How to Read a Book in the Fourteenth Century

Following last week’s little foray into historical inaccuracies in novels set in the fourteenth century, I thought I’d look at another example. This time I am (to an extent) one of the guilty parties. This particular error is something I’ve come across in more than one novel set in the fourteenth century, so I’m far from alone. The main character, often the daughter or son of a minor lord, reads a book alone in their bedroom. There are a few things wrong with this, but we’ll start with the mistake that I’ve made in at least two of my novels, just to get it out of the way.

No one had a bedroom in which they slept alone and those people who were able to afford a bed usually shared it. I’d like to be able to say that I got this wrong for artistic reasons, that is that I knew what the historical reality was and changed it for the sake of the plot, but the truth is that I didn’t know and hadn’t done enough reading about the fourteenth century at that point to know what did happen. There were undoubtedly exceptions to the general rule that no one slept alone. An elderly, widowed lord might sleep alone in his bed, but there would still be servants and dependents sleeping in his bedchamber, and male dependents were as likely to share his bed as not. On the whole, though, there just wasn’t enough space for anyone to have their own bedroom. If the family was wealthy enough to be able to afford a separate bedchamber, they all slept in it. In all cases, the servants and other members of the household, almost entirely male, slept in the hall, the room in which meals were eaten and guests received.

We’ll move on to the question of the book. Books were expensive, so it’s unlikely that a minor lord would be able to afford one. If he did own such an object, it would probably be kept under lock and key in a chest or strong cupboard. It certainly wouldn’t be something that a son or daughter would be able to remove without permission and take somewhere else to read.

Books were mostly very big and heavy, and they weren’t generally read by someone holding them in their hands, not for long, anyway. They would usually rest on some kind of support. Think something the size of a church Bible on a lectern and you’ll be close. Books were written by hand on calf or sheepskin that had been scraped both to remove hair and flesh, and stretched to make it thinner. Despite this processing, velum was still quite thick, so books were thick.

Unless you were a monk or looking up something specific, reading wasn’t something you did on your own. It was a social activity: someone read aloud and everyone else listened. This didn’t just apply, as you might think, to works of fiction and poetry. It also applied to non-fiction, such as histories and hunting treatises. In a world where the main forms of entertainment were what could be provided by the members of a household in terms of singing or telling stories, almost any book would interest almost everyone.

Just as minor lords wouldn’t be able to afford books generally, they definitely would not be able to have a library, something which, again, I’ve come across in more than one novel. Libraries were for monasteries and the royal family. It took an immense amount of wealth to be able to afford enough books to make it necessary to dedicate an entire room to them. Books in libraries were often chained to prevent them being stolen, as in the photograph at the top of the post, making the initial premise of someone taking a book away to read it even more unlikely.

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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34 Comments

Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Entertainment, Medieval Life

34 responses to “How to Read a Book in the Fourteenth Century

  1. So much to get right in a historical novel!

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  2. Thank you for another very helpful redirection, April. Okay, off to edit…

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  3. Thanks April…you always tell me things I don’t know. I would have hated it back then as being hearing impaired I cant concentrate on someone speaking without subtitels for long. I read somewhere too that there were no gaps between words in earlier books which wouldve made reading interesting too! Happy New Year…looking forward to getting back into reading your posts x

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    • Thanks, Clare. It’s been hundreds of years since there were no gaps between words. I did a bit of New Testament Greek at school and there were no gaps when the NT was written. Fortunately, all the texts we were given to read had helpful spaces. Medieval literature did have gaps between the words.

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  4. My, so many things wrong with a seemingly innocuous phrase—something so commonplace today! Oh, how the times have changed.

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  5. ericscheid

    Read somewhere but lost the cite:

    Books of vellum would typically have thick wooden covers — vellum, y’see, has this habit of not lying flat and swelling if damp, and so it is useful to have two solid hunks of wood which could even be strapped so as to keep all the pages flat.

    Ah, found something .. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bookbinding#Development

    Solid wooden covers, straps, buckles, metal bosses … not a handy paperback to snuggle up with under the covers =)

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  6. I remember seeing a painting of Chaucer, standing at a lectern, reading to the court of Richard II. Most people were standing, including the king and his second queen. It was contemporary, so I’m sure that is how people listened to book readings.

    And yes, the book was huge!

    Also recall that some kind of pointer was often used to help the reader keep place. Pointers sometimes looked to be tethered to book or bookrest. I’m thinking that they were to keep grubby fingers from marring pages?

    The Chaucer picture is shown in Alison Weir’s “Mistress of the Monarchy”, a
    biography of Katherine Swynford, Dutchess of Lancaster, third wife of John of Gaunt.

    Smaller Books of Hours were privately owned by either sex, elaborately bejeweled, gilt, and adorned with illuminated pictures (often more art than text). “Smaller” does not mean pocket-sized, merely not the enormous tomes per usual. Most still needed supports to read. These were carefully inscribed with the owner’s name, as well as the names of those who inherited them.

    Google “Books of Hours” and you’ll find scores of lovely illuminations. Such talent and dedication to patrons! I’m thinking that an illuminated page was just as pricey as the gold and gems of embellishment!

    Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks for this post. It’s good to appreciate the contexts of books and their reading. I would just echo shaunnmunn’s observation about the growing popularity of Books of Hours as personal books of devotion, though add that there are some pocket-sized ones that have come down to us. The one at Rochester Cathedral is quite tiny (10.5×8cms), fitting comfortably inside one’s palm. Here’s a link to a post about it by the late Dr Hackett:

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  8. Thanks for this post. It’s good to appreciate the contexts of books and their reading. I would just echo shaunnmunn’s observation about the growing popularity of Books of Hours as personal books of devotion, though add that there are some pocket-sized ones that have come down to us. The one at Rochester Cathedral is quite small (about 10×8cms). Here’s a link to a post about it by the late Dr Hackett: https://www.rochestercathedral.org/libraryblog/book-of-hours?format=amp

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    • I wondered if there might be smaller books of hours. It occurred to me that they wouldn’t be much use for personal devotion if they were huge, but I’ve never seen a small one and, having read Eamon Duffy’s book, I had the impression that they were large until the printing press came along. I ought to go back and re-read the early chapters. Thank you for the link to the article.

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      • In the context of cookery, the John Ryland’s Library Fourme of Cury (Proper Method of Cookery) is also quite small, though not as small as the Rochester Book of Hours. It was not used as we might use a cookery book today, following it along next to the stove, splashing it with sauce, but rather most likely was consulted when planning dishes for Richard II’s household. So the steward and kitchen clerk and the cooks (if they could read it) may have got it out to make decisions. Most cookery collections are fragmentary and found in large miscellanies. Later copies of Fourme of Cury are actually written on rolls! I love the fact that some books, like the Rylands and Rochester ones were quite easy to handle and use. I must say it was a delight to handle the Rylands Fourme of Cury a few years ago. I’m jealous that you have some facsimiles of Books of Hours. Which ones do you have (not that I know many of them well)?

        Liked by 2 people

      • ericscheid

        Then there were also girdle books, that were small and light enough to hang from the waist belt of a pilgrim.

        I suspect the real picture would also depend on which particular period of time in history we’re talking about. The popularisation of paper (vs vellum/parchment) was a game changer (invention of spinning wheel 13thC meant linen easier to make → undyed underwear frequently washed → rags → paper!)

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        • Thank you. I haven’t come across girdle books before. I’ve made a note to find out more, because they sound like fun. My interest is in the fourteenth century, but sometimes the books I use aren’t that specific.

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  9. Sorry: Jayne Wackett, not Hackett. Sorry also about the duplicated replies.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. You’re right. I wasn’t very specific about smaller, pocket-sized books. They did indeed exist; some of them are amazingly elaborate by what I Googled.
    Imagine the WORK that went into the illuminations of those tiny tomes! Single-hair paintbrushes must have been employed unsparingly.

    Wonder if these books took over a year to finish? Certainly the covers and embossings required more than one artisan.

    This is fascinating! Appreciate everyone’s feedback! ♥

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Unless one truly makes a deep dive into the past, it’s hard to set aside our own ‘rose colored glasses’ of what we know, today, and read ancient works/reporting and fully understand the ramifications of such works – on ALL fronts! I so admire those who study the past – who do their best to write about it, BUT I also forgive those who, for whatever reason, didn’t fully realize the total truth spelled out, while they dove into ancient works/histories – it just happens! for instance, it wasn”t that long ago, in my country, when generations of a family lived in the same household – when one bed was shared by three sisters, or three brothers (my personal family history!) and yet, It is now seen as somehow abhorrent for children not to have their own room/own bed – – it seems ‘natural’ for the elderly to live on their own, far from family – etc., etc. It is VERY hard, even for everyday folks! to set aside what is ‘accepted as common’ today, to understand the realities of the past.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’ve done a bit of research into my family history and one side of the family seems always to have had lots of children – 11,12 or 13. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to understand that, since they were agricultural labourers who couldn’t afford a large house, lots of them were sharing beds at any one time. Sharing beds with a sibling or two was certainly my parents’ experience, even if it wasn’t mine.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I like to think the reason my Mom prefers a double/queen bed, all to herself, even when she uses less than a twin’s worth of sleeping space is due to sharing on with her 2 older sisters for so many years, as she grew up – 1 sister, of which, was a ‘cover hog’ – LOL
        Family of 7 – with 2 bedrooms for the kids – girls in one, boys in another and one bed to share in each room – 😀 I’m not far from the roots of ‘that time’ when having your own room and own bed was nothing more than pure fantasy !

        Liked by 1 person

  12. Very enlightening, thank you for sharing the knowledge! I’m curious: would minor lords, and especially daughters of minor (or not so minor) lords, be likely to know how to read in the 14th century?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you and that’s a good question. Literacy rates were higher than we tend to think, so a minor lord probably could read, even if he couldn’t write. Whether or not his daughters could read depended on what he thought about educating women.

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      • Thank you! I appreciate the clarification. In my mind, literacy at the time was more the domain of the clergy and scribes (both were men), I’m glad to hear I was wrong, and literacy was more wide-spread. Were lords then likely to feel positively about educating women?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Not really, but some women did manage to learn to read and write. You’re right about the clergy and scribes, atlhough it seems that not all parish priests could read, but merchants, lawyers, traders of any kind, stewards and some soldiers and sailors also had to read and write. Even the children of peasants could go to school if there was one and their parents could afford to send them.

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  13. Pingback: The Unaccompanied Woman | A Writer's Perspective

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