Authors in search of a title

The 12th century cartulary (book containing copies of charters) of Reading Abbey includes a list of the books in the abbey library as well as a nearby priory. The books are referred to by title, where that exists, but also by a short description of the book’s content, to help locating it, when the title is missing

When it came to titles, ancient and medieval written works were like the early European nobility. It wasn’t enough to call yourself a noble – a problem later solved by the emergence of patents of nobility –, you had to pass for one in the eyes of your peers. Similarly, it wasn’t enough for an author to give his or her own book a title, something most didn’t do anyway. The title’s survival depended on the scribes’ good graces, those who were responsible for the book’s multiplication and survival. And it means that those ultimately responsible for the title of a written work was the reader, who was often the person prompting the duplication of a book in a manuscript culture.

This title open-endedness is partly responsible for the toothsome mess that is the medieval manuscript culture, where the same work may have been circulating under several titles at the same time, often making identification very difficult. A book referenced in another work may be the same as the one circulating under a name which bore little resemblance to the original reference.

Overall, titles were not the forte of the written culture of the medieval West. Hundreds of library book lists from the 9th to the 15th century show that readers didn’t really care about titles. That a book about a topic was good enough as an idenfier in libraries which rarely exceeded a few hundred volumes.

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