to a folio. Some sextodecimos, written in a “fine Italian hand,” crowded long works into small compass to fit into the pocket or be a convenient manual. The binding might be of heavy parchment, cloth, leather, or board. Leather covers might be decorated by “blind tooling”—i.e., stamping uncolored designs into them with hot metal dies. Moslem artists settled in Venice introduced into Europe the technique of filling in such depressed parts with gold tints. Wood covers might be decorated with enamel or carved ivory, or inlaid with gold, silver, or gems. St. Jerome rebuked the Romans: “Your books are carved with precious stones, and Christ died naked!”14 Few modern volumes rival the sumptuous bindings of medieval books.

Even simple books were a luxury. An ordinary volume cost between $160 and $200 in the currency of the United States of America in 1949.15 Bernard of Chartres, a leader in the twelfth-century revival of the ancient classics, left a library of only twenty-four volumes. Italy was richer than France, and its famous jurist, the elder Accursius, collected sixty-three books. We hear of a great Bible being sold for ten talents—at least $10,000; of a missal exchanged for a vineyard; of two volumes of Priscian, the fifth-century grammarian, being paid for with a house and lot.16 The cost of books delayed the rise of a booksellers’ trade till the twelfth century; then the university towns engaged men as stationarii and librarii to organize corps of copyists to transcribe books for teachers and students; and these men sold copies to all who cared to pay. They seem never to have dreamed of paying a live author. If a man insisted on writing a new book, he had to pay its costs, or find a king or lord or magnate to grace his palm for a dedication or a laud. He could not advertise his book except by word of mouth. He could not publish it—make it public—except by getting it used in a school, or having it recited before whatever audience he could collect. So Gerald of Wales, on returning from Ireland in 1200, read hisTopography of that country before an assemblage at Oxford.

The cost of books, and the dearth of funds for schools, produced a degree of illiteracy which would have seemed shameful to ancient Greece or Rome. North of the Alps, before 1100, literacy was almost confined to “clerics”—clergymen, accountants, scribes, governmental officials, and professional men. In the twelfth century the business classes must have been literate, for they kept elaborate accounts. In a household a book was a precious thing. Usually it was read aloud to several listeners; many later rules of punctuation and style were determined by convenience for oral reading. Books were carefully exchanged from family to family, monastery to monastery, country to country.

Libraries, though small, were numerous. St. Benedict had ruled that every Benedictine monastery should have a library. Carthusian and Cistercian houses, despite St. Bernard’s aversion to learning, became sedulous collectors of books. Many cathedrals—Toledo, Barcelona, Bamberg, Hildesheim—had substantial libraries; Canterbury had 5000 books in 1300. But this was exceptional;17 most libraries had less than a hundred; Cluny, one of the best, had 570 volumes.18 Manfred, King of the Sicilies, had a valuable collection, which passed to the papacy and became the nucleus of the Greek collections in the Vatican. The papal library began with Pope Damasus (366–84); its precious manuscripts and archives were mostly lost in the turmoil of the thirteenth century; the present Vatican Library dates from the fifteenth century. The universities—or, rather, their college halls—began to have libraries in the twelfth century. St. Louis founded the library of Sainte Chapelle in Paris, and enriched it with books copied for him from a hundred monasteries. Many libraries, like those of Notre Dame, St. Germain des Près, and the Sorbonne, were open to responsible students, and volumes might be taken out on adequate security. The student of today can hardly appreciate the literary wealth that city and college libraries lay freely at his feet.

There were, here and there, private libraries. Even in the darkness of the tenth century we find Gerbert collecting books with true bibliophile passion. Some other churchmen, like John of Salisbury, had their own collections, and a few nobles had small libraries in their châteaux. Frederick Barbarossa and Frederick II had considerable collections. Henry of Aragon, lord of Villena in Spain, gathered a great library, which was publicly burned on the charge that he had intercourse with the Devil.19 About 1200 Daniel of Morley brought to England from Spain “a precious multitude of books.”20 In the twelfth century Europe discovered the wealth of Spain in books; scholars descended upon Toledo, Cordova, and Seville; and a flood of new learning poured up over the Pyrenees to revolutionize the intellectual life of the adolescent North.

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