On the success of Latin texts in the Middle Ages


École nationale des chartes

In a textual community such as that of the Latin Middle Ages, the diffusion of works and their influence on collective and individual mentalities depends upon their written tradition. While there are texts such as prayers, stories and certain poems that require the memory of the narrator and the attention of the listeners, and others that are not meant to circulate but to remain in place and survive on their own merits, a large number of copies usually indicates an intensity of need that drives scribes and readers toward these texts.

The mobility of the book as an object cannot explain the vagaries of diffusion. Transported outside its original sphere, a text can seem like a marvelous discovery, or fade away through indifference. When rare, it may be the object of frantic searching and borrowing; it can also sleep for centuries before being rediscovered by a fervent reader who rekindles its appeal. Each copy has its own destiny, but at the beginning of its existence, someone must decide to devote the time, labour, and money to its confection, and a large number of copies reflects the importance a work holds for its readership.

Obviously there are biases in the manuscript preservation and the number of remaining copies is neither the only way to evaluate the success of a text nor to be read in a plain manner. The number of parameters is so great that the percentage of lost manuscripts is difficult to estimate. The accidents of preservation, paired with the irregular paths of diffusion and resistance to destruction, require that figures obtained be analyzed prudently, taking into account several criteria. One of them is when the text was written, since the oldest manuscripts have had more time to suffer damage or loss. Another one is the price of the manuscript: the more luxurious, costly copies draw more attention and are better preserved, but also excite envy and theft which bring them outside the secure world of libraries, whereas more fragile forms are destined to be short lived, though they probably existed in much higher proportions at the outset. Those given greater use, such as school books, were the most liable to wear out and perish.

However, above a certain number of witnesses, the aggregate of those found in public collections gives an approximate idea of the audience of a work. This parameter provides a basis for the evaluation of the cultural reception of the texts.

Alas, the greater the number of copies, the more uncertain is their count and the fuzzier our evaluation, in part discouraged by the very abundance. And this is true not only for “unexpected best-sellers” (works that scholars have neglected until now), but also for well-known medieval works from famous authors.

The present project gathers information on the number of remaining witnesses of the most widely read Latin works in the Middle Ages, compiled in a database that can be searched according to the number of copies, as well as by genre, date of composition, and eventually by date and place of origin of the witnesses.

It is not a question of redoing what has already been done. Classical works and their translations have already been well inventoried and studied, and tools are not lacking. Manuscripts of the Bible are another world, as are those of Aristotle. Italian humanistic texts, which are treated by others, have also been left aside. Our perspective focuses on medieval works composed from the fifth century onward, and continuing into the late Middle Ages, when the number of surviving copies is highest. Paradoxically, scholarly interest for the Latin works of the last two centuries of the Middle Ages has declined, at the very moment that the habit of reading progresses spectacularly and the number of books explodes. The terminus ad quem would be the moment when successful works begin to be distributed directly through printing.

Given the quantity of the material, a codicological study of the manuscripts is not possible. There is no question of replacing the incipit databases or the different Clavis. The aim is to give minimum rapid access to information, to provide for each work references to the edition, to studies or to databases that contain the information, and especially to studies on the diffusion of the work that plot the chronological and geographical distribution of the copies. This information can be taken from recent editions (but the unwieldy mass of widely copied works discourages this type of complete edition), or from studies of the textual tradition without edition, or new research. The results are therefore uneven, but will be enhanced in the frame of the current project. For works contained in several hundred manuscripts, research on the textual tradition could sometimes take several years, so we must be content at present with a reference to the most precise evaluation available of the tradition. The database will allow researchers to pinpoint works that would justify this type of research and perhaps encourage its undertaking.

In any case, the numbers of inventoried copies are only indications a minima, which leave out inaccessible manuscripts in private collections and those not yet identified. The numbers will grow little by little as research develops, and their special value is to spark reflection.

The ‘threshold number’ of remaining manuscripts that determines if a work is a best-seller is also loosely defined. The best represented titles will be those that naturally find their way into permanent institutional libraries, conventual and chapter libraries, which initially receive devotional, mystical, and meditative works, and with the coming of the universities, receive theological works and university teaching tools. The cut-off point cannot be the same for this type of work and those which, by their nature, were less liable to be preserved in a stable institution. Around thirty copies is envisaged for profane works, and around forty copies for religious and philosophical works. New research on a text can always bring to light an unexpected success. The entire scientific community is summoned to help build this database of new discoveries concerning often read works.

Interrogations by the number of witnesses, by genre, or by century ought to allow us to judge the reasons for success, what need it fulfills, how it reaches its public, the conditions for a favorable diffusion, and perhaps the rapport between its qualities and its success, by comparison to analogous works that were less fortunate.

Outre les textes signalés dans la bibliographie de chaque notice « œuvre », afin d’identifier les œuvres transmises par plus de trente manuscrits, ont été dépouillés les répertoires, les collections, les ouvrages, et les bases de données suivant, ainsi que les catalogues de manuscrits suivant :


BAMAT : Bibliographie annuelle du Moyen Âge tardif, Turnhout : Brepols, 1992-.

BLOOMFIELD, M.W., GUYOT, B.-G., Incipits of Latin Works on the Virtues and Vices, 1100-1500 A.D. : Including a Section of Incipits of Works on the Pater Noster, Cambridge (Mass.) : The mediaeval academy of America, 1979.

CARDELLE DE HARTMANN, C., Lateinische Dialoge 1200-1400. Literaturhistorische Studie und Repertorium, Leiden-Boston : Brill, 2007.

Clavis Scriptorum Latinorum Medii Aevi. Auctores Galliae, 735-987, vol. I-IV.1, Turnhout : Brepols, 1994-2015.

Commedie latine del XII e XIII secolo, vol. I-VI, Genova : Istituto di filologia classica e medievale, 1976-1998.

DIAZ Y DIAZ, M.C., Index scriptorum latinorum medii aevii hispanorum, Madrid, 1959.

KAEPPELI, T., PANELLA, E., Scriptores Ordinis Praedicatorum Medii Aevi, vol. I-IV, Romae : ex typis polyglottis Vaticanis, 1970-1993.

SCHALLER, D., KÖNSGEN, E., TAGLIABUE, J., Initia carminum Latinorum saeculo undecimo antiquiorum : bibliographisches Repertorium für die lateinische Dichtung der Antike und des früheren Mittelalters, Göttingen : Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1977 ; Supplementband, 2005.

SHARPE, R., A handlist of the latin writers of Great Britain and Ireland before 1540, Turnhout : Brepols, 1997.

TE.TRA. : CHIESA, P., CASTALDI, L., La trasmissione dei testi latini del medioevo - Medieval Latin Texts and their Transmission, vol. I-V, Florence : SISMEL, 2004-2013.

WALTHER, H., Initia carminum ac versuum Medii Aevi posterioris Latinorum : Alphabetisches Verzeichnis der Versanfänge mittellateinischer Dichtungen, Göttingen : Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1959.


Analecta Mediaevalia Namurcensia.

Auctores Britannici Medii Aevi.

Classiques de l'histoire de France.

Collection de documents inédits sur l'histoire de France.

Corpus Christianorum. Continuatio Mediaeualis, Turnhout : Brepols (volumes publiés avant mars 2014).

Corpus Christianorum. Series Latina, Turnhout : Brepols (volumes publiés avant mars 2014).

Medieval et Humanistica.

Medioevo e Umanesimo.

Oxford Medieval Texts.

Scriptores Latini Hiberniae.

Storia graeca et latina gothoburgensia.

Studia Latina Upsaliensia.

Studi e Testi.

Toronto Medieval Latin Texts.

Typologie des sources du moyen âge, Turnhout, Brepols (sauf les volumes 31, 50, 55, 57, 58, 60, 73).

Ouvrages étudiant la tradition d’un auteur ou d’un type de manuscrits

Les ouvrages et articles dressant l’état de la tradition d’une seule œuvre sont indiqués dans la fiche de l’œuvre.

[Albertus Magnus] FAUSER, W., Codices manuscripti operum Alberti Magni. Pars I : Opera genuina, Münster : Aschendorff, 1982.

[Boethius] Codices Boethiani, vol. I-IV, London : Warburg Institute, 1995-2009.

[Bonaventura] DISTELBRINK, B., Bonaventurae scripta : authentica, dubia vel spuria critice recensita, Rome : Istituto storico dei Cappuccini, 1975.

[Henricus de Gandavo] MACKEN, R., Bibliotheca manuscripta Henrici de Gandavo, vol. I-II, Leuven : Leuven University Press, 1979.

[Hugo de Sancto Victore] GOY, R., Die Überlieferung der Werke Hugos von St. Viktor : ein Beitrag zur Kommunikationsgeschichte des Mittelalters, Stuttgart : Hiersemann, 1976.

[Leonardus Brunus] HANKINS, J., Repertorium Brunianum. Volume I, Handlist of manuscripts : a critical guide to the writings of Leonardo Bruni, Rome : Istituto Storico Italiano per il Medio Evo, 1997.

[Petrus Hispanus] MEIRINHOS, J., Bibliotheca Manuscripta Petri Hispani, Porto : Brepols, 2011.

[Richardus de Sancto Victore] GOY, R., Die handschriftliche Überlieferung der Werke Richards von St. Viktor im Mittelalter, Turnhout : Brepols, 2005.

[Thomas de Aquino] DONDAINE, H.F., SHOONER, H. V., Codices manuscripti operum Thomae de Aquino, 3 vol., Romae : Commissio Leonina, 1967-1985. Le vol. IV est en préparation et a été consulté comme fichiers auprès de la Commissio Leonina, Paris.

NEDDERMEYER, U., Von der Handschrift zum gedruckten Buch : Schriftlichkeit und Leseinteresse im Mittelalter und in der frühen Neuzeit. Quantitative und qualitative Aspekte, 2 vol., Wiesbaden : Harrassowitz, 1998.

[Artes dictaminis] TURCAN, A.-M., FELISI, C., « Répertoire des Artes dictaminis », dans les actes du colloque « Le dictamen dans tous ses états. Perspectives de recherches sur la théorie et la pratique de l’ars dictaminis (XIe-XVe siècles) », à paraître en 2015.

[Astrologie] Bibliotheca astrologica latina, notices by David Juste and Charles Burnett : répertoire de notices publié sur le site web du Warburg Institut (Londres) : http://warburg.sas.ac.uk/library/digital-collections/bibliotheca-astrologica/

[Biblica] Carolingian Biblical Commentaries : répertoire créé par Burton Van Name Edwards (Brown University) : www.tcnj.edu/~chazelle/carindex.htm

[Chroniques] Repertorium chronicarum : a bibliography of the manuscripts of medieval Latin chronicles (Mississipi State University) : www.chronica.msstate.edu/browse.php

[Médecine] CHANDELIER, J., MOULINIER-BROGI, L., NICOUD, M., « Manuscrits médicaux latins de la Bibliothèque nationale de France », Archives d’histoire doctrinale et littéraire du moyen âge 73 (2006), 63-163.

[Visions] DINZELBACHER, P., Mittelalterliche Visionsliteratur. Eine Anthologie, Darmstadt : Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1989.

Catalogues collectifs de manuscrits

Dans le cadre des collaborations institutionnelles avec l’IRHT, nous avons bénéficié de l’extraction des listes des titres des œuvres et de leurs occurrences, afin de repérer les œuvres enregistrées les plus fréquemment dans les catalogues collectifs suivant :

Catalogue collectif de France (BnF, Paris), pour lequel nous remercions Mme Véronique Falconnet et M. Jérôme Sirdey : http://ccfr.bnf.fr/portailccfr/jsp/index.jsp

Manuscripta Mediaevalia, pour lequel nous remercions M. Robert Giel (StaBi, Berlin) : http://www.manuscripta-mediaevalia.de/#|4

MEDIUM : répertoire des manuscrits reproduits et recensés (IRHT, Paris) : http://medium.irht.cnrs.fr/

Schoenberg Database of Manuscripts, pour lequel nous remercions les Penn Libraries : http://dla.library.upenn.edu/dla/schoenberg/index.html

Catalogue de manuscrits

  • BERN, Burgerbibliothek

HAGEN, H., Catalogus codicum Bernensium (Bibliotheca Bongarsiana), Bernae : typis B.F. Haller, 1874.

HOMBURGER, O., Die illustrierten Handschriften der Burgerbibliothek Bern. Die vorkarolingischen und karolingischen Handschriften, Bern : Burgerbibliothek, 1962.

Schätze der Burgerbibliothek Bern, hrsg. im Auftrag der bürgerlichen Behörden der Stadt Bern anlässlich der 600-Jahr-Feier des Bundes der Stadt Bern mit den Waldstätten, Bern : Herbert Lang & CIE, 1953.

  • MONZA, Biblioteca capitolare

BELLONI, A., FERRARI, M., La Biblioteca capitolare di Monza, Padova : Antenore, 1974.

  • PADOVA, Biblioteca Universitaria

TONIOLO, F., GNAN, P., Splendore nella regola. Codici miniati da monasteri e conventi nella Biblioteca Universitaria di Padova, Padova : Biblioteca universitaria di Padova, 2011.

Prochains dépouillements

Catalogue général des manuscrits des bibliothèques publiques des départements. Tome III (Saint-Omer…), Paris : Imprimerie Impériale, 1861.

Nous remercions de leur enthousiaste et généreuse participation les chercheurs qui nous ont fait profiter de leur expertise :

  • Laura Albiero (IRHT, Paris)
  • Martina Ambrogio (Université de Turin)
  • Nicole Bériou (Université de Lyon 2)
  • Denise Bouthillier (Commissio Leonina, Paris)
  • Monica Brînzei (IRHT, Paris – ERC-THESIS)
  • Gionata Brusa (Julius-Maximilians-Universität, Würzburg)
  • Carmen Cardelle de Hartmann (Université de Zürich)
  • Pierre Chambert-Protat (EPHE, Paris)
  • Eleonora Celora (Università di Milano – IRHT, Paris)
  • Angela Cossu (Université de Pise – EPHE, Paris)
  • Birgitte Dalgaard-Prod'homme (Université Paul-Valéry, Montpellier)
  • Jérémy Delmulle (IRHT, Paris – Biblissima)
  • Fr. Elias Dietz (abbaye de Gethsemani, Kentucky)
  • Isabelle Draelants (IRHT, Paris)
  • Frédéric Duplessis (EPHE, Paris)
  • Claudia Fabian (Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, München)
  • Thomas Falmagne (Bibliothèque nationale de Luxembourg)
  • Klaus-Dietrich Fischer (Universitätsmedizin, Mainz)
  • Joanna Fronska (IRHT, Orléans)
  • Bénédicte Giffard (IRHT, Paris)
  • Cédric Giraud (IUF, Université de Nancy)
  • Monica Green (Arizona State University)
  • Caroline Heid (IRHT, Paris)
  • Marlène Helias-Baron (IRHT, Paris)
  • Amélie de las Heras (Fondation Thiers, Paris)
  • Zbigniew Izydorczyk (University of Winnipeg)
  • Annette Kehnel (Universität Mannheim)
  • Emmanuelle Kuhry (IRHT, Paris – Biblissima)
  • Cécile Lanéry (IRHT, Paris)
  • Alessia Marzo (Université de Turin)
  • Laure Miolo (IRHT, Paris)
  • Martin Morard (LEM, Paris)
  • Laurence Moulinier (CIHAM, Lyon)
  • Uwe Neddermeyer (Düsseldorf)
  • Dominique Poirel (IRHT, Paris)
  • Claudia Rabel (IRHT, Orléans)
  • Franz Roberg (Hessisches Staatsarchiv, Marburg)
  • Jean-Pierre Rothschild (IRHT, Paris)
  • Christopher Schabel (University of Cyprus)
  • Bénédicte Sère (Université Paris Ouest, Nanterre)
  • Patrice Sicard (IRHT, Paris)
  • Matteo Stefani (Università di Torino)
  • Patricia Stirnemann (IRHT, Paris)
  • Véronique Trémault (IRHT, Orléans)
  • Anna Tropia (IRHT, Orléans)
  • Anne-Marie Turcan (EPHE, Paris)
  • Iolanda Ventura (IRHT, Orléans)
  • Hanno Wijsman (IRHT, Paris)
  • Giuseppe Zarra (Sapienza. Université de Rome)