Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 February 2021
This final section moves away from the production of written artifacts and the culture of reading, which have been the main ingredients of the narrative so far. Various contexts of medieval written culture are briefly highlighted. Our first stop is the monastic scriptorium: Chapter 27 deals with the intriguing observation that this environment, the kitchen in which medieval books were made, is not depicted in surviving manuscripts. While there is plenty of medieval art showing individual scribes producing a manuscript, there is none—at least not convincingly so—that shows several artisans at work in the same room. This observation is all the more striking because decorators presumably had only to look around for inspiration and a model of how to depict a scriptorium. While it does not solve this mystery, the chapter does highlight the limited way in which scribes at work are presented in medieval iconography.
Chapter 28 stays in the vicinity of scribes at work and inquires about the appearance of their working spaces. What can we learn from depictions of their desks? How did they handle having several books open at the same time (at least their exemplar and the parchment they copied it onto) with limited desktop space? Examining scribes at work in medieval images—one of the few sources available to us—teaches us a variety of things. For example, different types of desks appear to have been used by people making books (scribes) and those composing texts (translators). Likewise, decoration also provides a close-up look at readers in the process of reading. Both scribes and readers had to negotiate the restricted space provided by the medieval desk, but both had solutions at their disposal to increase the value of the real estate in front of them.
The next two chapters again return to readers, but focus not on the consumption of books, which is the focus of the section Reading in Context, but on different aspects of book ownership. Chapter 29 sheds light on the second-hand book market, a difficult task given the limited tangible evidence left behind by this thriving business.