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.

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