The Unfinished Book and Medieval Updating

A website updates, a book doesn’t.

This is one of the many ways to dichotomize two of today’s major competing media. However, such a categorical binary has not always been the case, and in the medieval world books were rarely ‘published’ in the way we’ve come to understand. Take for example the manuscript British Library Harley 1758.

Folio 45
Folio 45v

It was produced sometime between 1450 and 1500 and contains a copy of the Canterbury Tales, including the spurious Tale of Gamelyn. It seems to have been written by three distinct scribes and then corrected by a supervisor of sorts. While finely decorated and illuminated, there are notable gaps throughout the manuscript. Such gaps were clearly intentional at some stage in the process and similar blank spaces can be found in other manuscripts from the Middle Ages. The gaps in Harley 1758 (found on folios 45v, 102, 127 and 200) all fall between the end of one character’s tale and the beginning of another’s. The reason behind such premeditated gaps seems to be an intention to fill them with a portrait of the upcoming speaker. For example, on folio 102, the gap in the manuscript comes between the rubricated sentences Here endith the gode wifes tale of Bathe and Here begynneth the prolog of the ffrere.

Folio 102
Folio 102r

Presumably, then, the plan was to place a portrait of the Friar to fill in this gap. Similarly, on folio 200, we find a gap beginning at the top of the manuscript and ending with the sentence Here begy[n]neth the prolog of the ffrankeleyne.

Folio 200
Folio 200r

In this manuscript, portraits of the Cook, Friar, Manciple, and Franklin, were all clearly intended but have been left out in the process of manufacturing. The modern mind, strongly rooted in the print culture of the last few centuries, immediately wants to call this an ‘incomplete’ manuscript. By the simplistic standards set out above for a book, this work is clearly missing pieces intended for inclusion and therefore cannot be called ‘finished’ or ‘published’ in the sense we think of today. However, in a time with limited writing materials and a high cost of production for a single manuscript, books were an evolving entity and constantly updating in purpose and function. Moreover, as stated above, books like Harley 1758 were the product of numerous workers, all of whom had to be paid. In scenarios such as these, the eventual owners of the book funding its production might have simply run out of money. Even still, the book was ‘published’ despite its missing pieces, and its gaps cleverly used for other purposes in later times.

Folio 127
Folio 127r

Folio 127 of the work has been carefully reused to record the birth dates of the children of Edmund Foxe of Ludford, a 16th century clerk. This type of genealogical information is commonly found in medieval manuscripts, since, as stated above, the preciousness of such items made them valuables in medieval and early modern times.

The gaps in Harley 1758 give us insight into medieval and early modern usage of books and thoughts on the concept of publication. It is clear that the print-age dichotomy of finished and unfinished breaks down for medieval books, and perhaps their status is more akin to modern notions of website updates.

Axton Crolley
PhD Candidate
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

The Froissart Harley: Caricature on the Margins?

Miniature of a joust between Pierre de Courtenay and Sire de Clary with marginalia of a stag with wings and a sow with a conical hat on stilts on the left-hand side. Netherlands (Bruges), Late 15th century, Harley MS 4379 f. 19v.

The Froissart Harley, Harley MS 4379, is a manuscript filled with popular conceptions of the medieval period: knights, jousting, courtiers, war, queens and kings. Harley MS 4379 consists of the fourth volume of Froissart’s Chronicle, which recounts the events of the Hundred Years’ War. The manuscript was produced between 1470 and 1472 at the behest of Philippe de Commynes, one of the most powerful members of Charles the Bold’s court.

Detail of miniature of a joust between Pierre de Courtenay and Sire de Clary. Netherlands (Bruges), Late 15th century, Harley MS 4379 f. 19v.

Froissart’s Chronicle explores courtly life, the sphere of the nobility, but his work also teaches noble listeners: it includes emblematic examples of good, contemporary rulers, meant to advise a young lord in the proper governance of his subjects.

Detail of a miniature of tents and mounted knights, with marginal illumination, including a rabbit and snail jousting on the shoulders of monkeys. Netherlands (Bruges) Late 15th century, Harley MS 4379, f. 23v.

Although the text itself instructed its readership in proper chivalric behavior, the illustrations and marginalia enliven dry discussions of events such as siege warfare and provide images to connect to the chapter text. One particularly interesting feature of Harley MS 4379 centers on the depictions of animal marginalia and how they relate to the text.

Detail of a marginal painting of a winged stag. Netherlands (Bruges), Late 15th century, Harley MS 4379, f. 19v.

Any medieval reader would have comprehended allegorical associations with animals. One notable example of such symbolism occurs in the hunting scene in Fit 3 of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. While Gawain remains in Bertilak’s castle with Bertilak’s wife, his host hunts for three days: the first day he hunts deer, the second a boar, and the third a fox. The alternating hunting scenes and bedroom scenes narrated in Fit 3 parallel one another, underlining the analogous relationship between his lady’s attempts to trick Gawain and the Bertilak’s attempts to catch his prey.

Detail of a marginal painting of a rabbit and a snail jousting on the shoulders of monkeys. Netherlands (Bruges), Late 15th century, Harley MS 4379 f. 23v. Knights jousting against snails are a common occurrence in medieval manuscripts, but no satisfactory explanation has been supplied as to why!

However, the animal symbolism in the Froissart Harley differs from the hunting scenes in Gawain in an obvious fashion. While Gawain’s animals are meant to reinforce Gawain’s perilous situation, the marginalia in the Froissart Harley seem to caricature their own text. Regarding the rabbit and snail jousting, neither animal symbolically represents the jousting knights in the center miniature, nor do these two animals have a broader meaning in medieval bestiaries concerning jousting. These marginalia are meant to represent and enhance the text they accompany, but this point is problematic when considering the Burgundian approach to chivalry, the milieu out of which this manuscript emerged. Burgundians valued chivalric ideals above all else, as is shown by the great status granted to those of the Order of the Golden Fleece, a knightly order created by the dukes of Burgundy. Associating a rabbit and a snail with the jousters of Inglevert, perhaps the most vibrant and epic tournament in Froissart’s Chronicle, most likely would not have pleased a Burgundian audience.

Detail of a marginalia painting: a sow with a conical hat on stilts, playing a harp. Netherlands (Bruges), Late 15th century, Harley MS 4379 f. 19v.

Nor does the Master of the Froissart Harley spare courtly women in his caricatures. On the margin of folio 19v, the illustrator places a sow on stilts wearing a conical hat, playing the harp. This sow draws attention to the miniature of female courtiers, all wearing conical hats on watching the tournament in the middle of the page. Again, this characterization is paradoxical in a Burgundian context: pigs typically represented uncleanliness and greed, unfortunate traits for a woman trying to navigate the vicissitudes of court.

Detail of a miniature of courtiers watching a joust. Netherlands (Bruges), Late 15th century, Harley MS 4379, f. 23v.

Sean Sapp
PhD Candidate
Department of History
University of Notre Dame

This post is part of an ongoing series on Multimedia Reading Practices and Marginalia: Medieval and Early Modern

Further Reading:

Froissart’s Chronicle trans. John Jolliffe (New York: Random House, 1968).

Susan Crane, Animal Encounters: Contacts and Concepts in Medieval Britain (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).

Laetitia Le Guay, Les princes de Bourgogne lecteurs de Froissart : les rapports entre le texte et l’image dans les manuscrits enluminés du livre IV des Chroniques (Turnhout: Brepols, 1998).

Thomas Kren and Scot McKendrick, Illuminating the Renaissance: The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe (Los Angeles: Getty Pulications, 2003).

Willene B. Clark, A Medieval Book of Beasts: The Second-family Bestiary: Commentary, Art, Text and Translation (Boyden Press, 2013).

http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2013/09/knight-v-snail.html