Melek Karataş is a PhD candidate in French at King's College London. Her doctoral project is entitled: ‘Illuminatrix libri jurata: reading image and gender in the illuminated manuscripts of the Montbaston atelier’.

The libraires Jeanne and Richard Montbaston ran a bookmaking atelier in Paris in the mid-fourteenth century (c. 1325-1353). The atelier, situated on the rue Neuve Notre Dame in the heart of the city’s bookmaking neighbourhood, produced a significant number of vernacular romances and histoires for an elite clientele. Witnessed today in 53 manuscripts, the atelier boasts a corpus unmatched in size or scope by any of the Montbastons’ contemporaries. Notable outputs include Philippe VI’s crusading anthology (BL Royal 19 D I) and Blanche de Bourgogne’s copy of the Pèlerinage de vie humaine (BnF fr. 12462) as well as an unusual manuscript of the Roman de la Rose (BnF fr. 25526), which features a remarkable menagerie of marginal and bas-de-page illustrations on each one of its 163 folios. It is here that we find perhaps the most well-known image that the atelier produced: that of the bawdy nun harvesting the fruits of a rather well-endowed tree (see Fig. 1). The image, which has captured the interest of scholars and non-scholars alike, has been attributed to the hand of Jeanne de Montbaston, and has given rise to the speculation that an illuminator, notably a woman illuminator, might have devised the image in response to the text’s inherent misogyny. 

The penis tree of BnF fr. 25526 by Illuminator 2, f. 106v

Fig. 1 The penis tree of BnF fr. 25526 by Illuminator 2, f. 106v. Source: Gallica 

Though the idea of a pre-Pizan proto-feminist using phallic imagery to satirize Jean de Meun’s vitriolic diatribes against women is certainly alluring, the attribution of manuscript illustrations to one illuminator or another is a thorny business. Documentable details regarding the professional activity of individual bookmakers are scarce, and, in the case of the Montbaston atelier, the issue of attribution is further muddled by the presence of two illuminators whose work is almost identical in style. Essentially, we cannot know for sure whether Jeanne was the designer of the phallic masterpiece or whether it was designed by the other illuminator who worked in the atelier. Richard and Mary Rouse’s seminal study on the commercial book trade in medieval Paris aims to resolve such ambiguity by suggesting that Richard was the master illuminator and Jeanne the secondary illuminator. The reason for this, they claim, is that Richard, as a man, would have been much more likely to receive a formal apprenticeship in illumination than Jeanne, who likely learned her craft from a male relative or spouse. As such, those illustrations that are less skilfully executed or that occupy a ‘less important’ place in the manuscript’s visual economy are attributed to Jeanne. Yet we need to keep two things in mind: one, there is an absence of documentary evidence detailing Richard’s role (nowhere is it documented that Richard was an illuminator); and two, Jeanne was given the title of ‘illuminatrix libri jurata’ (sworn illuminator of books) which is notable for its rarity she is one of just two individuals (and the only woman) known to have held such a title. My doctoral research reassesses the empirical evidence in the historical record to think about how the reception and perception of the Montbastons’ work might differ if we entertain the possibility that women, as well as men, also occupied creative roles in the manuscript production process. Whom are we seeing when we encounter images in medieval manuscripts? And what takes shape as a result of this encounter? 

251 new figs 2-4

BnF fr. 251 is a manuscript copy of the Histoire ancienne made in the Montbaston atelier that, like most commercially produced manuscripts, represents the combined efforts of multiple craftspeople. Bookmakers and their families lived in the same neighbourhood, often on the same street, and worked together in constantly interchanging roles. One scribe, five pen-flourishers and three illuminators worked on the manuscript, exemplifying the point that community played an essential role in the book production process. BnF fr. 251 witnesses the Montbastons’ collaboration with an illuminator identified as the master of Ste-Geneviève MS. 1126, a Roman de la Rose manuscript produced c. 1350-1360. S/he made 10 of the 42 miniatures in the manuscript, while a further 32 were made by the Montbaston illuminators (27 by Illuminator 1, and 5 by Illuminator 2). We don’t know the exact nature of the working relationship between the Montbastons and the Ste-Geneviève Master, but it is almost certain that s/he resided in the same neighbourhood. Topographical reconstructions of the Ile de la Cité and its surrounding regions show that ateliers were closely nestled together; one eyewitness account even describes libraires running between ateliers in the rain, unfinished quires in hand. The hands of two or sometimes all three illuminators can be observed at work within the same quire, which implies an intimate working relationship. The three hands are readily distinguishable: compare the curvature of the bodies of the Ste-Geneviève Master’s soldiers (Fig. 2) with the straighter, elongated configuration of those of Illuminator 1 (Fig. 3) and the squatter, slightly disproportionate rendering of those of Illuminator 2 (Fig. 4).

A miniature on f. 179 by Illuminator 2 depicting the suicide of Hasdrubal’s wife (Fig. 5) represents an interesting deviation from standard HA illustration cycles (see Oltrogge, 1989 for a typology of these cycles). The image, in which we see Hasdrubal’s wife and two sons burning alive amid a fiery orange blaze, is (unfathomably!) not a popular choice for illustration. Oltrogge has suggested that such images were likely added at the behest of the patron, who may have had a particular interest in this scene. Or perhaps it was Jeanne or Richard, who as libraires also played some part in the designing process, that made this selection.   

251 figs 5 and 6

BnF fr. 251 represents the Montbastons’ only collaboration with the Ste-Geneviève Master and their only production of the HA. The manuscript contains the first redaction of the HA (ff. 1-214v) along with Li fait des Romains (ff. 215r-388v), which frequently accompanies the text in the surviving HA manuscripts (23 in total, 12 of which date from the fourteenth century). The concentration of images in the Roman sections of the HA, along with the inclusion of Li fait, suggests an emphasis on this part of ancient history. BnF fr. 251 is laid out in three columns, which, while unusual for the HA, does not appear to be a trademark of the Montbaston atelier. Instead, it was most likely either because the exemplar(s) of BnF fr. 251 employed the three-column format or a cost-cutting measure to use less parchment. The manuscript also features a notable textual change: the replacement of the Genesis section with Guiart des Moulins’ Bible historiale. While such a change might seem odd or misplaced in the wider context of HA production (BnF fr. 251 is the only HA manuscript to make this change), Guiart’s text was familiar territory to the Montbastons, who produced 5 other illuminated copies of the Bible. Hence, the frontispiece image of Christ in Majesty in BnF fr. 251 (see Fig. 6) shares clear stylistic and compositional similarities to the model used in their Bible historiale and elsewhere in their corpus (see for example, the Christ in Majesty in BnF fr. 241, f. 3). In fact, the Montbaston illuminators evidently drew on compositional elements of illustrations from their own visual repertoire to produce many of the images throughout BnF fr. 251.  An arrangement depicting a meeting or assembly appearing 5 times in the manuscript (Figs. 7 and 8), for instance, also appears in multiple texts across the corpus. Similarly, various battle scenes show use of the same template (Figs. 9 and 10). While such repetition is, to some extent, standard practice in the production of commercial manuscripts, it also suggests something about how illuminators engaged with texts. The HA was not a text with which the Montbastons were closely acquainted, an assumption supported by their frequent recycling of forms and continued recourse to their own repertoire. By contrast, manuscript copies of texts with which they worked often such as the Roman de la Rose (of which they produced 19 copies) often demonstrate playful and imaginative departures from/manipulations of pre-established iconographic codes. It is in these moments that we really see the creative autonomy and agency of the illuminators coming into play. That is not to say, of course, that BnF fr. 251 is any less important or less worthy of our interest. On the contrary, it represents a perfect example of how textual communities revolve around social communities and serves to remind us of the status of the manuscript book not as static object, but as a product of creative and commercial collaboration, the components of which were passed around, shared, reused and recycled by makers and readers of books alike. 

Bnf fr 251 figs 7 and 8

BnF fr 251 figs 9 and 10

On the one hand, it might seem odd that the Montbastons, who predominantly specialised in the production of romances, were commissioned to produce this copy of the HA. On the other, their affiliation with the French crown earned them a reputation that surely attracted a range of wealthy and esteemed clients with varied tastes. Together, Jeanne and Richard met the demands of a commissioning clientele that extended to the highest ranks of society, those people whose patronage determined the nature of literature produced in fourteenth-century Paris. 

Melek Karataş


Fig. 1 The penis tree of BnF fr. 25526 by Illuminator 2, f. 106v. Source: Gallica 

Fig. 2 Battle of Cynoscephalae by the Ste-Geneviève MS. 1126 Master, Paris, BnF, Français 251, f. 172v. ‘ci commence la bataille orible et grant entre les macedoniens et les gregois et les rommains’ [Here begins the great and terrible battle between the Macedonians, the Greeks and the Romans] Source: Biblissima 

Fig. 3 Romans besieging the Tigurini by Illuminator 1, Paris, BnF, Français 251, f. 196v. ‘de la cite de tongres qui adont se prist aus rommains’ [On the city of Tongeren which was taken by the Romans] Source: Biblissima

Fig. 4 Siege of Lerida by Illuminator 2, Paris, BnF, Français 251, f. 317. ‘comment cesar ala devant la cite de hylerbe en espaigne et tendi ses tentes et ses paveillons contre petreius et affranius’ [How Caesar went to the city of Lerida in Spain and formed an encampment against Petreius and Afranius] Source: Biblissima 

Fig. 5 Suicide of Hasdrubal’s wife by Illuminator 2, Paris, BnF, Français 251, f. 179. ‘ci est la destruction de cartage et comment ele fu abatue et de la femme le roy hadrubal qui se geta en la plus grant flambe du feu et s'ardi a tout ses II filz’ [Here is the destruction of Carthage and how it was destroyed and about the wife of King Hasdrubal who threw herself onto the biggest blaze of fire and burned to death with her two sons] Source: Biblissima

Fig. 6 Christ in Majesty, Paris, BnF, Français 251, f. 11. Source: Biblissima

Fig. 7 Assembly of the Senate by Illuminator 1, Paris, BnF, Français 251, f. 96. ‘ci commence des conseilles de romme li grans effors’ [Here begins the assembly of the consuls of Rome] Source: Biblissima 

Fig. 8 Assembly by Illuminator 1, Paris, BnF, Français 251, f. 200. ‘comment cil d'ytalie s'esmurent encontre les rommains et des merveilleus signes qui adont avindrent em plusours liex’ [How the Italians rose up against the Romans and on the marvellous signs which then came to them in many places] Source: Biblissima 

Fig. 9 Battle between the Romans and the Menapii by Illuminator 1, Paris, BnF, Français 251, f. 250v. ‘comment li flament furent es mares embatu et desconfis’  [How the Flemish were defeated and killed in the marshes] Source: Biblissima

Fig. 10 Battle between the Romans and the Eburones by Illuminator 1, Paris, BnF, Français 251, f. 260. ‘comment ambiorix et catavuleus ocistrent la legion costa et tyturius les II dus’ [How Ambiorix and Catavulcus killed the legion of the two dukes, Cotta and Titurius] Source: Biblissima

Works cited

D. Oltrogge, Die Illustrationszyklen zur Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César (1250-1400) (Frankfurt : P. Lang, 1989).

R. Rouse and M. Rouse, Manuscripts and their Makers: commercial book production in Paris 1200-1500 2 vols. (Turnhout: Harvey Miller Publishers 2000).