Scribes, illuminators, manuscripts in Baudri de Bourgueil’s poems

Medieval texts explaining how manuscripts are (to be) decorated are rare. Works detailing how manuscripts that have come down to us have been adorned are rarissimi. The techniques of medieval illumination are known nearly exclusively from the appearance of the manuscripts themselves. No treatise or textbook dealing with decoration, painting or illumination has survived, and there is no evidence to my knowledge that any such treatise has ever been written. Medieval authors occasionally give us some details of script, decoration, format of manuscripts they encounter, but these are neither comprehensive nor very helpful in identifying the actual volumes. For identification, scholars have to rely on things like hand-lists and library registers. In other words, they rely on identifiable texts and, sometimes, general format, not on any visual peculiarities, like details of decoration, colours of initials, layout, illuminations, etc.

In this galaxy of relative decorative darkness, the poems of Baudri of Bourgueil (circa 1045-1130), abbot of the abbey of Bourgueil on the Loire Valley and bishop of Dol in Brittany (for which reason he’s also known as Baudri of Dol), shine an unexpected yet wholesome light on the matter. Baudri is not so much known for his poems (Carmina) as he is for his account of the First Crusade known as Historia Hierosolymitana (The History of Jerusalem). His poems, written towards the end of the 11th century, survive in only one manuscript, to which I shall return momentarily. The poems have never been translated into English. There’s been only one scholarly edition, produced in the 1920s by a French scholar, which was the basis for the only modern translation — into French. To sum up, the poems haven’t received much focused attention. They’ve been known, but not thoroughly examined.

Baudri’s poetic works number 256 poems of around 8700 verses, dealing with various themes which are impossible to group together into a coherent whole. There are poems on the Trojan War, others addressed to monks and abbots, others suffused with piety, yet others about friendship or the loss of it. Some number only a couple of lines, others as many as 1300. The styles are in no wise less diverse: some poems are hymns, others satires, epics, epitaphs, elegies. In this higgledy-piggledy corpus, there are a number of poems dealing with the materiality of writing. There are poems about wax tablets, others about books and copyists, and even a delicious heroic-comic lament about an iron stylus which broke after nine years of use. Only Baudri or the owner of the latest Mont Blanc fountain pen could set themselves such a task. The opening piece, however, is titled ‘He consoles his book against its detractors’ (Contra obtrectatores consolatur librum suum). It is addressed to his book of poems, that is to the manuscript. It begins thus, in elegiac couplets:

Vade, manus multas subiturus et atria multa,
vade, liber trepidus, discidium metuens
vade meus sine me, carmen sine nomine, vade
causa, principio, consule, fine carens.
Sique tuum nomen vult fratrum sollicitudo,
“Nomen quod petitis”, dic sibi,”non habeo”.

(Oh nervous book, fearing discord, about to endure many hands and many halls, come, my precious, without me, song without name, cause, principle, deliberation or closure. If the brothers’ apprehension demands a name from you, tell them ‘I do not have the name you seek’ (the translation, hasty and clumsy, is my own).

To ‘endure many hands and many halls’ implies that the book will be handled by many and will have to move from one room to another. We’ll see what that means in a moment.

The poem goes on in the same plaintive style until Baudri starts explaining how he decided to have the book painted. This is by far the most interesting part of the poem and, for good reason, one of the most remarkable passages in the whole collection. It goes like this (as always, the English translation follows the Latin, so make sure you scroll down):

Praecepi fieri capitales aere figuras,
ut quod non sensus, res tribuat pretium –
Ad nos miserunt Arabes huc forsitan aurum,
materiarum quo signa priora micant.
Introitus alios minio viridive colore,
ut mirabilius omne nitescat opus,
ut quos allicere sententia plena nequibit,
hos saltem species codicis alliciat.
Haec igitur lucet, haec vero littera ridet,
sed non arrident dicta decora tibi.
Elegi puerum scribentis in arte peritum,
qui sic disposuit, nomine Gualterium,
qui geniale solum, vagus ut tu, dicere nescit ;
sed decuit profugus scriberet ut profugum.
Gerardum quemdam natu proavo Turonensem
commoda sors Arabem contulit aurificem.

I asked that the capital letters [initials] be made of bronze, so that the book be valuable for its material aspect even in the absence of ideas (it was the Arabs, perhaps, who brought us the gold that makes the initial letters of texts so resplendent). I had the other initials painted red or green, so that the whole work would make a better impression. That way, those incapable of responding to the richness of expression will at least find the appearance of the manuscript appealing. Therefore, the letter still shines and smiles even if the adorned text is not pleasing to you [the reader]. I have chosen a boy named Walter, skilled in the arts of writing [calligraphy], and he laid it out in this fashion; a wanderer like you, he cannot say what his country is, but it was appropriate that an exiled should write like an exiled. The auspicious fate provided an Arabian goldsmith, a certain Gerald of Tours, very advanced in age.

Medieval books required a large number of individuals to make. Excluding the preparation of the parchment (costly, time-consuming and generally unpleasant), writing was usually done in several stages: the parchment was first ruled and folded, then the text was written down, colour applied to initials, rubrics, headings, highlighting and other elements of layout and finally, if required, more advanced elements of decoration (illustrations, illumination, gilding) were added, usually by a different person. In Baudri’s account, Walter (Gualterius in Latin) may have been in charge of writing and doing the first stage of decoration, while Gerald was tasked with more advanced visual elements, as we shall see.

As mentioned earlier, Baudri’s collection of poems survives in only one manuscript. That manuscript is now in the Vatican Library (Reg. lat. 1351: it has been digitised here:, but it is likely that Baudri brought it with him to Worcester around the turn of the 12th century.


Fig. 2. Vatican, BAV, Reg. Lat. 1351, f. 30r. Large decorated initials in green, red and blue, showing traces of metal coating.

The remarkable thing is that the manuscript is most likely to have been the one described in the poem-prologue above. The initials are painted in red and green for a large part of the volume, including the section covering the opening poem (Fig. 1. ) while the ‘capital letters’, the larger initials, have traces of metal, perhaps bronze (Fig. 2). Furthermore, Walter and Gerald’s names are written in painted capitals (Walter’s has a capital G (Fig. 1, 4th line from the bottom), the only capital to be painted inside the verse-line), strongly suggesting that the names may have been painted by the mentioned copyists. For a more detailed discussion of this claim, see Jean-Yves Tilliette, ‘Note sur le manuscrit des poèmes de Baudri de Bourgueil (Vatican, Reg.Lat. 1351)’, Scriptorium, 37 (1983), 241-245.

I am convinced that the Vatican manuscript is the one referred to in the opening poem. Baudri explains, and scholarship agrees, that authored texts were written on parchment (super pergamentum) after they’d been written in wax (in cera) — on wax tablets. Baudri instructed Walter (and possibly Gerald, as the rest of the poem suggests) to transfer the text from Baudri’s wax tablets to parchment. Once the text had been written down, the decorator, presumably Gerald in this case, would have started painting the initials, capitals and other visuals. It was common practice for the scribe to leave guide letters or words in the margin. These were the words the decorator or illustrator was required to paint. It is likely that Baudri’s parchments had to be moved to a different location (inside the abbey?) to be painted. We remember the nervous book ‘about to endure many hands and many halls’. The gilder (the Arabic goldsmith in the poem) may have moved the parchments to yet another location. When everything was completed, the book was ready to be bound, but many medieval books were left unbound. The Vatican volume has a modern binding, so it is difficult to say when the book was first bound. Personally, I am inclined to think it was bound soon after it was produced, as it would have been rather annoying – and a point of poor self-presentation – for Baudri to transport it to Worcester as a pack of flyleaves.

In another poem, Baudri gives further instructions to a different scribe named Hugh:

Si tamen id studeas, et cures ut bene scribas,
altera de minio capitalis littera fiat,
altera de viridi glaucove nigrove colore,
ut versus semper varietur origo decenter.

If you are diligent and take pains to write well, do a capital letter in red, another in green, blue or black colour, so that there would always be a harmonious variation at the beginning of the verse.

Screen Shot 2018-05-23 at 10.32.46.png

Fig. 3. Vatican, BAV, Reg. Lat. 1351, f. 24r

To my knowledge, Baudri’s is the only extant manuscript to show the decoration/illumination instructions at work in the actual volume. Because texts disseminated by being copied by hand, and being copied by hand doesn’t always mean that format and layout were also reproduced, the likelihood of autograph manuscripts (meaning original, the first in a series of later copies) reaching us is extremely low. Indeed, a very small number of such manuscripts have survived. And this makes Baudri’s work (his poems and his manuscript, not forgetting Walter, Gerald and Hugh) so precious.

Edition and French translation:

Baudri De Bourgeuil: Poemes, ed. by Jean-Yves Tilliette  2 vols (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1998-2002).

A PDF file of the Latin text may be found here.

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