Category Archives: Research and pre-publications

Biblical Building Blocks: Traces of Use in a Fifteenth Century “Delftse Bijbel”; by Judith Bleeker

In 1477, a Middle Dutch Bible was printed for the first time in Delft (the Netherlands). The choice for the vernacular makes clear that the “Delftse Bijbel” was oriented not only towards the clergy, but also included laypeople as its intended audience. These Bibles, which could for instance be read in silence for the purposes of Bible study and meditation, or out loud by the head of the family, must have taken up an important function in the households of their lay owners. However, medieval readers also treated their Bibles as objects of use, which meant that in addition to reading from them, they also did not hesitate to annotate them, underlining important passages, or even correcting the text where the printer had made mistakes.

However, that the Bible as object of use could also fulfil a function beyond the religious, becomes clear from Deventer SAB 113 KL 11. Fol. 263v of this copy of the “Delftse Bijbel” includes a handwritten list of building materials and descriptions of journeys made to acquire them. Frequent mention is made of stone and lime, as well as tiles, while the word “schuiten” (ships) may indicate how they were transported. The list also resembles an account in that it mentions both worked hours (“een schoft gewrocht”) and an amount of money (“alf sestalfe gulden”).

Fragment from Fol. 263v:

drie reijsen om
steen ende kalck [doorgehaald]
[…] noch een achter
middach die schuiten
holpen estreeken

three journeys for
stone and lime [crossed out/illegible]
[crossed out/illegible]
[…] Another late afternoon
[I] helped [to] tile the ships.

The text has been written at the end of Kings IV, where the large amount of white space on the page made it ideal for adding text, and before the start of the book of Daniel. As it is possible that these quires were only later bound together, the position of this page at the end of a quire may have made it easily accessible for writing notes. Yet, the list was not written all at once, but in stages, suggesting that the writer deliberately returned to the note to make additions on various occasions. It is also possible that it concerns a temporary note, which the writer meant to copy elsewhere at a later time.

A possible explanation as to why the writer chose to use his Bible as notebook is that it, as an important possession, was likely kept in a central space in the house. Therefore, the Bible provided a safe and easily retrievable place to store important information, information that was probably connected to the writer’s livelihood. Additionally, keeping administration in Holy Writ may also have guaranteed its reliability and truthfulness, similar to the still current practice of swearing an oath on the Bible.

This curious secular note thus reveals the Bible as an object of use, while also pointing to the intertwinement of the practical and the devotional – the secular and the sacred – in the lives of medieval laypeople.

By Judith Bleeker

Caption for the image: Digitally enhanced picture of the “Delftse Bijbel” (Deventer SAB 113 KL 11, fols. 263v, 264r) with the handwritten list visible on the verso, underneath the second column. Source: Atheneumbibliotheek Deventer, URL:

Reading in a Tanner’s Workshop in Amiens (1517)

Reading in a Tanner’s Workshop in Amiens (1517)

Amiens, Archives communales, FF 160/24

In 1517, after the trespassing of Nicolas Dupuis, a tanner living in Amiens in northern France, an inventory was made of the moveable goods in his home located in the Rue des Tanneurs. The possessions and debts Nicolas left behind indicate that he and his now widowed wife were of a very modest fortune. Next to clothing, furniture, some silver cups, and tanner’s tools, the inventory mentions some interesting items that are very informative about the domestic reading culture of Nicolas and his wife.

One of the two rooms upstairs was decorated with a small painting representing the Virgin. In the same room was a box containing precious belts, a Book of Hours “covered with black satin, embroidered with six pearls and with two gilded silver clasps”, and a painting on cloth representing the Trinity. The constellation of objects in this room suggest that reading and praying from the Book of Hours was performed by Nicolas and his wife in relation to the paintings of the Virgin and the Trinity.

In the “salette” downstairs was a chest (“ung buffet a deux huissetz”) containing silverware and the business administration. Among the documents on paper and parchment was also a small book on paper with the marvels of Rome, a French translation of the Mirabilia urbis Romae.

During the late Middle Ages texts were not only read from books, but information was also communicated to larger audiences by means of panels with texts. In the tanner’s workshop, also situated on the ground floor, was a panel with “the teachings of Cato” (“les enseignements Cathon”). The Latin Disticha catonis were often taught in schools during the Middle Ages and translations in most European vernaculars circulated widely. Humanist scholars were also interested in this work; for instance Erasmus of Rotterdam published a corrected edition of the Latin text in 1517.

The text on the panel in the workshop consisted most likely of several French excerpts from this work teaching the virtues of Christian Stoicism, for instance the importance of a modest, honest, and simple life: very suitable for a working space. Workshops were usually open spaces, allowing passers-by to look inside to see and check the ongoing work. As a consequence, the teachings of Cato must have been visible and readable for everyone outside.

The engagement of this tanner and his wife in religious life is once more revealed by the presence of two small chairs to sit on during sermons (“ii caielles a aller au sermon”), also found in the workshop.

The Rue des Tanneurs in Amiens as it looks nowadays (screenshot from Google Maps). It is situated in a lower part of town with several small waterways (one is visible on the right) that were very important for the tanning of leather.

The Rue basse des Tanneurs as it was in the early 20th century, before the two wars that destroyed the medieval town.

Margriet Hoogvliet

Lay Preaching in Fifteenth Century Florence

Lay Preaching in Fifteenth Century Florence

Manuscript Florence, Biblioteca Nazionale, Fondo Nuove Accessioni, 694, written in a very neat and elegant humanistic hand, was copied in Florence around 1475.

The scribe reveals his identity twice in the manuscript. After the first text, a vernacular version of the Life of St Paula (Comincia la vita di Sancta Paula composta da sancto Girolamo ad Eustochio sua figliuola), the scribe identifies himself as “Bernardo del Pachio Adimari” and affirms to have copied di mia propria mano (in his own very hand) the text on August 15th 1475. The strong affirmation of his writing performance, signaled by the use of the formula di mia propria mano, suggests that the manuscript could have been written for personal use or for circulation within a restricted circle of users, as family or professional circles.

The personal character of the manuscript is corroborated by a second colophon, placed at the end of the second text in the manuscript:

Finito el sermone di Eucharestia Recitato per me Bernardo di Pachio Adimari el giovedi sancto nella compagnia della fiamma adi xxiij di marzo 1474 quando si fe la lavanda de piedi

[The end of the sermon on the Eucharist recited by me Bernardo di Pachio Adimari on Maundy Thursday at the Compagnia della Fiamma on the 23 March 1474 (according to the Florentine style) during the washing of feet].

The colophon testifies of the personal character of the manuscript but it moreover refers to a practice common to Italian late medieval confraternities: the performance of short vernacular sermons by the lay members of the confraternity before the actual ritual of the washing. In his sermon, Bernardo reflects on the theme of the Eucharist and of the ritual connected to consecration of the host during Mass. He invites his fellow members to meditate and pray with him and to raise their heart in order to contemplate the mystery. The “special” gathering to commemorate Maundy Thursday is of course highly symbolic and essential for reinforcing the sense of community and the bond between the members.

Sabrina Corbellini

Building a Family Library in Fifteenth Century Florence

Building a Family Library in Fifteenth Century Florence

The Florentine citizen Antonio da Filicaia (1430-after 1512) was actively involved in administrative and political life of his hometown and served Florence through several functions in the town and the contado. Although the registration of his professional activities in archival sources offers a unique chance to reconstruct Florentine history in the second half of the fifteenth century, the feature that makes him particularly interesting within the framework of “Cities of Readers” is his aim to create a personal library to be shared with the family and a broader network.

He personally contributed to this enterprise by copying manuscripts and developing into one of the most prolific Florentine copisti per passione (amateur scribes). Seven autograph manuscripts by Antonio are still kept in Florentine libraries, all of them containing lengthy colophons describing his reasons for performing scribal activities in his spare time. He states that “the readers will draw essential lessons from reading these books, and these books should be cherished and passed on”. The significant manuscript corpus that still testifies of his interest in books, reading and transmitting (religious) knowledge could even have been larger: in fact, in a lengthy colophon in MS Florence, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Fondo Nazionale II I 71, fol. 237v he declares to have copied at least 25 manuscripts (see image). In the same colophon, written on 25th August 1493, he writes also about some general rules for organising the circulation of books and preserving the family library:

“I have written 25 or even more books in my own hand (di mia mano) and pray that everyone willing to enjoy these books will keep them with great care and will not let them circulate outside the domestic space without exchanging them with books with the same or higher value. Having all the books at their disposal and reading them, they will have great profit and pleasure and they will hopefully remember to pray God for me because I took a huge effort to copy them.”

The activities of exchanging and lending books Antonio touches upon in his colophon are also testified by Antonio’s copy of the Lives of the Fathers, copied from an older copy owned by the great-grandfather Antonio d’ Andrea del Pannocchia Riccomanni. As stated in colophon (Florence, BNC II.I.338), the manuscript had “to be copied again, as it was worn after having being lent so often”.

Sabrina Corbellini


A literate and devout weaver in Amiens, 1521

Shortly after 1479 the French town of Amiens incorporated a group of newcomers: artisan weavers (called sayeteurs) from Arras who probably had had to flee their town after the conquest by the French king Louis XI. These weavers introduced in Amiens a commercially successful industry of woollen cloth mixed with silk, the sayeterie. For the weavers themselves, however, the financing of their production was quite difficult: they had to buy first wool and silk from merchants in the halle and after two weeks of weaving, the prices given for cloth might have dropped considerably. Consequently, most sayeteurs were only very modestly wealthy or actually poor.

As David Lee Rosenberg (1978) has shown, a relatively large group of sayeteurs and woolcombers joined the first Protestant community in Amiens during the years c. 1550 to 1565. His study of literacy among them, based on the absence of signatures in legal documents, shows that a large group among the sayeteurs was illiterate, or at least not able to sign a contract (however, this still leaves open the possibility that they did master the skill of reading). The low level of literacy found by Rosenberg contradicts general assumptions about the relation between Protestantism and literacy.

A post-mortem inventory made on 26 July 1521 of the estate of the sayeteur Jehan Baillet (Amiens, Archives communales FF 166/13) suggests that at least this sayeteur was able to read and to write and that he was an active participant in religious live at least 30 years before the first Protestant communities appeared in France.

The inventory consists of only six pages and it was visibly written on the spot, because the writing is irregular and there are many erasures. This inventory was most likely made as part of a legal procedure for the execution of the will of Jehan Baillet, because piece of clothing in black velvet with silver buttons and a silk belt are described as having been bequeathed to a certain Angneline Baillet (“legate a Angneline Baillet”). Consequenty, it can be inferred that the inventory mainly lists the goods that remained after the execution of Jehan Baillet’s will and that he probably had more possessions that were not mentioned.

Jehan Baillet lived in a house surrounded by a small plot of land near the Porte de Beauvais on the southern edge of Amiens. The house counted two rooms and a kitchen downstairs, and three smaller rooms upstairs; the inventory mentions a weaver’s loom in one of the latter rooms. Most of his belongings are of little worth. For instance, most of the bed sheets are made from hemp and these were used and full of holes. The inventory also mentions furniture: chairs, wooden benches, tables, beds, two dressers, and “a little chair to go sermons” (une caielle pour aller au sermon), a strong sign of Jehan Baillet’s engagement in religious life.

Jehan Baillet also had several paintings on cloth. The only iconography mentioned in the inventory is religious: an image of Saint Stephen, another sign of Jehan’s religiosity.

A small room upstairs is called “escriptoire” and “estude” in the inventory: a place usually used for administration, letter writing, the storage of books, and for reading. The inventory mentions quills (pennes), probably a small container with sand (ung grabeler) used for removing excess ink, and a writing table (ung escriptoire). All this is proof of Jehan Baillet’s writing and reading skills. The inventory also lists a “small book” in this room, unfortunately without specifying its content.

Earlier studies of the inventories from Amiens, as Alfred Labarre’s study Le livre dans la vie amiénoise du seizième siècle (1971) never noticed Jehan Baillet’s book and it is to be expected that there are still more books hidden in the thousands of pages with hastily scribbled inventories.

For the weaver Jehan Baillet it is certain that he was literate, that he had access to written texts, and that he was participating in religious life, in his home and in places elsewhere in Amiens where sermons were to be heard. He was not motivated to do so by the Reformation, because in 1521 Luther had not yet divided the Church, but his knowledge and literacy might have rendered him receptive to the message of the Reformation.

Margriet Hoogvliet

Amiens, BM MS 573: Lay people shaping liturgical reading in their parish church


This early fifteenth-century manuscript is a liturgical book (Lectionary) with musical notation, interestingly donated by a married couple of lay people to their parish church in Amiens:

« Enguerran de Noyelle et Symonne du Puys, se femme, donnerent chest livre à l’esglise Saint-Remy en Amiens pour partir aus biens et priere fais en le ditte esglise, le XIIe jour de decembre l’an de grace mil IIIIc XXXV. Priés pour eulx » (f. 215v).

“Enguerran de Noyelle and Symonne du Puys, his wife, gave this book to the parish church of Saint Remy in Amiens in order to dispose of their wealth and to have prayers said for them in aforementioned church, the 12th day of December in the year of grace 1435. Pray for them”.

While the vast majority of liturgical texts and songs in this manuscript are in Latin, the last 46 pages reproduce so-called épitres farcies: liturgical Epistles intended to be sung in Latin alternating with translations into French/Picard, for the feasts of Saint Stephen (26 December), the Holy Innocents (28 December), and Saint John the Evangelist (27 December)

The inscription mentioning Enguerran and Symonne as donators of the manuscript is in the same hand as the rest of the texts, thus suggesting that it was their intention to have these liturgical readings in French included in the manuscript. Consequently, it was this couple of lay people that, by donating the manuscript, shaped the liturgy of some of the most important Christian feasts of the year by introducing French/Picard vernacular translations of liturgical Bible readings.

The French/Picard texts indicate manifestly that the intended audience consisted of both clerics and lay people:

Entendes tuit a chest sermon/ et clerc et lay tout environ” (f. 193r).

“Listen all to this sermon/ Clerics and lay people alike”.

The inclusion of Epistles in French/Picard in the manuscript was explicitly intended as a means of religious and biblical knowledge transfer to the widest possible audience:

Or escoutes grant et petit
traies vous cha vers chest escript
Si attendes tant que jaie lit
cheste lechon et chest chant dit … (f. 207r)

“Now listen, old and young,
draw near to the book here
and give your attention until I have read
this ‘Lesson’ and said this song…”
            (Transl. Stephens 1986, pp. 245-246)

The book given by Enguerran and Symonne explicitly played a role in disseminating religious and biblical knowledge to the widest audience possible, while using the parish church of Saint Remy and its clergy as instruments for the realisation of this goal.

Margriet Hoogvliet

The manuscript can be consulted online through the BVMM.

Inaugural lecture (“oratie”) by Professor Sabrina Corbellini, 6 June 2017, University of Groningen

Professor Sabrina Corbellini, Chair “History of Reading in Premodern Europe”

Geographies of Reading

A few months ago, the American National Book Foundation awarded the Innovations in Reading Prize to Barbershop Books (Harlem, NY), a community-based reading program that creates child-friendly reading spaces in barbershops. Over the past 2 years, “the program has transformed 49 barbershops into community spaces that support positive early reading experiences for Afro-American boys in 18 cities across 11 states”. Other four organisations have received honourable mention for the 2017 Innovations in Reading Prize: Books@Work, the Great Reading Games, Poetry in Motion, and Reach Out and Read. All the awarded programs share one main feature: the effort to integrate books and reading into everyday experience – waiting at barbershops, entering working spaces, travelling by public transport and seeing a paediatrician – in order to stimulate young and adult readers to perform reading activities. The societal impact of reading cannot be overestimated, as reading has always been, in premodern and modern times, essential for the creation and development of sustainable, strong and healthy communities and societies (see for example Studied in a historical perspective, research on reading activities, strategies and techniques allows researchers to investigate how knowledge was produced and disseminated, to reconstruct its availability and to test the impact of the circulation of knowledge on societal transformations.

The acknowledgement of the relevance of a spatial approach to reading (i.e. where are reading activities performed? And how do spaces and places of performance affect reading activities?) forms the connecting thread in the inaugural lecture that reconstructs “geographies of reading” through the study of late medieval and early modern sources. Far from being scarcely literate and virtually bookless, premodern societies will be approached as “laboratories” for testing not only who were the readers, how and what they were reading but also to “map” their reading strategies and activities.


Cities of Readers

The research project “Cities of Readers” aims to supply a new phase in the scholarly exploration of the “long fifteenth century” (1400-1550), a period characterized by great cultural, political and religious changes: a stronger urbanization, the development of religious observance movements, a growing social mobility accompanied by a rising literacy and an increasing book production. This pivotal period in Dutch and European history will be approached by studying the participation of lay people in the production and the transmission of religious knowledge through their engagement in reading, textual and performative activities. The project will innovatively approach religious knowledge in terms of dynamics, exchanges and negotiations and will consider both individuals and groups (“communities of interpretation”, i.e. formal and informal textual communities sharing texts and knowledge) as objects of research. Reading activities will moreover be studied in relation to the specific places and spaces in which they were generated. The complexity of the topic and the broad varieties of selected sources (ranging from personal miscellanies to post-mortem inventories) require an interdisciplinary and programmatic approach that will be conducted along three main methodological lines: a) the study of the multiformity of readership and modes of transmission (textuality, orality, aurality and performativity); b) the role of communities of interpretation; c) a spatial approach to cultural dynamics striving towards the reconstruction of a late medieval religious taskscape, i.e. identifying the place where religious knowledge was ‘made’, ‘discussed’ and ‘exchanged’. The research lines will be combined in three complementary research projects and in the final co-authored monograph that will contribute to the evaluation of material from the Low Countries in a wider European perspective. The project will result in the writing of new narratives concerning the crucial role of active readership during a pivotal period in European history.