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.