The Medieval Book

by Edwina Moore

I’m delighted to be doing a guest post (my first!). I’m Edwina Moore. I have a PhD in medieval history, which came in pretty handy when I decided to write a romance set in fourteenth-century France. A Knight’s Ransom isn’t published yet, but a couple of agents asked to see the full manuscript, and now I wait…so much waiting. But never fear, gentle readers, I am not sitting idle. A Knight’s Redemption is in the works.

Enough about me. Let’s talk about books. Now, asking a writer to talk about books is a dangerous thing. I could talk about books until the proverbial cows have gone back out again. I thought about my favorite books. Yes, plural, because who has just one favorite? I thought about the book that introduced me to romance (Seduction, by Amanda Quick) and the one that led me to medieval history (The Lord of the Rings), but instead I decided to write about the book in the Middle Ages.

The book format we know—covers, pages, chapters, margins, headings, the use of different colors and fonts to set off information (think a textbook), page numbers, not to mention punctuation and spaces between words, all developed over the Late Antique and medieval periods. In terms of the physical object, books made reading easier—imagine reading Game of Thrones on a scroll and needing to re-read something because you can’t remember who that character is in chapter four. Books are also easier to store than scrolls, and parchment is less vulnerable to damp than papyrus. Rubrication, things like chapter headings and page numbers, made finding information more efficient. Books could also be any size, small enough to fit in your palm—Leona, the heroine of A Knight’s Ransom, has such a book—or so large that it would take a couple of people to hold them.

A lot of work went into producing a medieval book. This included preparing the parchment, making the inks, ruling the parchment—if you look closely at some medieval books, you can still see the pinpricks in the margins and the faint lines crossing the parchment—writing or more likely copying the text BY HAND (think about Game of Thrones or a book by Stephanie Laurens—Lord of the Privateers is 500 pages; imagine copying that by hand), adding illuminations or illustrations, assembling the pages into quires, adding the covers…it’s quite a process.

It’s no surprise, then, that books were status symbols. The more expensive the materials, the more elaborate the illuminations, the more ornate the covers, the more wealth and status the owner had. Most books were simple and, relatively, inexpensive: chapbooks, simple Books of Hours, and the like. Only wealthy patrons could afford something like the Trés Riches Heures du duc de Berry, and books were often handed down in wills as valuable moveable property.


Medieval books are pretty amazing, and I love to talk about them whenever I get a chance. My thanks to Beppie et al for hosting me and giving me the opportunity to do it.


12 thoughts on “The Medieval Book

  1. Lovely blog! Medieval books are one of my favorites, too, although I haven’t seen very many of the books themselves. Just reproductions. But imagine the hours, days, weeks, and years of patient effort that went into them!


    • Thanks! This was fun. The originals are stunning. For our first anniversary, my husband gave me a parchment leaf from a 14th-century Italian manuscript. Pretty amazing.


  2. I love the illuminations in medieval books! That would have been something I would have loved to do – if I’d lived then, lol! And I wish I’d known you a couple of years ago when I was gathering research for my book set in France in 1374… 🙂
    Great blog, Edwina! Thanks for visiting with us today!!


    • Happy to be here. Being an illuminator would have been interesting. The historiated initials are my favorite aspect of illuminations. I’m amazed that the illuminators could create scenes inside a letter. Then again, I can barely draw stick figures. 🙂


  3. Loved your post, Edwina! Of course, the Medieval period is one of my absolute faves, so I’ve done some research and anything I can add to my little cache of knowledge is welcome. It boggles the mind to think they had to hand-write every book until the advent of the printing press. And I talk about this in my theatre history and Humanities classes but I don’t think they believe me! LOL


    • Thanks, Jenna! My students seem skeptical, too. Then again, they are aghast when I tell them to take notes by hand. Maybe it’s the idea of taking notes that startles them?


  4. Fascinating information. I’ve seen examples of the marginalia comments and illuminations that some scribes slipped into the books the copied. How funny would that have been to find something like that in a book.


    • It is funny to come across. I’ve had a couple good albeit quiet laughs in the British Library. I do love the marginalia because it’s someone’s notes (or doodles) and a tiny window into another reader’s thoughts on a text.


  5. Great post, Edwina! Glad you could join Romancing Yesteryear this week. I enjoy most historical eras but the early medieval era holds my heart. I’ve done some research into illumination of those scholarly works and agree they were pure art. I never cease to marvel at the richness of the colors. Even the smaller, less expensive books were amazing.


    • Thanks! The Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, and of course, Carolingian manuscripts are frankly (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun) stunning. If you’ve never been to the British Library, wander in and check out the Treasures Gallery. In addition to the medieval manuscripts and illuminated Bibles, you can see originals of Jane Austen, Haydn, and the Beatles. And if you aren’t familiar with the British Library’s website, check out the turning-the-pages section.


    • Thanks, Donna! The manuscripts really are amazing. There’s quite a process to get a reader’s card for the manuscript room at the British Library–and don’t get me started on getting a reader’s ticket at the Bibliotheque National de France. I swear, I had to promise my first born.


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