Would a Medieval Prince Have Had an ‘Office’?

A reader asked me this the other day, and I thought it worth a post because we think of ‘offices’ as being a modern invention, with computers and fax machines and secretaries.

And yet, a medieval prince or king–any ruler, from a sheriff to a thane for that matter–must have had a place for conducting business.  Where were papers kept? Where did he upbraid his inferiors for shoddy work? England in particular has been known for its government system of record keeping back to the Middle Ages. Where did the king keep all that? I chose to use the word ‘office’  because it does, in fact, have ancient roots in the English language and because even if a Welsh prince wouldn’t have used the word ‘office’ (which he actually might have, see below), he still would have needed its function.

The word ‘office’ is derived from the Latin word:  ‘OFFICIUM’ meaning “service, duty, function, business”.  We have ‘divine office’ which was the schedule of prayer services in a monastery, ‘office’ as in a formal  (often appointed) position, and then from Etymology.com:

office (n.) Look up office at Dictionary.commid-13c., “a post, an employment to which certain duties are attached,” from Anglo-Fr. and O.Fr. ofice “place or function; divine service” (12c. in Old French) or directly from L. officium “service, kindness, favor; official duty, function, business; ceremonial observance,” (in Ecclesiastical Latin, “church service”), lit. “work-doing,” from ops (gen. opis) “power, might, abundance, means” (related to opus “work;” see opus) + stem of facere “do, perform” (see factitious). Meaning “place for conducting business” first recorded 1560s.

  • Offices in classical antiquity were often part of a palace complex or a large temple. There was usually a room where scrolls were kept and scribes did their work. Ancient texts mentioning the work of scribes refer to the existence of such “offices”. These rooms are often called “libraries” by some archaeologists and the general press because it is associated with the scrolls literature. In fact they were true offices since the scrolls were used to record records and other management functions such as treaties and decrees, and not for writing or poetry or other work related to fiction.  http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oficina
  • The High Middle Ages (1000–1300) saw the rise of the medieval chancery, which was usually the place where most government letters were written and where laws were copied in the administration of a kingdom. The rooms of the chancery often had walls full of pigeonholes, constructed to hold rolled up pieces of parchment for safekeeping or ready reference, a precursor to the book shelf. The introduction of printing during the Renaissance did not change these early government offices much.Pre-industrial illustrations such as paintings or tapestries often show us personalities or eponyms in their private offices, handling record keeping books or writing on scrolls of parchment. All kinds of writings seemed to be mixed in these early forms of offices. Before the invention of the printing press and its distribution there was often a very thin line between a private office and a private library since books were read or written in the same space at the same desk or table, and general accounting and personal or private letters were also done there. It was during the 13th century that the English form of the word first appeared when referring to a position involving duties (ex. the office of the …). Geoffrey Chaucer appears to have first used the word in 1395 to mean a place where business is transacted in The Canterbury Tales.   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Office

In addition, medieval lords definitely had secretaries. Many noblemen couldn’t read or write, many could read and not write (viewed as a separate task), and regardless, again, someone had to keep track of all that paperwork!  These secretaries were more than scribes. Many of them kept the household accounts, helped the lord manage his lands, and acted as castellan when he was absent.

History of Paper

Medieval lords had castle accounts, right?  On what were these written?  Did they call them paper, or parchment?  Were they made of dried skins, linen, paper?

Account books could have been made of paper, which was viewed as less sturdy than parchment and thus for less important matters.  “There are indeed very many medieval manuscripts written on paper. Cheap little books made for clerics and students were probably more often on paper than on parchment by the fifteenth century. Even major aristocratic libraries had manuscripts on paper. Some paper manuscripts survive with the inner and outer pairs of leaves in each gatherings made of parchment, presumably because parchment is stronger and these were the most vulnerable pages. Paper was a Chinese invention probably of the second century and the technique of paper-making spent a thousand years slowly working its way through the Arab world to the West. By the thirteenth century there were established paper mills in Spain and Italy, and in France by about 1340, Germany by 1390, but probably not in England until the later fifteenth century. Paper was exported from its place of manufacture into all parts of Europe . . .

Medieval paper was made from linen rags. It is much stronger and more durable than modern wood-pulp paper, and fifteenth-century scribes were wrong if they believed that it would not survive. Rag paper is manufactured as follows. White rags are sorted and washed thoroughly in a tub pierced with drainage holes and they are then allowed to ferment for four or five days. Then the wet disintegrating pieces are cut into scraps and beaten for some hours in clean running water, left to fester for a week, beaten again, and so on, several times over, until the mixture disintegrates into a runny water-logged pulp. It is then tipped into a huge vat. A wire frame is scooped into the vat, picking up a film of wet fibres, and it is shaken free of drips and emptied onto a sheet of felt. Another layer of felt is laid over it. As the soggy sheets emerge and are tipped out, they are stacked in a pile of multiple sandwiches of interleaved felt and paper. Then the stack is squeezed in a press to remove excess water and the damp paper can be taken out and hung up to dry. When ready, the sheet is ‘sized’ by lowering it into an animal glue made from boiling scraps of vellum or other offcuts. The size makes the paper less absorbent and allows it to take ink without running. The sheets may have to be pressed again to make them completely flat. Sometimes, especially in north-east Italy (doubtless under the influence of Islamic paper manufacture) the paper was polished with a smooth stone to give it a luxurious sheen.”   http://linux2.hit.uib.no/non/echt/budapest/ManMan/paper.html

Paper was used in Wales, certainly.  A surviving manuscript (from the thirteenth century) is in the National Library of Wales. It was a ‘pocket’ book of the laws of Hywel Dda (from the 10th century), designed for lawyers to carry around in their scrip, rather than left on a library shelf.
You can view it here: http://digidol.llgc.org.uk/METS/lhw00003/physical

On the other hand, parchment was something different, and also used, though it was a more precious substance than paper.  It was:  “a writing support material that derives its name from Pergamon (Bergama in modern Turkey), an early production centre. The term is often used generically to denote animal skin prepared to receive writing, although it is more correctly applied only to sheep and goat skin, with the term vellum reserved for calf skin. Uterine vellum, the skin of stillborn or very young calves, is characterised by its small size and particularly fine, white appearance; however, it was rarely used. To produce parchment or vellum, the animal skins were defleshed in a bath of lime, stretched on a frame, and scraped with a lunellum while damp. They could then be treated with pumice, whitened with a substance such as chalk, and cut to size. Differences in preparation technique seem to have occasioned greater diversity in appearance than did the type of skin used. Parchment supplanted papyrus as the most popular writing support material in the fourth century, although it was known earlier. Parchment was itself largely replaced by paper in the sixteenth century (with the rise of printing), but remained in use for certain high-grade books. See also flesh side and hair side.”  http://linux2.hit.uib.no/non/echt/budapest/ManMan/glossary.html#parchment

Illuminated manuscripts of whatever nature were exclusively on parchment until the late Middle Ages:  “The majority of surviving manuscripts are from the Middle Ages, although many illuminated manuscripts survive from the Renaissance, along with a very limited number from Late Antiquity. The majority of these manuscripts are of a religious nature. However, especially from the 13th century onward, an increasing number of secular texts were illuminated. Most illuminated manuscripts were created as codices, which had superseded scrolls. A very few illuminated manuscript fragments survive on papyrus, which does not last nearly as long as vellum or parchment. Most medieval manuscripts, illuminated or not, were written on parchment (most commonly of calf, sheep, or goat skin), but most manuscripts important enough to illuminate were written on the best quality of parchment, called vellum.

Beginning in the late Middle Ages manuscripts began to be produced on paper. Very early printed books were sometimes produced with spaces left for rubrics and miniatures, or were given illuminated initials, or decorations in the margin, but the introduction of printing rapidly led to the decline of illumination. Illuminated manuscripts continued to be produced in the early 16th century, but in much smaller numbers, mostly for the very wealthy.

Manuscripts are among the most common items to survive from the Middle Ages; many thousands survive. They are also the best surviving specimens of medieval painting, and the best preserved. Indeed, for many areas and time periods, they are the only surviving examples of painting.”

 

Books in the Middle Ages

Books have been around as long as there has been writing–it’s just that in the past, they were less accessible, expensive, and rare.  Many, many fewer people were literate, especially as we understand the word (see my post on literacy: http://www.sarahwoodbury.com/?p=1310).

“Every stage in the creation of a medieval book required intensive labor, sometimes involving the collaboration of entire workshops. Parchment for the pages had to be made from the dried hides of animals, cut to size and sewn into quires; inks had to be mixed, pens prepared, and the pages ruled for lettering. A scribe copied the text from an established edition, and artists might then embellish it with illustrations, decorated initials, and ornament in the margins. The most lavish medieval books were bound in covers set with enamels, jewels, and ivory carvings.”  Source: The Art of the Book in the Middle Ages | Thematic Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art  http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/book/hd_book.htm

The Getty Museum has a long description of the physical process of making a book.  for my own discussion of the history of paper, see:  http://www.sarahwoodbury.com/?p=2358:

“Most medieval manuscripts were written on specially treated animal skins, called parchment or vellum (paper did not become common in Europe until around 1450). The pelts were first soaked in a lime solution to loosen the fur, which was then removed. While wet on a stretcher, the skin was scraped using a knife with a curved blade. As the skin dried, the parchment maker adjusted the tension so that the skin remained taut. This cycle of scraping and stretching was repeated over several days until the desired thinness had been achieved. Here, the skin of a stillborn goat, prized for its smoothness, is stretched on a modern frame to illustrate the parchment making process.

After the surface had been prepared, the parchment was ruled, usually with leadpoint or colored ink. In this prayer book, you can see the ruling in red ink. Ruling lines helped the scribe to write evenly and were part of the design of the page. The scribe wrote with a quill pen made from the feather of a goose or swan. The end of the feather was cut to form the writing nib. A slit cut into the middle of the nib allowed the ink to flow smoothly to the tip of the pen. The appearance of the script—whether rounded or angular, dense or open—was partly dependent upon the shape and the angle of the nib.

Illumination, from the Latin illuminare, “to light up or illuminate,” describes the glow created by the colors, especially gold and silver, used to embellish manuscripts. In making an illumination, the artist first made an outline drawing with leadpoint or quill and ink. Next, he or she painted the areas to receive gold leaf with a sticky substance such as bole (a refined red clay) or gum ammoniac (sap). The gold leaf was then laid down and burnished, or rubbed, to create a shiny surface, which sparkles as the pages are turned. Finally, the illuminator applied paints that were made from a wide variety of coloring agents: ground minerals, organic dyes extracted from plants, and chemically produced colorants. These pigments were usually mixed with egg white to form a kind of paint called tempera. The deep blue of this illumination was probably made from crushed stone, while the background is a solid mass of shining gold leaf.

Once the writing and illuminating had been completed, the parchment sheets were folded and nested into groups called gatherings. The gatherings were ordered in their proper sequence and sewn together onto cords or leather thongs that served as supports. Once the sewing was finished, the ends of the supports were laced through channels carved into the wooden boards that formed the front and back covers of the book. The binding was usually then covered in leather or a decorative fabric. This binding’s most stunning ornamentations are the metal corner pieces and raised medallions that would protect the binding as it rested on a surface. The dyed parchment pieces inset into the central medallion were once brightly colored yellow, green, and blue, creating a stained-glass-window effect on the covers of the manuscript.”  http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/making/

And the, for comic relief 🙂

 

When e-books are all anyone has in another 100 years, this will be even funnier.