Avignon manuscripts – bottega versus scriptorium. Introduction

Just as the Voynich manuscript’s internal evidence argues against its being the production of a single individual, so various aspects of its production, including the fact that we later find its motifs in works across the range from Flanders to Spain (and including France, northern Italy and even central Europe), suggests the latter’s dissemination from an environment closer to that of the commercial bottega  than of the parochial scriptorium.

Fleck [1] neatly defines the latter in saying that  scriptorium “implies a coherent and consistent group working in a single institution” – as against the international, heterogeneous and primarily commercial workshop (bottega or équip), towards which artisans gravitated from all parts of Europe, and from which their interactions permitted new forms and fads to be disseminated rapidly and very broadly.

Modern histories of art sometimes distinguish from the rest those workshops dedicated to manuscript production, terming them (and especially the illuminators’ workshop) an atelier, but this should not be taken to imply that the medieval ‘artist’ was regarded as other than an artisan. His workshop was a ‘school’ only in a very limited sense. The taste of the persons commissioning the work, or on whose behalf it was commissioned, more than any a body of locally available precedents or any scriptorium’s convention and custom,  increasingly determined a manuscript’s style of presentation and its imagery. [2]

The bottega was a type of  manufactory.  Some specialised in producing manuscripts, but the role of the ‘artist’ outside the monastic environment was closer to what we’d consider a commercial graphic artist’s, or a craftsman’s.  He was expected to produce imagery across various media, to order. On one day he might produce a design for tapestry, on another work on a series of frescos and so on. Michelangelo could not refuse a commission to paint a ceiling, for all that he considered sculpture his primary medium.  In the same way, a person might be hired to produce works while living in a private house, and again across the range from designs for coloured glass, personal luxuries, tapestries or reproductions from ancient and classical objects.  The bottega’s environment offered the worker positive benefits in addition to payment in coin; he was able to add to his portfolio those styles and fashions in which his neighbour was adept; he might learn from something seen in an imported textile, or from another manuscript on which he’d collaborated in copying, or simply from public imagery in a newly-completed foreign cathedral.

If we knew precisely in which region the Voynich manuscript had been produced, or more narrowly still that it was the product of a parochial scriptorium, then it would be reasonable to look for any comparisons in nothing but other manuscripts from that centre.  As it is, we do not know just where, or by whom or for whom this manuscript was made, nor the informing culture which had first produced its imagery and script, found in our fifteenth century object.

The internal evidence is not consistent with what we know – and we know a great deal – about the works which emerged from local scriptoria in the early fifteenth century.  Efforts to argue the opposite by ‘Voynicheros’ rarely rely on deductions gained from the manuscript’s materials and internal evidence; too often a preferred theory is first espoused and only then are efforts made to locate something in the manuscript which might lend support, or to argue that the telling detail or material “could have” been found there. The process of argument is often further inhibited by lack of any formal training in a relevant discipline such as codicology or the conservators’ sciences. One hopes that in the future this situation may change, but the past century has seen little of technical comment published in scholarly journals devoted to medieval history or -manuscript studies.

Irwin Panofsky was not the first person in his field to see his professional opinion passed over in favour of a popularised theory about this manuscript, but he was surely one of the most acute in refusing to enter the public arena to insist. Unlike Wilfrid Voynich, who had revelled in public assertions of his favoured provenance, Panofsky saw no purpose in the mix of politics, passion,  vitriol and publicity which so early  and so thoroughly distorted study of MS Beinecke 408. His restraint, of course, is quite a different matter from espousing an idea which one then refuses to defend, knowing the objection substantial while conveying an impression that the person presenting it, and not the item in question, is the problem.  This too is a feature of Voynich studies most noticeable to those scholars who are contemplating offering an informed opinion: its remarkable lack of dispassion.

From the medieval workshops, the range of manuscripts produced was greater than that from those university booksellers credited with introducing to Europe the ‘piecemeal’ copying system, or pecia.  Workshops had positive benefits for the artisans too, apart from an opportunity to earn coin. A workshop might one day require illuminations to be in the Spanish manner, and on another in the Italian, or English, but as well as giving some advantage to workers from those regions, it allowed the native to acquire new motifs and techniques.

The wealthy often wanted the latest in the fashionable, in the foreign or exotic. An  artist returning from a distant workshop might have a reciprocal advantage there, being now able to offer designs in the new ‘Gothic’ style, or hunting scenes in the French style, or a regional version of the Italian astrological works which were to become such a fad from the later fifteenth century.

We’ve seen something already of that cross-pollination, across genres as between regions. In one case we saw how a manuscript artist in Germany attempted to use in his manuscript the form for a Sagittarius figure as it had recently been carved into the wall of a French cathedral, and how in turn that carving had its form partly from the original Jewish type – a fully human figure – and partly from a type of Pan or Satyr Sagittarius like that made centuries before by an Anglo-Saxon artist, and preserved in a copy of the Aratea retained at Fleury.  Dissemination of the originally Jewish form for Sagittarius within the Latin milieu, and of other specific motifs and customs seen in fifteenth century Latin works, appears to reflect an early reliance on Jews’ expertise in various trades and professions, as we’ll see further. Our earliest known instance of the fully human standing archer for Sagittarius in medieval Latin Europe occurs in the context of glass created in a work of the Opus Francigenum.[3]

During the later fourteenth- to mid-fifteenth century, an “international Gothic” style again gained a rapid and wide adoption. On this point, Fleck makes an important comment,  one turning our attention to the Rhône, while Avignon held a papal court and had close ties to to Majorca (Mallorca).

[This later mode, the ‘international Gothic’] .. had traditionally been defined as growing in Burgundy, Bohemia, and northern Italy from about 1360–1440, with influences from northern France, the Netherlands, and Italy…[but] Now scholars generally support Avignon’s involvement in the International Gothic style. In the mid-20th century, Erwin Panofsky and Millard Meiss limited the role of Avignon in the spread of this style. In contrast, Philippe Verdier’s 1962 catalog on International Gothic gave greater weight to Avignon. He convincingly placed Avignon alongside Paris, Prague, Vienna, Dijon, Bourges, and Milan, underlining the importance of the meeting of northern and Italian art in the city on the Rhône.

(Fleck, op.cit. p.254)

But Fleck’s paper is of interest to us not for any pronounced influence from international Gothic in our manuscript, but because it is about the methods used to create a papal library over the period from 1305-1418.   We have unusually detailed knowledge of this library’s formation, growth and dispersal.

Early in the fourteenth century, when the bishop of Avignon, Jacques Dueze (or d’Euse) was elected head of the western Christian church, he chose not to reside in Rome but to remain where he was. Avignon would house the Papal court.

To his disappointment, the Papal library was not sent to him from Rome, and he was obliged to purchase or have made to order those works now needed in Avignon. Importantly for the present case, our records show exactly what happened when new works were commissioned, and stage by stage how their copying was done from the time the membrane was commissioned to the time the work was bound. The information is especially detailed for the period around 1375-1377, and we know even the names of the parchminers, the binders, scribes and illuminators,  where they came from, and their religious and cultural connections – illuminating our understanding of the heritage on which these manuscripts and their imagery drew.

During the earlier phase, most of the works being copied or purchased for the library were  of  history, theology, liturgy, church law, secular law and classics, but the papal Avignon court was like any other important court in Latin Europe – and texts were not only produced for the library itself, or for the Popes’ private use, but as commissioned gifts for visitors and bureaucrats, or made to order when others were permitted to use the same facilities. It is here that we can witness how production originally in the style of the scriptorium moved, under pressure of necessity, to one closer to that of the pecia, and the still more mixed bottega.

In the next post, for the convenience of more recent readers, I’ll re-visit the points about MS Beinecke 408 which have brought Avignon to notice before. The third post will describe in more detail that shift in production modes which occurs in Avignon just before 1377, and in the fourth I’ll return to Fleck’s study, focussed on the period from 1377 to 1418, after which the library was dispersed. Most unusually we know where most of the volumes went, and where they remain even now.

In the process, I’ll refer to some  aspects and details of MS Beinecke 408 that find agreement within this period, general region, and style of production.


1. Cathleen A. Fleck, ‘Seeking Legitimacy: Art and Manuscripts for the Pope in Avignon’, Ch.IX in  Joëlle Rollo-Koster, Thomas M. Izbicki (eds.),  A Companion to the Great Western Schism (1378-1417) Brill, 2014.  The passage cited is on p.290.  Fleck’s article is also available through academia.edu.

2. As example, manuscripts produced for Cardinal Stefaneschi in Avignon between 1309 and 1341 are so consistent with one another that they are easily distinguished, and the ‘master’, though still anonymous, recognised.   See the lengthy comment on a manuscript from that group, the ‘Codex of St.George’ now in the Vatican Library, Archivo de San Pietro (C129). Laurence B. Kanter, Painting and Illumination in Early Renaissance Florence, 1300-1450, Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, N.Y.) pp.89-95.

3. Understanding a connection between the Voynich ‘month’ centres and the process for dissemination of the ‘Opus Francigenum’ is critical to a correct historical ordering of comparative versions for the figures seen in centre of the Voynich ‘month’ roundels.  A version of the archer in glass, attributed to Braine Abbey around the 12thC, uses the  fully human archer while giving it the sort of short, shaggy trousers seen on the older “Pan/Satyr” form as early as the Carolingian period. The sources for the latter are  indisputably the pre-Christian, eastern Greek ‘Satyr’ type. For more detail on the last point, see illustrations in ‘Not a Centaur. Sagittarius fol 73v’, voynichimagery.wordpress.com ( June 30, 2015), while on the figure from Braine Abbey – ‘Sagittarius fol 73v’ post voynichimagery.wordpress.com (July 9, 2015).