Testaments, Donations, and the Values of Books as Gifts

A Study of Records from Medieval England before 1450

by Janika Bischof (Author)
©2014 Thesis 354 Pages


Why were books considered valuable in the Middle Ages? This study focuses on medieval testaments and donation records from England before 1450 to investigate this question. The primary sources and datable records from before and after the Norman Conquest show that contemporary attitudes can be examined surprisingly closely. Semantic fields as indicators of value help us to discover the material and immaterial values associated with books in the manuscript period, and to trace changes and developments in book ownership and book production. This systematic and statistical analysis of the records shows the varied and multi-facetted nature of medieval books as gifts as seen by givers and recipients.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the book
  • About the author
  • Acknowledgements
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Tables and Figures
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Theoretical Background of Gifts and Values
  • 2.1 What is a Gift? A Short Overview
  • 2.1.1 Donations in the Middle Ages
  • 2.1.2 Testaments as Gifts
  • 2.1.3 Books as Gifts
  • 2.2 What are Values?
  • 2.2.1 Different Types of Values
  • 2.2.2 Values in the Middle Ages
  • 2.2.3 The Values of Books
  • The Exchange Value of Books
  • The Use Value of Books
  • Symbolic and Abstract Values
  • 2.3 The Language of Values and Gifts
  • 2.3.1 Semantic Fields
  • 2.3.2 A Preliminary System of the Indicators for Book Values
  • 3. Donations and Testaments – The Records of Book Gifts
  • 3.1 Testaments
  • 3.1.1 "... 7 his bec ealle” – Book Bequests in Anglo Saxon Wills
  • 3.1.2 Testaments After the Conquest
  • “omnibus libris meis”: 1250-1349
  • “j. portiforium magnum” – Testaments 1350-1399
  • “a red missal worth 10 li.” – Testaments 1400-1449
  • Differences between Testaments and Inventories
  • 3.2 Donations
  • 3.2.1 Anglo-Saxon Donations and Book Lists
  • 3.2.2 Post Conquest Book Donations
  • 3.3 Differences between Testaments and Donations
  • 4. Indicators of Value: The Semantic Fields Describing Books in Gift Records
  • 4.1 Material Aspects of the Book
  • 4.1.1 Size (Appendix A, Section 1)
  • 4.1.2 Decorations and Bindings (Appendix A, Section 2)
  • 4.1.3 Materials (Appendix A, Section 3)
  • 4.2 Immaterial Aspects of the Book
  • 4.2.1 Contents (Appendix A, Section 4)
  • 4.2.2 Language (Appendix A, Section 5)
  • 4.2.3 Age of the Book (Appendix A, Section 6)
  • 4.2.4 Associations with Other Individuals (Appendix A, Section 7)
  • 4.3 General Terms of Description (Appendix A, Section 9)
  • 5. Indicators of Value: Context-Independent and Context-Dependent
  • 5.1 Context-Independent Expressions of Value (Appendix A, Section 8)
  • 5.2 Aspects of the Book with Context-Dependent Expression of Value
  • 6. Conclusion
  • Appendix A: Descriptions of Books in Testaments
  • 1. Size
  • 2. Decorations and Binding
  • 3. Material
  • 4. Contents
  • 5. Language
  • 6. Age
  • 7. Associations with Other Individuals
  • 8. Evaluations
  • 9. General Terms of Description
  • Appendix B: Descriptions of Books in Donation Records
  • 1. Size
  • 2. Material
  • 3. Decorations and Binding
  • 4. Contents
  • 5. Language
  • 6. Age
  • 7. Associations with Other Individuals
  • 8. Evaluation
  • Bibliography
  • Manuscripts
  • Editions
  • Secondary Literature
  • Series index

← 10 | 11 → List of Abbreviations

← 12 | 13 → Tables and Figures

Table 1: Testamentary bequests by Richard de Ravenser

Table 2: Inventory listings of Ravenser’s books

Table 3: Price estimates for Scardeburgh’s books not sold

Table 4: Estimates and achieved prices for books sold

Table 5: Inventory of Henry Bowet’s book possessions at death with achieved sales prices

Table 6: Inventory of Thomas Morton’s books with estimated values

Table 7: Categories in Book Lists

Table 8: Recipients of Missals and Portiforiums by type

Figure 1: Systematic approach to organising examples according to their material or immaterial status (vertical axis) relative to implicit or explicit indications of value (horizontal axis).

Figure 2: Number of testaments and bequeathed items (books only)

Figure 3: Total number of testaments and items for the period until 1349

Figure 4: Averages of Items per Testament before 1350

Figure 5: Items per Testament before 1350

Figure 6: Total numbers of Testaments and Items 1350-1399

Figure 7: Averages of Items per Testament 1350-1399 (by decade)

Figure 8: Items per Testament 1350 to 1399

Figure 9: Total numbers of Testaments and Items 1400-1449

Figure 10: Averages of Items per Testament 1400-1449

Figure 11: Items per Testament 1400-1449

Figure 12: Number of items described as large and small in the testaments 1200-1450. Thin lines show the overall trend for all testaments and item numbers .

Figure 13: Distribution of the use of large and small in relation to manuscript contents

← 13 | 14 → Figure 14: Distribution of references to bindings and decorations of manuscripts until 1450. Thin lines show the overall trend for all testaments and item numbers.

Figure 15: Distribution of references to bindings and decorations of manuscripts in relation to contents.

Figure 16: Chronological distribution of colour descriptions

Figure 17: Distribution of colour descriptions in relation to contents type

Figure 18: Distribution of descriptions of writing surfaces 1200-1450. Thin lines show the overall trend for all testaments and item numbers

Figure 19: Distribution of writing material mentioned in relation to contents type

Figure 20: Binding materials mentioned in testaments until 1450.

Figure 21: Binding materials in relation to contents based on testament descriptions

Figure 22: Chronological distribution of the most common types of books. Thin lines represent the overall development of testaments and bequeathed items.

Figure 23: Distribution of contents-related descriptions in testaments until 1450

Figure 24: Relation between descriptions of the contents and type of book

Figure 25: Chronological distribution for the use of new and old and equivalents. Thin lines represent the development of testaments and item numbers

Figure 26: Distribution of the lexical fields of new and old by contents type

Figure 27: Value judgements by the testator 1200-1450

Figure 28: Value judgements by the testator according to contents type

Figure 29: Chronological development of the numbers of items, testaments and total forms of description

Figure 30: Percentages of references to the different aspects of the book in the testaments.

Figure 31: The indicators of book values, organised according to the categories discussed in the analysis chapters. Horizontal axis: Implicit – Explicit; Vertical axis: Material – Immaterial aspects.

← 14 | 15 → 1. Introduction

[T]he true worth of a book cannot be measured by its commercial value.

Webster’s New World Roget’s A-Z Thesaurus

In the Middle Ages, books were precious objects. They had to be made by hand, from the scraping of animal skins for the parchment to the gold leaf decorations of the initials and margins. The materials were costly, and the time and effort needed to produce a book were immense. However, the question of the cost of this process is difficult to answer, especially for a period as long as the time span of medieval book production, which runs from the Anglo-Saxon period until the arrival of the printing press in the middle of the fifteenth century. Furthermore, the value of these books is not limited to the material aspect. Beyond the initial production cost and material value, their contents and usefulness, the prestige of the authors and texts contained, as well as their individual “history” could greatly contribute to the actual worth of the manuscripts.

The range of values associated with medieval books is a topic that deserves attention. The idea to analyse these values based on the records of book gifts originated from the rather fascinating description contained in the list of donations by Bishop Leofric to the Cathedral of Exeter: ”.i. mycel englisc bok be gehwilcum þingum on leoþwisan geworht.”1 It is the description that is now considered to refer to the Exeter Book, one of the four main codices which contain the majority of surviving poetry in Old English. Another item on this list is described as ”.i. deorwyrðe bletsingboc”2, literally translated a “dear-worthy blessing book”, indicating that values could indeed be a consideration in this type of record. The variety of features ← 15 | 16 → described in this particular list of books donated by a bishop to his cathedral seems to suggest that there is more to the value of medieval books than the cost of their production. The problem is in finding a way to access the data and then to analyse it systematically. One possibility is to study the sources on medieval book ownership and see whether they show any evidence pointing to the values of these objects. Among these sources about book ownership in the Middle Ages, two types of records dominate through their sheer quantity: testaments of book owners and records of book donations from individuals to institutions such as churches, monasteries and colleges. This is especially obvious in Susan Cavanaugh’s wide-ranging thesis “A Study of Books privately owned in England 1300-1450” from 1980.3 The testaments recording book bequests from this period alone run into the high hundreds, and records of donations from individuals, especially to colleges at the two newly-founded universities at Oxford and Cambridge, but also to various religious communities and churches are similarly abundant. These two types of record can in fact be found among the sources of book ownership from the Anglo-Saxon period onwards. This rich source of contemporary material provides an opportunity to investigate the question of books and values over a long stretch of the English Middle Ages. However, the most significant aspect of this source material lies in the very nature of what they record. Gifts, as shall be outlined in the second chapter of this thesis, represent a special, highly charged type of transaction, and as such, the values associated with the objects given as gifts should be more obvious in these records than in other sources of book ownership.


The analysis in this thesis will focus mainly on data from the Middle English period up to the year 1450 to gain an idea of possible shifts in emphasis and value attribution as literacy levels and cultural circumstances changed. The year 1450 has been chosen mainly for practical reason, as Susan Cavanaugh’s extensive study on privately owned books, which will form the bulk of the material studied, ends at this date.4 However, as the arrival of print substantially changed the book market in the second half of the fifteenth century there are also compelling historical reasons for concluding with this date. This study is focusing on manuscripts exclusively, as the new factors ← 16 | 17 → that the arrival of print brought with it would broaden the scope beyond the achievable. Limiting the material studied to the period before the arrival of printing therefore presents the best course of action.

The work that has been done on the transmitted records of books from the medieval period has so far concentrated on establishing which books were known, made or owned in England during the period, especially for the period before 1100. The hand lists compiled by Helmut Gneuss5 are an important tool for any research into books during the Anglo-Saxon period, as is Michael Lapidge’s article on “Surviving Booklists from Anglo-Saxon England,”6 while Susan H. Cavanaugh’s dissertation on “Books privately owned in England 1300-1450”7 is still the main comprehensive source for book ownership in the later Middle Ages. There are numerous records of gifts in the widest sense in these collections such as testaments and donation lists from college libraries and monasteries, as well as entries about gifts in surviving manuscripts in the form of paratexts or marginalia. Previously, these records have been used mainly for the information they contain on the texts and authors known and circulated at the time, and the results, though informative in their own right, have also caused much frustration at the often vague descriptions and imprecise titles.8

Studies about individual collections and donors such as Bishop William of St. Carilef9 and the community of Rochester Cathedral Priory10 exist, but as with the other studies, these are primarily concerned with establishing the extent of the libraries and books owned, the identification of surviving manuscripts and the implications of these for literacy and cultural ← 17 | 18 → knowledge. Thus, the materials they gather have not been studied from the specific angle of values before.

The testaments and donation records from Susan Cavanaugh’s Study of Books Privately Owned in England11, which supply the bulk of the material analysed in this study, are supplemented by a handful of other sources, mainly from the late Anglo-Saxon and transition period, to show how the gifts and the records of the gifts evolved.

The evidence for book gifts (and book ownership in general) before the Norman Conquest is sparse, but can still reveal something about the values associated with manuscripts and the texts they contain. For the donations, Michael Lapidge’s groundbreaking article on Anglo-Saxon booklists represents the main source of evidence,12 and for the wills, Dorothy Whitelock’s similarly pioneering edition of Anglo-Saxon Wills,13 alongside her collaborative monograph on The Will of Æthelgifu,14 provides important records relating to Anglo-Saxon book ownership and book gifts by testament.

Susan Cavanaugh’s wide-ranging study is particularly useful for a general survey as intended in this thesis, because it gathers far-flung editions of relevant sources from various places and forms of records into one comprehensive, though by no means complete, collection. Without such a varied and extensive source of records, an analysis such as the one proposed here would have been impossible. However, the data is not without problems, as Cavanaugh relies heavily on editions and abstracts of the original sources, which poses some difficulties. The abstracts especially make it difficult to ascertain the exact text of the original document, obscuring such issues as the original language of the document and the phrasing of book titles, as well as simplifying details in many cases, particularly with regard to the testaments. All the sources are edited by Cavanaugh to include only those excerpts relevant to the issue of book ownership, which gives rise to two further issues: it is often unclear whether and how the sources she used were altered or shortened to retain only the relevant extracts. This makes it difficult to judge the overall position of the items within the records, and also makes it impossible to compare the books to other items in the sources. However, the sheer volume of data compensates to some extent for this, ← 18 | 19 → and it has been attempted to use sources where full copies are available, especially for the Anglo-Saxon period, to balance this to some extent.

One advantage of the material considered in this study is its relative uniformity within the respective source types, despite the differences in date and language. Although this limits the analysis to some degree with regard to variety of expression, the advantages of a direct comparison within each source type compensate for this. Comparing the different descriptions of books from different wills or book lists should be straightforward, and allow for analysis along chronological and (source-) typological lines as well as in depth study of samples to highlight the details that emerge, specific to each type of source material, and with respect to the different aspects and values of the book.

Previous research

The research proposed in this study comprises a variety of aspects relating to the book as gift. It deals with a range of different values and therefore needs to look at a variety of academic fields for the theoretical background it is based on. In particular, the implications of the gift act, and the question of what values actually are and how they can be analysed, need to be discussed before any analysis of the book within this context can take place.

This thesis will concentrate on records of the gift act as the focal point for the analysis of values. It is therefore also necessary to discuss the history and theoretical implications of this act, as well as the historical development and structure of the records. The foundation of all modern gift theories is Marcel Mauss’ groundbreaking work The Gift15 from 1950. Preceding it, Jacob Grimm’s article “Über schenken und geben”16 is still the main work concerned with the linguistics of giving, as well as a study of cultural behaviour, and will be important for distinguishing between the different forms of this action. Arnold Angenendt’s article on “Sacrifice, gifts, and prayers in Latin Christianity”17 analyses how donations developed from Christian ← 19 | 20 → ritual, and in “Gift-Giving in the Great Traditions: The Case of Donations to Monasteries in the Medieval West”,18 Ilana F. Silber looks at the historical traditions that lie behind a significant segment of gifts discussed in this thesis. A collection of studies on The Languages of Gift in the Early Middle Ages was recently published by Wendy Davies and Paul Fouracre, discussing a variety of aspects of the gift from the perspective of different disciplines.19 The major previous work on books as gifts in a historical context has been done by Natalie Zemon Davies, particularly in her Prothero lecture “Beyond the Market: Books as Gifts in Sixteenth-Century France”,20 which focuses on the period following the one at the centre of this study.

There is no comprehensive study of medieval book prices in England (a notoriously tricky subject due to the historical and geographical variances of monetary values), but articles such as Diane E. Booton’s “Notes on Manuscript Production and Valuation in Late-Medieval Brittany”21 and Joanne Filippone Overty’s “The Cost of Doing Scribal Business: Prices of Manuscript Books in England, 1300-1483”22 contribute to the appreciation of the material value of books and their production costs. Margaret Deanesly’s study of “Vernacular Books in England in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries”23 and H. E. Bell’s article on “The Price of Books in Medieval England”24 also provide valuable information on this aspect.

There is generally a scarcity of source material concerning abstract values rather than exchange values, for the early Middle Ages especially. Studies such as Economics in the Medieval Schools: Wealth, Exchange, Value, Money, and Usury According to the Paris Theological Tradition, 1200-135025 provide general information on theoretical aspects of economic value, especially in the Christian tradition of thought, while abstract values ← 20 | 21 → during the Middle Ages are predominantly covered in the philosophical field. Philosophical and sociological studies such as The Nature of Human Values by Milton Rokeach26 and Meaning and Value in Western Thought: a History of Ideas in Western Culture: The Medieval and Modern Development by William J. Angell27, as well as the work by Hans Joas28 provide the basis for the study of these values. The theoretical understanding of the concept of value will be developed from these various approaches, and will guide the manner of analysing the source material.

One article that does consider the three aspects of gifts, values and books and their interplay is “On the Usefulness and Use Value of Books” by Ann W. Astell.29 Her article is highly important for this study, as she draws on various theories concerning the gift and its values both medieval and modern, as well as on medieval values attributed to books in the books themselves. However, her focus is on the values of the texts contained in books rather than books as physical objects containing texts, with the gift object aspect only touched on occasionally, and the material aspects of the book play no role in her analysis.

In this thesis, the focus will be predominantly on these until now rather neglected material aspects, on the interplay between material and immaterial features of the book, and on how they contribute to the values associated with books. The method for the proposed analysis is indebted to the linguistic branch of semantics, and in particular to the study of semantic fields in the tradition of Jost Trier.30 The specific theoretical approach to semantic fields used in this study is indebted to Peter Rolf Lutzeier’s work.31 In addition, the research into semantic fields from a historical ← 21 | 22 → perspective by Freda J. Thornton32 and Heiner Bouwer,33 which focus on good and evil, and eald and niwe respectively, will be used as a basis to develop a method of analysing the data from records of book gifts, focusing not just on material or immaterial values as recorded in the sources, but also on the context of the gift and gift relationship.

Terminology and Methodological Questions


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (February)
manuscript culture donation Material and Immaterial Values Medieval Books semantic fields
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 354 pp., 8 tables, 31 graphs

Biographical notes

Janika Bischof (Author)

Janika Bischof studied English Philology in Münster (Germany) and St Andrews (UK). She worked as research assistant at the collaborative research centre Symbolische Kommunikation und gesellschaftliche Wertesysteme in the project Das Buchgeschenk in England im Spätmittelalter at the University of Münster. She is currently research assistant at a specialist library.


Title: Testaments, Donations, and the Values of Books as Gifts
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357 pages