O’Donovan notes: Calendar emblems ‘July’ – The making of manuscripts.

c.1500 words

From monastic scriptorium to commercial atelier.

(no, I didn’t first see this on another Voynich site. Whether the reciprocal applies. – who knows?

Among the many paradoxes facing us in studying Beinecke MS 408 is the fact that not only Wilfrid Voynich, but many other specialists of his time judged the manuscript’s appearance as thirteenth-century, ‘home-made’ and from the Anglo-Norman environment, or more exactly the Angevin-though-Plantagenet environment.

That opinion isn’t necessarily eliminated by our knowing, now, that a fair number of the quires in the upper part of the manuscript were inscribed early in the fifteenth century, and there seems little reason to suppose otherwise of the manuscript’s lower quires – though some doubt remains. The sampling was not randomised (no fault of the lab. people) and three of the four samples were taken from quires of the most conventional (quaternion) type, ignoring the fact that those are the minority and that in various ways the Voynich quires do not conform to what was normal for Latin manuscripts of either the thirteenth or the fifteenth century, in their preparation, format and finish.

If we do suppose, for the meanwhile, that all the quires in our manuscript were inscribed in Latin Europe or under Latin auspices, we still have that discrepancy between a thirteenth-century appearance, earlier defined and accepted by so many, and an indisputable dating for at least some of the quires (and I my guess is all) to the early decades of the fifteenth century.

The most obvious possibility is that the fifteenth-century scribes and draughtsmen copied from one or more earlier works – though here we cannot speak of the Voynichese script, whose time and place of first use is still unknown.

The point is that over that period between the thirteenth century and the early fifteenth, important changes occur in the way western Europe’s manuscripts were produced and illustrated. Because this matter is relevant to analysis of the ‘July’ emblem, this post provides an overview to serve as introduction.

During the earlier period, monastic scriptoria were the chief producers of manuscripts, typically copying from manuscripts already in their possession. After that time amateurs, students and commercial copyists, painters and sellers of manuscripts were increasingly the source of copied and newly-made manuscripts, all but the students producing whatever the commercial client or patron wanted, in the style that he or she wanted, adapting to current fads and preferred styles in drawing.

A commercial producer might use an image first seen in one manuscript, to adorn one of very different type, gained from a very different source.

The lineage of text and image diverge.

At the same time, we begin to follow specific illuminators, and see an atelier use and re-use a particular ‘dictionary’ of collected forms. Novelties appear, but increasingly too a text may be illustrated with ‘antique’ forms, copied from sources other than from earlier European manuscripts, and occasionally even invented to suit a patron attracted by the ‘renaissance’ ideal.

Boy reading a scroll. Herculaneum. 1stC AD

Invention in style became more acceptable, though France and Italy were leaders of fashionable style into and after 1440. We know that, at the same time, artists did strive for authenticity in their ‘antique’ images, and would ask each other, for example, how many thunderbolts Jove should hold, or what flower was the right flower for Venus’ emblem.

For the rest of this post, I’ve included passages from the ‘Manuscripts’ entry in the Catholic Encyclopaedia. Despite its age (1911) the authors had superb access to medieval records, and offer a full survey of the earlier centuries – not just in Latin Europe. The authors had an additional advantage in that they had access to medieval libraries, documents and scholarship (Catholic by default) which were subsequently lost in one and then the other of the world wars. In what follows, some names will be already known to some Voynicheros, and I hope others will soon be more familiar to my readers.

Anyone who feels up to coping with too many embedded advertisements, do read that ‘Manuscript’s article in full. The whole Encyclopaedia is online.

Articles which involve positions on Christian doctrine might need to be weighed against other sources, but for purely historical and objective topics, like ‘Manuscript’, the entries are often first-class. In fact, though not always listed among the references used by wiki authors writing about medieval life and culture, The Catholic Encyclopaedia is very often their foundation and much of their matter.

The selected paragraphs, below, should help newcomers to manuscript studies understand the following post(s) about the ‘calendar’ emblems – enjoy!



The period of the eleventh and twelfth centuries may be considered as the golden age of monastic manuscript writing. In each monastery there was a special hall, called the “scriptorium”, reserved for the labours of the copyists…

Absolute silence reigned there. At the head of the scriptorium the bibliothecarius distributed the tasks, and, once copied, the manuscripts were carefully revised by the correctores. In the schools the pupils were often allowed as an honour to copy manuscripts (for instance at Fleury-sur-Loire)…

provenance unknown – carving, stone. monk-scribes

Division of labour seems as yet not to have been fully established, and there were monks who were both scribes and illuminators (Ord. Vital., III, 7). The Bible remained the book which was copied by preference. The Bible was copied either entire (bibliotheca) or in part … the Psalter … Evangeliaria, in which the Gospels followed the order of the feasts. Then came the commentaries on the Scriptures, the liturgical books, the Fathers of the Church.. theology… chronicles, annals, lives of the saints, histories of churches or monasteries, and lastly [secular and pre-Christian* authors], the study of which never ceased entirely.

* the original uses the term ‘profane’ which today carries a more negative sense than was intended. The original simply means non-religious or pre-Christian and would include Aratus, Pliny, Aristotle, works on medicine and non-moralised astronomy etc.

Rather a large number of such authors are found among the one thousand manuscripts in the library of Cluny.* At St. Denis (S.Denys in Paris) even Greek manuscripts were copied (Paris, Bib. Nation., gr. 375, copied in 1033 AD). The newer religious orders, Cistercians, Carthusians, etc., manifested the same zeal as the Benedictines in the copying of manuscripts.

*By 1911, the library of Cluny was already much reduced from what it had once been. What remains of it is in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, where it is not catalogued as a separate collection.

Then beginning with the thirteenth century the labour of copyists began to be secularized.

About the universities such as that of Paris were a large number of laymen who gained a livelihood by copying; in 1275 those of Paris were admitted as agents of the university; in 1292 we find at Paris twenty-four booksellers who copied manuscripts or caused them to be copied. Colleges such as the Sorbonne also had their copying rooms.

On the other hand, at the end of the thirteenth century in the greater number of monasteries the copying of manuscripts ceased.

Although there were still monks who were copyists, such as Giles of Mauleon, who copied the “Hours” of Queen Jeanne of Burgundy (1317) at St. Denis, the copying and the illumination of manuscripts became a lucrative craft.

“With the Revolution came the secularization and devastation of the abbey [of St.Denys]. The treasury was emptied, tombs thrown open, and sculptures shattered. The lead roof was taken down and used for metal. Nothing but walls remained” – Vera K. Ostoia.

Individual libraries and collectors.

At this juncture kings and princes began to develop a taste for books and to form libraries; that of St. Louis* was one of the earliest. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries these amateurs had in their pay veritable armies of copyists. Thenceforth it was they who directed the movement of the production of manuscripts.

*Louis IX of France, reigned 1226 to 1270 AD.

The most famous were Popes John XXII (1316-34), Benedict XII (1334-42); the poet Petrarch (1304-74), who was not satisfied with purchasing the manuscripts in convents but himself formed a school of copyists in order to have accurate texts, the King of France, Charles V (1364-1380), who collected in the Louvre a library of twelve hundred volumes, the French princes Jean, Duke of Berry, a forerunner of modern bibliophiles (1340-1416), Louis Duke of Orléans (1371-1401) and his son Charles of Orléans (d. 1467), the dukes of Burgundy, the kings of Naples, and Matthias Corvinus. Also worthy of mention are Richard of Bury, Chancellor of England, Louis of Bruges (d. 1492), and Cardinal Georges d’Amboise (1460-1510).


Louis de Bruges is an example of why modern ideas of ‘nationality’ don’t quite work in the world of medieval Europe, even for the fifteenth century. A Flemish courtier, Louis de Bruges was Lord of Gruuthuse and Prince of Steenhuijs, Stadtholder of Holland and Zeeland (1462–77) and Earl of Winchester (in England), which title and benefits were conferred on him in 1472 by Edward IV of England. Among other things, that entitlement gave the bibliophile Louis free access to the libraries of Winchester.

One thought on “O’Donovan notes: Calendar emblems ‘July’ – The making of manuscripts.

  1. BNF Grec 328 (1001-1100 AD) is a copy of the Liturgie Praxapostolus. It is a small-format palimpsest. Another twelve copies of that liturgy, variously dated, are in the BNF and have been digitised. The BNF catalogue entries are often specific about authors and contents, but may not mention where a manuscript was made. The various periods of confiscation have made provenancing and attribution more difficult and in some cases one suspects the omission has been for reasons more diplomatic than practical.


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