The Latin that hovers above the more sober “Manuscripts and their Makers,” on the title page of Richard and Mary Rouse’s magisterial two-volume work, is Francis Bacon’s dismissive description of the booksellers of Paris. Writing c.1267 about the production of manuscripts during his student days some decades earlier, Bacon complains that these “unlettered married men” were responsible for the dissemination of flawed texts of the Bible (he is presumably referring to one of the mainstays of the Paris book-trade: a single-volume Bible). The passage gives evidence from a contemporary of the existence of a group of laymen efficiently turning out books in the mid-thirteenth century, and reminds us of the degree to which enterprises such as the training of theologians were dependent on a trade that was not entirely part of the University culture. But Bacon’s characterization also underscores one of the themes of Manuscripts and their Makers – the importance of cooperation within and among families of tradesmen who happened to produce books, generations of men and women living and working in adjoining streets in medieval Paris. Members of the book-trade community married each other, bore witness for and against each other, competed and cooperated with each other, and left their traces in the city’s legal and ecclesiastical records as well as on the pages of the books they made.
From these many fragments of evidence, Richard and Mary Rouse have assembled a fascinating and persuasive group portrait of the people whose work made medieval Paris the center of manuscript production in northern Europe, and who, the authors note, “because of their effect on written communication, had an influence out of all proportion to their modest numbers.” Their study is based on documented individuals, rather than, say, anonymous hands, iconographic trends, or a patron’s tastes, though it certainly takes those approaches into account. The book is divided into two volumes, the first a narrative that draws on material presented in the second. Volume II includes a dense biographical register of members of the Paris book-trade from 1200 to 1500, along with numerous appendices keyed to the twelve chapters in Volume I. These chapters are chronological treatments of various individuals or families whose lives and activities in some way exemplify an important development in the book-trade. Several useful tables and plates are included in the first volume, notably a series of maps and plans that begin with the city as a whole, ringed with the wall of Philip Augustus, as it was around 1200. Subsequent maps home in on the Ile de la Cité and the Left Bank, on the several dozen houses on the rue Neuve Notre-Dame and across the Petit-Pont on the rue des Ecrivains that are the focus of this study – home to parchmenters, paper-sellers, scribes, illuminators, binders, printers, and the all-important libraireswho orchestrated the process and sold the finished products. The houses are numbered, allowing readers to trace the residents of a particular house over several centuries.
Evidence for the beginnings of what we would recognize as a commercial book-trade is scant. Manuscript-makers must have been operating before 1275, when they are first mentioned in documents, when the University referred to stationarii qui vulgo librarii appelantur ––”stationers, who are called libraires in French.” The following rough summary does not do justice to a remarkable interweaving of lives and developments, but it gives an idea of the territory that Manuscripts and their Makers covers. Chapter 1 introduces us to an illuminator known as Master Alexander, who splashed his name in gold letters above the first page of Genesis in a single-volume Bible in the Bibliothèque Nationale, now MS lat. 11930-11931. Since his is a name rare in France, it is quite likely that he is identical with a contemporary who appears in the documents, Alexander the parchmenter who lived on the rue Neuve Notre-Dame, although the authors are careful not to force this conclusion. Practices and organizations that seem to have emerged in the later 1100s, and are outlined here, would continue to describe the Parisian book-trade for the next three centuries. Chapter 2 traces the commission of a glossed Bible from Nicolas Lombard, a weathy libraire, for a provincial bishop, giving us a securely documented, partly extant manuscript. Chapter 3 describes the control exercised by the University of Paris over the book-trade community, using the case of Guillaume de Sens and his family, the first libraire to rent out exemplar books to be copied one quire at a time. Chapter 4 is devoted to the production of romances in French, often illustrated, which by the end of the thirteenth century formed a substantial percentage of the book-maker’s stock. Chapters 5 and 6 discuss the documents and work attributed to Master Honoré of Amiens, his son-in-law Richard of Verdun (who may be the illuminator known as the Papeleu Master), and the dissemination of the devotional text known as the Somme le roi. Chapter 7 presents Thomas de Mauberge, who both produced valuable books for the French court and rented out quires for University students and graduates to copy, at 4 sous a set. Chapter 8 focuses on the collaborative production of the satirical Roman de Fauvel. Chapter 9 examines the work of Richard and Jeanne de Montbaston, a husband-and-wife team who produced multiple illuminated copies of the Roman de la Rose, and who seem to have included images of themselves, working away in the bas-de-page of one copy. Chapter 10 portrays those who worked on retainer for the bibliophile king Charles V, designated by new titles ––écrivains du roiwho filled the function of royal libraires. Chapter 11 deals with the situation of libraires such as Regnault de Montet, working during the difficult reign of Charles VI and the attendant dearth of royal patronage. By the fifteenth century, when the protagonists of Chapter 12, Andry and Thomasse le Musnier and their family, were working, we have enough written evidence to begin to flesh out plausible careers. The relative wealth of documentation about Andry comes largely from legal disputes; as historians have long known, fame smiles on the litigious. We follow his relatives and descendents long enough to see the impact of the printing press on an established manuscript culture
The Rouses’ book draws on the work of art and literary historians, historians of the book and of Paris, and is certain to be welcomed in as many disciplines. As a result of the book’s truly interdisciplinary approach, the lessons for art historians are woven into the fabric of the narrative chapters and set into the aggregate of documents and clarifications that form the Appendices in the second volume. Some very useful contributions are here. Appendix 5B, for example, traces the term “rue des Enlumineurs,” applied in many secondary works to the rue Erembourg de Brie, to the unsupported declaration of a single history of Paris published in 1867″– a valuable caveat. Appendix 10A confirms the identification of the tiny manuscript in the Cloisters known as the Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux with the manuscript mentioned in a codicil to her will as the work of Pucelle, and suggests that scholars made wary by the imperfect fit of the inventory’s terminology with the book itself can afford to be less cautious in this case and abandon the awkward epithet “so-called.” As an instructive comparison, to point out the frequent imprecision of even the most authoritative book-appraisers, the authors refer us to the same 1371 inventory of Jeanne’s books, in which one example is catalogued as “a church-book in which there are a lot of epistles.”
This is a book to be consulted, of course; but the first, narrative volume can also be read, though perhaps not (at over 400 pages) in a single sitting. What may not be immediately apparent from a description of the book’s thoroughness, daunting appendices, and persuasive arguments is its surprising appeal: we can see imagination and an eye for telling detail in the writing as well as diligence and impressive organizational stamina. The authors paint a vivid picture of Andry le Musnier entertaining two potential clients in the room over his shop on the rue Neuve Notre-Dame, wooing them with a glass of wine and a flashy Book of Hours while his wife slips down the street to recover from the appraiser the Bible their visitors had brought, in the hope of trading it in for French romances. The Rouses have succeeded not just in creating a reference work that will be indispensable to historians of various disciplines, but in laying out a web of interconnections ––”up and down the staircase, up and down the street, across the bridge and back.” Their explication of the standards and practices that guided the members of the Parisian book-trade has provided an armature for a more sophisticated understanding of medieval books.