The 13th Century: Commercial numeracy and literacy. Lay literacy and the first public schools. The Beguines of Flanders. The second life of the translation school of Toledo. Writing in the vernacular. Eyeglasses. The commonplace book. The Universities. The Fourth Crusade


The towns rise to power.


A late medieval portrayal of the city of Lübeck in northern Germany

The end of the 12th Century saw a convergence of several systemic changes which accelerated economic activity dramatically in certain parts of Europe. In Part I, we’ve already seen the dawn of the water wheel and its cousins which added the considerable horsepower of water powered mechanization to the European economy. This device and its many ancillaries remained at the center of the economic dynamism reshaping Europe, and it steadily expanded in influence and impact throughout the medieval period, but it was far from the only major change.

Agricultural improvements including the three field system, the wheeled iron plow, new types of horse harnesses which allowed horses to pull plows instead of oxen, as well as the rapid increase in the use of salt to preserve food all contributed to improvements to the European diet which caused a population boom in the 12th -13th Centuries. New industries such as the textile trade, food preservation, ship building, and armor-making were made possible by a convergence of these and other technological and social changes (especially the sophisticated organization of the merchant company and the craft guild) which brought about rapid prosperity.

This all came together in the new urban centers of trade and administration most of which arose at the sites of cathedrals or abbeys.

These new thriving urban centers were highly organized, and they relied for their trade and manufacturing on a literate and numerate population. The scope of business activity in these areas during this period is in sharp contrast to the placid agrarian world that we tend to think of. In Northern Europe, a brisk trade extended from the Eastern cities of Scotland and England in the West all the way to Veliky Novgorod in the East (a distance of over 2,600 km), and in the Mediterranean, from Spain to trading posts deep into the Byzantine Empire and the Arab cities of Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad, and even further to Persia, India and China along the Silk Road. Such far-flung trading networks would not have been possible without a mountain of correspondence, and fortunately, a considerable amount of that has survived today, providing us with some valuable insights into the period.

In his superb essay The Culture of the Medieval Merchant, Yale professor Robert S. Lopez outlined some eye-opening facts. By the late 13th Century, literacy in the Italian towns was ‘so widespread as to be taken for granted’ (Lopez, page 54), not just among merchants, but among craftsmen as well. Lopez notes that records show 13th Century master woolmakers in Genoa routinely assigned apprentices, servants, and their wives to do the workshops books (Lopez, page 55).

Source: Robert Lopez paper:

The advent of the lay public grammar school


School children with their wax writing tablets hanging from their bellts


A wax writing tablet of the type used in medieval schools

This wasn’t always the case, apparently. In an analysis of 180 documents from Lombardy in the period five centuries previous, 724-774, signed by 355 members of the clergy and 633 nobles and other laymen, 2/3 of the clerics were able to sign their names but only 14% of the laymen could, the rest could only leave the mark of a cross (Lopez: page 55). This far back into the early medieval or Migration Era, the only means of education was that important continuation of late Roman tradition, the priestly or monastic school. These had kept the candle of Roman culture lit across the centuries, and were sufficient to teach most of the higher clergy, many of the monks, and a sufficient number of the nobility as well as a professional cadre of scribes and notaries of the early medieval period, but it was not enough for the new urban centers which appeared in the 12th and 13th Centuries, so they began to create their own schools.

The first municipally funded public schools that we know of in Europe were founded in Florence and Pistoia in the early 12th Century (Lopez, 56) and the first one in Ghent in Flanders was founded in 1179. By the 13th Century public schools were widespread in the more urbanized regions of Italy, Castille, Aragon, Flanders, the Rhineland, lower Saxony, and in several regions further east, including Prussia, Poland, Silesia and Bohemia (todays Czech Republic). For example the first public school in Wroclaw / Breslau was founded in 1267. It taught the subjects of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, grammar, logic, philosophy, and physics to children of both sexes up to the age of 12[ii]. Most schools taught some variation of the Seven Liberal Arts; the Trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the Quadrivium (arithmetic, geography, music and astronomy) which is a subject I’ll return to later. Many if not all schools taught at least some Latin or Greek, but most of the classes in these urban schools were done in the vernacular, which at this time was an important and sharp distinction between lower and higher learning of the type which took place in the Universities (but more about that in a moment).


The scale of public education was far from negligible and continued to grow. By the early 14th Century, Giovanni Villani, a merchant and town historian of Florence, noted that between eight and ten thousands boys and girls learned to read every year at the cities expense (Lopez, page 56). It is unclear precisely how widespread the education of girls was at this time, but the University of Bologna remained one of the few in Europe to admit women, and we have evidence that women played a considerable role in commerce at least in Italy. For example a close analysis of 4,000 surviving commenda contracts from the city of Genoa in the period 1155-1216 (which we have due to the meticulous hoarding of notary records by the Genoese government) shows that fully a quarter included women signatories. Women were also active in the guilds, and as I previously noted, wives of guild masters were routinely tasked with doing the company books. So it made sense for the towns to educate girls as well as boys.

Source: “Women in Genoese commenda contracts”, 1155–1216, Mark Angelos, Journal of Medieval History, Volume 20, Issue 4, (December 1994), Pages 299-312


Education and the Beguines

The role of women in education was taken several steps further in Flanders due to the convergence of urban labor demand with a curious new phenomenon. During the 12th and 13th Century, a series of wars in the Low Countries (roughly what are now Belgium, Luxemburg and Holland today, as well as parts of France and Germany) led the already high ratio of women to men in the towns to reach critical proportions due to the number of widows.  For mutual protection and support, many of these women formed households and then communities of their own gender, sometimes sponsored by noblemen and women, sometimes by the city, and sometimes left to their own devices. Outwardly they appeared to be similar to nuns, but they swore no vows, only loosely adhering to the Franciscan rule. They could remarry if they chose to do so (and many did) yet at the same time they were autonomous and these women worked for a living.


The beguines, such as this one from a miniature in a 15th Century manuscript, appear to have usually been literate

Franciscan Friar Gilbert of Tournai in 1274: “There are among us women whom we have no idea what to call, ordinary women or nuns, because they live neither in the world nor out of it.”

The Church initially accepted the Beguines and indeed, sponsored the foundation of some of the beguinages, as part of the problem was that there were not enough convents for these women to join. But later Church officials began to crack down as some beguine mystics became influential and were though to spread an outlook which is described in the Catholic encyclopedia as ‘polytheistic’ and ‘anarchist’ (I have found the source of this, and it’s an interesting story, but I’ll get into that a bit later). This led to the downfall of Beguine communities in some smaller towns in France and Germany, but they were protected by some of the more powerful cities due to their value as relatively cheap labor in the textile industry, and perhaps most important (and relevant to this paper), for their role as school teachers. The respect for these women in these towns is made clear by the continued survival of some spectacular Beguinages to this day after centuries of religious upheaval (and the eviction of all other -nominally or otherwise- Catholic institutions), such as the remarkable Begijnhof complex in Amsterdam.

The story of the Beguines is fascinating, though unfortunately beyond the scope of this essay, (however it is something I will return to this later in part III with the story of Heilwige Bloemardinne and the Bretheren of the Common life, who were crucial to the spread of scriptoria -and particularly, lay scriptoria- throughout Europe). In the 13th Century however the importance of the Beguines for our purposes of understanding literacy can be clearly found in the substantial role they played as teachers for the children in the Flemish cities.  The first record of a beguine run school was in 1267 the beguinage at Valenciennes, though we have sermons which mention beguine schools in 1229 and 1240.  The effect was long-lasting, in 1576 a survey in Antwerp showed 88 male and 70 female schoolteachers, while a partial survey in Ghent in 1566 showed 48 male and 15 female teachers.  By contrast, in Lyon between 1490 and 1570 there were there were 87 male and only 5 female teachers, and in Venice in 1587, 258 male teachers for only one female.

Source: Cities of Ladies: Beguine Communities in the Medieval Low Countries, 1200-1565



On the flip-side of the beguines were the Dominicans. Much better supported by the Church hierarchy, they were not so popular with the towns.  The role of the Dominicans in the political struggles between town, Prince and Church is yet another fascinating issue which is beyond the scope of this essay, but it’s worth very briefly pointing out that the Dominicans also became involved in public education in the 13th Century, and they represented a more ‘establishment’ view far more in line with the agendas of the elite and powerful than the Beguines. And yet, they seemed to be comparatively unpopular in the cities, perhaps due to their close association with the inquisition (in which the Dominicans played a direct role in the destruction of several cities in the South of France during the Albigensian Crusade of 1209-1229), or to their association with regional prelates (Bishops or Archbishops) with whom the towns had a rivalry. In fact as we shall see the role of clergy in general and the Dominicans in particular in schools for children became extremely contentious in the 14th Century in some towns such as Hamburg.


Conrad_von_Soest,_'Brillenapostel'_(1403)One of the most unfair jokes that nature plays upon mankind (and womankind) is that so many people suffer partial vision loss as soon as they reach adulthood if not before. This was without a doubt a problem for the spread of literacy in society and the wider reach of books and the written word, since it greatly reduced the number of people who could read anything even if they did learn to read in school.

Though typically relegated to a whimsical footnote, even more buried (or treated as a curiosity) since it doesn’t fit the modern paradigm of the medieval world, I believe the invention and large scale production of eyeglasses starting in 1286 had a major impact on literacy.


Some medieval eyeglasses were made of beryl

There is considerable evidence that it rapidly became a large scale industry, Venice, where a very sophisticated and highly specialized export-oriented glassmaking industry was already well–established, first recorded guild regulations for the sale of eye glasses in 1301. As with other technologies, the development of eyeglasses continued to specialize and become more and more sophisticated over time.


Medieval eyeglasses are like learning a new word: once you know they existed you see them everywhere

Jumping forward a bit, we have two interesting letters from the 15th Century which give a hint as to the degree to which specialization had gone by then:

Letter dated October 21, 1462 sent by Duke Francesco Sforza of Milan to his resident ambassador in Florence, Nicodemo Tranchedini da Pontremoli:

Because there are many who request of us eyeglasses that are made there in Florence, since it is reputed that they are made more perfectly [there] than in any other place in Italy, we wish and charge you to send us three dozens of the aforesaid eyeglasses placed in cases so that they will not break; that is to say, one dozen of those apt and suitable for distant vision, that is for the young; another [dozen] that are suitable for near vision, that is for the elderly; and the third [dozen] for normal vision. We inform you that we do not want them for our use because, thank God, we do not need them, but we want them in order to please this one or that one who asks us for them. Send them by the post of our couriers directing them to our secretary Giovanni Simonetta. Inform us of their cost so that we can send you the money. Given in Milan, 21 October 1462

Three months after the death of Francesco Sforza, his son and successor, Galeazzo Maria wrote another

Letter Dated June 13, 1466, to the same ambassador requesting two hundred pairs of eyeglasses:

Because we earnestly desire to have the eyeglasses as noted in the list here enclosed, we desire that upon receipt of this letter you should endeavor to acquire them perfectly made according to the ages specified in the aforesaid list. Send them in a box, well arranged and separated with attached labels for each category, so that when we receive them we shall be able to distinguish one category from the other. Inform us of their cost so that we can make provision for the payment. Milan, 13 June 1466.

XV pairs of eyeglasses for ages 30, 35, 40, 45, 50, thin Item, XV pairs of eyeglasses for ages 40, 45, 50, 55, 60, 65, 70. Item, X pairs of eyeglasses for medium vision for the young Item, X pairs for distant [vision] for the young.


Like so many other critical inventions of this period, eyeglasses represent a convergence of the artisans practical skill in glassmaking and craft production, with the intellectuals understanding of the geometry of Euclid and the works on lenses as light of the Classical auctores. Hard work was still being done on the discovery, interpretation and dissemination of the Classics, including in Toledo where a second phase of the famous translation school took place at this time.

The second life of the translation school of Toledo

Long after Archbishop Raymond died in 1151, the school of translation in Toledo was fortunate enough in the year 1252 to find a powerful Royal patron in Alphonso X “The Wise” of Castille.  Alphonso oversaw the expansion of the school and was able to draw in more translators from as far away as Africa and the Byzantine Empire.  Under Alphonso the school had many Jewish scholars such as Isaac ibn Sid and Yeshuda ben Moshe who translated hundreds of documents from Greek, Hebrew, Persian and Arabic, and they also began to systematically teach others how to read and write in these languages.    Another famous translator at the school was Constantine the African, who translated some of the most important works on Arabic medicine.

The second thing that Alphonso did which was particularly farsighted was to insist that translations be done into the Castillian vernacular (i.e. Spanish), rather than Latin, thus making them accessible to far more people.  Unfortunately after the death of Alphonso X in 1285 the school, which could have become one of the greatest universities in Europe, lost its royal support under Sancho IV and it fell apart almost overnight, though many of the instructors simply shifted to the new escuelas generales which had been established in Seville by Alphonso before his death and continued to operate under the support of that town.

To point out that there was continued emphasis on Arabic and Persian sources for a great deal of the Classical masterworks, as well as emphasis on the ancient Muslim scholars themselves, is to no means depreciate the inventiveness or resourcefulness of the European scholars. Indeed, often very shortly after these books were translated their content was mastered by the European scholars.  This is what led to the rapid transformation of the water wheel from a device for grinding grain, into a machine for mechanizing almost every form of production.

But there is no denying that the lineage of many of the classical books of engineering, astronomy, physics, chemistry geometry and math which were so critical to the advance of European civilization derived directly from Arabic sources, any more than the fact that the Arabs themselves could trace most of their critical advances to Greek and Roman sources, as well as some further East in India, Persia and China. Here I have provided a list of some of the most important books of the high medieval period, with their original source and date of translation (all in the 12th or 13th Century), as well as where available the name of the translator and the location where it was done.

Source: The Medieval Machine pp 176-177

Original Author Original Date Works Translator From Language Year Place
Al Khwarizmi 9th Century Liber Ysagogarum Alchorismi et al (arithmetic and (Trigonometry) Adelard of Bath Arabic 1126
Rhazes / Al Razi Died c. 924 De Aluminibus et Salibus (Alchemy) Gerard of Cremona Arabic 1145 Segovia
“pseudo Aristotle” (unknown) De Proprietabus Elementorum (Geology) Gerard of Cremona Arabic 12th Century Toledo
Alhazen 965-1037 Opticae Thesarus Unknown Arabic End of 12th Century
Avicenna 980-1037 Parts of Kitab al Shifa (commentary on Aristotle) Dominicus Gundisaalinus and John of Seville Arabic 12th Century Toledo
Averroes 1126-1198 Physica, De Caelo et Mundo, De Anima (commentaries on Aristotle) Michael Scot Arabic 13th Century Toledo
Leonardo Fibonacci of Pisa Unkown Liber Abaci (first complete account of Hindu numerals) Unknown Arabic 1202
Hyppocrates and his school 5th-4th Centuries BC Aphorisms (Medicine) Burgundio of Pisa, Gerard of Cremona and others Arabic 12th Century Toledo
Aristotle 384-322 BC Metorolgica and many others Henricus Aristippus and Michael Scot Arabic 1156,1217-20 Sicily and Spain
Euclid 330-260 BC Elements Adelard of Bath Arabic Early 12th Century
Archimedes 287-212 BC De Mensura Circuli Gerard of Cremona Arabic 12th Century Toledo
Hero of Alexandria 1st Century BC Pneumatica Unknown Arabic 12th Century Sicily
Ptolemey 2nd Century AD Almagest, Optica Gerard of Cremona, Eugenius of Palermo Arabic 1154 and 1175 Sicily and Toledo

The Universities

The fame of the Universities in Paris, Oxford and Bologna spread rapidly, and at least 15 more schools of higher learning were founded in the 13th Century.

Six in what is now Italy- Alcalá (1293); Vicenza (1204), Padua (1222), Naples (1224), Siena (1240), and Macerata (1290)

Four in what is now Spain -Palencia (1212), Salamanca (1218), Valladolid (1241), Murcia (1272),

Two in France- Toulouse (1229), and Montpellier (1289)

Two in England- Cambridge (1209 / 1231), and Northampton (1261)

One in Portugal- Coimbra (1290)

Universities were popular both with their students and with the higher authorities of the European Kingdoms and the Church for the clear value they brought in professionally trained experts and broadening understanding of important techniques and issues, but controversy also surrounded them.  They tended to be violent places, with teaching frequently disrupted by ‘town vs. gown’ disputes, riots between students, and theological or political controversies.  Not all the Universities were successful or important either, with the most prominent in this period continuing to be Paris, Oxford, Bologna, Padua, Cambridge, Salamanca and Montpellier in roughly that order.  Paris, though perhaps the most prestigious school in some respects, suffered from a conflict between the orthodoxy of the Church with the wide open nature of academic exploration, especially academic study based on the writings of pagan and Muslim scholars.

At this time the intellectual movement called Scholasticism was reaching it’s so called high period with students and professors becoming increasingly enamored with Classical auctores, especially Aristotle.   Scholasticism was characterized at least in part by a method of interpreting Classical knowledge founded primarily on logic and rhetoric, and specifically the use of dialectic reasoning and debate.  The ranks of the Scholastics included both establishment figures such as the Dominican Thomas Aquinas as well as  more controversial figures such as the Franciscan William of Ockham, the originator of the logical method of “Ockham’s razor”.  It was the latter type who increasingly concerned the Church, leading to crackdowns in the more authoritarian universities such as Paris.

In Paris there were three major periods of ‘Condemnation‘ of the more radical Scholastics in the 13th Century and in particular with their obsession for Aristotle, which conservative elements in the local Church hierarchy at the time believed was bordering on pagan or polytheistic thought and eclipsing the teaching of the bible.  In 1210, 1270, and 1277 the Bishop of Paris issued edicts which suppressed the teaching of either some or all the works of Aristotle and certain other Classical scholars on pain of Excommunication.  During the Condemnation of 1270 a conference of conservative bishops issued a list of banned philosophical positions derived from Aristotle and of the Muslim scholar Averroes.

Other Universities however such as at Oxford, Padua, and Bologna continued to teach the banned doctrines, though they were not free from controversies and violence of many types was not unusual.  In the University of Bologna the students formed a committee called the “Denouncers of the Professors” who would fine professors if they failed to finish classes or complete courses before the end of the semester, or got involved in scandals or more untoward mischief.  The professors in turn formed the “College of Professors” to protect their own rights such as determining the qualifications to get a degree.

The Fourth Crusade

A major event occurred during the early 13th Century which was a catastrophe for the Byzantine Empire, but  was a boon on many levels for certain Italian City-States, namely the Fourth Crusade and the resulting Sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the forces of Venice and an army of French knights and soldiers.  In the 3 day sacking of the town, more than just the Lions of the Hippodrome were stolen by the Venetians.  The capture of this city must have led to a treasure trove of documents falling into the hands of the Crusaders.  A full exploration of the event and it’s consequences is far beyond the scope of this essay, and I have not yet personally explored the impact that it had on the intellectual life in Europe, but I suspect it was considerable and I hope to look into it further.  Of all the Crusades, I think this is the event which had the most direct impact on the intellectual life of Europe.

Books of the 13th Century

Finally, here are some examples of books which were written in the 13th Century for context in understanding actual books (like fencing manuals). Though we do not yet know of any fightbooks from this century, it is perhaps helpful to have a basic understanding of what kind of books were being written at this time.

Summa Theologica

3,500 pages! The Italian Dominican Friar Thomas Aquinas produced this masterpiece of ethics and theology which was essentially an attempt to synthesize Aristotle with Christianity.  Whether or not it was actually successful on that level there is no denying the enormous influence of this book.  Written in Latin of course, it is still considered a major cornerstone of philosophy and Catholic thought. Thomas Aquinas extremely erudite book quotes Christian, Muslim, Hebrew, and pagan sources including Aristotle, St. Augustine, Avicenna, Averrores, Al-Ghazili, Dionysus the Areopagite, Maimonides, Plato, Cicero and Eriugena, and through his dialectic logic wrestles them all into essentially the Dominican’s orthodox Christian positions which supported the hierarchies and institutions of his day.

Liber Paradisus

Bolognas “paradise law”, this manuscript is a list of the names of all the slaves and serfs freed by Bologna after the battle of Fossalta in which the Signorie (nobility) of the region were defeated by the civic militia. The town bought the contracts of 6,000 slaves at the astonishing cost of 54,014 pounds of silver, which was the market rate. Written in 1257 by four notaries hired from the town, the book is still extant in the State Archives, the opening plate states Paradisum voluptatis plantavit dominus Deus omnipotens a principio, in quo posuit hominem, quem formaverat, et ipsius corpus ornavit veste candenti, sibi donans perfectissimam et perpetuam libertatem “In the beginning God planted a paradise of delights, where he put the man whom he had formed, and adorned his body of a bright dress, giving him the most perfect and perpetual freedom”

Summa perfectionis magisterii

An extremely important book on alchemy, which included for the first time complete, clear and practical formulae and explicit laboratory instructions for the production of nitric acid, aqua regia (nitro-hydrochloric acid), oil of vitriol,(sulfuric acid) and silver nitrate, chemicals which proved extremely valuable for the processing of metal ores, the setting of dyes, for medicine and for other purposes. We don’t know who the actual author was because he claimed to be “Geber the Arab” or “Al Jabir”, aka Jābir ibn Hayyān, a 9th Century Persian Alchemist, from which some of the ideas in the book originate, but it is clear that it was written in the 13th Century by a European. Current academic speculation suggests that the actual author may have been an Italian alchemist named Paul of Taranto. This book was reprinted hundreds of times and was not considered equaled until the 16th Century.

De arte venadi cum avibus

De_Arte_Venandi_com_AvibusThe art of hunting with Birds written by Emperor Frederick II 1240’s, this book on the favorite pastime of the medieval nobility was dedicated to the Emperors son. Written in Latin it drew chiefly upon Aristotle’s Liber Animalum, as translated from the Arab Kitab al Hayawan (translated by Michael Scot of the famous Toledo school) as well as De Scientia Venadi per Aves a falconry book by the Arab falconer Moamyn, translated by Theodore of Antioch. The original copy of this book was lost in 1248 by Frederick II during his wars in Italy, but it was later recovered and reprinted by his son Manfred as an illuminated manuscript.

The Book of the Civilized Man

(Early 13th Century, Latin) Book of the Civilized Man (book of etiquette for English nobles) written by the poet Daniel of Beccles. Written in Latin as a single 3,000 line poem. I’ve listed some quotes from the book which give you an idea how raw and uncouth English society was at this time, in especially sharp contrast to the sophistication of Italy and Flanders in the same era:

  • ‘If you wish to belch, remember to look up to the ceiling.’
  • ‘Do not attack your enemy while he is squatting to defecate.’
  • ‘If there is something you do not want people to know, do not tell it to your wife.’
  • ‘Say thank you to your host.’
  • ‘Don’t mount your horse in the hall.’
  • ‘If visitors had already eaten, give them drink anyway.’
  • ‘Loosen your reins when riding over a bridge.’
  • ‘Receive gifts from great men with gratitude.’
  • ‘If you are a judge, be just.’
  • ‘Eating at the table of the rich, speak little.’
The sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt

1230’s, on parchment, 250 sketches with text in vernacular (French) which was still quite rare at this time.

AMH_LOC_HonnecourtReims tumblr_mcbai44vTH1rc0bobo4_500 architecte-5

I have saved what I consider in some ways to be the best for last. This is a sketchbook by a mysterious artist or mason named Villard de Honnecourt, (a name which in spite of being raised speaking French I still have some trouble pronouncing).


These geometric shapes may have been used to enlarge sketches to full size carvings or constructs.

This sketchbook of architectural masterpieces and mechanical oddities is very famous and has been the subject of a great deal, one my say an inordinate amount of academic research, which nevertheless has left many researchers baffled and frustrated, and unable to completely define the nature of the book or its author.

The drawings range from very precise and beautiful to somewhat loose and rough, and the book itself is an extremely informal, seemingly random combination of sketches and images with notes and little commentaries. But it includes several important architectural drawings of major architectural works of the period, leading some to conclude that Villard was an important ‘architect’ or master mason in the employ of the Cistercian Order. Critics of this theory point out errors in some of the architectural drawings and other evidence which imply he was not

Nevertheless, scholars are fairly certain that at least two  master masons did own the book and added to it long after Villard’s demise. It is considered an important


Villard claims to have seen this Lion close up, and that the dogs were used to train them.

book on architecture. The books is also known to historical fencers (and I think it can be found on the Wiktenauer, though I couldn’t find the link) because it includes some  of the earliest known depictions of grappling in post-Classical Europe.

It also shows a complete plan (in a very rough looking sketch) of a water powered sawmill. The sawmill plan, along with a siege weapon and an automata of a bird which can be made to always point to the sunof the type shown in Part I of


The sawmill plan, along with a siege weapon and an automata of a bird which can be made to always point to the sun

this essay, including the crucial mechanism which moves the log along the saw as it’s being cut, as well as sophisticated automata (medieval equivalent of robots) and a perpetual motion machine that may (or may not) have included one of the most important devices for making clocks work. Though he does not appear to be University educated, Villard makes extensive use of the geometry of Euclid throughout the work, and there are hints that he had access to De Architectura libri decem of Virtruvius, arguably the most important treatise on architecture and engineering in the medieval period, if not the entire Western world (though more on that a bit later).

Of all the 13th Century books I know of, this one perhaps most closely resembles a certain sub-type of the fightbook, that most typified by the 3227a. It is in a category academics find somewhat confusing, or even frustrating, and resembles in certain respects the so called commonplace book or zibaldone which were better known in the 14th or 15th Centuries. The author, and his illustrations, at once display a mastery and a genuine deep insight into some extremely important techniques, but at the same time he seems to make mistakes and the actual meanings are not easy to decipher. There are many layers and careful analysis has revealed fascinating insights into the period and specific architectural techniques.  It is a good example of a book with valuable information in it that is not easily accessible to the neophyte.

Summary of Part II

During the 13th Century technology played an important role in the development of literacy in two ways.  First, the continued spread of the water-powered paper mill led to the wide availability of paper.  Second, the translation and study of ancient books contributed strongly to the development of important technologies like chemistry, military architecture and engineering.  For example stone castles began to replace wood and earth fortifications in the late 12th Century and became ubiquitous, and increasingly sophisticated in the 13th Century.  This was driven at least partly by advances in architecture and engineering derived from Euclid and others.  The new church buildings of this period, made of stone and glass, reached a level of sophistication well beyond the simple Roman basilica, as we could see in the drawings of Villard de Honnecourt.  This reflected the sacred geometry of Pythagoras which as Peter Johnsson has shown us, may have also been the basis of sword design.  Swords, too, were changing at this time.

In fact architecture was only one of a many areas of technological breakthrough derived from Classical wisdom found in ancient books (and developed from them). Mines became more valuable because of advances in engineering (such as Archimedes screw) which allowed them to be dug deeper, and chemistry which allowed much more efficient processing of ores.  All of this led to increasing demand for and interest in books.  A third factor driving the spread of literacy was the use of written contracts such as the commenda, which allowed multiple people to buy shares of (and thus finance) a risky merchants voyage on the high-seas.  Orders, receipts, letters of credit and basic accounting all relied on the ability of people to read, write and do arithmetic, and this was the basis of the merchants trade and manufacturing empire which financed the creation of the first public schools.

The widespread availability of paper is, I think, the single most important cause of the spread of literacy up to the end of the 13th Century, but this was more about book-keeping than literature.  It was the interest in subjects related to valuable ‘new’ technologies and techniques of the ancient Greeks and their Muslim interpreters (especially geometry, physics and alchemy but also better law codes) which was the biggest driver of the demand for books specifically and drove the growth of the Universities.  In part III, I’m going to try to show how this later led to the development of scriptoria and private and public libraries, then to block printing and ultimately to the printing press.

Increasingly in the 13th Century, it was no longer only the professionally literate class of scribes and clerks who wrote the contracts, ledgers, and military orders, but the merchants, craftsmen, and soldiers themselves who took pen in hand.  This was a trend which would only continue to accelerate in the next two centuries.

“History of the German People at the close of the Middle Ages”, Johannes Janssen, page 50

[ii] Microcosm, Portrait of a Central European City, Norman Davies and Roger Moorhouse, Pimlico Press 2002 ISBN 13: 978 0 7126 9334 9, page 84