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December 13, 2005

LOS ANGELES—From the 13th to the 15th century, secular books were as much in demand as religious ones, as readers sought works ranging from romance novels to how-to manuals to scholarly texts. The Medieval Bookshelf: From Romance to Astronomy, at the Getty Center, January 24–April 9, 2006, explores the wide variety of secular books produced in the period, providing insight into the way medieval readers saw the world around them and their own place within it.

The exhibition presents 20 manuscripts and leaves from the J. Paul Getty Museum’s collection, along with one manuscript from a private collection.  Included are tales of chivalric romance; collections of fables; texts teaching the principles of science, philosophy, and law; and manuals on everything from the art of hunting to how to play chess.  Featured are one of the Getty’s popular bestiaries, with enchanting images of real and mythical animals; an imposing manuscript illustrating the life of Alexander the Great; and a copy of the poem Romance of the Rose, one of the greatest achievements of medieval French literature, which helped shape aristocratic concepts of courtly love and chivalry that are still familiar today.

While the production of Bibles and devotional works such as books of hours dominated much of the medieval period, a new urban market that consisted of middle-class readers, students, and aristocrats had risen by the 13th century, creating an ever-increasing demand for secular books.  The formation of substantial private libraries was another phenomenon that led to an explosion in the types of illustrated books being produced.  Some of these manuscripts were meant to be read aloud to a group and are consequently of impressive dimensions, while others were intended for private reading and can fit in the palm of one hand.  Wealthy members of the aristocracy commissioned large quantities of books for entertainment and instruction, including biographical accounts of life at court, examples of classical literature, and even guides designed to teach the skill of jousting.  They were often lavishly painted with illuminations that helped the reader visualize the narratives or information offered by the text.

Also popular were history books, which were frequently written in the language native to a region, rather than a scholarly language such as Latin, and often illustrated with historical figures in contemporary dress set in local landscapes. Easily accessible to their audience, these manuscripts forged an immediate and powerful link between the past and present for medieval readers.  Rulers expressed their political identities and their vanity by collecting lavish historical manuscripts that chronicled the deeds of their ancestors.

The demand for school texts followed the rise of universities, which gradually supplanted monasteries as centers of learning in the 12th and 13th centuries.  All across Europe, students flocked to universities to study law, medicine, theology, and the liberal arts.  The effect on the production and character of manuscripts was enormous. Not only did scholars now require books for their studies, but also growing numbers of upper-class patrons began to pursue interests in these areas, often commissioning richly illuminated and expensive copies of academic texts.

Visit or call 310-440-7300 for more information.  The new online calendar features a searchable list of the Getty’s public programs. Sign up for e-Getty at to receive monthly highlights delivered free via e-mail.

Tuesday, January 31, 2:30 p.m., and Wednesday, March 15, 2:30 p.m., Museum Galleries
Elizabeth Morrison, associate curator of manuscripts, the J. Paul Getty Museum, leads a gallery talk on the exhibition The Medieval Bookshelf: From Romance to Astronomy.
Meet under the stairs in the Museum Entrance Hall. Free.

Publications are available in the Getty Museum Store, by calling 800-223-3431 or 310-440-7059, or online at

Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts. A Guide to Technical Terms
By Michelle P. Brown
This book—part of the Museum's popular ‘Looking At’ series—offers definitions of techniques, processes, and materials used in medieval illuminated manuscripts. (Getty Publications, paper: $16.95)

Italian Illuminated Manuscripts in the J. Paul Getty Museum
By Thomas Kren and Kurt Barstow
Selections from the Getty Museum’s rich holdings of Italian manuscript illumination from the ninth to the 16th century. (Getty Publications, paper: $19.95)

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Miranda Carroll
Getty Communications Department

About the Getty:

The J. Paul Getty Trust is an international cultural and philanthropic institution devoted to the visual arts that features the Getty Conservation Institute, the Getty Foundation, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the Getty Research Institute. The J. Paul Getty Trust and Getty programs serve a varied audience from two locations: the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the Getty Villa in Malibu.

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