Hanno Wijsman’s remarkable work addresses three themes: the “supply and demand” for illustrated manuscripts; “the relationship between … manuscript[s] and … printed book[s];” and “developments in book ownership and collection formation” (7-8). The monograph is almost two books in one, its first part an exercise in quantitative codicology, built on a database of more than 3500 manuscripts, its second an account of aristocratic libraries.
Wijsman’s database attempts to include every extant book made in the Netherlands between 1400 and 1550 which features at least a single image. Wijsman created his list by consulting manuscripts and many secondary sources, chiefly collection catalogues. These sources affect the choice and quality of his data. Catalogues date and locate manuscripts with variable precision and specificity, and Wijsman uses illustrated rather than decorated manuscripts because catalogs note illustration more reliably than decoration. While this focus makes sense for art historians, it may limit the study’s utility for historians of the book, for whom plainer manuscripts are equally interesting. Wijsman readily admits these limitations; indeed, his caution is one of the book’s best features. While he does not say what proportion of Netherlandish manuscripts were illustrated, he cites a study of manuscripts in Dutch that suggested that 13% were illustrated, 32% “decorated only,” and 55% “completely undecorated” (35). Wijsman has laudably made some of this database available at http://www.cn-telma.fr/luxury-bound/index/, where, regularly updated, it now features over 3800 works, a significant increase since the book’s publication in 2010.
Wijsman analyzes the corpus under multiple rubrics, and presents quantitative material in tables and diagrams. While much of this quantitative material will match the expectation of scholars familiar with Netherlandish manuscripts, it is useful to have it documented systematically (and it would be wonderful to have updated versions of these on Wijsman’s website.) The first section, Chronology and Geography, demonstrates the dominance of Flanders, with about half the books in the corpus, and particularly Bruges, which produced half the extant books from Flanders and over a quarter of the books in the corpus. Unlike Paris, whose schools provided the initial impetus for book-making, in Bruges illumination was part of the luxury arts sector, which may have contributed to the city’s failure to become a center of printing. Wijsman divides his 150-year span into several periods; illustrated book production picks up the 1440s, and in numbers of extant books peaks in the 1460s and 70s. The 1480s see an abrupt decline in the number of illustrated manuscripts, followed by a slower tapering off into the second quarter of the sixteenth century.
The third chapter considers texts and languages. As expected, the majority of manuscripts are devotional: 55% of books in the corpus are books of hours or prayer books, and another 9% liturgical. The remainder include works of history, courtly literature, and education, grouped by Wijsman under the heading of Library Manuscripts. Plotting genres chronologically, Wijsman identifies some interesting patterns. While books of hours are produced relatively consistently, other genres, such as illustrated historical manuscripts, see steady growth from the 1440s to the 1470s, followed by a 50% decline in the 1480s, and a 75% decline after that (92-95). This pattern might suggest that illustrated non-devotional manuscripts experienced a sort of forty-year vogue, and then fell from favor, rather like what one sees in painted cassoni in Florence around the same period. However, Wijsman suggests that this is more a matter of media than content, with secular texts moving to print more quickly than devotional works (103).
Wijsman’s fourth chapter demonstrates that a manuscript’s size and number of illustrations vary with the book’s genre; for example, books with narrative subjects have more pictures than those without. The concrete data allow Wijsman to dispute Wim Blockmans’s suggestion that large Burgundian history books were imitating liturgical manuscripts, because the history books are actually larger than the liturgical ones (116-7). The data also lead Wijsman to suggest that in the northern Netherlands, books of hours owned by women were larger than books of hours owned by men, a difference that did not exist in the southern Netherlands.
The book’s second part is a monumental study in its own right, close to five hundred pages on the individual owners of illustrated books (he excludes institutional collections). While the first half relied on extant books, this section draws chiefly on inventories to trace who owned what when. The section’s introductory chapter on ownership argues that illustrated manuscript collecting on a significant scale began in the 1440s, inspired by the example of Philip the Good, relatively uninterested in books in the first half of his rule. While crediting Philip with this leading role, Wijsman also notes that the pickup in the later 1440s was part of a European phenomenon. Foreign collectors were also statistically significant: 10% of his corpus (mostly books of hours) was exported. Until 1480, England was the main market, and many books were made on speculation; after the dip in the 1480s, illuminators found new audiences in Spain, Portugal and the Empire (the same regions which bought panel paintings from Antwerp ), and these buyers often commissioned manuscripts.
From this point Wijsman deals with specific aristocrats, starting with three chapters devoted to the Burgundian library. He argues that the famous 1469 inventory was unique; a carefully compiled list of all the ducal books that were stored in multiple different locations, from which well-placed aristocrats might borrow multiple books for indefinite periods of time – effectively creating sub-collections. He devotes a chapter here to sub-collections for women and children. The book’s ninth chapter treats the libraries of the high nobility, surveying over thirty individual collections. Wijsman argues that collecting illustrated manuscripts was an aristocratic norm that helped them maintain their état, in emulation of the duke. In a briefer comparative chapter, Wijsman studies the libraries of fourteen “new men at court,” important functionaries such as Nicolas Rolin and Jean Chevrot, whose libraries present a more varied picture. Wijsman notes that even as these men aspired to noble status, they engaged in different habits of self-representation, such as commissioning paintings, which nobles did not do. (It would be interesting to compare these collectors to their French equivalents at the courts of Charles VII and Louis XI). The chapters on individual collectors are minutely, perhaps overly detailed, offering the richest assembly of information on Burgundian collections that I know.
Wijsman has important things to say about patterns of collecting, and his concluding third section synthesizes the first part’s quantitative data with the second part’s inventory-based material. He notes that “as the fifteenth century progresses there is a visible trend toward acquiring books at an ever younger age” (511), explaining that Philip the Good’s example, established in his middle age, was adopted by the young aristocrats who grew up at his court. He also offers a nuanced explanation of why the 1480s saw a significant decline in the production of illustrated manuscripts, especially in Flanders. Thus, the spread of printing played a role, but so did the political tumult in the Burgundian court following Charles the Bold’s death in 1477 (78-9, 141-2, 337). In the following years, a new model takes over, with production ever more focused on books of hours. It is tempting to compare this pattern to the modern textile industry in Italy which, to the degree that it has survived globalization, has done so by focusing on luxury couture, not everyday clothing. Wijsman suggests that the distinctive border decoration style of Flemish manuscripts may have helped them compete on the foreign market (567). Here it would be helpful to have some measure of a book’s luxuriousness; Wijsman’s statistics demonstrate that books of hours were not notably larger in these years (116-22), but he does not document whether they have more and/or larger illuminations. Concentrating production on books of hours also lead collectors who still wanted other genres to the second-hand market, rather like audiophiles hunting down used records in the age of mp3s. In 1511, for example, Margaret of Austria purchased seventy-eight volumes from Charles de Croy. Wijsman casts such purchases as manuscript-based nostalgia for the glory days of Philip the Good.
Wijsman also has good things to say about prices. While illustrated manuscripts were expensive, acquiring books even on a large scale would not have put a big dent in aristocratic budgets. Comparing the price that Philip van Horn paid for a book in 1481 to its appraisal at his death seven years later, he notes a 73% drop in value, almost identical to the decline in price that Ezio Ornato and Carla Bozzolo documented for some of Jean de Berry’s books after his death in 1416. Wijsman’s attention to prices is chiefly devoted to consumers; it would be good to know something about these economic matters from the illuminators’ perspective, as well as to learn about illumination’s contribution to the economy, especially in Bruges.
The book has one major omission: although it is entirely focused on illustrated manuscripts, it has very little to say about illustrations. What did pictures do? Why was a book with pictures better than one without? Did different periods, places or patrons assign different roles to a book’s illustrations? Answering these questions would require greater attention to unillustrated manuscripts. Similarly, printed books, while everywhere acknowledged, are not a focus of the investigation. A more complete understanding of printing’s effect on the production and collection of illustrated manuscripts would require an equally exhaustive study on printed books in these years.
But these omissions in no way compromise the book’s value. Wijsman gives us both a macro- and a micro-study, addressing broad trends in one hundred fifty years of illustrated manuscript production while also closely attending to individual collectors and individual books. His work is both a major contribution to the field and – especially given the updated website – a generous and stimulating tool for new research.