There was a growth in reading books through the fourteenth century in England. At the beginning of the century books were written in French or Latin, but English passages were included in them around the middle of the century. Educated people were taught Latin and French, but everyone spoke English. Towards the end of the century books started to appear that were written entirely in English. It wasn’t until then that English was considered a literary language and it was at this point that works by Langland, Gower, Chaucer and the Gawain Poet became available.
Unsurprisingly I read fiction set in the fourteenth century and I have come across too many novels in which books are treated as small, everyday objects. They weren’t; they were large and tremendously valuable. Someone had to be very wealthy to own even one. If you owned a book, no one else had one exactly the same.
I have occasionally read novels in which the heroine wafts into her bedroom where she had earlier left an unfinished book on the bed and picks it up to read, as if it were a modern paperback. We’ll get on to reading in a moment, but books would not have been left lying around; they were far too valuable.
A book was written and illustrated by hand. Each page was made from animal skin prepared by hand. Once completed they had to be sewn together and bound by hand. Even in a labour-intensive age, the labour of making a book was immense and this made them expensive. If a private person owned a book it was more likely to be locked safely away in a chest than left out on display.
Mention of a library in a medieval house or even a castle in a historical novel always gives me pause when I’m reading. Very few wealthy people had many books. Edward III had about 340 books and his youngest son had about half that number. There is even a picture of Edward III receiving a book as a wedding gift. It was such an extravagant present that its giving was recorded.
In my own novels I’ve occasionally used books to show the wealth or aspirations of a character. In The Winter Love, for instance, Edward owns three books when we first meet him. He appears to be wealthy. When those books disappear and Edward denies ever having owned them it’s a sign to the reader that Edward’s fortunes have changed and that he might not be what he seemed at first.
Popular literature included treatises on warfare, hunting, histories and stories about King Arthur and the deeds of the Knights of the Round Table. There were also religious books: prayer books and sermons. Few individuals owned a complete Bible, although Edward II’s queen, Isabella, had one. Bibles were the province of cathedrals and monasteries. Not all priests could read, so it’s no surprise to learn that complete Bibles were rare in churches.
The greatest concentrations of books were in monasteries and abbeys, where they were often kept chained to the shelves. Books were sometimes inscribed with curses against anyone who had the temerity to steal them.
Reading, or being read to, was a communal activity. Books would be read aloud to the household gathered in the hall (the main room) of the house. Private reading didn’t mean that someone read a book themselves, but that the book was read to the lord and his family in the solar (their private room). Reading, save for study, was not a solitary occupation. Reading alone for any other reason was considered anti-social and odd.
As illustrated in this wonderful post by Erik Kwakkel books were so valuable that they were a target for thieves and their owners had to take measures to ensure that their books were kept safe and secure. The post is worth looking at for the pictures alone.