Musings on Culture

Alejandra de Leiva's Blog

Category : Writing

The Making of Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts

Matthew writing

Saint Matthew writing, manuscript at the Bilbiothèque Nationale de France

In our eBook era, it’s worth revisiting the craftsmanship of book-making, to understand and appreciate the effort it involved.

In ancient times, texts were written on papyrus, produced from the pith of the papyrus plant. From the fifth century, parchment made from animal skin became the main writing material.

This video from the J.Paul Getty Museum (6:20) provides an interesting overview of the process of making illuminated manuscripts, from parchment preparation to binding.  In illuminated manuscripts, text is supplemented by the addition of miniature illustrations and decorated initials, made with gold and silver leaf and pigments made from plants and minerals, and could take months or years to produce. Traditionally, these manuscripts were produced in monasteries. The majority of surviving manuscripts are from the Middle Ages.

Book illumination reamained a flourishing art until the sixteenth century.

In this other video (1:10:10), Dr. Sally Dormer explains in thorough detail the making of medieval manuscripts, in a lecture given at the Museum of London in 2012. Dr. Dormer is a specialist medieval art historian.

Furthermore, on the website Medieval Manuscripts on the Web you can find a list of manuscript digitization projects, ordered by country. Other resourceful websites are the Digital Scriptorium, a growing image database of medieval and renaissance manuscripts, and Europeana Regia, a corpus of digitised manuscripts from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, with a focus on the beginning of European culture in the Carolingian time: documents from the Bibliotheca Carolina (8th and 9th centuries), the Library of Charles V (14th century) and the Library of the Aragonese Kings of Naples (15th and 16th centuries).

If you want to know more about illuminated manuscripts, I recommend you the following two beautiful books:

A History of Illuminated Manuscripts and The Bible of Illuminated Letters: A Treasury of Decorative Calligraphy (Quarto Book).

For a more general history of writing systems, I recommend you the excellent book The Story of Writing.