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The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain: vol. II, 1100-1400


ed. Nigel Morgan & Rodney M. Thomson


Cambridge: University Press, 2008, £100, 721 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-521-78218-0


Reviewed by Robert Mankin

Université Denis-Diderot Paris VII



This is a remarkably interesting volume, from the very first lines of the preface that set its twenty thematic chapters in their cultural context, and from early generalisations such as the following: “In practice, very few medieval people ever came face to face with the pages of manuscripts”. Even for a novice like the present reviewer, this comes as no surprise. But it is pleasing when an intuition is not only confirmed but qualified and enriched. The passage goes on, varying the name of the object as if they were (largely) synonyms: “Most men and women of medieval England probably passed their lives without ever reading or even touching a book”.

Since we are always told that a significant degree of literacy came only with the Reformation, here too we may simply be tempted to plough ahead. But the author of the passage brings us up short, and makes his point vivid by referring to those classes of people who were most likely to encounter books and manuscripts: “No books are shown in the Bayeux Tapestry. It has scenes of church services and state ceremonies; it illustrates boats, altars, gilded metalwork, painted shields, tiles, decorated textiles, carved furniture, drinking horns, beakers even, but not a single book” [3-4].

From the standpoint of the material culture of the Middle Ages, in other words, “the Book in Britain” would seem to afford a surprisingly meagre subject for the period running from the Norman Conquest (1066) to the time of Chaucer’s death (1400), and with Gutenberg soon to come but not quite yet. Regarding the period 1100-1400 overall, we learn that the books themselves were poor and “ugly” by contemporary European standards, authors and the book enjoyed nothing like the social prestige their counterparts already had in France, the English book trade can be dismissed as “lethargic” and the lay population polemically characterised by its “relative booklessness” [16, 38].

The challenge for the scholars contributing to this volume is all the clearer since we are informed from the start that “Britain” is something of a misnomer in their title. As Scotland and Ireland were being treated by specialists in other publications, the editors opted to make the present volume almost exclusively about England and Wales. Apart from the fact that such academic respect for other publishing enterprises is laudable, there is only a slight compensation in the fact that “the Book” in fact takes in bound volumes, compiled manuscripts, quires, bills and rolls—as well as the ways they were stored on shelves, in chests, loan chests and cupboards, or classed in catalogues and encyclopedias. One might conclude that for the laity of all ranks and even for the Crown [162], war, feudal bonds and desperate survival counted far more than the uses of literacy. It will turn out that war and books are related though, for the slow replacement of military service by taxation led to the rise of administrative bookkeeping, and so account rolls and then books in central government [419]. But the author of the opening chapter, Christopher de Hamel, develops his idea that most people in the period would never even have touched a book. “Books were holy objects” [4].

It turns out this is not just because books were found most of all in the closed world of monasteries, where they were sometimes but not always produced, and regardless of whether they were read or studied in that setting or not; they often were not. “Even to those unable to read, medieval Christianity was unambiguously a religion of the book.” One wants to say “a religion of the unseen book”—though books could sometimes be seen, in a priest’s or a noble parishioner’s hands at mass or even fixed to the wall of a church. “Service books” were used to celebrate the mass, and as such they were the single leading category of book produced during the three hundred years under study. It is no surprise that they were increasingly treated to certain honours, among which was the right to be celebrated by representation. By the thirteenth or fourteenth century, “the standard [...] English iconography of Christ or Saint Paul preaching almost always depicts the speaker holding a closed book” [11]. Since those illustrations appeared in books, one might retort that this amounted to mise en abyme rather than a sign of socialisation. Granted.

But the explanation for the complex social existence of the book carries still further. “In a largely pre-literate society, before charters and documents became generally usable, Gospel books and sacramentaries were customarily employed for swearing public oaths to validate legal transactions” [4]. That most men and women never touched a book therefore signifies their distance from the official acts and mainstays of society, or the distance lay society kept with respect to such sacred and durable instruments. Before the thirteenth century “each knight (and his superior) was initiated into his tenure not so much by any written document as by an act of homage to his lord” [433]. Similar remarks could be made about the key documents by which society was known and governed. “Domesday book” was a model to be imitated, but a model that virtually no one saw [419]. To whatever extent power in society was exercised through, in the name of or in the presence of books, the present volume is clear from the start about ways that that power evolved:


Probably the single greatest shift in medieval intellectual history was the period in the middle third of the twelfth century when the old monastic monopoly of learning began to disintegrate and scholarship moved out into what eventually evolved into the medieval universities [7].

This is arguable, on the basis of other chapters within the volume: it may be that the writing down of the law around the year 1118 may be even more prodigious a change [266-270].

But supposing the shift does have to do with the transfer of learning, it is useful to note that there had already been competition between monasteries and cathedrals. Still, the movement of shift cited here opens onto the horizons of most historical explanation of Western history: the role of cities, guilds and commerce, universities and knowledge, economic expansion and government administration. The complex picture limned by the present volume gives us an unexpected geography of this movement in England: Oxford as a centre of book production not only in relation to the university but also to nobility throughout the country, and in surprisingly close contact with similar craftsmen and women in Paris and Bologna, the role of one cathedral city in particular (Lincoln), but also of towns like Reading, home to the royal book depository for at least part of this period, and the general perception that book production was not yet a stationary, much less a stationer’s business [cp. 171-172], but rather a peripatetic activity. For part of the period, London was simply one place where artisans may have stopped to work before moving on. Alongside this geography of learning and commerce, we must set the “heresy” of Lollardy and of John Wyclif (ob. 1384), which would not have existed without its associations with the English language and the book trade [329-339].

The Book in Britain, 1100-1400 is obviously a work that specialists of the Middle Ages and of book history will need to study and refer to. The existence of a hardback edition only, at a hefty price, makes this an unfortunate example of that steadily growing phenomenon: books published simply for libraries. Pending other forms of access, it will be well worth the trouble to borrow it, in order to learn how fields such as education, law, history, music, literature (Latin or “romance”) and science develop within the history of the book and how the latter provides evidence for the histories we tell of those particular fields. These are significant chapters and written (as with the rest of the volume) by excellent academics, librarians and private scholars. They will certainly make it worth the trouble of renewing the library loan each time the book comes due.

Having said that, it would be a shame if the readership of the Book in Britain were limited to those with specialised interests. For this is also a book about how to imagine a culture from its artefacts, about the complexities of literacy and language change, the history of how knowledge was organised, and copying and archiving more generally. These subjects matter to us and the cases presented here should as well. How do we judge from artefacts? Indeed, it would be safer to say rare artefacts: of the 40,000 parish missals presumed to have existed by 1400, only about 90 have survived [291]; likewise, the common law can strike us as a body of uncertain nature because the early law records existed but have not survived—even as the first manuals of law appeared [269]. And how should we think about literacy in this pre-printing, feudal but developing commercial society? Even bracketing Welsh and Wales, the period studied here was trilingual if not more, with discreet sections of the social hierarchy active in Anglo-Norman, Old and then Middle English, or Latin, with rates of literacy varying from one case to the next, a certain amount of social overlap in oral and/or writing skills, and the complex matter of “rapid and violent” language changes underway [22-25 & n. 2].

We must note too that a significant part of the merchant class was largely literate by 1400 [13]. As for copying, the “pecia-system” marks an early attempt by Europe’s leading universities to organise and control the duplication of disciplinary knowledge, or at least of courses and key texts [263-265 & passim]; as such, it is an ancestor not only of legal copyright but of the university press. Under the last item in this hurried review, the history of archiving, we learn that the English administration approached the problem differently from France, by favouring rolls over books for a long time; that the church went to much greater lengths to keep records than did towns, at least in terms of what has survived [438]; and that the church itself split in relation to the keeping of records, with bishops displaying their bureaucratic know-how far more than other categories of priests. As our own cultures, languages and relations to memory change, these are more than useful subjects to become informed about.

A note of perplexity can be sounded in closing. It relates to seeing books. Given the richness of the ways in which “the book” is treated in this volume, it is disappointing to find the illustrations so largely devoted to pages of text rather than to the physical objects per se. Only two of the 82 illustrations show what bound manuscripts and a monastic “satchel” volume can look like, with no examples of rolls, archival forms like cartularies, booklets including the “holster book”, or the “rather scruffy little books” in which students noted their glosses on classical texts [161]. And this is not to mention the subject of bindings, which is briefly discussed in the chapter on book production. Although there are important points to make about handwriting and illustration, the privileging of text seems at odds with the panoramic range of the volume and many of its most stimulating pages. Even if the texts are roughly balanced between examples from Latin, French and English (along with several from Welsh), the focus on text seems intended to prepare readers more than they may have wished for the reduction and specialisation of “the book” in the volumes that continue the Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, some of which have already been published. Or is it that everyday we hear about technologies of the book that can be summarised in lines like the following? “A consideration” in favour of the holster book “must have been that such books are easy to handle, as the reader can support the back of the book with one hand while turning over the page with the other” [54]. In the Middle Ages, this was one choice and one use among many.








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