Skip to main content

Reading in the Middle Ages: Welcome

Selection of manuscripts and early printed works in the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collection illustrative of reading in the European Middle Ages

A priori

Inter folia fructus.—Bookplate of Andrew Dickson White


“La variance de l’œuvre médiévale est son caractère premier, altérité concrète de la mobilité discursive….”—Bernard Cerquiligni, Eloge de la variante (Paris : Seuil, c1989).

p. 111-112.

Florence at Sunset

View of Florence (principal city of Tuscany) at sunset, taken 6 October 2008 by, found in Wikimedia, and available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 1.0 Generic license.

The economic and cultural rise of Florence (and several other Italian city-states, including Venice) occurred during the Middle Ages, from the eleventh through the fourteenth centuries. With Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio flourished the Tuscan dialect of Italian in the fourteenth century.

Codex: an Introduction to the Guide

An important constant, evident in most institutions of medieval Europe (ca. 600-1500 CE), was literacy, which was far from universal but rested, for the majority population, on a significant heritage  from (Christianized) Late Roman Antiquity, and afforded Europeans a measure of cultural and political cohesion and duration. The evolving, still dynamic Latin language was an essential ingredient in this cultural cohesion, but its dominance in many institutional settings (ecclesiastical, administrative) by no means precluded the development of written vernacular literatures: the number and variety of texts in Old Irish, Old Icelandic, Old French, Anglo-Saxon and many other languages bear witness.

Minority populations in Europe, notably the Jews and Muslims, contributed from their own resources in profound ways to European literacy, significantly through, inter alia, Biblical and rabbinic literatures in Hebrew and Greek and Islamic philosophical traditions transmitted through the Arabic language.

The fundamental material vehicle of medieval European literacy was the codex, constructed from vellum (and later paper) leaves (although Jews continued to use parchment scrolls for ritual public reading of the Torah). The surprisingly supple technology of the codex appeared in many forms, with features fitting for the works recorded therein. Copyists developed and transmitted scripts from rapid chancery hands to formal book hands, and employed techniques to ensure a reasonably stable and systematic creation of manuscripts: justification of columns, uniformity in line count, standard abbreviations and ligatures—not to mention well-prepared vellum and durable ink. Images in the finest surviving examples make it evident that the development of manuscript illustration in Europe was as sophisticated as the evolution of European visual arts in any other medium.

Italian Manuscript of Cicero


Cicero: De Paradoxa, De Senectute, De Amicitia

Explicit page

4600 Bd Ms 124

Northern Italy, 1404 or earlier

Web Accessibility Assistance