Give Me a Pecia Mind!

(Pecia can be pronounced either like PEE-see-ah or PAY-see-ah. I pronounce it the former way, hence the title of this post. Har-dee-har-har.)

Picture it: Paris, 1200. You’re a law student, enrolled in the sort-of new University of Paris. You need textbooks.

And, of course, you’re broke, just like students have always been and will always be. Sure, you could try to scope out a used textbook, but keep in mind that books are still pretty valuable and people aren’t about to go chucking their textbooks once they’re through with them. So what do you do? WHAT DO YOU DO?

I’ll tell you what you do. You walk straight to your nearest stationer and you grab a pecia (pl. peciae) of the book you need. Then you start to copy it.

By the thirteenth century, there had been great shifts in who made books and why they made them. Secular professionals, rather than monastics, had begun to make books for profit, rather than for spiritual fulfillment. People other than monks were buying and reading books and, like good businessmen, scribes and booksellers capitalized on this hot new(ish) product.

However, books could only be produced so quickly. Gutenberg’s printing press (and its accompanying movable type) wasn’t invented until 1454 or 1455, so we’re talking about manuscripts here. Books were handwritten, making them difficult to mass produce in short amounts of time.

Nevertheless, there was increasingly more and more demand. With the rise of universities came the need for increasingly more books for students in text-based programs like theology, medicine, and law. Students in the general arts had it a little better; their classes were largely discussion-based, so a text could be read aloud to the class and not every student would require his own copy. But the one-text-for-all thing just doesn’t work for some programs. Imagine how difficult it would be to study theology without being able to reference biblical texts during midterm season.

This need for personal copies of academic texts resulted in, and subsequently fueled, the pecia system.

pecia is a particular type of booklet; it’s a numbered piece of a manuscript made to provide a faster means of copying texts. Once he was assign a book to read, a student would visit his local stationer, who would lend or rent him a piece of the required text. The first piece the student got wasn’t necessarily the first part of the text – if part one was already lent out, the student would have to start with part two, or part three, or whatever was available. That’s the genius of the pecia system. At any given time, multiple people could use the same text at once. The student would likely be given a due date for whatever part he was given, to ensure that the entire text could eventually be made available for everyone else to use. The stationers, then, were kind of like the Blockbuster clerks of the Middle Ages, except they offered book rentals as opposed to movie rentals. And not everyone could have access to the same “scene” at the same time.

… that simile didn’t work as well as I thought it would.

Once the student had his piece of the text, he could either copy it himself or pay a scribe to copy it for him. Whoever did the copying, though, didn’t have to worry too much about aesthetics. These books weren’t made to be pretty; they were made to be used. This is why so few original peciae have been preserved – frequent use destroyed them.

Appreciatively stolen from the Schoyen Collection's website.
Appreciatively stolen from the Schøyen Collection’s website. Click on the picture to make it larger.

Because these books weren’t made to last too long, copyists didn’t have to worry too much about future readability. I mean, look at the picture to the left. Try to make out the words. Even if you’re fluent in Latin, you’re probably going to have a little bit of difficulty with this one – and it’s one of the easier-to-read examples of existing peciae!

A brief word on the picture’s font. Gothic (as referred to as blackletter) text began to thrive in the mid-twelfth century, and it seems to have been the hand of choice for copying peciae. This makes sense given how squished Gothic can get, and how even more space can be saved by Gothic’s tendency to “bite”. The peciae we currently have are also riddled with abbreviations and ligatures (which can be inserted easily when you’re writing in Gothic), making them almost incomprehensible to regular contemporary folk. Even paleographers have difficulty reading and transcribing what’s on the pages sometimes, and they’ve dedicated their lives to doing just that. Presumably, though, students weren’t considering the interests of paleographers; they just wanted to save money. All of these tricks were implemented to save space on the fairly expensive parchment. Squish as much as you can onto each page and save yourself a couple of bucks that you can then spend at the pub. Doesn’t seem like undergraduates have changed much, eh?

Now, the pecia system didn’t just involve stationers and students. University administrators also wanted in on the action! Six – give or take – peciarii (pecia masters) were chosen by each university to ensure the quality of the peciae and their explempars (what they were copied from), and to monitor the prices at which the peciae were rented so that no one got ripped off. If the peciarii found mistakes in the peciae during their regular inspections, stationers would have to personally pay for the texts to be corrected immediately. Corrections were to be made by experts in whatever field the text was about; for example, a medical text could be sent to a medical professor, who would ensure that everything was in order. Everyone worked together to make sure the students got the highest quality texts at the lowest rates.

So, finally, how do you know if what you’re looking at was copied using the pecia method? You can’t always tell, but the pieces will likely be numbered by the copyist. At first, the numbers of the pieces were written within the body of the text. However, when people quickly started to notice how difficult it was to find where one text ended and another began, the numbers were shifted to the margin. This marginal numbering originated in Paris, and there are examples of numbers both at the beginning and the end of pieces; Paris tended towards putting numbers at the beginning, Bologna at the end, and Oxford and Naples at both the beginning and the end. To make this numbering thing that much more all-over-the-place, numbers could be written in either roman numerals (typical in Italy) or Arabic numerals (typical in Paris). The one thing that always seemed to stay the same, though, was that the pecia number was always to the side of the writing frame (in the side margin), and was never below it (in the bottom margin).

And, with that, I conclude my summary of the pecia system. Did I muck up any of the details? Did I leave out something you think is important? Leave me comments! I like comments.

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