Bookmaking on the Margins of Society

A painted and jeweled cover initially deceives the reader into thinking they are about to gaze upon a richly illuminated codex. The cover, however, is a 19th century addition, possibly incorporating medieval elements. Nevertheless, the contents it guards are equally as precious as any gilded manuscript, for it contains the earliest edition of Rabanus Maurus’ work, copied at his monastery during his abbacy. The survival of early medieval manuscript editions contemporary to their authors is a remarkable rarity.

Rabanus Maurus, Commentary on Matthew
Manuscript, Germany (Fulda), ca. 840
Repairs, Germany (Xanten), 1400s
Faux-treasure binding, Germany, 1800s

This hefty volume is a learned manuscript that has been significantly reworked since its first creation in the early Middle Ages. These layers give us an opportunity to learn about shifting attitudes and purposes associated with books and bookmaking both in and after the Middle Ages. What initially was born as the product of a learned society living on the margins became an object of reverence, and that reverence later turned into fetishization.

The original part of this codex is a copy of Rabanus Maurus’ Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, authored and copied during the mid 9th century. This part of the object is significant due to it being a surviving witness to the intellectual activities of the Abbey of Fulda—one of the foremost centers of learning during the Carolingian Renaissance. Its author, as well as the process of its making, reveal intriguing, if paradoxical, stories of life on a monastic community at the margins of society.

The contents of the text are just as intriguing as the object itself, especially how it deals with the subject of poverty in Jesus’ ministry. The Gospel of Matthew is famous for containing a variation of one of the beatitudes that declares “blessed are the poor in spirit” (Mt. 5:3). Unlike Luke, which does not add the modifier “in spirit,” the gospel of Matthew de-emphasizes poverty as a social issue and religious virtue. Jesus’ own humble origins are glossed over in this gospel. In his commentary, Rabanus reasoned that the gospeler did not refer to physical poverty. “He added in spirit, so that you may understand humility, not the suffering [of poverty].” Furthermore, he argued that through the Holy Spirit, all Christians, even if they were rich, could experience the same sense of humility as the poor. In this way, Rabanus underscored the potential for this scriptural text to marginalize the materially poor by placing religious communities (which were wealthy and powerful in Rabanus’ time) at the center.

In a sense, Rabanus and his fellow monks lived on the margins of society by virtue of their seclusion and rejection of worldly pursuits. But beginning with the rule of Charlemagne around the year 800, these communities on the margins exercised a near monopoly over written knowledge and textual transmission. This “Carolingian Renaissance” was a period of remarkable scholarly activity throughout the monasteries and schools of Western Europe, and Rabanus’ Abbey of Fulda was one of the principal centers of this renaissance.

Under the leadership of Rabanus Maurus, the abbey’s school reached a sophistication second only to the palace school at Aachen. Books like Garrett MS. 72 were produced completely in-house. It was common for monasteries to have not only scriptoria for writing down texts, but also fields and workshops to raise cattle and process their skins for the making of parchment. Parchment-making was a notoriously nasty process. It involved skinning multiple animals and scraping their hides clean, treating them with lime, and then stretching them to maximize the number of sheets.

In this opening toward the beginning of the 8th century portion, variation can be seen in the hands involved in the copying process. Note also the hole on the parchment, probably a product of a small injury in the animal’s skin that was amplified by the stretching process. The parchment used in this text varies widely in quality and thickness, signaling that it was meant to be a highly pragmatic volume for study, not for display.

Producing volumes like Garrett MS. 72 was a team effort. Writing was done by several scribes. Some hands were more experienced than others. The least refined letters were copied by very young apprentice scribes, maybe even children. Fulda, like other monasteries, housed many monks that had been given as children—a practice known as child oblation. Rabanus Maurus was an oblate himself, having started life at Fulda aged eight, possibly younger. Once the child grew up, he could not abandon his parents’ vows. This phenomenon should not be seen as a product of parents’ inability to support their children. Many oblates came from fabulously wealthy families, including Rabanus. Rather, oblation was understood first as a sacrifice to God, a kind of gift that seemed essential to maintaining a good relationship with the divine. Setting apart a child from the rest of society in this fashion was, therefore, not a mark of undesirability, but of profound honor.

The first page of Rabanus’ Commentary, restored in the 15th century with rubrics and gothic script, as well as decorated initials.

Throughout the Middle Ages, Garrett MS. 72 seems to have been respected by successive owners, as indicated by efforts to repair and preserve the codex and its knowledge. Missing parts of the text, mostly at the beginning, were replaced in 15th century Germany. Clearly, the reverence the text received was due to the information it contained. The integrity of the work is preserved thanks to the rebinding effort that occurred at the same time, which protected the manuscript between two wooden boards faced with velvet.

However, at some point, interest in the codex shifted from its contents into its nature as a medieval object. The 19th century precious binding indicates that whoever was intervening upon the work was imposing their own conception of a medieval manuscript into our example. Simply by virtue of being medieval, it was fitted with a gospel cover that did not correspond to its genre to make it more attractive as a curiosity. Presumably, this was a product of the prevalent trend at the time to romanticize the medieval past, with a special focus on its art. The purpose of the work, therefore, shifted from being a resource for study into being a display object. This is evidenced the recorded chain of ownership, which includes noted collectors such as the Earl of Ashburnham.


Many elements of the cover, like this amethyst, are theorized to have come from medieval sources, maybe repurposed jewelry or plate. Enamel work like the one that surrounds it would have emerged during the High Middle Ages in places like Limoges, in France. However, it is likely that the enamel is also from the 19th century.

A manuscript that started its life as a study aid on the margins of society came to be a curiosity among the elites of Europe. Its present state might be considered a compromise between the two sides of this dichotomy. The text still remains at the center of Western academic society, but it has migrated back toward its original purpose somewhat by being again an object of study.

Image Gallery
Manuscript Citation

Garrett MS. 72. Princeton University Library. [catalog link]

Catalog Reference

Don C. Skemer, Medieval & Renaissance Manuscripts in the Princeton University Library (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), pp. 143–47.


Beng Löfstedt, ed., Hrabani Mauri Expositio in Matthaeum (Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2000).

Further Reading

Mayke de Jong, In Samuel’s Image: Child Oblation in the Early Medieval West (New York: Brill, 1996).

Beatrice E. Kitzinger, The Cross, the Gospels, and the Work of Art in the Carolingian Age (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).

Rosamond McKitterick, The Carolingians and the Written Word (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

J.E. Raaijmakers, Sacred Time, Sacred Space: History and Identity in the Monastery of Fulda (744-856) (Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam, 2003).