Liberal Arts and Education
BPL 138 (France, 1437): Disticha Catonis (The distichs of Cato), paper, 167 fols., 219 x 150 mm, 1 col., various lines.

The beginning of this manuscript contains an interesting note (fol. 1v). It describes an order of 800 printed books: 200 booklets with penitential psalms, 200 copies of Cato and the “cleene gebeden” (brief prayers), and 400 booklets of the most common prayers. The note was probably scribbled down by the scribe of the manuscript Jean Brulelou (see fol. 165r “Iste liber competit Johanni brulelou”). Brulelou originally worked as a scribe in Tournai but changed professions in 1470 when he became a printer in Bruges. The person who ordered the books was someone called “Gijs the Perkamentmaker” (Gijs the Parchmentmaker). This note is a fine example of the changes that were brought about by the development of the printing press.

The manuscript itself contains the Disticha catonis, a text with 144 didactic proverbs wrongly ascribed to the Roman historian Cato the Elder. Julius Caesar Scaliger (1484-1558) discovered that the actual author was the unknown Dionysius Cato. The text was very popular way in medieval schools to introduce students to the Trivium. Teachers also hoped that the proverbs would serve as a moral compass for the students. The manuscript is decorated with little drawings1 of leaves and the faces of kings, particularly around the catchword.

(Gumbert, 2009, p. 48) (Booton, 2010, pp. 28,232)


  1. While the medieval book was made out of sheets, it is the quire that is the object's building block. A quire is a small package of folded sheets usually made from bifolia. To create a bifolium, a sheet is folded in half (each half is called a 'folium', which consists of two 'pages', i.e. the front and back of the folium). How many bifolia were used in each quire of this manuscript? Clue: take a look at the catchwords in the lower margins.
  2. Most manuscripts lack miniatures and the colorful decoration that medieval books are so well known for. The reason for this absence is usually pragmatic: there was no need for such decorative elements or the reader lacked the financial means for them. However, many medieval books contain some color, however little or rudimentary. Make an inventory of all colors present in this manuscript, from the main text (what color is it, does its color vary or is it constant?) and the chapter titles, to any other colorful element the book may have. What other colors than that of the main text are present and what purpose do they serve? In other words, why were other colors than the regular brown or black ink of the main text added to the manuscript?


  1. Gumbert, J. P. (2009). Illustrated Inventory of Medieval Manuscripts in Latin script in the Netherlands. Verloren.
  2. Booton, D. E. (2010). Manuscripts, market and the transition to print in late medieval Brittany. Ashgate.