Medieval Monday – Illuminated Manuscripts

And now we come to my favorite aspect of medieval art: Illuminated Manuscripts.

I have loved medieval manuscripts and art since I was given my first calligraphy set as a child.  I found something uncommonly beautiful in the intricate, inked designs and bright, exuberant pictures in medieval books.  For a time period that is so distant from our own, these books and their decorations stand out in vivid detail.

Lucky for us, there are a lot of handwritten and illustrated books from the middle ages still in existence.  There are a couple of reasons for this.

One, is that medieval manuscripts were made out of materials that are much more durable than today’s paper books (or eBooks, which are technically made out of nothing).  Medieval books were made out of vellum, which is more or less stretched and treated calf, sheep, or goat skin.  It was much more expensive than paper, then or now, but not only did it hold up against the ravages of time, it could also be reused.  Many books were scraped right off the vellum they were written on and new works were inked and painted on the erased pages, although faint traces of parts of the old books remain.

Some of the pigments that were used to create the ink and paint colors were plant-based, like yellows made from turmeric or saffron or blues made from woad or indigo or greens made from buckthorn.  Some were mineral-based, like (literally) chalk white or mercuric sulfide (which made vermillion red) or ultramarine blue made from ground lapis lazuli. Sometimes they were even insect-based, like cochineal, which is a fantastic red made from the carminic acid excretions of the cochineal bug.  These would render some of the most vivid colors you’ve ever seen.

And then there were gilded manuscripts.  The term “illuminated manuscript” technically refers to only those books that had gold or silver gilding on their pages, although the term is used to describe all illustrated medieval books.  Gilding was created by inlaying extremely finely hammered bits of gold and silver leaf into the painting.  In some cases gold dust would be mixed with an egg solution to obtain a similar effect.  The result were illustrations that shimmered with wealth.

Another reason so many illuminated manuscripts exist today is because they were so highly esteemed in their own time.  In the early middle ages books were reserved for churches and monasteries.  The few literate people of the Western world knew how highly prized these books were and treated them accordingly.  They were carefully preserved in the holiest of places within the most fiercely protected buildings of the time.

In the early middle ages not only were the books and manuscripts themselves highly regarded, the monks whose job it was to copy and create books were the most esteemed brothers within the monasteries.  They often enjoyed finer accommodations and richer perks than their less skilled fellows.

This began to change at the dawn of the high middle ages.  Europe as a whole was more stable and richer, so a greater extent of people could afford precious books.  On the one hand this meant that massive public books were commissioned, such as alter bibles so large it took three librarians to open them and turn the pages.  In fact, I’ve seen books with my own eyes that are as large as a small sofa when opened.  The illustrations contained in these works were meant to show off the wealth of the church that owned them.

But privately commissioned and secular books were beginning to be produced in droves by the 1100s as well.  Every wealthy noble had to have a “book of hours”, which is a book of prayers appropriate for different times of the day.  Even non-religious illustrated works were in demand.

To accommodate the demand, book-making, writing, and illustrating expanded out of monasteries and into secular production houses.  These commercial scriptoriums were prevalent in most major cities, but especially Paris, by the 1300s.  Furthermore, a great deal of the actual painting of these manuscripts was done by women.  Yet another female-dominated industry in the middle ages that you might never have guessed.

In the early middle ages a single monk would work on all aspects of creating a manuscript, from planning the page and marking the lines to writing the text to illustrating it.  It was a long process that could take up an entire lifetime.  I remember hearing once that when a monk finished a book he was allowed to write and illustrate whatever he wanted to in the space left on the last page.  I wish I remember where I heard that so that I could substantiate it, but it seems like a just reward for a lifetime of labor.

Click on this to take a closer look. Yes, that is a wheelbarrow full of monkeys!

Later in the middle ages, however, the different stages of book creation were divided amongst specialists.  Some people would prepare the vellum and cut it to the right size, some would mark where the text and illumination would go on the pages, others would write the words, specialist painters would complete the illumination, and other experts would assemble the books.  It was a kind of assembly-line long before the concept existed.By the late middle ages and the beginning of the renaissance handmade illuminated manuscripts gradually dwindled and disappeared entirely.  Why?  Because books were in such high demand and couldn’t be produced fast enough.  So this guy named Gutenberg figured out a way to turn out hundreds of books in a fraction of the time.  Revolutionary, yes, but it also meant that an entire magnificent art form more or less disappeared by the end of the 16th century.

It’s a shame.  I could look at illuminated manuscripts for hours!

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5 thoughts on “Medieval Monday – Illuminated Manuscripts

  1. Fantastic post. And a unique window into another era long ago. How painstakenly slow to spend a lifetime creating a masterpiece of art such as a book like these. Now we rush through things to do more, more, more. What a lost and beautiful art and we are lucky they were treasured and many exist today for us to view.

    • How right you are, Donna. I just think that it’s interesting that as early as the 16th century people were already beginning to feel that craftsmanship was being lost as machines took over what men used to do. I think our medieval brethren would be shocked at what the world looks like these days!

  2. I’d love to see one of those sofa-sized books! If status in society today was measured by how many books one had I would be very well-respected, indeed…

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