Patterns of Desire in Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts and Books

These four volumes of German poetry are wrapped in manuscript waste materials written in Hebrew. / J. Paul Getty Museum

By Dr. Kathryn M. Rudy / 09.19.2016
Senior Lecturer in Art History and Medieval Studies
University of St. Andrews

From Piety in Pieces: How Medieval Readers Customized their Manuscripts


Manuscripts could have useful careers for decades or even centuries. Medieval book makers were in the business of creating something of duration. This conformed to a particular style of reading, for which an individual would read—and re-read—selected texts over the course of days, weeks, or years. While the conservatism of the religious culture demanded that certain texts span generations, other elements of book-making and reading culture reveal the dynamism of the religious literature. Book makers responded to fashions in devotional behavior and to the ever-more important spiritual economy of indulgences. They responded to these shifts by physically expanding the book to accommodate such novelties. Books also responded to the increasing prosperity of the urban merchant classes, both by becoming more affordable and numerous, and by being capable of receiving more decoration when the book owner could eventually afford it.

Codices filled with liturgical, paraliturgical and devotional texts, including books of hours and prayerbooks, assume that Christian ether will prevail far into the future, in fact, into eternity. The fifteenth-century legal notices added to sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-century gospels books, including the Book of Kells, presume that the gospel book constituted a permanent safe-haven for their amanuensis and land transfer records. That the book would someday no longer have authoritative value was unfathomable. Parchment manuscripts were good for record keeping because they embodied a combination of authority and permanence. But that permanence was not rigid: the medium of the parchment book was alive and could grow. Developments in book-making technology meant that the parchment book could grow even more easily in the fifteenth century, just before the era of the printing press’s hegemony. Unlike the printed book, which is fixed and rigid, the manuscript was expandable.

Manuscripts could be personalized because they were handmade. Book owners who began with complete and serviceable manuscripts nonetheless deemed them insufficient and in need of adjustment. A medieval person was likely to have a book that either used to belong to somebody else, including a selection of prayers he never used, was so old as to be outdated, or did not reflect his current social status. Though the books were often hand-me-downs, people expected their books to adapt to reflect their world, even as the books themselves had incredible longevity. What to do? Augment. Improve.

How did later users register their opinions that a book considered perfectly acceptable by its previous owners was for them somehow incomplete, and by what means did they express their discontent? How can their acts of recycling and upcycling be interpreted? The kinds of augmentations owners made to books reveal certain patterns of desires, which I enumerate here.

Desire to Personalize the Book


Hours of Blanche Savoy, cover and new quire of Varie in prayer before St. Jerome / Beinecke Digital Collection MS 390, Yale University

People often wrote notes of ownership in books, usually at the beginning or ending flyleaves. Writing one’s name on the front of the book or among its folios, adding one’s name saint to the calendar, or crossing out the name of a previous owner can all be accomplished on the blank or existing parchment. Sometimes subsequent owners crossed out previous notes before adding their own. Other times, they simply added their names to the list, thereby showing themselves as just one owner in a growing provenance. One suspects that the impulse to eradicate previous owners is inversely correlated to the sentimentality and family bonds with those people. One wouldn’t cross out a grandmother.

While many of the forms of personalization in this study have not involved rebinding the book, others went beyond the superficial. These include the updates that involved adding images of the new owner. The Hours of Blanche of Savoy was taken apart and reconfigured for its new owner. Simon de Varie had his book of hours furnished with full-page miniatures depicting the Virgin and his coat of arms. The anonymous male owner of HKB, Ms. 135 G 19 added a quire to the beginning of his book of hours, including a full-page miniature depicting him in prayer before St. Jerome. I suspect that many people who could afford personalized portraits would have been people who would have commissioned books from scratch. If someone makes elaborate changes to an old prayerbook, such as the case with the Hours of Blanche of Savoy, the motivation must certainly be to show the new owner in continuity with the former owner, a form of ancestor worship through objects.

Desire to Commemorate a Changed Family Situation

A medieval family tree in Kings MS 395, fols. 32v-33r / British Library, London

When owners added birth, death, and marriage information to the interstices of the manuscript, they were turning it into a personalized volume that would have lasting relevance as a record of family history. They also added names of family members to calendars, thereby putting those family members on the same level as saints. Religious houses, likewise, added the names of the dead to calendars so that dead patrons, like saints, could be commemorated annually. I also speculated above that those who had books for their children to teach them to read could have upgraded those books with indulgences when the children reached their teenaged years, at which time they could sin with abandon. Several examples above show that book owners made small adjustments to their books to turn them into more effective didactic tools.

Desire to Store Small, Precious Objects

MS 291, a curtain sewn into a mid 13th-century Psalter / Smith College, Massachusetts

Owners pasted or stitched small paintings on parchment into their book so that they could keep precious objects safe in an equally precious location. Such small objects were often gifted or traded among monastics, who could then store them in their prayerbooks, for the image would embellish the book, just as the book would protect the image. This operation added a function of the manuscript, namely, to turn it into a treasure chest for items of both intrinsic and extrinsic value. Owners could stitch in prints, pilgrims’ souvenirs, images that commemorated the Eucharist.[1] They could also sew curtains into the book, nearly always stitching the curtain to the upper margin of the page.[2] The curtain itself, if silk, could be a precious object, but it also enhanced and framed the image that it veiled. Adding such a curtain would imply adding a new layer of ritual to the book, for the curtain would have to be lifted each time the viewer gazed upon the image.

Desire for More Embellishment

Ltk 289 / Cambridge University Library

Some additions did not personalize the book at all. For example, in Ltk 289, a later owner who added full-page illuminations harvested from a different book, including a miniature depicting the patron of that book in prayer before the Virgin. The owner of the Dutch prayerbook was thus adding an image of someone he or she may not have known or been related to.

Many of the examples above reveal that owners wanted to embellish folios in order to unify the hierarchy of decoration across the entire book, or to raise the level of decoration. Often when new images were added, they affected the overall decoration program, which had to be smoothed over with another layer of decoration. The owner of the Beinecke 434 did just that, in part because the Masters of the Dark Eyes offered this service. Studios specializing in embellishing existing books were not confined to urban (male?) professionals; convents in Delft would provide such services, too. After all, they were illuminating words to praise God.

Recycling and Refurbishing

Detail of a German manuscript formerly used as a book cover. There are two leaves from the Mirror of Human Salvation, late 14th century, ink and pigments on medium weight, cream-colored parchment. / The Walters Art Museum

Above I have hypothesized that certain missals received new canons because this was the most heavily used part of the manuscript and therefore would age faster than the rest. This phenomenon might have been quite common, but is hard to study from the twenty-first century, because the dirty parts are likely to have been discarded. Because they reveal themselves by their absence, they often go undetected. The examples enumerated here will have to stand for a larger phenomenon.

Owners harvested the best stuff from other manuscripts to flesh out their own book. They would break up obsolete manuscripts, including those in foreign languages that the new owner did not read, or those that had been received in a damaged state. Recycling and repurposing older images provided a way to maintain links with the past. It produced precious goods out of otherwise discarded waste.

Desire to Make Foreign-Produced Manuscripts Locally Relevant

 Opening in a lay breviary in Middle Dutch with offices inscribed in Utrecht, where modest penwork decoration was applied in a block around the initials; this penwork was extended into the margins in Delft. Uppsala, Universitetsbiblioteket, Ms. C 517 k, fol. 216v-217r. Image © Uppsala Universitetsbiblioteket

Sometimes books passed into new regions with different local saints. So that local saints would be reflected in the calendar and litany, the new owners added them in what space they could find. In the case of the Uppsala breviary, the sisters of St. Ursula discarded the old calendar and replaced it with a new one altogether, in a move that required rebinding.

Books of hours made in the Southern Netherlands had large amounts of empty space built into them, by virtue of the method by which they were made. Foreign recipients—that is, English buyers—found space in them to add things, primarily prayers in the vernacular, in this case English. The new methods for making manuscripts out of modules, many of them as small as a single leaf, were mirrored at the level of reception by a new habit of filling the ample blank spaces with personal, local prayers.

Desire to Incorporate New Prayers

Feast of Corpus Christi in a Cisterican breviary / Bibliotheque nationale de France

New prayers were continually written in the late Middle Ages, and new feasts ratified. For example, the celebration of the feast of corpus Christi, which was already made official in 1264, became extremely popular in the fifteenth century. Prayers to the sacrament are among those frequently copied on separate quires in fifteenth-century ateliers. For example, the feast of corpus Christi was added to prayerbooks, such as the Cistercian breviary in Perth. This required adding physical material to accommodate the lengthy text. Lay book owners likewise added prayers to the host, which often appear clustered in a single added quire.

Urbanites began demanding prayers based on clock-time rather than on the canonical hours. They added prayers to be recited when they woke in the morning and went to bed at night. These were at odds with the ways in which the offices structured time. People’s tastes toward the end of the fifteenth century also turned to more image-based prayers. Groups of artists such as the Masters of the Dark Eyes were eager to meet their needs with their commercial products.

Another prayer added to a wide range of religious books were those to St. Anne, who had an active cult in the fourteenth century, which became extremely popular in the late fifteenth. One can see some of the material spoils of her cult in the Curtius Museum in Liège, which contains a room with dozens of polychromed carved wooden sculptures depicting St. Anne, all dating from the decades flanking 1500. This sudden surge of interest is also reflected in prayerbooks bearing augmentations from those decades.

Fear of Hell

Miraculous Mass of St. Gregory / Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The desire to include more indulgences was the single-most pronounced reason that a patron upgraded a prayerbook. I have enumerated many instances in which patrons added the Adoro te, or upgraded a short version of that prayer for a longer version that promised more indulgences. Because older books generally did not have this prayer, it had to be added. This is the single-most frequently added prayer to books of hours in the late fifteenth century. Illuminators also responded by making images of the Miraculous Mass of St. Gregory, the narrativized version of Christ as Man of Sorrows that most frequently accompanied the prayer.

The intense interest in the Verses of St. Gregory and the prayer to the Face of Christ, along with their accompanying images, suggest that prayers were also subject to fashion. Votaries were clearly driven to employ these prayers because they were highly indulgenced, but it is also clear that owners treasured their visuality, their image dependency.

Desire to Reflect Wealth


The Trivulzio Hours / Koninklijke Bibliotheek, National Library of The Netherlands

Those who used their books of hours and prayerbooks in semi-public settings, such as in a church or chapel, were displaying their piety as well as the lavishness of their accouterments. A colorful manuscript was highly visible. Painted colors are visible from several meters, and the coruscations of burnished gold from even farther away. On the continuum between flashy and demure, it must have been somewhere on the acceptable end. Book owners marked their changes in status by commissioning images and decoration, which reflected their wealth. They could even dress their books in silk velvet chemise bindings, which would make them appear sumptuous even when closed.

How the nouveaux riches displayed their wealth remained distinct from how the nobility did. Whereas the former went for quantity, the latter went for quality. New wealthy urbanites wanted wall-to-wall color, applied by anonymous masters, while the rich nobility wanted nameable artists, perhaps several of them in the same book. For example, for the Trivulzio Hours it was probably a male noble in the circle of Charles the Bold who assembled an array of single-leaf miniatures, each made in a distinctive style by a namable artist. These miniatures were commissioned expressly for this patron and depict him several times. Contrariwise, the Masters of the Dark Eyes took a very different approach in making products for the nouveaux riches. These artists, who produced thickly gilded, visually noisy manuscript paintings, largely worked for patrons who lacked coats of arms. Whereas the nobility wanted delicate painting, the recently moneyed wanted as much color as possible. As if to respond to this desire, the Masters of the Dark Eyes often made much larger books of hours than those made in previous generations. They also worked in ways to increase efficiency: they formed a conglomeration of artists who worked in a corporate style, in which individual style was erased so that the individual artists became interchangeable. One can compare these artists with the artist who upgraded the Hours of Simon de Varie, who worked around the same time and was also interested in bringing magnificence, color and gold to the page, but who executed paintings with painstaking precision.

Changes: Social and Codilogical

Around 1390 a structural change occurred in the way in which books were made. People had been making amendments to manuscripts as long as manuscripts had been made: change a word, a letter, add an image. But the modularization of the book suddenly facilitated post-production changes of this kind, both large and small, and even anticipated future adjustments.

Copying the text in one kind of atelier, and making the images in a different kind of atelier, had several implications. Division of labor allowed individuals to specialize, and therefore to streamline production and bring costs down. Dividing and separating labor meant that a new layer of management—the person who brought the components together—would take on new importance. Very little is currently known about such people, sometimes called stationers. The value they add seems to be about organizing labor. When labor is divided, then the singular workers no longer have an overview of the whole. Each is only making his component. In order to create interchangeable parts, as it were, book makers regionally settled on some general standards. Modularization led to increased standardization, and for the copyists and illuminators, increased routinization. It created a need for management, and therefore removed the producers from the consumers by a step. I wouldn’t be surprised if these early managers were money-grubbing, self-important and exploitative, but there’s no way to prove it, short of a séance.

Making images separately from copying texts means that text pages would not have had images, and image pages would not have had text, as that would have required more coordination, planning, and therefore time and effort. The modular method led to the growing importance of the full-page miniature as the main unit of pictorial embellishment. Small images were probably sold on rather large sheets of parchment, so that they could be trimmed to meet the needs of any sized book: this was yet another way in which increased labor efficiency created increased material waste. As full-page miniatures rose in importance, with equal and opposite force, historiated initials became a design unit of the past. While decorated initials remained common and integral to the hierarchy of decoration, historiated initials became much less common, because they required the unfinished book to travel between workshops.

This study has explored the intersection between the material framework of the book, the social framework in which it operated, and the individual desires of its owner. It has demonstrated that medieval book owners, particularly those in the Netherlands, applied a variety of methods to keep their older, inherited, and second-hand books personal and relevant. In short, the evidence I have gathered here shows that market forces shaped the new book of hours, and then human recipients shaped its adjustments.

The ideas I have discussed in this book include how high-volume production quickly slides into modularization, with an attendant skill-loss. This is highly visible in the world I currently inhabit. Ikea showrooms often lurk near airports far out of town where the real estate is cheap. I see them when I arrive in various cities to look at manuscripts. Based in Sweden, Ikea sells modular furniture overseas. It is responding of course to a need: the quick population boom of the decades around 2000, and all those new upwardly mobile humans who needed a place to sit. They are also responding to a clutter-free aesthetic by providing cheap cabinetry where unsightly stuff can be hidden behind opaque doors. But then as now, people react to receiving modularized, low-quality standardized products by trying to enhance them. Entire books and websites are dedicated to “Ikea hacks,” ideas for modifying the dull furniture.

Ultimately the printing press responded to the demand for cheap books, and this changed everything. Printed editions had a finality and fixedness that manuscripts did not. Manuscripts were always somehow provisional. One could always scribble in the margins, add more material, or make major changes during rebinding. This was partly due to their material. Manuscripts on parchment were built to last but also to breathe, and therefore had to be able to absorb changes over time. Printed books on paper, on the other hand, were friable. Depending on the sort of paper from which they were made, their edges might simply give up with extensive use. One could bind up a group of printed booklets together, but the material did not invite adjustments to the text and decorative program to the same extent that parchment did.[3] Whereas parchment can have objects (badges, curtains, images) sewn to it, can have words scraped out with a knife, can be kissed by priests at ten thousand masses, printed books can have none of it. The fact that comparatively few incunables survive compared to the number that must have been produced suggests that early owners already considered them ephemeral.[4]

The book was a repository of authority and is understood as such even in the modern day. Modern readers therefore think of the status of the medieval book as fixed. But in fact it was standard to alter the book. Doing so was perhaps a pleasurable transgression. Moreover, in order to maintain its authority in a culture of changing devotions and shifting relationships to the text—and particularly one where relationships to texts were personalized via specific saintly devotions, name saints, the calendar, etc.—a book that was to maintain its authority could not in fact remain pristine. It needed updating in order to maintain its position as conduit for effective devotion, to keep up with new (or newly emphasized) feasts such as the Corpus Christi, or with new papal indulgences, new cult images, precisely those elements that the Reformation culture, steeped in printing, abhorred. The culture of devotion in the fifteenth century was anything but static. For this reason, people were hungry to have books that fit their needs and took every opportunity to outfit the book as needed over time. Manuscript producers would have been fools not to create a method for creating manuscripts that allowed for the different devotional demands of various clients and markets.

What distinguishes the fifteenth century from the current era is the duration of goods. Somewhere along the way, a particularly cruel and clever capitalist invented forced obsolescence. Implicit in this study lies a comparison between the parchment world of the Middle Ages and the digital world we are currently in the throes of adopting. I do not wish to be sentimental about the past but would like to learn from it. Although a circular economy for manuscripts functioned well in the parchment era, it is not something I would wish to return to, for several reasons. Keeping books in circulation for decades or even centuries was a necessity because they were so expensive that a literate person might only own one book. A more literate culture demands access to more reading material. But another, and perhaps even more important reason that this model will no longer work is that medieval reading was fundamentally repetitive and therefore demanded durable materials that could withstand daily recitation over a period of years, decades or even centuries. Such were the habits borne of an essentially conservative religious culture. Circular reading—repetitious recitation—therefore had its parallel in the circular economy of manuscript. Manuscript owners, employing the techniques I have catalogued in this study, could amend their books to keep up with changing devotional fashion—such as the increased importance of indulgences—, but only up to a point: no manuscript could expand quickly or effectively enough to absorb the range of new ideas that belong to a pluralistic secular society. The manuscript is the wrong medium for the polymath, the atheist, the skeptic, the browser, or the seeker of broad knowledge. These readers consume many texts rapidly and sequentially, one time through or perhaps twice, after selecting from a boundless variety of choices. Theirs is a type of reading that electronic media serve well, even better than the printed books once did.

Another thread in my argument has been that manuscripts could be expanded and they even invited expansion in a way that printed books did not. Yet I began this story a few hundred pages ago with a story about the printed Soviet Encyclopedia, which seems to undermine my claims, for it, too, was updated post-production with glue to accommodate a new political situation. I have never laid my hands on a Soviet Encyclopedia adjusted with a long article about the Bering Strait, and chances are you haven’t either. However, you can imagine it, the way it looks and feels. You can picture the dutiful Soviet book owner slathering spatulas of off-white paste on the back of the replacement sheet, then squaring it up, and pressing it into the book in the designated place. You can imagine how cool the paper feels as the moisture is absorbed into it and then evaporates, lowering the surface temperature. You can imagine how wrinkly the paper becomes as it wicks up the moisture. The encyclopedia owner closes the book so that the pages themselves act as a press flattening out the wrinkly new page. The replacement is fixed to its new position. Beria’s biography buried underneath paper and paste would become a layer in the cellulose rubble of history. But afterwards, when the glue had dried, you would be able to tell that something was amiss. The page with the pasted article would be stiff. That double-thick and stiffened page will now be the one to which the book will now always fall open. In the brittle printed book, the silent addition would scream attention to itself. In the animal manuscript, on the other hand, the stitched-in additions would become part of an organic whole. In fact, this is why cataloguers often miss them. The main operation holding the manuscript, with its additions, together is the needle and thread. The parchment manuscript is sutured into its binding, and the seams can be ripped open, the book enlarged, and the package sewn back up again, but the stitches inside are largely invisible. When the world of parchment, needle and thread gave way to the world of paper, moveable type and glue, with that shift came a brittleness that resisted organic expansion. The paper book was purchased, read and discarded. It was, in short, consumed.


1    Rudy, Postcards on Parchment: The Social Lives of Medieval Books analyzes many small autonomous paintings added to manuscripts. For metallic badges added to manuscripts, consult Asperen, Pelgrimstekens op Perkament; Megan Foster-Campbell, “Pilgrimage through the Pages: Pilgrims’ Badges in Late Medieval Devotional Manuscripts,” in Push Me, Pull You: Imaginative and Emotional Interaction in Late Medieval and Renaissance Art, ed. Sarah Blick and Laura Deborah Gelfand, Studies in Medieval and Reformation Traditions (Leiden: Brill, 2011), pp. 227–74; Rudy, “Sewing the Body of Christ: Eucharist Wafer Souvenirs Stitched into Fifteenth-Century Manuscripts, Primarily in the Netherlands.”

2    Sciacca, “Raising the Curtain on the Use of Textiles in Manuscripts.”

3    The exceptions can be highly amusing. See Adam Smyth, “’Shreds of holinesse:’ George Herbert, Little Gidding, and Cutting Up Texts in Early Modern England,” English Literary Renaissance (2012), pp. 452–81.

4    Kok, Woodcuts in Incunabula Printed in the Low Countries provides statistics and analysis about incunabula in her introduction.