Medieval Writing
The Content of Books
The earliest surviving medieval books are works of church liturgy. This is hardly surprising given that the reintroduction of literacy to Europe came through the monasteries. The earliest foci of literacy were missionising centres whose function was to convert the pagan populations to Christianity.
Modern statue of the baptism of Clovis at the place where it supposedly happened in Rheims.
By the end of the middle ages, a large array of subjects was covered in manuscript books. Secular authors and increasing lay literacy had broadened the readership and their interests. The written word rather than oral tradition had become the means of transmitting much knowledge. It is tempting to suggest that by the end of the middle ages what was found in books included everything, but that is not quite true.
The written word was based in a tradition of writing derived from the Classical world and a tradition of the church and its concerns with moral improvement. These themes come through in many types of works. What is often absent, which we take for granted today when we wander into a bookshop, is the plain observation of the diversity of the world, its natural phenomena and its peoples. Much practical working knowledge was also transmitted by other than the permanent written word.
We get very superior about this and claim it is because they had not yet invented Science, but were locked into Religious Superstition. But we know that medieval people had a great knowledge of the natural world and its phenomena.
They grew food successfully in a range of environments. They transformed it into bread, beer, preserved meat and fish, butter and wine.
The vinegrowers of Chartres are preserved in stained glass.
Gothic building They spanned rivers with bridges and built enormous and technically complex buildings.
The other major church of Chartres, St Pierre, shows the most technically advanced form of Gothic, with a skeletal stone frame holding up glass walls.
They manipulated material to make metals, glass, enamel, paints for many different purposes, dyes for clothing. They turned animal skins into leather for shoes and saddles or parchment for manuscripts.
bronze effigy
tanner This full sized bronze effigy of a 13th century bishop in Amiens cathedral represents technical knowledge of a high order.
A Chartres tanner stirs his vat of pretty obnoxious substances known to turn cowskin into leather.
Much of this knowledge is not preserved in detail in manuscript books. There is no manual on How to Build a Gothic Cathedral, but the idea that the master mason just got the workers to stick it up and see if it fell down is nonsensical. Yes, things did occasionally fall down when they were stretching the envelope of tolerance, but a system of knowledge was passed between experts by some means other than the manuscript book tradition.
Beauvais Cathedral
Most of Beauvais cathedral fell down, but they did try to build the tallest Gothic vault in France.
trebuchet There is a current craze for TV programs about ancient technology in which teams of individuals, usually with beards, attempt to reconstruct some gizmo or construction from the past without an instruction manual. I remember one about the trebuchet, a machine for throwing rocks at castles. It took about five scientists, two computers, seventeen scale models, three hundred volunteers and twenty-seven failed attempts to finally conclude that, yes, Edward I and his men could have accurately knocked down a Scottish castle wall with one of those things while staying out of arrow range. I will bet you anything that old Edward's carpenters and engineers knew that already, without a leatherbound volume entitled The Trebuchet Builders Companion.
The point is that despite its ultimate breadth of scope, the medieval manuscript book was confined within a tradition. It does not represent the totality of medieval knowledge or interests or capacity to understand the world. There are practicalities in written works, but many such matters passed through oral tradition. It is worth considering this question of the tradition, its exclusions and its inclusions, in relation to each of the categories of works.
Categories of Works
The Written Word

If you are looking at this page without frames, there is more information about medieval writing to be found by going to the home page (framed) or the site map (no frames).
This site is created and maintained by Dr Dianne Tillotson, freelance researcher and compulsive multimedia and web author. Comments are welcome Material on this web site is copyright, but some parts more so than others. Please check here for copyright status and usage before you start making free with it. This page last modified 13/2/2005.