Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 21, 2004
Richard H. Rouse and Mary A. Rouse Manuscripts and Their Makers: Commercial Book Producers in Medieval Paris, 1200–1500 Turnhout, Belgium: Harvey Miller Publishers, 1999. 832 pp.; 190 ills. Cloth €217.00 (1872501419)

The present study, the fruit of decades of painstaking and dedicated research by a distinguished team of husband-and-wife scholars, focuses on the commercial fabrication of manuscripts in Paris from the early thirteenth century to the rise of printing at the end of the fifteenth century. A 322-page analytical text in twelve chapters, 29 figures, 8 maps, and 80 pages of endnotes fill the first volume. Volume 2 contains a biographical register of some 1,200 men and women active in the medieval Parisian book trade, appendices to each of the study’s twelve chapters, 182 illustrations on coated stock, a full bibliography, and a final complement of indices.

In their introduction, Richard and Mary Rouse identify five themes that thread through their text. The first is the central role of two medieval Parisian neighborhoods for secular commercial book production there, the rue Neuve Notre-Dame on the Île de la Cité and the warren of streets adjoining the church of Saint-Séverin on the Left Bank. The second is the importance of libraires, men and women who both sold and orchestrated the making of books, as the organizers of and wealthiest players in the trade. The third is the number and variety of monied clients served by Paris’s libraires beyond the clerics of the University of Paris. The fourth is the key role played by the Parisian book trade in the dissemination of medieval French literature. The fifth and last is the importance of neighborhood and family in the cooperative fabrication of codices in medieval Paris.

Although the commercial Parisian book trade began to develop already in the second half of the twelfth century, hard evidence is scanty before about 1220; thus the Rouses start their history in earnest around that date (chapter 1). Unregulated in its infancy, the trade was under the university’s control by the 1270s (chapter 3). This is why book producers in Paris never developed guilds, as happened in London and Bruges. By 1323 the university had fixed the number of Paris’s libraires at twenty-eight, four of whom also served as deputies (libraires principaux). The only others allowed to sell books in Paris were the outdoor vendors of volumes valued at less than ten sous parisiens.

Libraires were not just sellers and contractors of books; they also often participated in their making. For example, the Rouses convincingly argue that the libraire Thomas de Maubeuge (active 1313–49) both managed the production of three Vies des saints and did some pen flourishes and transcribing in those volumes (chapter 7). Although documented only as libraires, the husband-and-wife team of Richard and Jeanne de Montbaston (active 1338–53) both illuminated on occasion (chapter 9). Raoulet d’Orléans (active 1362–1396/99), écrivain du roi to Charles V and libraire, transcribed the famous Vaudetar Bible of 1372 (The Hague, Museum Meermanno-Westreenianum, Ms. 10.B.23; chapter 10).

The Rouses’ study focuses exclusively on documented members of Paris’s book trade. Some, like Emery d’Orléans (active 1230–39), are interesting for the distances they traveled to sell manuscripts; Emery died in 1246 in Lyons, a city to which he was apparently drawn by the council convoked in 1245 by Pope Innocent IV (chapter 1). Others are distinguished by their considerable wealth; one Nicholas Lombard (active 1248–76) owned or derived income from some sixteen properties in Paris (chapter 2).

Two full chapters (5 and 6) are devoted to the celebrated Maître Honoré (active 1289–1312/13) and his son-in-law, Richard de Verdun (active 1289–1327). The Rouses conclusively establish that Honoré was not paid for painting a breviary for Philip the Fair in the second half of 1296, as has sometimes been asserted. He was, however, a favored royal illuminator, and it is on this basis that the Rouses use the evidence of manuscripts of the Somme le roi to identify Honoré with the painter of the renowned Breviary of Philip the Fair (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, lat. 1023). They also introduce new evidence to support the traditional identification of the Papeleu Master with Richard de Verdun. Finally, the Rouses demonstrate that Honoré died between January of 1312 and July of 1313.

In the last third of the thirteenth century, the Paris book trade began to serve a newly emerging market for French-language romances, spearheaded by demand from the royal court (chapter 4). Two of the key players in this production in the early fourteenth century were the libraires Thomas de Maubeuge (active 1313–49, chapter 7) and Geoffroy de Saint-Léger the Younger (active 1333–43, chapter 8). Among the illuminators whom Thomas employed was the prolific painter of the celebrated Roman de Fauvel (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, fr. 146); Geoffroy seems also to have subcontracted illumination to the Fauvel Master.

The Rouses comment frequently on the uneven and often poor quality of the miniatures in French romances of the early fourteenth century. Among other examples, they cite the more than four hundred one-column illuminations by the Fauvel Master in a rhymed Ovid moralisé of about 1320 in Rouen (Bibliothèque municipale, Ms. 1044). The refinement of those paintings deterioriates as the manuscript progresses; indeed, were only the first four and last four illuminated gatherings to have survived, their respective miniatures would be viewed as the work of two different artists. There are no absolute lines of demarcation, however: the quality of the paintings wanes, then waxes briefly, then wanes again. The Rouses propose that as the interest of both artist and patron flagged, the pressure to finish the manuscript by whatever means necessary became irresistable. This reviewer would add that perhaps the Fauvel Master also suspected that his patron might never read all the way to the back of the book, and so would only glance at the images there.

The Rouses demonstrate again and again that “the Parisian book trade valued speed of completion and quantity, not necessarily quality, of illuminations” and esteemed “consistency above innovation” (231). This is especially well demonstrated by the careers of Richard and Jeanne de Montbaston (chapter 9). To judge from the rubrics and sketches in their manuscripts, Richard could read French, but Jeanne may not have been able to do so. As the Montbastons worked gathering by gathering rather than with the entire codex to hand, the couple most often had only a fragmented perception of the text as a whole. Given this, the Rouses rightly note that close “text-and-image” analyses of such manuscripts may be misguided. The fact that the French royal house employed the Montbastons for secular books and more refined artists like Jean Pucelle, Richard de Verdun, and Jean le Noir for liturgical manuscripts also suggests that those eminent patrons made a clear distinction between “low” (“popular”) and “high” (“serious”) texts.

The turmoil into which Paris was thrown by the assassination of Louis d’Orléans in 1407 was not propitious for the luxury trades, as the Rouses determine in their chapter 11. Times were even tougher under the English occupation, which began in 1420 and endured until 1436 (chapter 12). The Rouses cite the example of the illuminator Jean Pestivien, who in 1421 “abandoned the book trade to become a sergent of the Paris police, explaining that his trade was no longer a profitable endeavor” (304). As Anne van Buren has established, Jean Pestivien later found intermittent work as a binder, painter, illuminator, and gilder in Dijon, Besançon, and Saint-Omer. He toiled for paltry wages from 1441 to 1446 for Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, and died in poverty in 1463 (Anne van Buren, “Dreux Jehan and the Grandes Heures of Philip the Bold,” in “Als ich kan”: Liber Amicorum in Memory of Professor Dr. Maurits Smeyers, ed. Bert Cardon et al. [Louvain, Belgium: Peeters Publishers, 2002], 2:1403–5).

In their epilogue, the Rouses note that the libraire turned into the “libraire-publisher who subcontracted with the printer to make printed books” at the end of the fifteenth century (331). This is hardly surprising, for in the era of handwritten codices “it had always been the libraire’s role to serve as paymaster for the production of a manuscript; libraires needed to be the wealthiest segment of the book trade, because they were obliged to buy their parchment and pay their scribes and illuminators before they themselves received final payment in full from their clients” (332). Given this, there is good reason to suspect that individuals described in late medieval documents as scribes (écrivains) or illuminators (enlumineurs) were most likely libraires who sometimes transcribed or decorated parts or all of manuscripts whose making they otherwise subcontracted.

In conclusion, it must be stressed that a review as brief as this of a study as exhaustive and magisterial as Manuscripts and Their Makers: Commercial Book Producers in Medieval Paris 1200–1500 can offer only a cross section of the subject’s riches. That the Rouses’ text is also clearly and cogently argued and beautifully written, and thus a pleasure to read, only increases the study’s worth. Like Léopold Delisle’s equally and enduringly valuable Le cabinet des manuscrits de la Bibliothèque impériale/nationale (Paris, 1868–71), Manuscripts and Their Makers will be carefully read and repeatedly consulted by students of the medieval book for many decades, if not many generations, to come.

Gregory T. Clark
Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University of the South

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