Let’s go back in time to learn how professional authors rose to prominence during the Middle Ages. Let’s take a look at how people made writing a source of livelihood in an era when printing had not yet been developed and copyright laws were unheard of. It was a time when scholars or writers would depend on scribes to copy their manuscripts.
Chrétien’s “The Knight with the Lion”
Around the year 1180, the first promoter of the Arthurian romance, Chrétien de Troyes, completed the story of Yvain or “The Knight with the Lion”—regarded by many scholars as the earliest ancestor of the modern novel. At this point in his career, Chrétien had a reputation to uphold and an authorial persona to protect. So, in the closing lines of verse, he made a signature move.
Del chevalier al lion fine:
Crestiens son romant issi.
Onquesplus dirá n’en oï,
Ne ja plus n’en orés conter
Sion n’i velt mençong’oster.
The Knight with the Lion now is done:
Chrétien’s own romance endeth here.
There’s nothing more to say or hear,
nor will there more be told anon
unless some lies are added on.
Protecting the Manuscript
Making a living as a professional author was a relatively new thing in Chrétien’s world, which was a world of manuscript publication in which there were no guarantees that a text would remain stable, or its author be recognized as such. The concept of copyright would only emerge after the widespread availability of print in the 16th century.
Its earliest manifestation was the Licensing of the Press Act of 1662, passed by the English Parliament and requiring all print publications to be registered by the Stationers’ Company, a government bureau. Although this was intended to protect the public from seditious or scandalous materials, it eventually gave rise to the idea that authors’ rights to their own intellectual property should be safeguarded, too.
But for this new class of medieval authors, in the 12th century, the only way to claim ownership over their creations was to write themselves into the story. Chrétien would do this both at the beginning of a romance, where he also named the patron who had sponsored the work, and at the end. That way, when the text was copied and disseminated, his name would be woven into its fabric.
Copyist More Powerful that Author?
And yet, for the cheeky scribe who copied the oldest surviving manuscript of this very romance, a few decades later, Chrétien’s authorial stamp was evidently regarded as a display of hubris and a provocation to do exactly what the author had forbidden. So the scribe added his own ending and name.
Explicit li chevaliers au lyon
Cil qui l’escrit Guioz a non
Dévant nostre dame del val
Est ses ostex tót a estal.
The Knight with the Lion here is closed.
He who wrote it is called Guioz:
in front of Notre-Dame-du-Val
you’ll always find his market-stall.
So, Who Gets the Profits?
Using Chrétien’s bravura finale as the hook on which to hang his own quatrain of self-advertisement, Guioz declares that the power of the copyist trumps that of any professed author. Chrétien the poet had wanted to bring this tale to a point of closure for all time, to preclude the possibility of sequels, additional episodes, or variant readings; Guioz the scribe thumbs his nose at the author’s attempt to dictate terms.
In any case, the profits to be earned from copying the book would go to Guioz, not Chrétien. His portable shop in the shadow of a church was probably in the busy town of Provins, halfway between Troyes and Paris, and home to one of the great seasonal fairs of Champagne.
If Chrétien had been mostly reliant on the patronage of Champagne’s elites, including Countess Marie, daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine, his work was now finding a new market among townspeople and traveling merchants.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Medieval Legacy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Authors of Ancient Greco-Roman World
In antiquity, publishing was usually the pastime of independently wealthy men whose scribes, usually slaves, did the actual writing. Some, like the prolific Hellenistic playwright Menander, produced so much material—in his case, more than 100 comedies—that authorship was clearly a passionate avocation; but it was not something he did to make a living. Having plays performed at the great Athenian festivals of the Lenaia (for comedy) and Dionysia (tragedy) earned one a prize and much glory, but it was also an expense that had to be borne by the author or, if he were lucky, a wealthy friend.
The historian Herodotus, in the 5th century BCE, was reportedly voted a monetary award by the Athenian assembly, in recognition of his favorable portrayal of Athens’s role in the Persian Wars, and we know that he used to give public readings of his work. But like prizes at a festival, these were not reliable sources of professional income.
The Roman poet Virgil, according to a later tradition, was “commissioned” to compose his Æneid by the Emperor Augustus, after the latter seized power in 27 BCE. This arrangement does not mean that money changed hands; but it does mean that this manufactured epic was an extended homage to the emperor’s ancestors, and that the poet had imperial authorization for his project.
Virgil’s younger contemporary, Ovid, held a series of minor government jobs and may have been partly supported by a patron, but he also inherited wealth and married into it. To my knowledge, which may be imperfect, the only named author from antiquity who was dependent on writing for a living was the comic playwright Publius Terentius Afer, or Terence, who flourished in the 2nd century BCE. Born in North Africa and brought to Rome as a slave by the master whose name he took, he eventually earned his freedom through the practice of his craft.
Common Questions about the Rise of Professional Authors
The only way to claim ownership over their creations for the medieval authors, in the 12th century, was to write themselves into the story. For example, Chrétien de Troyes would do this both at the beginning of a romance, where he also named the patron who had sponsored the work, and at the end.
In antiquity, publishing was usually the pastime of independently wealthy men whose scribes, usually slaves, did the actual writing.
The Licensing of the Press Act of 1662 was passed by the English Parliament and required all print publications to be registered by the Stationers’ Company.