Why Medieval Book Prices Matter

Recently, a colleague was discussing the procurement of personal preachers in particular places during the later Middle Ages, which piqued my interest. So I asked about the arrangement, that is whether these people were paid or if the relationship was based on mutual ties and benefit. When in turn I was asked why this might matter, I ventured that if we are interested in the social relations between the parties the nature of the exchange matters. This impressed upon me that the importance of book prices might not be as self-evident as they seem to me.

If the book is regarded as a sacred object, a reader’s or the audience’s relationship to its authority is fundamentally different from one in which the book is seen as a bought-and-sold commodity. In other words, the attitude towards and indeed the access (or lack thereof) to the material embodiment of the text plays an important role in one’s reading of the text (and/or the authority through which interpretation is transmitted).

In charting the early iconography of the Christian book, namely the shift in depictions whereby the once open book becomes a closed and ornamented object, Armando Petrucci argues for an ‘ideological process of sacralization’.* And in turn sees connected to this development a ‘conception that saw writing not as in the service of reading but as an end in itself’, divorcing the practice of writing from that of reading, enabling scribes to write with little concern or regard for the needs of reading or readers.** (While I admittedly have a hard time getting my head around the notion of writing as an end in itself, this point of view does help explain some of the errors that any reader of medieval manuscripts comes across; you can’t help but think when looking at a text that clearly was corrected either by the initial scribe or subsequent users, ‘Why didn’t they fix That! Surely, everybody noticed that Gedeon shouldn’t be spelled Zedeon?!’). If this accurately describes written culture in the very early Middle Ages, a shift whereby one might ‘buy’ what was a sacred object, written as an end unto itself, strikes me as a rather important and dramatic process.

In addition to issues of access to texts and authority in interpretation, the shift from sacred object to commodity is also an important part of economic history. In discussing Dobb’s Studies in the Development of Capitalism (1946), Stephan Epstein noted, “Two critical questions were never posed: First, why did the transition to capitalism occur originally in western Europe, even though parts of Asia were previously economically more advanced?”*** There seems to be a parallel question asked for the history of the book. Why did printing develop in western Europe when other societies had the technological tools for the same development and in some cases were (or had been) more ‘advanced’ both in the economies of book production and the technologies of print? Interestingly, it is often suggested that it was Gutenburg’s (and by extension western Europe’s) business sense, or search for profit that engendered the desire and drive to create the press, and that the book market that had developed prior in the Middle Ages enabled its subsequent success.

from http://www.stedmundsbury.gov.uk/sebc/visit/burybibleintro.cfm

Seeing that we are witnessing pretty radical re-assessments of the ‘stasis’ of the medieval economic world, including the write up of a paper that posits dramatically higher income in late medieval England than previously imagined, it seems that we might revisit the knowledge economy of the Middle Ages, keeping in mind the extensive networks that book production required and created well beyond the scriptorium. For the Bury St Edmunds bible (c. 1135) for example some parchment was sourced (or at least a desire was expressed for parchment sourced) from Scotland, testimony to the possibilities for rather far reaching trade at a rather early date.**** The regional differences, or the uneven distribution, in the development of a/the book trade (along with other social considerations such as urbanization et al) might serve as a useful way of gauging differing points of entry into differing realizations of modernities.

* ‘The Christian conception of the book in the sixth and seventh centuries’ in Writers and readers in
medieval Italy. Studies in the history of written culture
, ed. and trans. by C.M. Radding (New Haven, 1995), 29. Originally published as: ‘La concezione cristiana del libro’, Studi medievali, third series, 14 (1973),

** ‘Christian conception’, 32–33; See also, Petrucci’s ‘Reading in the Middle Ages’, in Writers and readers. Originally published as: ‘Lire au Moyen Age’, Mélanges de l’Ecole Française de Rome, 96
(1984), 603–16.

*** in “Rodney Hilton, Marxism and the Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism, Past & Present, Supplement (Volume 2) (2007), pp. 248-269 at 250.

**** Rodney Thomson, The Bury Bible (Woodbridge, 2001), pp. 25-26.


  1. Nice post.

    However I don’t see the contradiction between being a sacred object and a commodity. The relics were bought and sold every day and surely they were quite high ranking on the holy scale. I don’t see why there should have been a shift. Do you genuinely see a shift or are simply trying to apply the “transition” concept of Marx.

    Not to say that there was not potentially a turn towards commercialization of the book. It would be interesting to know if there always had been a secondary market for books or if it appeared and if so when where and why? Is it observable in the book itself (lower input, specialization, larger/smaller books, different titles, etc.).

    Here the example of cheese come to mind (yes I know it sounds far-fetched but bear with me). Before say 1200, cheese was mostly consumed where it had been produced. Then it became a widely traded commodity carried sometimes over very long distances. This can be observed in the shape cheese have to this day. They became larger allowing greater trade volume, they became flat on top and bottom to be staked in barrels and they became hard to be easily preserved and carried. Today’s Parmiggiano bears witness of the medieval commercial revolution. Anything like this in the book industry?

    On another note, you could have replied that book prize did matter since it was the very cause of the creation of universities (books were too expensive so there was one for several students and one lecturer; come to think of it Oxbridge is still organized based on Medieval book prize).

    But it is quite strange indeed to hear your colleague not understanding the importance of price since it gives a direct indication of the value attached to a given object.

  2. Thanks for the extended comment, Ben. Like you, I don’t think I see a contradiction between sacred object and commodity (relics being a wonderful example), but I think I see a distinction implied, if not overtly stated, in some talks (at conferences for example) or in some accounts of book history. That said, it seems reasonable if one uses a wide enough lense to see a transition. After and/or during the decline of Roman administration, infrastructure and its provincial elites, readers or book users probably would have been small enough in number that the book would have limited value, a dramatically different state from its status in the mid-fifteenth century. But the time during which it would have served as both sacred and commodity, I imagine as pretty extended.

    And in a somewhat different vein, Finkel and Mcleery’s introduction to book history states that the press transformed the book from a collectible commodity into a tradeable commodity that required a system of sales, production and distribution (the implication being that print print markets were small, essentially local).

    I think taken together (the local and the sacred angles) allow one to portray the book market as relatively marginal in economic history (albeit obviously important for book history), especially in economic history that focuses on class. I’m not an economist so this is impression more than anything else, but I like to think that the economies of the book (as a part of information technology) could play a bigger role in examining or bridging the medieval/modern divide, but I am sort of fumbling around this. Also, I would like to be corrected on this if the impression is incorrect! (I’ve seen short statements about the development of book production sometimes tied into the development of urban centres in some older accounts of medieval-modern European trade/development, but have seen less in the more recent material that I’ve read which focuses more class relations (this may just be a function of what I’ve stumbled across)).

    In terms of your very good cheese example, while the basic shape of the book doesn’t change, one could, for example, ship the text block, either unbound or provisionally stitched together, to a rather distant location where the final binding would be sewn on nearer the place of sale, but my recollection of this is in terms of printed books, not parchment manuscripts (which would fit with those who see medieval distribution of books as limited).

    Another development parallel might be the pecia system in universities, whereby quires, or sections, of manuscripts/texts would be rented out to students or professionals allowing one manuscript to be the exemplar for multiple copies at the same time greatly reducing the time within which multiple copies of a text could be made (but again this is local production).

    We do see in limited cases that parchment was likely procured from far off (as in the Bury St Edmunds Bible). Usually, this meant that mediocre quality parchment was used for the text and nicer parchment from further afield was employed on illuminated pages. Similarly, in books of hours we can sometimes see that the illuminated illustration pages were done somewhere different from where the main text was written (based on the style of illumination and sometimes differences in parchment we can assume workshops specializing in this one aspect of production; they could either produce the illustrations and send them to the book where they would be bound in, or they could receive a near complete book and fill in illustrations where folios had been left blank). And, another piece of distance trade comes in the production of manuscripts in Iceland for the Norwegian ‘market’ (its not clear if this was really a market or something more like a friendly provision of books for colleagues and peers).

    Perhaps this is not quite enough to posit the book as primary mover in the medieval commercial revolution, but its part is I think worth some more digging round, especially in term of regional unevenness and its consequences.

    In defense of my colleague, she was curious as to why I would be interested in whether private preachers were paid or brought in based on some sort of social quid-pro-quo. She was simply interested in what they were preaching, not how they came into the noble’s home per se. My trying to be too succinct probably bungled the narrative.

    Looking forward to reading your stuff as an aid to broadening my perspective in economic history!

  3. Reading this again, I realize I’ve written some incompatible things concerning sacrality in part because I’m trying to sort this out and in part because many things are happening at different points in time.

    The question about changes in format as an indication of long distance trade represents a really interesting way of thinking of developments. I hope to consider it more over time and get back to it.

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