Unstable Narratives of Scribal Collaboration in an Eleventh- to Twelfth-Century Irish Manuscript

Unstable Narratives of Scribal Collaboration in an Eleventh- to Twelfth-Century Irish Manuscript – by Eystein Thanisch, University of Edinburgh

Scribal activity is, naturally, pivotal to both reconstruction of textual history and understanding a text’s reception. Interactions between multiple scribes can be especially insightful. Yet neither a text’s history nor a scribe’s precise role is necessarily a stable and known fact; if our understanding of one changes, the other can transform too. Here, I explore an example of how interpretations of scribal collaboration can differ depending on how one relates the scribes’ work to a text’s history.

The example appears in the eleventh- or twelfth-century Gaelic-language manuscript, Lebor na hUidre (hereafter, LU), a compilation of literary, pseudo-historical, and religious texts. A quick description is available here and detailed discussion can be found in a recent conference proceedings volume. The manuscript is available online via Irish Script on Screen (‘Collections’ > ‘Royal Irish Academy’ > ‘MS 23 E 25’) and a diplomatic edition can be found on the CELT Database (subsequent references are to this edition).

Briefly, at least three successive scribes produced LU, A, M, and H. A begins several texts. M completes and sometimes annotates them and adds his own. H annotates A and M’s contributions, intervenes in rasura or by interpolation, and also adds texts. Recently, and dramatically, Elizabeth Duncan showed that hand H is, in fact, made up of six different scribal hands (H1–6).

The LU text (ll. 2783–924) considered here is Aided Nath Í ocus a adnacol (‘Nath Í’s violent death and burial’; ANÍ). M begins it and annotates his contribution; H1 annotates, amends, and continues it. M opens with the death of Nath Í (a fifth-century Irish king) in the Alps. He had been cursed with an early death and an obscure grave by Forménus, the king of Thrace, whose prayers he had disturbed. Nath Í’s body was returned to Ireland and buried at Cruachu (modern-day Rathcroghan). His burial-place, with those of other ancient notables, was preserved through poems (given in extenso) by Torna Éces and Dorban Fili. There follow a prose survey of royal cemeteries. M’s contribution ends with p. 38b (l. 2907). p. 39 is by H1. He continues the prose survey, recapitulates Nath Í’s story, and concludes with a colophon narrating the text’s compilation by two eleventh-century scholars.


William Frederick Wakeman, 'The Tomb of Dathi' (1903). Wikicommons

William Frederick Wakeman, ‘The Tomb of Dathi’ (1903). Wikicommons

ANÍ also appears in two late fourteenth-century manuscripts, the Book of Ballymote (BB) and the Yellow Book of Lecan (YBL). These both contain material from H1’s continuation (YBL more than BB). YBL also includes within its main text material found in LU as M and H1’s annotations. BB only draws on M’s annotations and omits the colophon. In YBL, the colophon is located roughly half-way through ANÍ, following Torna’s second poem (LU, ll. 2811–50).

This situation has been interpreted in two ways.

1. Tomás Ó Concheanainn argued that LU must constitute the archetype. Its text of ANÍ is a thitherto non-existent fusion of the work of two independent scholars, M and H[1], a fusion that occurred in the course of LU’s physical compilation. The BB and YBL versions, containing material rendered by both LU scribes (although to differing extents), must therefore be derived from LU.

2. Others, most recently Máire Herbert, argued that the YBL text represents an independent, slightly fuller recension, to which both M and H1 had access. They inscribed its evidently attractive material in and around the pre-existing LU text. The BB text is of the same recension as M’s original.

Herbert’s position seems more convincing. Her argument predominantly rests on detailed textual examination, beyond this blogpost’s scope. To add a brief observation, for the LU text to be the archetype, one would need to explain why, on the YBL branch, the colophon was moved back into the text from an original concluding position. More plausibly, H1 encountered it midway through a YBL-type text. Too substantial for insertion into M’s text at its proper location but too valuable to omit, he appended it to his continuation, despite this misleadingly implying a unified text.

Leaving aside this debate’s rightful outcome, however, each position produces a distinctive picture of scribal collaboration. Ó Concheanainn takes M and H1 for creative, independent scholars sourcing extra material to improve the text; their joint creation then virtually became later tradition’s canonical version. For Herbert, M and H1 are strictly scribes, confined to a pre-existing textual tradition. All they are trying to do is put together the fullest version within that tradition. Their work on the page looks haphazard, but the whole process is distinctly conservative. The hybrid version they produce does not become particularly influential.

Detailed study of individual manuscripts can be very insightful, but immediate appearances can be deceptive. A lot depends on our assumptions, whether about a text’s history or about scribal activity. This case of scribal collaboration reminds us of the potential hidden complexities in manuscript culture, although I doubt that any scholar with much experience of medieval manuscripts is actually in need of such a reminder!

Spot the differences. Playing with medieval handwriting.

Spot the differences. Playing with medieval handwriting – by Ainoa Castro, King’s College London

I don’t know whether this happens to you too, but for me, as a trained paleographer, to carry out a palaeographical analysis is like playing an amazing game that allows me to get a glimpse in what was the daily life of a medieval scribe. Through understanding his/her writing, I grow a strange feeling of deep comprehension, a long-distance bond that automatically builds between him/her many centuries ago and me/ourselves today, processed by my paleographic eye into new data from which to reconstruct his/her professional career and cultural context. Moreover, when working with a manuscript source from which it can be supposed a collaboration amongst scribes, aka a codex, the game becomes even better. We’ve the opportunity of not only get in touch with a scribe but also to play ‘spot the differences’ to distinguish his/her work from that of a coeval colleague. While analysing the manuscript, we suddenly see something different, our eye recognises that something had changed through the folios, the columns, or even the lines, and then our brain starts processing that information until there’s a eureka moment when we clearly see the differences among hands and then we exclaim “gotcha!”. Isn’t this awesome? We get the changes. We understand that in a specific moment a specific scribe started working in a copy of a codex until by some reason we’ll eventually try to discern another scribe continued. We’re then faced with many questions: Why the change? What was the relation between a scribe and that who continued his or her stint? Why even though they’re different hands they look so similar? Or, why even being in the same scriptorium at the same time they look so different? Who taught them to write? How? Who were they?

I don’t usually work with codices but with charters. For those, in my corpus of Visigothic script sources, it’s rare to find scribal collaboration, even to find the same scribe in different charters. However, the research project I’m working on now entails the palaeographic analysis of a codex, the Beatus kept at the British Library ms. Ad. 11695 (copied between 1091 and 1109 in the monastery of Silos). And this indeed is a product of scribal collaboration I’m still trying to fully unveil. Initially, it has always been thought the Beatus was copied by two scribes as so they’re identified in the colophon of the codex (ff. 277v-278r). But, surprisingly, that’s not accurate, or, at least, I don’t think it is. I identified two main hands, who copied almost all the work, but there’re also some folios, some lines, that just don’t fit as a product of these main two. To what extent can I/we be sure?

Case study 1: play the differences because, spoiler alert, it’s not the same scribe.



© British Library, Add. ms. 11695. f. 40v vs. f. 41r

We palaeographers are serious people who have a method to conduct graphic analysis, just in case you were doubting my word about this two examples not being the same hand. Between these two scribes there are many similarities, as I’m sure your eyes are telling your brain, but also many significant dissimilarities. To begin with, the general aspect of both – if you look at the whole folio and not just at the cutting above – differs. The hand on the left isn’t as elegant as that on the right, and that results in him using a myriad of allographs for almost each letter. If you look at the majuscule alphabet, you will find that the hand on the left clearly tries to emulate the design used by his fellow scribe on the right, but some strokes are difficult for him to accomplish. Comparing the abbreviation system is when one clearly realises they’re two hands. But, how’s that they’re so similar? Were they master and pupil? Was the one on the left trying to imitate the other one for a reason? Why?


Case study 2: now you should play the similarities because, spoiler alert too, it’s the same scribe.

© British Library, Add. ms. 11695. f. 155r vs. f. 200v

© British Library, Add. ms. 11695. f. 155r vs. f. 200v

Again, I assure you I/we have a method. They’re the same scribe. This’s a very interesting and quite funny hand I guess very few times one has the pleasure to find because he has a consistent set of graphic forms, abbreviations, and even punctuation but just sometimes seems something was wrong with him. What makes you wonder, what happened? I have the feeling that every time he started copying, let’s say every day he resumed his task, he somehow collapsed until, after a few lines, he recovered his ability to copy the text in a very elegant manner. Can that be possible? Why?

All my insights about the hands who intervened in the copy of the BL Beatus will be put together in an article I’ll let you know about soon. I hope you find it as amusing as I do!



Chronicle continuation in the Flores historiarum (Chetham’s MS. 6712)

Chronicle continuation in the Flores historiarum (Chetham’s MS. 6712) – by Jessica Coatesworth (University of Manchester)

The Benedictine abbey of St Albans, England, is well known for its history and chronicle production in the late middle ages, particularly the work of Matthew Paris and Thomas Walsingham. The first chronicle written at the abbey was the Flores historiarum, a universal chronicle spanning from Creation to 1255. Chetham’s library, Manchester, MS. 6712, is the earliest extant manuscript of the Flores historiarum and the only Flores manuscript, of which 29 manuscripts and extracts survive, to have been produced at the abbey for another monastery. Chetham’s MS. 6712 was produced in three different phases: up to entry 1249 it was written at St Albans Abbey, it was then continued up to 1265 at Pershore Abbey, before it arrived at Westminster Abbey and was brought up-to-date.[1] This blog post is going to look at the latter phase of manuscript production, a section of the manuscript that has received little attention thus far, and ask what can be learned from the method and execution of the continuation.[2]

Chetham’s MS. 6712: part of the section of the manuscript produced at St Albans Abbey

Previous work on the continuation of Chetham’s MS. 6712 has focussed exclusively on the text but to understand the purpose of the manuscript we also need to consider visual aspects and production. This latter section constitutes roughly a sixth of the manuscript, covering ff. 241v-295v and contains entries for the years 1269–1327. It is the work of nine scribes with the short entries of each scribe and gaps after each entry suggesting it was being actively compiled at the time of writing. Whilst this sheds light on how the manuscript was used at Westminster – as a chronicle to continue and develop – the production values are at odds with the beginning of the manuscript and as a result we must question some of the theories as to why Chetham’s MS. 6712 was produced.

Chetham’s MS. 6712, ff. 258v-259r: Annal entries for 1296-1299

Chetham’s MS. 6712, ff. 258v-259r: Annal entries for 1296-1299

One of the main theories for the production of Chetham’s MS. 6712 is that it was a presentation copy intended for Westminster Abbey.[3] This seems probable from the standard of production on the St Albans section where the scribal quality is high, decoration is regular and the marking-up of the parchment is neat, unobtrusive, and consistent. Indeed, the St Albans section is of the same standard as other good quality manuscripts made at the abbey during this time, including the Chronica maiora of Matthew Paris (Parker Library, Corpus Christi College Cambridge MSS. 26 & 16). In contrast, the Westminster section of the manuscript is far more erratic. What we see is a continuation of the basic layout but with a large amount of fluctuation: the widths and heights of columns become less regular and display letters vary in size. There is also a lack of consistency in the script used, from a near-cursive rotunda to a very formal semi-quadrata (see images above). Combined with the patchy parchment quality and it seems unlikely that this section was intended for use outside of the monastic community.

Chetham’s MS. 6712: Illustrations of the coronation of Richard I and Edward I. The latter is part of the Westminster continuation and highlights the different standard of production.

Chetham’s MS. 6712: Illustrations of the coronation of Richard I and Edward I. The latter is part of the Westminster continuation and highlights the different standard of production.

Without one scribe to consistently continue the chronicle the standard of presentation diminished and the status of the manuscript decreased. The collaborative continuation of Chetham’s MS. 6712 created a disjointed appearance between the different production centres and the production values of the Westminster section suggest that this manuscript was not viewed by the abbey as a presentation manuscript. Regardless of the original intentions of the scribes at St Albans Abbey, Chetham’s MS. 6712 became a working chronicle and from the efforts of the nine continuing scribes a new chronicle tradition was founded at Westminster Abbey.

All photos posted with the kind permission of the Chetham’s library, Manchester

[1] David Carpenter, ‘The Pershore Flores Historiarum: An Unrecognised Chronicle from the Period of Reform and Rebellion in England, 1258 – 65’, The English Historical Review 127 (2012), pp. 1343-1366, here pp. 1355-1356.

[2] Antonia Gransden, ‘The Continuations of the Flores Historiarum from 1265 to 1327’, Mediaeval Studies 36 (1974), pp. 472-492.

[3] Antonia Gransden, Historical writing in England i c. 500 to c. 1307 (London, 1974), p. 420.

Ladies of Thread and Ink

Ladies of Thread and Ink– by Valentina S. Grub, University of St. Andrews

Scribes and artists, authors and glossators, priests and monks; they all left their marks on manuscripts. As previously discussed in this forum, manuscripts were intensely collaborative efforts that took many hands and hundreds, if not thousands, of hours to create. However, those hands were often not limited to just making manuscripts. Individuals (and in this article, specifically women) not only worked on manuscripts and other arts, but their professional skill level was such that they were members of multiple guilds.

In 1837, G. B. Depping published an edition of the statutes and rules of the crafts and guilds of Paris that were set down in the late thirteenth century. His work is largely based on a manuscript in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Français 11709, the only complete record of the survey carried out by Étienne Boileau. Boileau was born between 1200 and 1210, and fought and was captured with King Louis IX in the Battle of Al Mansurah in Egypt during the Seventh Crusade in 1250. After being released, the King bestowed many favours on his brother in arms, most notably making him the Lord Provost of Paris in 1261.[1] In this office, Boileau reprimanded and curtailed the excesses of the Parisian abbots, rebuilt the royal coffers, reorganized the guilds and for the first time recorded all of the professions of Paris, whose only original records are in this book.  The second of two record books that Boileau kept was severely damaged in a fire in 1737, rendering it almost unreadable.

Dame Margot and Dame Aalès are recorded as members of the embroiderers guild, and they are cross-referenced in an archival document in the French National Archives, specifically Les Statuts de Brodeurs et Brodeuses Valides (Arch. Nat. KK1336 fcxiii verso) where they are listed as both embroiderers and illuminators. This does not seem to be an uncommon occurrence, as there are anecdotal references to many men and women having multiple skilled jobs. What is significant is that these women were members of both guilds in their own right, while women of the time were more often members under their husbands’ names.

While other evidence points to similarities between manuscript illumination and embroidery, this archival evidence proves that there were individuals who worked in both professions, with enough skill to warrant membership in both guilds. Membership was not lightly given, as the embroiderer’s guild of Paris demanded that each embroiderer have an eight year apprenticeship, have a registered workshop, only work in daylight hours, and only use certain, high-quality materials. [2] The rules in England were even more stringent, where court embroiderers often came under the purview of the armourer, due in part to their heavy use of precious metals and their close connection to heraldry.[3]

[1] Cazelles, Raymond, Nouvelle Histoire de Paris: Paris de Philippe Auguste à Charles V, Paris: Hachette, 1996, pp.179.

[2] Parker, Rozsika, The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminin , London: I.B., Tauris, 1984, pp.13.

[3] Ibid, 22.

Four’s A Company: The Unlikely Collaborator Aldred in the Lindisfarne Gospels

Four’s A Company: The Unlikely Collaborator Aldred in the Lindisfarne Gospels – by Jelle Zuring, Utrecht University

 MS Cotton Nero D, IV, better known as the Lindisfarne Gospels, is one of the British Library’s most treasured illuminated manuscripts. Its great age (ca. 698), wealth of Insular illuminations and illuminated initials, and its excellent state make it a great artefact of English religious history.[1] But there is more than sheer beauty in this manuscript; the texts preserved in this thick codex are of great scholarly wealth, also for those who research collaboration.

The codex contains Jerome’s Vulgate translation of the four Gospels and some accompanying texts by Jerome that occur slightly less often. Most importantly for this post, however, almost every Latin word has an interlinear translation into the Old-English dialect of Northumbria, and there is a colophon by the glossator on the final page of John’s Gospel.

To have a glossator collaborating in the production of such a codex is not unusual. What is unusual though, is that this treasure of a book was glossed approximately 250 years after its original production. The colophon sheds some light on the production of the codex, and also of some pieces now lost:[2]

“Eadfrith, Bishop of the Lindisfarne Church: he wrote this book originally […] And Ethiluald of the Lindisfarne islanders, bound and covered it on the outside […] And Billfrith, the anchorite: he forged the ornaments which are on it on the outside […]

And Aldred, unworthy and most miserable priest, over-glossed it in English with the aid of God and Saint Cuthbert.”[3]

It has been argued by some scholars studying this colophon that Aldred imagined himself as the fourth maker of the codex, as a means of mirroring the four Evangelists who had written the Gospels initially.[4] Aldred, who was as we can see, still a priest while glossing the Gospels, was actually quite an ambitious man; later sources prove that he was the community’s provost around 970, when they resided at Chester-le Street.

In the century during which the community spent in this location, almost all literary activity consisted of glossing rather than book-production, implying that a good glossator would have been held in high esteem. The fact that a priest was allowed to gloss such a treasured manuscript suggests that Aldred was renowned for his skill at the craft. The glossator was an important collaborator, one to be included among those other makers of beautiful works of book-production.

Interlinear and explanatory glosses, f. 34r

Interlinear and explanatory glosses, f. 34r

Section of the colophon describing Aldred, f. 259r

Section of the colophon describing Aldred, f. 259r

[1] For a full description of MS Cotton Nero D IV, see Brown, Michelle. The Lindisfarne Gospels: Society, Spirituality and the Scribe. London (2003).

[2] The original cover, and therefore with it the ornaments, have been lost. In 1852, a new binding was ordered by bishop Edward Maltby, in which the silversmith attempted to recreate some of Eadfrith’s motifs.

[3] Translation by Jolly, Karen Louise in her monograph The Community of St. Cuthbert in the Late Tenth Century. Columbus (2010) p. 53.

[4] For a recent and informative discussion of the research into this colophon, as well as a fully translated transcription, see Nees, Lawrence. “Reading Aldred’s Colophon for the Lindisfarne Gospels”. Speculum 78, no. 2 (2003) pp. 333-377. About Aldred as one of the four makers, see p. 345.

Ter Duinen, c. 1200: Scribe and Artist, or Scribe as Artist?

Ter Duinen, c. 1200: Scribe and Artist, or Scribe as Artist? – by Jenneka Janzen, Leiden University

The immense growth of the Cistercian Order in the twelfth century must have resulted in a great need for books; as new houses cropped up across Europe, monks likely worked diligently, and perhaps collaboratively, to ensure their brethren had adequate materials to meet their daily liturgical, spiritual, and intellectual needs. Carved out of the dunes of the Flemish coast, Ter Duinen was one of the largest and wealthiest Cistercian houses.[i] Although the abbey itself is lost, a group of its books comprise a remarkable collection held in the Bruges Public Library, and in the historic library of the late Ter Duinen in Bruges (Grootseminarie).

Founded as a Benedictine hermitage in 1107, Ter Duinen became a Cistercian house under
Clairvaux’s tutelage in 1138. In 1139 it had 15 monks and 13 lay brothers. About a century later in 1253, Ter Duinen and its granges were home to 120 monks and 248 lay brothers. Such a large community demanded a considerable library: reading is an integral part of the daily life of a monk. While the lives of lay brothers revolved around manual labour, books were made at Ter Duinen for their spiritual education, such as this early thirteenth-century illustrated copy of Hugh of Foilloy’s De volucribus.[ii]

Ter Duinen’s large community made many of its own books, as well as occasional volumes for its daughter-houses, Ter Doest and Clairmarais.[iii] While it is difficult to identify many scribes whose hand appears in more than one book, there are some recurring hands working around the year 1200. Within this group collaboration may be evident between scribes, initial illustrators, and occasionally correctors.

An example of potential scribal collaboration is found in Bruges Public Library Mss 105, 109, 111, and 118. They each contain the same scribe, although written at a slightly different quality and with varying pens: Ms 105 is written a bit smaller and perhaps more carefully, while Ms 118 is shaped with a sharper-cut nib. Compare, for example, the way the scribe forms his g, &, and uncial d. He has a tendency to drag strokes into the margin, especially those of d and t, and his a often tips forward with a large, overhanging top compartment. He uses a majuscule NT ligature at line end in each manuscript, which is otherwise uncommon within contemporary books from Ter Duinen’s library.

Bruges, Public Library Ms 105, f. 2v and Bruges, Public Library Ms 109, f. 87v.

Bruges, Public Library Ms 105, f. 2v and Bruges, Public Library Ms 109, f. 87v.

Bruges, Public Library Ms 111, f. 6v and Bruges, Public Library Ms 118, f. 14v.

Bruges, Public Library Ms 111, f. 6v and Bruges, Public Library Ms 118, f. 14v.

Notably, however, this scribe copies alone; his is the only contemporary hand appearing in each of these texts, including in notes, running titles, and rubrication[iv]. These manuscripts are pricked and ruled to the same specifications – practices with limited consistency among contemporary books in this scriptorium – which suggests that scribes prepared their own quires according to personal preference.

Given these examples of solo writing, should we assume that contemporary scribes of Ter Duinen tended to work alone? Collaboration may be found in the initials: the same artist seemingly completes the initials in both Mss 109 and 111. Note particularly the clusters, ‘fan’-like foliage, and scallops placed around the knobs protruding from the initials’ bodies.

Bruges, Public Library Ms 109. U from f. 26r, Q from f. 1r, M from f. 72v, P from f. 46r.

Bruges, Public Library Ms 109. U from f. 26r, Q from f. 1r, M from f. 72v, P from f. 46r.

Bruges, Public Library Ms 111, F and C both from f. 1v.

Bruges, Public Library Ms 111, F and C both from f. 1v.

It may be the same artist working in Mss 105 and 118 as in Mss 109 and 111, although some design elements appear slightly different, such as dots, the way in which the scallops are placed around the knobs, and the use of yellow as a secondary colour in Mss 105 and 118.


Bruges, Public Library Ms 105. P from f. 81v, O from f. 3r, C from f. 22r, and Q from f. 95r.

Bruges, Public Library Ms 105. P from f. 81v, O from f. 3r, C from f. 22r, and Q from f. 95r.


Bruges, Public Library Ms 118.  Green Q from f. 116r, blue Q from f. 1v, top C from f. 22v, and bottom C from f. 105r

Bruges, Public Library Ms 118.
Green Q from f. 116r, blue Q from f. 1v, top C from f. 22v, and bottom C from f. 105r

This case highlights one of the difficulties inherent to this type of research; without external evidence of collaboration beyond the book itself, or a clear division of labour between various bookmaking roles (ex. scribe, illustrator, rubricator, corrector, etc.), a range of collaboration possibilities exist. Here, there are four such possibilities: 1) the scribe and illustrator of all four manuscripts is the same person, adapting his style slightly; 2) the scribe is the illustrator of Mss 109 and 111, but another illustrator completed Mss 105 and 118; 3) the opposite – the scribe is the illustrator of Mss 105 and 118, but another illustrator completed Mss 109 and 111; and 4) the scribe and illustrators are three different monks working together.

As these four manuscripts demonstrate, hints of collaboration might be found in various elements of the page. While there is no definitive answer as to whether the scribe of Bruges Public Library Mss 105, 109, 111, and 118 worked alone or with peers, this case suggests ways in which those working in a particular scriptoria could potentially divide the labour of bookmaking.

All photos posted with the kind permission of the Bruges Public Library. Photos taken by Jenneka Janzen.

[i] Ter Duinen’s community rivalled those of Clairvaux, Fountains, and Rievaulx in the twelfth century, and likely had a greater community of lay brothers than any other institution by 1300. Louis J. Lekai, The Cistercians: Ideal and Reality (Kent State University Press, 1977), 44, 337.

[ii] For more on this specific manuscript, see the articles provided by the Historische Bronnen Brugge (in Dutch and French). For more on its use in the pastoral care of lay brothers, see W.B. Clark, The Medieval Book of Birds. Hugh of Fouilloy’s Aviarium. Edition, translation and commentary, Binghamton, New York, 1992 (Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, LXXX).

[iii] See, for example, L. Vandamme and N. Giernaert, “Cisterciënzerbibliotheken in het middeleeuwse Vlaanderen: handschriften uit de abdijen Ten Duinen, Ter Doest en Clairmarais” in L. Busine and L. Vandamme (eds.), Besloten Wereld, Open Boeken: Middeleeuwse handschriften in dialoog met actuele kunst. (Tielt: Lannoo, 2002), 62.

[iv] Bruges Public Library Ms 109 also contains a fifteenth-century text in its seventeenth-century binding.

Difficulties of simultaneous collaboration: examples from the manuscripts of Geoffrey of Monmouth


Difficulties of simultaneous collaboration: examples from the manuscripts of Geoffrey of Monmouth – by Jaakko Tahkokallio, National Library of Finland

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 514, f. 1r. By permission of the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. Photographer: Jaakko Tahkokallio.

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 514, f. 1r. By permission of the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. Photographer: Jaakko Tahkokallio.

To save time, books were sometimes copied quire by quire so that several text scribes could work on the project simultaneously. In his classic article, Jean Vezin listed ten Carolingian manuscripts in which such a procedure was used.[1] The Tours Bibles, studied e.g. by David Ganz, are another famous example.[2] According to Christopher De Hamel, this method was also relatively common in the making of the twelfth-century glossed books of the Bible.[3]

Yet the material I am best familiar with – the twelfth- and thirteenth-century copies of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History, a corpus of some 135 manuscripts – suggests that this practice may not have been so very popular, at least in the high medieval period. Firstly, out of the 135 manuscripts, only four show evidence suggesting simultaneous collaboration of the text scribes.[4]

What is more, in three of these four manuscripts the probable simultaneous work resulted in some kind of a defect. Only in the thirteenth-century Vatican Library Pal. lat. 946 did the two scribes succeed in producing an entirely smooth text and visual appearance.[5] In the mid-twelfth-century Pal. lat. 956, quire VI ends in the middle of a column (next quire begun by a new scribe). In Cambridge UL Dd.6.12, an additional slip was needed after f. 60r so that the scribe could finish his/her stint, and the last leaf of another (irregular) quire, f. 67v, has only five lines of text (another scribe starts the next quire). In these manuscripts, simultaneous collaboration lead into anomalies of lay out and/or quire structure.

In Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 514 another type of mistake took place, at the beginning of the second quire. Here, the scribe repeated a sentence of text given also on the previous page (last page of quire I). This seems to suggest that he was copying from an exemplar in which the previous scribe had marked where s/he had finished (but not too clearly), and without the previous quire available.[6]

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 514, f. 8v and 9r. By permission of the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. Photographer: Jaakko Tahkokallio.

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 514, f. 8v and 9r. By permission of the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. Photographer: Jaakko Tahkokallio.

Why did s/he not have the first quire at hand? Possibly because it was being worked by the illuminator at this point. Bodley 514 has two completed high-grade initials, and others in various stages of planning. Two of them are in the first quire, including the one in the beginning of this post. The ones below come from later on in the book.

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 514, f. 18v and 19r. On 19r (right) the original design can be seen traced in lead beneath the later red letter. By permission of the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. Photographer: Jaakko Tahkokallio.

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 514, f. 18v and 19r. On 19r (right) the original design can be seen traced in lead beneath the later red letter. By permission of the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. Photographer: Jaakko Tahkokallio.

It is possible that the first quire was given to the illuminator while the copying of the text went on, to rush the production. Perhaps the illuminator was available only for a limited amount of time – at least s/he never finished all the initials that had been planned.

As we can see, trying to hurry the completion by dividing the work to several text scribes, or starting the work on the illumination while the text was not finished, was liable to cause problems. I believe that especially in the context of commercial/commissioned bookmaking, it was always preferable to have the complete base text copied first by a single scribe. When the text was finished and had fixed the codicological structure of the book it was then easy to divide the quires for illuminators (or gloss or notation scribes) for further work.

My warm thanks to the Bodleian Libraries for permitting the use of these reader-taken photographs online.


If anyone has ideas about where the initials might come from I would be very happy to hear. To my eyes, they somehow resemble some English ones from the early twelfth century ones, such as have been documented in Canterbury in 1120s and 1130s. I imagine the MS would date from about 1150–1180. It was at Jervaulx (Cist.), in Yorkshire, in around 1200, but most likely it was not made there.



[1] Jean Vezin, ‘La répartition du travail dans les “scriptoria” caroligiens’, Journal des Savants 1973, pp. 212–227.

[2] David Ganz, ‘Mass production of early medieval manuscripts: the Carolingian Bibles from Tours’, in Richard Gameson

(ed.), The Early Medieval Bible. Its production, decoration and use (Cambridge UP, 1994) , pp. 53–62, at pp. 60–62.

[3] Christopher de Hamel, The Glossed Books of the Bible and the origins of the Paris booktrade (Woodbridge: Brewer, 1984), p. 29.

[4] These are Cambridge, UL, Dd.6.12 (s. xii med./2), Oxford, Bodleian, Bodley 514 (s. xii2), Vatican Library, Pal. lat. 946 (s. xiii), Pal. lat. 956 (s. xii med.). The Camridge and Oxford MSS are insular, whereas Pal. lat. 956 is French. The origin of Pal. lat. 946 is as yet uncertain.

[5] In this ms, the scribe A copied quires I–II and VI–VIII, and B III–V and IX–XI. All of these are eights, exept VI which is a six.

[6] It is even possible that it was the same scribe, who simply did not remember where precisely he had stopped, although I am fairly sure they were in fact different ones.

Evidence of Scribal and Artistic Collaboration in Two Fourteenth-Century French Arthurian Manuscripts

A Group Effort: Evidence of Scribal and Artistic Collaboration in Two Fourteenth-Century French Arthurian Manuscripts – by Katherine Sedovic, Trinity College Dublin

According to Robert Branner, manuscript production in early-fourteenth-century France was a ‘group enterprise’, often involving collaboration between not only multiple artisans within the same workshop, but also between several separate workshops.[1] Cases in which a single manuscript was illuminated by more than one artisan were therefore relatively common. Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Rawlinson Q.b.6., is exemplary of this kind of collaboration. Q.b.6. is a massive tome of 410 folios, dating to Northern France circa 1320-30, and containing the Vulgate Lancelot propre, La Queste del Sainte Graal, and Le Mort Artu (figure 1). The manuscript is illuminated with 212 historiated initials, and exhibits evidence of the hands of at least two artisans, the first of whom, Ernoul d’Amiens, is known through an inscription on folio 187 verso (figure 2). Considering the immense size of this volume, it is not surprising that multiple artisans would have been employed to assist with, and hopefully speed, its production. Although scholarship has tended to focus on collaborative production practices in Paris, the acknowledged centre of the commercial book trade in late-thirteenth and fourteenth-century France, the possible production of Q.b.6. in Amiens suggests that late medieval manuscript collaboration was in actuality more geographically widespread, encompassing commercial book markets in towns and cities outside of the Île de France.[2] The different hands of Q.b.6. are evident through variations in the formation and size of the script, as well as through the varying shape of the historiated ‘O’ for ‘or dit le contes’ which marks each new entrelacement, or narrative transition, within the legends (figures 3-5).

A second, Parisian, example of collaborative manuscript production is Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France 12577, circa 1315-25, which contains Chrétien de Troyes’ Le Conte du Graal as well as the four later Perceval continuations, and is illuminated with 52 miniatures (figures 6-7). Alison Stones has noted two to three different hands within this manuscript, and identifies these artisans as members of a network whose shops were located on the Île de la Cité on the Rue neuve Notre Dame.[3] These specific libraires are known to have focussed on vernacular manuscript production, a subsection of the Parisian manuscript market that experienced heightened popularity in the late-thirteenth and fourteenth centuries due in part to the growing number of literate wealthy and nobility.[4] Manuscripts such as BnF Fr. 12577 were therefore generally produced on a bespoke basis for wealthy clientele. Collaboration among the book artisans of the Rue neuve Notre Dame allowed for the expanded production of secular manuscripts, reflecting the development and expansion of the commercial Parisian book trade from the mid-thirteenth century onward.[5]

Despite their overall lavish appearances, the illuminations of both Q.b.6. and BnF Fr. 12577 exhibit signs of rote copying and a reliance on visual sources such as model books and previously completed manuscripts. Although the illuminations include a marked use of gilt and are carefully rendered overall, they lack artistic originality. This may be accounted for by the high demand for such vernacular romances, which resulted in the need for an increased rate of production, and would certainly have been assisted by both artistic collaboration and a reliance on already established imagery.


Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Rawlinson Q.b.6. f.187v.


Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Rawlinson Q.b.6. f.176v.


Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Rawlinson Q.b.6. f.318r.


Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Rawlinson Q.b.6. f.259v.


Paris, BnF, Fr. 12577 f.1r.


Paris, BnF, Fr. 12577 f.18v.



[1] Robert Branner, qtd. in ‘The Commercial Production of Manuscript Books in Late-Thirteenth-Century and Early-Fourteenth-Century Paris’ by Richard H. and Mary A. Rouse, In Medieval Book Production: Assessing the Evidence, edited by Linda L. Brownrigg (Los Altos Hills:1990), 103.

[2] Godfried Croenen, ‘Patrons, Authors and Workshops: Books and Book Production in Paris Around 1400’, In Patrons, Authors, and Workshops: Books and Book Production in Paris around 1400, edited by Godfried Croenen, and Peter F. Ainsworth (Louvain: 2006), 1.

[3] Alison Stones, ‘The Illustrated Chrétien Manuscripts and Their Artistic Context’, in The Manuscripts of Chrétien de Troyes Vol. 1, edited by Keith Busby, Terry Nixon, Alison Stones, and Lori Walters (Amsterdam: 1993), 260.

[4] Rouse and Rouse, ‘The Commercial Production of Manuscript Books in Late-Thirteenth-Century and Early-Fourteenth-Century Paris’, 105.

[5] Godfried Croenen, ‘Patrons, Authors and Workshops: Books and Book Production in Paris Around 1400’, 1.