The Lovely Art of Medieval Manuscripts

By Maryanne Grebenstein — At The Abbey Studio, we love both modern and medieval manuscripts. Some might say we’re obsessed.
William Morris, The Abbey Studio, Maryanne Grebenstein

A page from a manuscript created by Maryanne Grebenstein, Lead Designer at The Abbey Studio

When I first began to study calligraphy more than 30 years ago, it didn’t take very long for me to be exposed to the manuscripts of Europe’s Middle Ages and Renaissance, and subsequently to realize that they stole my heart. Consequently, I’ve embraced the illuminated manuscripts’ character and style, and a portion of the recognition awards, artwork, and custom books we create at The Abbey Studio echo the grace of these manuscripts, even using some of the same age-old techniques. I think the history of illuminated manuscripts is fascinating. As students in the United States, when we see images of old documents we see things such as the original handwritten version of The Declaration of Independence, written in ink on parchment in 1776. However, we don’t learn a lot about the documents written by people in other parts of the world for millennia prior to that.

A Brief History of Manuscripts

Before the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, all documents had to be written by hand. It was a labor-intensive, time-consuming process. In fact, the term “manuscript” comes from the Latin for “handwritten.” Historically, the written word appeared first about 3200 BC. Ancient drawings and writings were created on a variety of material including bone, rock, stone, clay tablets, wax, wood, and leather. The Egyptians invented papyrus (from the papyrus plant) prior to 3000 BC and this material was used for thousands of years. Often the papyrus pieces were sewn together and rolled into scrolls. Few fragments survive today because papyrus is not durable and generally lasts for only a generation or two. We trace the history of what we think of today as illuminated manuscripts to Europe in the 1st century, although they are most closely associated with Europe’s Middle Ages (used interchangeably with the word “medieval”) and Renaissance, roughly from about the 5th century to the 17th century. During the 2nd century, the scroll format was gradually replaced with a book format (called codex, or the plural, codices), containing folded folios, sewn and bound together with a cover. However, papyrus wasn’t well suited for use in codices because it couldn’t withstand the rigors of binding or page-turning. Therefore, using papyrus in codices was gradually replaced by parchment, which is very durable. Although leather and parchment had been used historically in documents since prior to the 5th century BC, papyrus had been used more widely because it was cheaper and far easier to produce. The best quality of parchment is called vellum. Parchment and vellum are made from dried, stretched and prepared calf, sheep, or goat skin. Deer and pigskin were also used. The men who prepared parchment were highly skilled experts. It was made by soaking the animal skins in a lime solution for several days and then scraping off all the hair. Skins were fixed onto frames to dry and as they shrank, the pegs would be adjusted to keep them taut. The dry sheets were either rolled or cut to shape and stored for later use. Parchment is still made in a similar way today. Good vellum was costly, and there is evidence on some medieval manuscripts that it was often re-used. The vellum makers would soak it in milk and then scrape it to remove the ink and pigment and new designs were created on top. Re-used vellum pieces are called palimpsests (from the Latin and Greek for “scraped again”). Paper appears to have been invented in China sometime as early as the 2nd century BC, but did not spread outside the country until about the 8th century. Although it became available in southern Europe from the 12th century, it didn’t become widespread until the late Middle Ages, so parchment and vellum were used throughout the Middle Ages. Modern scribes such as those at The Abbey Studio will occasionally use vellum as a writing surface, in addition to paper and other surfaces. Vellum is a beautiful medium on which to write, very forgiving in that the “scraping” feature still applies, and it pays homage to the age of illuminated manuscripts. We love that.

What is an Illuminated Manuscript?

By the 3rd century, scribes of traditional texts began experimenting with letter ornamentation and color, as well as the use of gold for decoration. (It’s really a contemporary irony that we call traditional manuscripts “texts,” isn’t it?) An illuminated manuscript is one in which the text has been supplemented by decoration, borders, illustrated initials, and miniature illustrations. The use of decoration can vary from simply created initial capitals to intricate, full-page ornamentation.
Pangur B-an, The Abbey Studio, Maryanne Grebenstein

Close-up of calligraphy with an illuminated (“gilded”) letter by Maryanne Grebenstein, The Abbey Studio

Strictly speaking, the word “illuminated” refers to manuscripts that employ gold or, more rarely, silver. However, in modern usage it refers to any illustrated or decorated manuscript in the Western tradition. (Manuscripts were created using different traditions in different geographies.) The artists who produced the illuminations with gold and silver were called illuminators. “Illuminated” derives from the Latin “illuminare,” meaning “enlighten” or to “light up.” Most gold and silver were (and still are) burnished to a beautiful brilliance that catches and plays with light and you can certainly see how the description is appropriate. (I’ll write another article soon specifically about gold and the gilding process.) The use of gold to embellish objects actually extends back over 5,000 years. The earliest identified use of gold on papyrus documents dates back to about 1320-1290 BC. During the Middle Ages, the popularity of illuminating manuscripts with gold increased, particularly in the latter part of the period, and the value of the gold contributed to the protection and conservation of the manuscripts. In religious manuscripts, heavy illumination was considered an exaltation of God. However, since each manuscript was unique, they could be customized for particular use; while many medieval manuscripts used the most expensive materials and elaborate applications of gold and silver, others were much more modest.

Early Manuscripts

Most of the surviving codices from Europe’s early Middle Ages are religious texts such as gospel books and bibles. Literate Christians played a large part in the creation and conservation of manuscripts during an era when the ruling classes were no longer literate in the Latin language used in the manuscripts. The earliest surviving complete Christian text is believed to be one of the manuscripts of Ethiopia’s Garima Gospels, dating to between 330 and 540. Another manuscript, the Codex Sinaiticus, which is a Bible hand-written in Greek, is believed to be the earliest complete copy of the Christian New Testament, originating around the middle of the 4th century. The Codex Sinaiticus, which is in two volumes, currently resides at the British Library and one volume is almost always on display there in the Treasures Room. Christian monasticism developed in Egypt in the 3rd century and quickly spread across Europe. In 597, Pope Gregory the Great sent St. Augustine from Rome to Britain to bring Christianity to the Anglo-Saxons. The books the monks brought with them were highly prized and useful for their preaching.
Corpus Christi College, The Abbey Studio

Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, UK

Special note: The Abbey Studio’s 2016 Classroom Abroad trip will include a visit to the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, UK, which houses a priceless collection of over 600 manuscripts, including the St. Augustine Gospels, believed to have been brought with St. Augustine to Britain. Most manuscripts in the Middle Ages were produced in monasteries by pious monks working in special rooms. In larger monasteries these rooms were called scriptoriums. The scriptoriums were remarkably light-filled rooms providing the monks with adequate daylight to create their masterpieces. Had it not been for the devotion of the monks, most Greek and Roman literature would not have survived.  
Lindisfarne Gospels, British Library, medieval, manuscript

A page from the Lindisfarne Gospels, courtesy of the British Library

The Lindisfarne Gospels

As Christianity spread in Europe, monasteries with scriptoriums were founded in many locations on the British Isles. The Lindisfarne Gospels (c. 698) were created at the monastery at Lindisfarne on Holy Island off the Northumbrian coast. It is the most complete gospel book to survive from the 7th century. Some of its fine details were created with gold leaf. (The Abbey Studio’s 2016 Classroom Abroad trip will include a visit to the British Library to view these magnificent gospels, as well as other manuscripts and diverse treasures.)

The Book of Kells

When the first Celts converted to Christianity and founded their monasteries, they integrated their rich artistic heritage into the religious texts they copied, producing extraordinary manuscripts including the famous Book of Kells (c. 6th to 9th centuries). Historians are uncertain where the Book of Kells was created; theories include Iona, off the western coast of Scotland, then later moving to Kells in County Meath, Ireland. Its name was derived from the Abbey of Kells, where the manuscript stayed during the Middle Ages. The Book of Kells has been located at Trinity College in Dublin since 1661. You can view the original manuscript at the college (or even online here). It features extravagant illustration and craftsmanship, but without the use of gold or silver. I must say, in person these medieval manuscripts are simply breathtaking.
Book of Kells, The Abbey Studio, Trinity College

A page from the Book of Kells, courtesy of the Board of Trustees, Trinity College

The Age of Charlemagne

Charlemagne’s coronation as emperor in 800 spawned a period of revival of the arts of the Roman empire, witnessing the creation of spectacular, elaborate books. Richly illuminated psalters, such as England’s Ramsey Psalter, written in the 10th Century (now at the British Library), as well as personal devotional books called Books of Hours, were created for royalty and wealthy patrons; highly illuminated manuscripts were used as ostentatious displays of wealth and nobility. At this time, some of the wealthy also began to accumulate distinguished personal libraries. For the monasteries, manuscript creation provided wealth and prestige, while also ensuring that churches and monastic libraries had access to religious and classical texts. Early in the millennium, the scribe and the illustrator often had been the same person. However, during the Middle Ages, the different crafts required to create an illuminated manuscript evolved into specialized skills executed by four distinct craftspeople: the vellum maker, the scribe, the illuminator, and the bookbinder. Some illuminators became quite famous and created self-portraits in the manuscripts and signed their work.
Ramsey Psalter, British Library, The Abbey Studio, medieval manuscript

A page from the Ramsey Psalter, courtesy of the British Library

In addition to religious manuscripts, an increasing number of secular texts were created, especially from the 13th century onward. The use of languages other than Latin became popular. As demand for manuscripts grew, book manufacturing began to move outside the monastic scriptoriums and secular craftsmen received commissions from patrons and the wealthy, as well as the middle classes. Education centers began to shift from cathedral schools to universities in European cities. By the 14th century, major centers for book production existed in urban locations including Paris, Rome, and in the Netherlands. The invention of printing with movable type in 1455 brought great changes to the Middle Ages as it merged into the Renaissance. Within a generation, book production migrated to the far less expensive printing press, coinciding with the increasingly widespread availability of paper in Europe, and manuscript creation slowed dramatically into the 16th century. Paris remained a center for handwritten religious books until about 1540. Miniature painting transitioned from its use in illuminated manuscripts to self-contained, portable miniature portraits, which first appeared in the 1520s at the English and French courts. In fact, one of the most famous manuscript illuminators of the 16th century, Simon Bening, painted a standalone miniature self-portrait in 1558, using tempura and gold leaf on parchment. “Portrait miniatures” were helpful in introducing people to each other over long distances, and were carried when loved ones were away. They increased in popularity and spread across the rest of Europe during the 18th century, remaining popular until the development of daguerreotypes and photography in the mid-19th century.

Are you interested in medieval manuscripts?

The Abbey Studio is hosting an amazing Classroom Abroad trip in October 2016 to view manuscripts in England and then study calligraphy at a Château in the South of France. We usually host a trip a year; read more about it here.  

You May Also Like…

How to Hold a Calligraphy Pen

How to Hold a Calligraphy Pen

This article will give you insight into how to use a calligraphy pen, starting with how to hold a calligraphy pen for...

1 Comment

  1. Kiersten

    There’s certainly a lot to learn about this subject. I
    really like all of the points you have made.


  1. Illuminating the Future: A Museum Guide – The Abbey Studio - […] There aren’t many of them, but they do exist: museums and libraries that house a collection of medieval and…
  2. Monsters Invade Medieval Maps! – The Abbey Studio - […] mundi survive from the Middle Ages, most of which were included as illustrations in manuscripts. (Read more here about…
  3. Happy Mother’s Day, Christine – The Abbey Studio - […] as incongruous as showing the monk typing on a computer, but it’s true. In an earlier blog about the…
  4. The Brilliance of Hermann Zapf – The Abbey Studio - […] brief description of the evolution of some of the lettering styles, which today we can view through historic manuscripts…
  5. Illuminated Manuscripts “Beyond Words” – The Abbey Studio - […] For more information about illuminated manuscripts, read our blog, The Lovely Art of Medieval Manuscripts. […]