How to gain an audience and influence readers in the Middle Ages?

By Gleb Schmidt

How to gain an audience and influence readers? No one actually knows for sure. People have been struggling to understand the mechanics behind a text’s success since the very emergence of writing systems, trying to elaborate an arsenal of means to enhance the popularity of a written work, secure its widespread dissemination, and make it more influential. In the Middle Ages, when every single reader was a potential editor capable of diminishing or enhancing the power of a text, the quest for ways to make works more authoritative was especially intense. Indeed, those involved in medieval handwritten book production — from authors and editors to mere readers — employed an impressive number of ways to sustain the reputation of texts and to change their fate.

Today’s Academia is regularly shaken by scandals of a particular nature: scholars sceptical of Academia’s fatal dilemma to “publish or perish” submit a fake “paper” to a renowned scientific journal, and — hard to imagine — get the submission accepted! Meaningless texts full of scientific-looking or pseudo-scientific terms, abstruse, but nonsense affirmations, or, even worse, compilations woven from phrases automatically drawn from elsewhere somehow managed to pass the filter of the reviewing process.


Apparently, it is possible — just by appropriating recognizable language codes and presenting the work in the expected form — to enhance the power of a text and make it more authoritative, sometimes to the extent that it deceives a well-trained neural network and a group of international peer-reviewers.

On the shoulders of giants

One should not overestimate the inventiveness of contemporary academics though in this regard. As Bernard of Chartres’s immortal aphorism goes: “They stand on the shoulders of giants”. Indeed, medieval authors, scribes, librarians, readers, and all who were involved in book production came up with a rich variety of methods to make a text weightier and more enticing, from the attribution to the literary form, from the text’s plan to its material presentation.

Being attached to a powerful intellectual tradition was a reliable way to secure one’s own creation, and an attribution to an author of indisputable authority was the most straightforward way to do that. A lot of pseudepigraphic works (texts whose claimed authors were not their real authors) circulated throughout the Middle Ages. One of the most significant success stories is the so-called Secretum secretorum (Secret of secrets), an encyclopaedic treatise on a vast spectrum of topics from nature to ethics and government which appeared in the Latin West in the 12th century and was purported to be Aristotle’s creation.

Philip of Tripoli’s Latin translation of Secretum secretorum – Bodleian Library, MS Canon. Class. Lat. 135

Contemporary scholarship has, however, puzzled out the riddle of its origin. It turns out that the work was a translation of a 10th-century Arabic text. Originally produced in Spain, where Christian Latin culture was in close and fascinating contact with Muslim Arabic culture, the Latin version spread across Europe, precisely owing to its Aristotelean connection. The Arabic original, however, does not seem to have any Greek model, and the attribution to the ancient philosopher — indisputable for medieval readers of the Secretum secretorum — was not based on any evidence.

The conventions of genre

The attachment to a powerful tradition could also manifest itself in a more subtle way: through the choice of literary form. Consider the case of Honorius Augustodunensis’ Clavis physicae. Honorius was one of the most successful authors of the 12th century. A prolific writer, he created almost three dozen works in almost all the significant genres of Medieval literature, from theological treatise to history, from political pamphlet to sermon collection. Some of these texts are preserved in many hundreds of manuscripts, securing for Honorius a place among the most influential authors of the Middle Ages.

In his declining years, Honorius undertook a rather risky enterprise: he decided to write the Clavis physicae (Key of nature), a rendition of John Scot Eriugena’s non-mainstream philosophical opus magnum, the De divisione naturae (On the division of nature). John Scot was a 9th-century erudite whose thought was so idiosyncratic and so deeply imbued with freedom of speculation, that some of his works were condemned already during his lifetime and completely prohibited (which means, in Medievalish, “ordered to be thrown away from all the libraries and burnt to ashes”) in the 13th century, due to their apparent relation to pantheism, the idea that God is, literally, all.

Opening of Clavis physicae – Bibliothèque nationale de France MS Latin 6734 fol.4r

Obviously, touching such a “toxic” topic was dangerous, and so, Honorius tried to protect his writing by attaching it to a long-lasting intellectual tradition that had both ancient and early Christian representatives: he wrote the Clavis in the form of a dialogue. “I have turned Eriugena’s style into a dialog”, — wrote Honorius in the prologue of the Clavis, — “because the greatest philosophers — Socrates and Plato and Cicero, — but also our Augustine and Boethius, found this way of teaching to be the most effective in introducing a new subject”. While praising the propaedeutic qualities of question-answer narration, Honorius ranged himself in the company of indisputable intellectual authorities of the past. In this way, he not only hoped to make the Clavis more understandable (the question remains open if he succeeded or not), but also to defend it against purist critics who might be suspicious of its dangerous connections to a condemned author.

Not the work, the presentation

The way in which a text was presented physically could also strengthen (or weaken) its status. In the texts used as textbooks in urban schools and universities, it was crucial that all the information was quickly retrievable and easily searchable. A respectable scholarly text should thus have a clear intellectual structure highlighted by the layout, rubrics, and decoration, and be accompanied by different knowledge instruments such as indices, glossaries and lists of chapters.

This worked, however, both ways. Those writings which were not initially intended to meet the expectations of a high-minded and fastidious savant audience could be “promoted”, once provided, even retroactively, with some of the mentioned attributes of erudite texts.


That is precisely what happened to another of Honorius Augustodunensis’s works, the Elucidarium (Elucidator, or, simply, Explainer). Conceived as a mere manual of theology, this text was a “medieval F.A.Q” (or even Google) answering random questions about the doctrine, ethics and cosmology: “How long did Adam and Eve stay in Paradise? What is Hell? How many angels are there? etc.”

Despite this seemingly simplistic approach, in the Late Middle Ages one finds a lot of copies of the Elucidarium shaped according to the standards of pedagogic and scholarly literature: artificially split into parts, chapters and sections, each preceded by a list and/or explanatory introductions. This form paved the way for the Elucidarium to enter the libraries of several prominent intellectuals and institutions. A text became more refined and substantial if it was presented as such.

Commented Four books of Sentences London, British Library, MS Royal 9 C III, fol. 1r

A handmade bestseller

In rare cases, the consecration of a text as a bestseller was due to the conscious and voluntary activity of a reader. Such is the case with Alexander of Hales (d. 1245), a master of theology at the University of Paris, who managed to promote the Four books of Sentences written by Peter Lombard (d. 1160) as a de facto standard university handbook of theology, which was by far the most important subject studied in European universities until the 16th century.

The Sentences were a compilation of fragments drawn from different Christian authoritative texts which Peter Lombard organized into a coherent and clear system and reconciled when they provided contradictory accounts. Importantly, Peter Lombard’s work was not the only one of its kind; arguably it was not even the best and the most complete work. However, due to his personal preference, Alexander of Hales chose to lecture on the Sentences rather than another similar work or Scripture itself. Over a quarter of a century, he succeeded in turning his innovative method of teaching into a stable and lasting syllabus widely used by Parisian masters, who were, in the middle of the 13th century, all-European trendsetters in the field. A pure coincidence and a personal choice. The Sentences could have never become as popular if the work had not landed in the hands of an enthusiastic master working in Paris at the time when all the knowledge-hungry eyes of Europe were directed towards this place.

Peter Lombard depicted in The Sentences – Bibliotheque Municipale at Troyes MS900, fol. 1r

Indeed, the fate of a text is unpredictable, and so it was in the Middle Ages. It has never been only a question of its contents or the author’s talent. Success, wide dissemination and influence always came as the result of a fascinating combination of factors and circumstances in which authors, readers and bystanders were forging the future of a text together.

Shari Boodts, Iris Denis, Riccardo Macchioro and Gleb Schmidt together make up the team behind a European research project on the reception of patristic sermons in medieval manuscripts (PASSIM), housed at the Department of Medieval History at Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands. You can learn more about their work on the project website.

See also their first article: The medieval scribe as influencer

Further reading:

Philipp W. Rosemann, The Story of a Great Medieval Book: Peter Lombard’s Sentences (Peterborough, 2007)

Smith, Lesley, Masters of the sacred page: Manuscripts of theology in the Latin West to 1274 (Notre Dame, 2001)


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