Tag Archives: Medieval Reading

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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