Bound Fast With Letters: Medieval Writers, Readers, and Texts

by Richard H. Rouse and Mary A. Rouse. Note Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2013. 570 pp. $89.00 (paperback). ISBN 978-0-268-04033-8.

This book collects eighteen articles written over four decades that study writing, broadly conceived, as a medium of social preservation and cultural production. The book is in three parts. Part one attends to the physical aspects of writing. The initial chapter investigates the ways in wax tablets were conceived of and described. A second chapter turns from the “missing link” that wax tablets represent to the routes followed by manuscripts of a North African provenance that offered study-aids to preachers written by Donatist authors. A chapter on Haimo of Auxerre’s homilies attends to the liturgical complexity that created problems in book usage for the celebration of the Office. The homilies preserved under Haimo’s name thus attempt to obviate the need for two liturgical texts on the same lectern, since they present the pertinent parts of the antiphonal in the margins of the text of the corresponding homily. Another article attends to Durham Cathedral MS B.IV.12, which contains an allegory on the steps required to prepare the soul for God in the guise of a sermon on the various stages required for the composition of a manuscript. Part one is rounded out with an examination of Durand of Huesca, a one-time Waldensian who led his branch of the movement back to orthodoxy, after which he consulted in Rome an alphabetical collection of biblical “distinctions” composed by Peter of Capua, making use of them for his own collection.

Part two pays attention to patrons and patronage. An initial chapter investigates Richard de Fournival, who gathered in his library around 160 Latin manuscripts—more than 45 of them still known today. No less impressive is Jean de Brienne’s commission, granted to Jean de Meun, to translate into French Vegetius' military manual, copies of which attest to the role played by the royal court in textual transmission—given that Jean de Meun’s translation was intended as a gift to the heir to the French throne on the occasion of his knighting. The particulars of medieval publishing form the focus of a chapter on Watriquet de Couvin, whose Dits were copied in multiple contexts in the early fourteenth century, and took shape in the convergence of authorial direction and the influences of patrons. No less interesting is a chapter discussing the purpose behind BnF lat. 7470, a manuscript patronized by Pope John XXII in order to influence Charles IV to make good on his promise to go on a crusade to the Holy Land.

The remaining chapters of Part two deal with the rise of manuscripts written in French. One describes the commissioning of such manuscripts by Simon de Lille and recounts the social dynamics that inform Simon's patronage of the poet Jean de le Mote, whose Peacock Cycle also reveals the association of both with illuminator Jeanne de Montbaston. A second chapter focuses on Marie de Saint-Pol, who commissioned a devotional comprised of nineteen pieces, many composed expressly for her. When the three surviving copies of this collection are contextualized against the backdrop of the comital family from which Marie hailed—with a history going back to the twelfth century (Marie died in 1377)—readers gain a clearer sense of the particulars of literary patronage in France, especially the important role women often played in supporting the written word. Making her living as a patronized writer, Christine de Pizan of necessity was involved in the production of her own works, and the final chapter of Part two studies the methods by which Christine brought her Chapelet des vertus to publication.

Part three turns to book-making. An initial chapter attends to BnF n.a.l. 3189, a one-volume thirteenth-century Latin Bible copied by Raulinus of Fremington, an itinerant English copyist trained in Paris, who ended up plying his trade in Bologna, where he learned to master a new script. Thomas of Wymondswold is also English and forms the focus of a chapter that treats his work in Paris as a libraire, contracting for and selling books when not copying them himself. Included in those works he personally produced is a glossed and illuminated copy of Gratian’s’ Decretum. A subsequent chapter details the last will and testament of one Jean Marlais, a libraire at the University of Paris, and Bonne, his wife. Without heirs, the bequests outlined in both wills open a window onto fifteenth century Parisian society and culture.

Equally vivid in its details is a chapter devoted to the accounts of the Hôpital de Saint Jacques, a religious confraternity that in 1399 commissioned a two-volume antiphonal. Careful records were kept of the amounts spent on this commission, including workaday details that reveal the human story always lurking behind the production of a manuscript. A final chapter examines the guidelines for the book-trade writ large, articulated in the mid-fifteenth century by Antoninus, archbishop of Florence in his Summa. These include the appropriate behavior for parchment sellers, scribes, and illuminators. The goal seems to have been to express certain standards that were to be upheld, to the benefit of Florence more generally. A stand-alone chapter on Nicolas Flamel concludes the book, whose reputation is chalked up to a combination of imagination and a good marriage, the debunking of which is a testament to what manuscript culture can reveal to eyes open to its rich details.

No review can do justice to this beautifully produced and carefully edited gathering of well over 500 pages—neither to the riches it reveals or the methods it champions. But it can be said that it is a testament to the ways in which manuscript culture can, and ought to, be interrogated: both for details about patronage and the particulars of copying and production, but also for insights into the lived experience that always vigorously informs all writing—if only we have the eyes to see it. The Rouses clearly do.

Joseph Pucci

Brown University