Saturday, May 21, 2016

Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts.

By E.M. Powell

The word manuscript literally means ‘written by hand’ and medieval manuscripts refers to those books produced in Europe between about the fifth century and the late fifteenth century. Illuminated manuscripts are works which are decorated with a variety of pictures and ornamentation.

Psalm 27 from the Vespasian Psalter- 8th Century Kent.
It is the earliest surviving English biblical example of an initial with a narrative scene.

The word ‘illuminated’ comes from a usage of the Latin word illuminare in the sense of its meaning ‘to adorn’. Burnished gold was often used in the decorating of books from the 13th century onwards but the term ‘illuminated’ does not only apply to manuscripts where gold or silver is used. It applies more broadly to any manuscript that is more elaborately decorated than with simple coloured initials.

From the early writings of Saint Jerome (who died c.420) to around 1100, the vast majority of manuscripts were produced in the scriptoria or cloisters of abbeys and monasteries. They were primarily theological, liturgical and academic works.

The Lindisfarne Gospels- 8th Century
Written & illustrated probably by Eadfrith, bishop of Lindisfarne.

Prior to the time of Saint Jerome, manuscripts (such as those produced in Rome) were in scroll format and made of papyrus. The use of papyrus is problematic in that, as a material, it is more likely to break, especially if it is handled frequently. Early medieval scribes moved to the use of prepared animal skin, the material that we refer to as parchment or vellum. The format also underwent a significant change to that of the book or codex, with separate pages that can be turned, read in sequence and much more easily navigated by a reader.

Initial from the Howard Psalter & Hours- England,1310 -1320.
Clerics sing from a scroll, which contains musical notation. 

The codex didn’t only make life easier for readers. It also improved the lot of those who wrote and illustrated the manuscripts—our medieval scribes. It is much easier to write on the flat, stable surface of a page than on a lengthy, unrolled scroll. But it’s probably fair to say the ‘easier’ is a relative term. Even the preparation was laborious and demanded perfection. Producing fine vellum involved the soaking in lime and skilled, meticulous scraping and stretching of expensive calfskin. Inks such as oak gall and lampblack had to be produced. Guide lines had to be ruled with absolute precision.

Book of Hours- Oxford, 1240, written in & illuminated by William de Brailes.
It is the earliest surviving English Book of Hours.

Note that such precision also had to be achieved using a feather quill pen. Quill pens were introduced around the sixth century and replaced the reed pen. They were most commonly made from the flight feathers of geese but could also be made from swan, duck, crow, or even pelicans and peacocks. Most of the feather was removed and the end sharpened and slit so it could be filled with ink.  The sharpening of the nib was done at different angles, which would make pen strokes of differing thickness. Such careful nib-work didn’t last long. A scribe would have to trim it frequently with a quill-cutter to keep its sharpness.

A seated scribe from the Life of St Dunstan.
Canterbury- late 11th/early 12th Century

All that before the most challenging and skilled task of all: the writing and illustrating of the text. One can only deeply admire the concentration, dedication and sheer physical toll it must have taken, with scribes having no reading glasses, no electric light and no modern heating through freezing and damp winters.

The fruits of their labours, that are the decorations on medieval illuminated manuscripts, are of three main types. First, larger illustrations that can take up a whole page and /or miniatures or small pictures incorporated into the text. These usually illustrate or complement the content of the text.

A map of the whole known world from Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon.
England, last quarter of the 14th century.

The second type are initial letters that contain scenes (known as historiated initials) or that have elaborate decoration. Again, these usually illustrate or complement the content of the text.

Historiated initial 'D'(omine) with a crowned Virgin and Child.
English Book of Hours, 1st quarter of the 15th century.

Third, we have borders and line-endings, which may have many detailed images/miniatures in them. These often do not relate directly to the text and can contain unusual figures.

Marginal illustration from the Gorleston Psalter- Norfolk, early 14th century.
How much do we love the medieval duck? 

And while the illuminations could serve to illustrate or to decorate, they also provided aids for contemplation and meditation for those reading them as part of their daily prayer and devotion. On another (very practical) level, the illustrations were useful markers for less literate readers to be able to navigate a lengthy manuscript. One does not have to be able to read to identify a picture of the Virgin Mary or one of the story of Adam and Eve.

Four scenes from the Book of Genesis, with three of Adam & Eve.
The Huth Psalter, England, late 13th century.

Although so many wonderful works were produced by men (and women) of the church, by 1100 this situation began to change. The production of manuscripts was no longer the preserve of the church, and secular scribes and illustrators rose in importance. This was in part due to the expansion of the content of manuscripts. Romances, chronicles, medical and other texts and aristocratic family trees all began to be produced. The rise of the universities and the increase in book ownership by the wealthy saw a thriving secular book trade in Paris and Bologna by the 13th century.

Guinevere questioning Lancelot about his love for her.
Lancelot du Lac, France, c.1316.

It was another university city, the city of Cologne, that was to trigger the start of the demise of the manuscript. By the 1470s Cologne had become the most important centre of printing in north-west Germany and where a certain William Caxton was perfecting his own particular art. Handwritten texts were being replaced by the printed version.

From the Arnstein Bible, a large two-volume MS, Germany c. 1172.
It was written by a single scribe, a monk named Lunandus.

But it was English Reformation that was to see the wanton destruction of the illuminated manuscript. Henry VIII decreed that the 'images and pictures' of Saint Thomas Becket shall 'through the whole realm be put down and avoided out of all churches, chapels, and other places.’ The Act against Superstitious Books and Images (1550) ordered that prayer and service books that did not comply with the reformed liturgy should be destroyed. The religious communities did their best to keep their handwritten treasures safe. Books were smuggled out of religious houses and hidden in sympathetic homes. But not all could be saved. Priceless manuscripts were torn up, burned, used to clean candlesticks, clean boots, stop up beer barrels and even deployed in the privies.

The martyrdom of Thomas Becket from the Harley collection-
a rare survival in an English context.
Netherlands, 3rd quarter of the 15th century.

Yet despite all of this appalling vandalism, medieval manuscripts have preserved for posterity the lion’s share of medieval painting. As Beal so beautifully puts it: ‘Books have a knack of surviving.’ It is our great good fortune that they do.

Detail of marginal images of apes with books.
France, 1318-1330.

All images are in the Public Domain and are part of the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. (This online resource is truly a treasure trove and I cannot recommend it highly enough.)
Beal, Peter, A Dictionary of English Manuscript Terminology 1450–2000: Oxford University Press, Current Online Version. (2011)
Brigstocke, Hugh, The Oxford Companion to Western Art: Oxford University Press, Current Online Version (2003)
Chilvers, Ian, The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists (4 ed.): Oxford University Press, Current Online Version (2014)
De Hamel, Christopher, A History of Illuminated Manuscripts (2nd ed.), London: Phaidon Press Ltd. (1994).
Kerr, Julie: Life in the Medieval Cloister, London, Continuum Publishing (2009)
Whittock, Martyn, A Brief History of Life in the Middle Ages: London, Constable & Robinson (2009)
E.M. Powell’s medieval thrillers THE FIFTH KNIGHT and THE BLOOD OF THE FIFTH KNIGHT have been #1 Amazon bestsellers and a Bild bestseller in Germany. Book #3 in the series, THE LORD OF IRELAND, about John’s failed campaign in Ireland was published by Thomas & Mercer on April 5 2016. Born and raised in the Republic of Ireland into the family of Michael Collins (the legendary revolutionary and founder of the Irish Free State), she now lives in northwest England with her husband, daughter and a Facebook-friendly dog. As well as blogging and editing for EHFA, she is a contributing editor to International Thriller Writers The Big Thrill magazine, reviews fiction & non-fiction for the Historical Novel Society and is part of the HNS Social Media Team. Find out more by visiting

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  1. These artistry in these manuscripts are incomparable. It's been fascinating to see how they were created. Thanks for sharing!

    1. So pleased you enjoyed it, Cryssa and you're welcome!

  2. Great post - those illuminations are so beautiful. I have a number of books containing such treasures and even tried my hand at calligraphy - nowhere near as easy as it looks, especially when you're left-handed!

    1. Can you imagine the years of practice you have to do to even master calligraphy, never mind producing those intricate drawings! I do consider them one of the marvels of the artistic world.

    2. I'm right-handed and my one attempt at using a traditional feather quill produced nothing except a quite extraordinary mess! And yes, these are truly magnificent works of art. We're so fortunate that the attempts to destroy them all only partly succeeded.

  3. What a bit of serendipity! The central character in my new 14th century Oxford series is a stationer and bookseller, so I've been researching parchment manufacture, book-binding, and the secular production of books! Snap! I also love these medieval illustrations, and I'm in awe of those who produced them.

    1. Many thanks, Ann. I'm so pleased you enjoyed it and your premise for your new book sounds intriguing. I'm sure I don't have the recommend the wonderful British Library's digitised collection of manuscripts to you! But for anyone who's not found it, it's in one of the links at the end of my post.

  4. What a bit of serendipity! The central character in my new 14th century Oxford series is a stationer and bookseller, so I've been researching parchment manufacture, book-binding, and the secular production of books! Snap! I also love these medieval illustrations, and I'm in awe of those who produced them.

  5. A great article. Thanks for sharing.

    1. You're very welcome, Linda and your kind words are very much appreciated.

  6. Delightful post, for which many thanks.

    In Bristol Cathedral, where I am an occasional tour-guide, there is a wonderful set of late mediaeval misericords. In the cheerful way of the middle ages, among the pictures carved on each seat’s underside, devotional and Biblical scenes go hand-in-hand with scabrous representations of day to day life. So, alongside the nun who reads at a lectern and Samson slaying his lion with the ass's jawbone, there is an angry woman pulling the beard of a man who has had the nerve to interfere with her cooking; a small-time felon, stripped naked and tied onto a horse facing the tail, and – the wood-carver’s imagination soaring to the heights - a man armed with what looks like a rolling pin and seated on a pig jousting with a woman who parries his blows with a broom while riding a goose.

    I mention it because share the sheer joy and energy of the Books of Hours’ illustrations put me in mind of the carvings’ vigour; I am thinking especially of the hapless white duck’s pathetic appeal from the jaws of the fox. Pueck sounds so much more desperate than ‘Quack’!

    1. You're very welcome, Victoria. I think you've hit the nail on the head with your phrase of 'sheer joy and energy'. That definitely sums up so much of the art and literature of the medieval period. The misericords you describe sound utterly wonderful, and yes: the pig/goose joust reaches a very special height indeed. Just marvellous!

  7. A fascinating read for me as I am very interested in calligraphy and illumination. I am quite proficient in calligraphy but less so in illumination. I am not as dedicated as those monks.

    1. Thank you- I'm so pleased you enjoyed it. You may have seen from one of my other comments that I am utterly useless at wielding a quill and that pretty much applies to anything I handwrite! Skilled calligraphy is a joy to look at, so it must equally be a great (if challenging) pleasure to be able to do. Anyone who has those skills has my greatest admiration.


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