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Book Production in the Carolingian Period

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Under Charlemagne, King of the Franks from 770 to 814 AD, there was a so-called Carolingian Renaissance across much of the Carolingian Empire. This consisted of most of modern France, some of modern Germany, and a number of other regions across Europe including northern Italy and areas to the east of their German lands. At the time, books were only really available in monasteries or to rich, educated laymen, and consisted mostly of religious texts.

Physical Manufacture of Books

In early antiquity, books as we know them did not really exist. Instead, documents were written down and wrapped around a spindle to form a scroll. In the 4th Century AD, the codex became the dominant form for documents. These were collections of pages sewn into bindings and are therefore very much like the books of today.

The pages of Carolingian books were not made from paper, but from parchment (sheepskin) or vellum (calfskin) which was cleaned, scraped and stretched to make thin sheets. It was then cut to size to form pages. Depending on the size of the book, the number of skins needed could range from four or five to several hundred. This meant that major writing centres1 probably had their own herds of livestock to supply all the skins they needed.

The covers could be made of more skins, wooden boards or leather-covered wood. There are even cases of very rich covers, made from silver or gold, perhaps with jewels in addition. These would be mostly on religious books.

As printing had not yet been invented, books had to be labouriously hand-copied by monastic scribes. Sometimes one scribe would copy the whole book. For example, a copy of the commentaries of Jerome took one scribe 34 days to copy: an average of 11 pages per day. On the other hand, multiple scribes could work on one book.

Writing Styles

Carolingian scribes developed a new style of writing called 'Caroline Minuscule'. This was easier to read than earlier Roman styles and was also quicker to write as it took fewer strokes of the pen. Helpfully, it is also easier for modern readers to comprehend. This is because 15th Century humanists liked it so much they started to use it themselves. As printing developed, it became the basis of Roman script, which is still used today.

Older styles were still used, but mostly for notes, prologues, headers and so on to help to differentiate them from the main text.

The Carolingians were also the first to use pictures and diagrams in their books. A copy of one of Bede's works in Trier has 24 diagrams or tables, each of which takes up the majority or all of a page. These include a map of the world and a table of the signs of the zodiac.

Types of Book

Given how long it took to copy one book, effort was concentrated on classical authors like Cicero and Plato, church fathers such as Augustine and Jerome, and a few contemporary writers.

Many of the works copied were religious, especially copies of the Bible and commentaries on it. There were also some school books. One example, from about 813 AD, has a rather random collection of information, from arithmetic and grammar to the number of provinces in the Roman Empire, a formula for letter writing, and the names of famous ancient doctors.

However, certain centres of writing focused on specific types of book. For example, Tours was famous for producing and exporting top-quality Bibles. Historians can sometimes identify the origin of a book through small variations in the Caroline Minuscule employed.

Value of Books

It is hard to tell with any certainty how much books cost. One is known to have cost eight denarii in 840, which we know to have bought 96 loaves of bread weighing two pounds each in Frankfurt in 794. Charlemagne's biographer, Einhard, claims that Charlemagne wanted all of his books to be sold after his death and the proceeds to go to the poor, which implies that he expected the sale to raise a considerable sum.

There are also examples of books being stolen, which indicates some value. Several counts2 included their books in the 'treasure' sections of their wills. They were also given as gifts to religious institutions, in exchange for prayers for the donor's soul3 or to gain the favour of the patron saint of the institution. Lupus of Ferrières, a monk whose letters have survived, mentions his reluctance to send a book to an acquaintance because its size makes it difficult to conceal on the journey, and its beauty makes it a target for thieves. Some books had gold writing and might also make use of a purple pigment for the pages. Both of these were very expensive and would add to the cost of the book.

Production of books changed very little until the Middle Ages when sometimes a number of pages would be sent to different scribes to copy in order to speed up the process, and printing pages using carved woodblocks was introduced. This was followed by the invention of the printing press, which made books more widely available.

1Places which produced many books, such as monasteries or the royal court.2High-ranking aristocrats.3To reduce their time in purgatory.

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