The Manuscript in France: A Short Historical Perspective
Monica L. Wright , Lecturer in French

The term manuscript typically refers to books, or codices, produced by hand in Europe between the fifth and sixteenth centuries. The codex became the favored format of written transmission of long texts concurrently with the Christianization of Europe around the fifth century. The advantages of the codex over the papyrus scroll, which had previously been the dominant format, are primarily due to its physical qualities, namely that vellum is more durable than papyrus and that the open leaf format of the codex allows easier access to various points in a text. During the period of Christianization, the Bible's importance as a reference source and the needs of those who consult it to move freely within the text both contribute to the preference for the codex.

The association of the book, or codex, with Christianity, in fact, runs much deeper than a simple preference for a particular format and lasts much longer. During the early Christian period, missionaries were some of the most visible possessors of manuscripts. They used their written sources as emblems of their special power of literacy among the illiterate populations, offering up their books as the tangible proof of their message and thereby conferring authority upon it. They exhibited them, read services from them, and taught civilization from them. Manuscripts were sacred objects. The book took on different meanings and uses over time. Charlemagne used illuminated manuscripts to express his own imperial authority during his reign in the ninth century. His books were classical texts with luxurious illuminations on purple pages depicting the great deeds of heroes. The emperor hoarded books as part of his royal treasury, equating their possession not with religious knowledge but with the wealth of civilization and the beauty of a well-crafted object.

These two different conceptions of the book fused with the passing centuries as not simply the ownership of books but also their production grew increasingly linked to the monastic tradition. The unhurried life of the cloister, which afforded the monks the time to sit for extended periods of time meticulously copying one manuscript into another, fabricated some of the finest books ever produced; though many of these books had religious content, certainly not all did. The secular learning of the ages met with the liturgical debates of the Church Fathers in the scriptoria of Europe, for the life of the mind and the life of the spirit were seen as inextricably connected. But the monasteries were also responsible for the production of more “frivolous” reading material. From the late twelfth century until the fourteenth century, the noble readership, a wealthy literate laity, harbored a great interest in courtly romance, which in turn fostered a limited demand for large illuminated manuscripts depicting the marvelous adventures and deeds of French or British heroes. These books were usually commissioned to be recopied in monasteries and were accessible uniquely to aristocrats of considerable means.

The great period of monastic book production, however drew to a close around 1200, with the advent of the professional book trade necessitated by the establishment of the universities, the largest and most successful of which is the University of Paris. Paris quite naturally developed as a major center of book production since its large number of students needed a more manuscripts and less costly ones than a monastery could supply. In response to this need, beginning in the thirteenth century, the professional mass production of books became the norm, and with this change came the popularization of books. In the late Middle Ages, Books of Hours, books intended for personal use unlike the great books of the clerics or aristocrats and unlike the books for students that were resold many times, represented perhaps the most important part of this trend. Their popularity was, in fact, so great that the demand for them created the need for new methods of mass production, which ultimately gave rise to the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century.