Online Froissart

Pierre de Liffol and the Manuscripts of Froissart’s Chronicles

By Godfried Croenen
Please cite as: Godfried Croenen, ‘Pierre de Liffol and the Manuscripts of Froissart’s Chronicles’, in The Online Froissart, ed. by Peter Ainsworth and Godfried Croenen, v. 1.5 (Sheffield: HRIOnline, 2013),, first published in v. 1.0 (2010).

Book production in the manuscript age

Many expensive and richly decorated manuscripts, made by the Paris book trade in the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, survive in public libraries and private collections worldwide. These include a number of illustrated copies containing one, two or three of the first three Books of Jean Froissart’s Chronicles of the Hundred Years’ War. For most manuscripts made in Paris during this period we do not know who made them, when exactly they were made, or who their original owner was. There is nothing special about this, as this sort of information is known only for relatively few medieval manuscripts. It is therefore all the more exceptional that a small group of manuscripts of Froissart’s Chronicles has been identified that can be linked to a Parisian book dealer active at the beginning of the 15th century, who went by the name of Pierre de Liffol and who worked as a libraire.

Before the invention of the printing press around 1450, books were produced completely by hand. A range of craftsmen were involved in the different production stages of manuscript books. Parchmenters or paper makers made the support onto which the text was copied. Scribes (or copyists) prepared the blank sheets of parchment or paper and then copied the text (or texts) to be included in the book in brown or black ink, leaving blank spaces for the illustrations and other decorative elements. If the text needed titles or captions in different colours of ink (rubrics), this would be done next, either by the scribes themselves, or by a specialist scribe called a rubricator. Then decorators (or limners) applied the manuscript decoration, starting with any gold-leaf decoration. Other types of decoration could include large or coloured initials, pen flourishes and decorations in the margins of the page. Painters inserted miniature paintings in the spaces left blank for the illustration. Finally, bookbinders gave the book a protective cover. Bindings could range from a simple soft parchment cover to an elaborate, expensive binding made from wooden boards covered by tooled leather or exotic fabrics, with silver or gilded clasps, and set with precious stones. Although each stage of the production required its own specialised skills, it was possible for a single craftsman to master two or more of these. The production of simple manuscripts, without much or any decoration, could probably be done by a scribe on his own, provided he had at his disposal all the necessary basic materials.

Before the twelfth century there was in France no commercial market in books that offered a choice of ready-made manuscripts, and most book collections of any size were found in larger church institutions, especially monasteries. Most monasteries had a dedicated room for making manuscripts, known as the scriptorium. There, scribes, decorators and miniature painters sat together to work on a single manuscript, or on several manuscripts at the same time. Because each new manuscript had to be copied from an existing book, the scriptorium and the library were often in close proximity, and sometimes both library and scriptorium shared the same space. The custom of reading aloud provided an efficient way of producing more than one copy of the same text in one go, if needed. The leader of the scriptorium could read out the base text to be copied to a group of scribes, who would then be simultaneously producing copies of the same text. The books to be found in these monastic libraries were almost exclusively in Latin, and there was a strong emphasis on the study of the Bible and of theological subjects, and on reference works.

Books for the laity and commercial book production

By the early fifteenth century, when the illuminated manuscripts of Froissart’s Chronicles were made, the situation was quite different. Vernacular languages like French and English had become respectable written languages in their own right. From the twelfth century onwards, people with a clerical Latin education had started using the letters of the Roman alphabet to represent or transcribe the sounds of the spoken vernacular (this is why the Latin or Roman alphabet is now used to write all Western languages). This innovation made it possible to write down stories and songs that until then had been transmitted exclusively orally, or to compose completely new works in the vernaculars.

The readership of the new texts was diverse. It must have included the clergy, who were on the whole the people with the highest level of education in society. By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, however, literacy had become much more widespread than before, and many lay people had reading and writing skills. Basic education was available in parish schools in the villages and towns, with further education being provided at cathedral schools. Noblemen employed private tutors, who were in charge of education at royal courts and in noble households. Provisions for higher education existed at the universities, which had grown out of some of the major cathedral schools in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The University of Paris was one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in Europe. Because of their origins, universities were Church institutions and part of the Church hierarchy. A result of this was that all university teachers and students were automatically considered members of the clergy, whether or not they were priests.

The relatively high level of literacy in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century France meant that there was a much greater demand for books than before. Scriptoria in monasteries still existed and continued to make books for the monastic libraries, but they were normally not involved in commercial production of books for individuals outside the monasteries. Therefore lay people, and clergy who were not members of monastic communities (this included most university students and graduates), had to turn to independent craftsmen who could make books for them. This in turn gave rise to the development of an independent book trade.

The book trade in medieval Paris

As with most medieval trades, the craftsmen involved in the production of manuscript books were normally organised in guilds, which existed in most medieval cities.1 Guilds protected the economic interests of their members in different ways. They tried to maintain market prices at a certain level by controlling market competition. This was in part achieved through a system of licenses under which only full members of the guild were allowed to exercise their craft and sell their wares; other craftsmen could only work as waged workers or as apprentices under the direction of fully licensed guild members. The conditions under which licences were issued differed from trade to trade and from city to city, but often there were limits on the numbers in order to keep production levels under control. To protect the interests of the customers, the guilds organised a system of quality control on production methods as well as on the quality of the finished products. This also allowed them to check imports from outside the city for quality, and to stop wares from being offered for sale in the city if they did not comply with local regulations.

Compared to the situation prevailing in other cities, the organisation of the commercial book trade in the medieval city of Paris was quite extraordinary because it did not take the form of a traditional guild. Instead, the book trade was organised and regulated by the University of Paris. This was because the Parisian book trade had historically developed in response to a growth in demand for books specifically on the part of members of the University, so it was the University itself that had started to organise the trade. By the early fourteenth century, the University had obtained a legal monopoly over the market in new and second-hand books with a value higher than 10 shillings, which gave it substantial oversight over the activities of booksellers. As a result of the University’s control over the book trade, the members of the trade were considered members of the University, and as such they were officially members of the clergy, even if they were married, had not received formal clerical education and were not in holy orders.

The close relationship between the University and the book trade in Paris presented both challenges and advantages for the craftsmen. The official monopoly of the University meant that any decisions regarding the regulation of the trade were taken not by the members of the trade themselves, as was the norm in traditional guilds, but by the ruling body of the University. Rather than protecting the interests of the craftsmen, the University was likely to focus more on those of a particular group of the craftsmen’s customers: the university students and their teachers.2

For members of the book trade themselves, their special position also presented a number of advantages. As official members of the University, they were largely exempt from royal jurisdiction. This meant that they could avoid prosecution by royal officials or trial in secular courts by claiming that only church courts, in particular the court of the bishop of Paris, was competent to try them. As members of the clergy, members of the book trade were further exempt from watch duty in the city of Paris, and after 1307 they were also exempt from royal taxation. These privileges were confirmed by successive French kings.

Libraires and stationers

The book trade included in principle all craftsmen and others involved in the production and trade of books, but the most important members of the Parisian book trade were known in French as libraires. Pierre de Liffol, who is connected to the production of illustrated copies of Froissart’s Chronicles, is known from surviving records to have been such a libraire. The libraires were essentially book dealers; they had the monopoly over the sale of books above the value of 10 shillings. Like the other book people, the libraires were sworn members of the University. Their number in medieval Paris was limited to 28. To obtain their licence they had to deposit a security with the University. Out of their number four were elected as so-called principal libraires or grands libraires. They represented the trade in its dealings with the University. Apart from their normal activities as libraires, the principal libraires had additional sources of income, since they were the only people in Paris licensed to value books, in particular for the valuation of estates.

A special category of libraires were the stationers. The function of the Paris stationers was closely linked to a major preoccupation of the University, the provision of textbooks for students. In the manuscript age each book had to be copied individually by hand from an existing base manuscript, and as a result it was virtually impossible to produce exactly identical copies of a text. Each time a text was copied, changes were introduced — accidentally or on purpose. Often these changes were small and insignificant, such as spelling variations or changes in the layout of the page, including where line breaks and page breaks occurred, but sometimes the changes introduced by the scribes were more substantial. The mechanics of manuscript production thus had the effect that, little by little, each time a text was copied, it was also changed. This phenomenon presented a real problem for the university teachers, who wanted to be sure that all students could refer to the same version of the texts to be studied, and that the students had correct copies of these texts.

The system that was devised to address these concerns — known as the pecia system — was simple yet effective. The University would let the stationers know in advance which text would be studied, and would check and approve one or more master copies of each text. These copies, known as exemplars, would be kept in the university stationers’ shops. They could be rented by students for a small fee so that copies of the text could be made directly from the master text, thus removing the need for intermediary stages in the reproduction of the master text and cutting down on the number of potential additional copying errors. The master copy was not kept as a bound volume, but existed as a collection of small sets of pages, usually of a fixed number (four folios or eight sides). These sets, known as peciae, were rented out individually. This meant that different parts of the master text could be copied at the same time, making the whole process of the reproduction of the master copy much more efficient. As students could choose either to pay a professional scribe to copy the text, or to do it themselves, they could spend as much or as little as they wanted on a copy of the books needed for their studies.

The trade in deluxe books

Although the pecia system, and indeed most other regulations of the book trade issued by the University, were mainly focused on the needs and interests of the members of the University, the economic reality was that most libraires could not, and did not, rely for their income on this clientele. The average university student, then as now, did not have a particularly high disposable income. Most students tried to obtain their study books as cheaply as possible, either by buying second-hand from the libraires, or by renting peciae from the stationers and making their own copies of the exemplars themselves. Profit margins on the sale of second-hand books were fairly negligible, as the University stipulated that the libraires could only sell these books on behalf of the owners, and that they were allowed to take a commission that was set to less than 2 percent of the books’ value.

As a result of all these factors, the libraires had to look elsewhere for more profitable activities, and they found these in the sale of deluxe manuscripts to rich clients. These clients included members of the urban elite and the nobility, those who had business at the court of the king or bishop, and the more senior royal officials. The books that were sought after by these clients were often in French, rather than in Latin, were written in large formats on high-quality parchment, contained illustrations, and were often richly decorated with expensive paints and gold leaf. Such manuscripts required a substantial investment and were normally only made ‘on spec’, for individual clients. The libraires would interpret the client’s wishes as regards the choice of texts to be included in the book, the size and format, the level of decoration (including the size, type and number of decorated initials), the number of miniatures, and the passages to be illustrated. Normally a deposit would be required at the time of the order, with full payment on delivery of the finished manuscript.

Although libraires like Pierre de Liffol were the lynchpin of the whole book production process in medieval Paris, they remain rather elusive figures. Relatively few detailed records exist from which we can extract detailed information on the order, production, and sale of manuscripts, and in most cases the information is to be found in the surviving accounts of a handful of rich clients. It is often impossible to link these details back to surviving manuscripts. The scribes and painters, on the other hand, have left a physical record of their activity, in the form of the writing or painting; and in some cases the manuscripts even contain traces of written instructions for, or by, the craftsmen involved.

The accounts of a famous bibliophile and book collector, John, duke of Burgundy from 1404 to his death in 1419, provide a wealth of documents that shed light on the higher end of the Paris book trade during the early 15th century. They also include one of only two known references to the libraire Pierre de Liffol, who was active during the duke’s lifetime. The account of the receiver general of the duke for the year 1410–1411 contains an entry stating that 150 écus had been paid on 14 March 1410 on behalf of the duke to Pierre, libraire of the University of Paris, for a book in French named Valerius Maximus. The account refers to quittances (receipts) of the libraires, and to an authentification of the book’s value by the keeper of the duke’s collections. These supporting documents do not survive; neither does a contract which may have contained a more detailed description of the commission.

The original book itself has not survived either, so little can be said about its appearance, but it must have been a fairly luxurious commission given the price paid. Judging from the later descriptions in the inventories of the Burgundian library, this book was a copy of the French translation of the historical work of Valerius Maximus. The original translation had been commissioned by King Charles V (1364–1380) in 1375. It was begun by Simon de Hesdin (d. 1383), and was only completed in 1401 by Nicolas de Gonesse at the request of Charles V’s younger son, John, duke of Berry.

Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, mss. fr. 2663–2664

The second document which mentions Pierre de Liffol relates to an existing manuscript that can be easily identified. This document is a quittance, probably similar to the lost documents mentioned in the account of 1410. It was only discovered some years ago at the French National Library in Paris, where it had escaped earlier scholars’ notice. It was originally written on the flyleaf (a blank leaf at the beginning or end of a book) of a manuscript but afterwards thoroughly erased. In the second half of the 15th century, a later owner of the book wrote his ownership mark over it, obscuring even further the original document. Using ultraviolet light, however, it is possible to make large parts of the erased text visible again.

The quittance, written and signed by Pierre de Liffol in his own hand, obviously refers to the manuscript into which it was written, a copy of Book I of Froissart’s Chronicles (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, ms. fr. 2663). Compared to the few other surviving such quittances, it contains very detailed information about the financial arrangements relating to the commission of a book. Pierre de Liffol declares that he has received a payment of 40 pounds tournois from his client, which was the remaining balance of 60 pounds tournois due for the first volume of a two-volume set of Froissart’s Chronicles. The first 20 pounds tournois must have been paid at the moment Liffol and his client agreed the price of 120 pounds tournois for the whole set. The other 60 pounds tournois remained outstanding for the second volume, which was obviously still to be completed at the time of the quittance. Payment for this second volume, which survives as Paris, BnF, ms. fr. 2664, may well have been anticipated in similar 20/40 fashion. The name of the buyer is unfortunately obscured by the later writing, but the quittance shows the name of the agent who acted on his behalf, one Guillaume le Normant, otherwise unknown. The legible parts of the quittance do not give a full date, but all the evidence suggests that the manuscript into which it was written, and hence the quittance itself, date from the second decade of the fifteenth century. The quittance does not contain any further details about the book order, but these may well have been specified in the original contract to which the quittance refers.

The quittance does not mention any of the craftsmen involved in the production of the two volumes, and it is unlikely that their names were mentioned in the lost contract. It was the libraires’ business to organise their work — and to smooth out any problems that might arise during the production — but he need not bother his client with these details. The only way for us now to know more about the craftsmen who worked for Pierre de Liffol is by studying the surviving volumes themselves.

The craftsmen who worked for Pierre de Liffol

In the production of a new manuscript, a Parisian libraire would act as a contractor. Once he had received an order, he would purchase the necessary materials (parchment, inks and paints), and organise the work of the craftsmen, including scribes, decorators, pen-flourishers, and miniature painters. The libraire needed to provide the scribes with a base copy of the text to be copied. This could be a manuscript which he had in his shop, but for rare or unusual texts it might also be the client who provided the base copy. The libraires would pay each of the craftsmen involved for their work. Many of the libraires had worked themselves up through the trade, as parchmenters, scribes, painters or binders, and so they would be able to take care of some of the stages of the production themselves. Those stages for which they did not have the expertise, or the time, would be subcontracted out.

The actual work on the book was done by the individual craftsmen in their own workshop. In contrast to monks in monastic scriptoria, the commercial book people of medieval Paris did not work together in large workshops under the direction of a master or libraires. As most of the book people lived in neighbouring streets on the Ile de la cité, the central island in the river Seine where the cathedral and the royal court were situated, or on the left bank, around the University, this did not present an insurmountable problem. Manuscripts would only be bound after all the stages of the production were complete, and sets of unbound pages could easily be carried from one workshop to the next, or distributed amongst a group of craftsmen to speed up the work.

The artists responsible for the miniature paintings in Pierre de Liffol’s Froissart manuscript, Paris, BnF, ms. fr. 2663 and its companion volume ms. fr. 2664, are known from other manuscripts they illustrated, although they remain anonymous. Art historians refer to the painter who executed the opening miniature in the first volume as the Master of the Harvard Hannibal. The other paintings in that volume are the work of an artist called the Boethius Master. The miniature paintings in the second volume are all the work of an artist who has been dubbed the Giac Master. The secondary decoration (decorated initials and paragraph markers, line fillers, decoration in the margins) in both volumes is different, but the primary decoration (the miniatures) in each volume was probably done by a single craftsman. The text was copied by a whole team of scribes, each of whom copied a number of quires (sets of joined pages, normally 8 folios or 16 pages). In the first volume one can see that there were four main scribes at work, while in the second volume no fewer than eight or nine different hands can be distinguished. Some scribes’ activity was limited to the rubrics, but several copied both text and rubrics, often in different quires.

The large number of scribes involved in the production of these two volumes probably means that at least some of them were employed by Pierre de Liffol to work simultaneously on different part of the same volume or on different volumes. This probably allowed the libraire to speed up the production process. Using teams of craftsmen would also be very efficient if he could have them work with the same general setup (base text, format, layout, decoration, etc.) to produce more than one copy of the same text. Provided another client could be found who wanted to buy a similar book, economies of scale allowed a libraire to spread the risk, or to operate in a more efficient and hence more profitable manner. Manuscripts produced more or less simultaneously in this way are known as ’twin manuscripts’. Pierre de Liffol made at least two further manuscripts containing Froissart’s Chronicles which are twins of the copy in Paris: a two-volume set, now in the municipal library in Besançon (mss 864 and 865), containing Book I (in the first volume) and Books II and III (in the second volume); and a single volume, now in Stonyhurst College (ms. 1), containing Book I and the beginning of Book II, whose companion volume, with the rest of Book II, is probably to be identified with a volume now in the Royal Library in Brussels (ms. II 2552). While there are no documents to confirm Pierre de Liffol’s involvement in the production of these other manuscripts, the evidence based on the manuscripts’ external and internal features is quite impressive.

To begin with, the dimensions of all three manuscripts are almost identical, both for the whole pages and for the written space on each page. There is also a very large overlap in terms of the personnel involved. The hands of the same scribes, decorators and miniature painters can be found across the three copies. For example, a copyist labelled Scribe C wrote quires 15–18 and 26–27 in Paris 2664, and quires 8–26 and 37–58 in Besançon 865, as well as possibly the complete Stonyhurst manuscript. The same decorator and pen-flourisher who executed the secondary decoration in Paris 2663 also worked on Besançon 865. The Stonyhurst/Brussels copy and Besançon 864 were illustrated by the Giac Master, who also painted Paris 2664. The Boethius Master, responsible for most of the miniatures in Paris 2663, also painted the illustrations to Besançon 865.

While there are variations in the series of paintings across the three copies — which shows that they were personalised to suit each client’s tastes and wishes, as could be expected of any expensive commission of this kind — there are also some striking similarities in the programmes of illustration. The most obvious concerns the opening of Book I, which in each manuscript is illustrated by an almost identical four-part miniature that must have been copied from the same model. The versions of the text found in the three manuscripts are also very close to each other, and much closer than to other surviving copies of Froissart’s Chronicles. This shows that they were probably copied from each other, or, more likely, from the same base manuscript, namely the (lost) manuscript Pierre de Liffol must have made available to his team of scribes. The similarities are even more striking in the case of the rubrics. The chapter titles were not part of Froissart’s original text, and there is great variation amongst the titles found in the surviving manuscripts of the Chronicles, but the three manuscripts discussed here have almost identical sets of rubrics.

The organisational complexity of the production process adopted for these manuscripts must have been considerable. Pierre de Liffol had to provide each scribe with a supply of prepared parchment and ink, and the correct base text to copy. The scribes had to leave spaces in the right places for chapter titles, ornamental initials, and miniature paintings. Once the text was copied, the correct chapter titles had to be copied in, using a separate list of chapter titles. Then the sets of loose pages had to be transported to the workshop of the artist responsible for the gold-leaf decoration in the miniatures and initials. Next, either a decorator (limner) or miniature painter, who again worked in different workshops, had to apply further decorative elements. The miniature painters most likely did not receive the whole book, but only those quires or folios which were to be illustrated. The libraires had to make sure that the painters knew which scenes to paint in the spaces. To this end he could supply painted or drawn models, or a separate written list of scenes; or he could simply write instructions in the margins of the manuscript, which could be erased once the painting was finished (at least two volumes illuminated by the Giac Master, Stonyhurst 1 and Besançon 864, still have traces of such erased instructions at the bottom of the pages on which illustrations were painted). When the illustrations were done, the whole manuscript had to be assembled, making sure that all the pages appeared in the correct order, before it could be bound.

Froissart’s Chronicles and the Paris book trade in the early fifteenth century

It is possible that Pierre de Liffol was involved in the production of further copies of Froissart’s Chronicles. Several more have survived from the same period, and amongst these a number stand out because of their similarities with the three Pierre de Liffol sets identified so far. Two manuscripts in Brussels (Royal Library, ms. II 88 and ms. IV 251) and one in London (British Library, mss Add. 38658–9) have layouts very similar to the three manuscripts discussed above. All three were illustrated wholly or in part by the Giac Master. Some of the scribes, including a scribe labelled Scribe A, worked on these manuscripts, and the series of miniatures and rubrics are very close to those found in the Liffol group.

Some further contemporary manuscripts, several of which were illuminated in part by the Giac and Boethius Masters, can be linked to the Liffol group on art-historical grounds, but they also show differences. Often the layout and size of the manuscripts are different; in a number of cases the four-part opening miniature has been reduced to a two-part illustration by deleting the two last scenes, and the scribes of these manuscripts do not overlap with the scribes whose handwriting can be found in the Pierre de Liffol manuscripts. This wider group comprises manuscripts now in Toulouse (ms. 511), New York (Morgan Library, ms. M.804), Glasgow (University Library, Hunter ms. 42), The Hague (Royal Library, ms. 72 A 25) and manuscripts kept in the national libraries in Paris (ms. fr. 2642, ms. fr. 2649 and ms. fr. 2662) and London (Arundel 67). Further analysis of these and other early fifteenth-century copies of Froissart’s Chronicles will allow scholars to establish the precise connections between some of the finest illuminated copies of Froissart’s Chronicles to have survived.


Godfried Croenen, ‘The Reception of Froissart’s Writings in England: The Evidence of the Manuscripts’, in Language and Culture in Medieval Britain: The French of England c.1100-c.1500, ed. by Jocelyn Wogan-Brown (York: York Medieval Press / Boydell and Brewer, 2009), pp. 409–19

Godfried Croenen, ‘Le libraire Pierre de Liffol et la production de manuscrits illustrés des Chroniques de Jean Froissart à Paris au début du XVe siècle’, Art de l’enluminure, 31 (2009), 14–23, 45

Godfried Croenen, ‘Les manuscrits 864–865 de Besançon et la production parisienne’, in Jean Froissart, Chroniques, Livre III. Le manuscrit Saint-Vincent de Besançon, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. 865, ed. by Peter F. Ainsworth, I. Ff. 201–274rb: du Prologue annonçant le « Voyage en Béarn » jusqu’à la narration par L. Fogaça de la bataille d’Aljubarrota (Geneva: Droz, 2007), pp. 39–47

Godfried Croenen and Peter Ainsworth, eds, Patrons, Authors and Workshops: Books and Book Production in Paris around 1400, Synthema, 4 (Louvain - Paris - Dudley, MA: Peeters, 2006)

Godfried Croenen, Mary Rouse and Richard Rouse, ‘Pierre de Liffol and the manuscripts of Froissart’s Chronicles’, Viator, 33 (2002), 261–93

Kouky Fianu, ‘Les Professionnels du livre à la fin du XIIIe siècle: l’enseignement des registres fiscaux parisiens’, Bibliothèque de l’École des Chartes, 150 (1992), 185–222

Kouky Fianu, ‘La Réglementation des métiers du livre à Paris au XVe siècle, un indice de l’emprise croissante du pouvoir royal sur le monde universitaire’, LIAS. Sources and documents relating to the early modern history of ideas, 23 (1996), 1–26

Paris 1400. Les arts sous Charles VI (Paris: Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Fayard, 2004)

Richard H. Rouse and Mary A. Rouse, Illiterati et Uxorati: Manuscripts and Their Makers, Commercial Book Producers in Medieval Paris, 1200–1500, 2 vols (London: Harvey Miller Publishers, 2000)


1 For details on the organisation of the booktrade, see esp. Fianu, ‘Les Professionnels’ and Fianu, ‘La Réglementation’.
2 See Rouse and Rouse, Manuscripts and Their Makers, , I, chapter 3.