BY ANNA WELCH
Growing up in a bookish Catholic family in the 1980s, I was aware of only one Madonna, and she was not living in the Material World—rather the contrary. I was also keenly aware of the beauty of illuminated medieval books (in facsimile—bookish Catholics are rarely wealthy). Curling fronds of bluish green, pink tendrils flicking round golden orbs, sly half-beasts prowling through red blooms, lewd antics in the margins round pale-lipped madonnas and rainbow-winged seraphs... To my childish eyes, illuminated medieval manuscripts (even as reproductions) were intoxicating. I couldn't imagine a more beautiful and surprising universe than the one which graced the vivid pages of these books. They seemed like images of heaven—a place where reds were redder and gold more glittering than in my own world; a place populated with intriguingly injured saints, gravely gorgeous. These books contained within them my spiritual and cultural past—a world to which I was connected despite the intervention of centuries, despite speaking a different language, despite living in a country that hadn't yet been mapped when those books were written. In a word, these books were precious to me. As I grew up and became a manuscript scholar (and an agnostic, but that's a different essay), I learned to value these books in different, perhaps more complex ways, and yet my early aesthetic, instinctual fascination with them has never waned.
Medieval people knew all about preciousness: it is from the medieval Latin pretiosus, meaning costly, that we take the word. First recorded in the thirteenth century, the term describes value—both monetary and cultural, both pragmatic and aesthetic. Medieval books fulfilled all these categories of preciousness for their original communities, and they continue to do so today, with the additional layers of value that time, rarity and nostalgia bestow.
Book production in the medieval period represented a significant investment of materials, time and skills. The primary element in the manufacture of a medieval book was vellum, made from animal skins (usually cow, calf, goat and sheep). Any one manuscript might require the skins of some 40 animals—a considerable herd. The thickness of the vellum used indicates the quality of the manuscript: the thinner the vellum, the more expensive the manuscript. This is because thinning the vellum down took a great deal of time and effort, as we know from the various handbooks written by medieval manuscript makers that still survive today. Having been removed from the animals, the skins were soaked for three to ten days in an acidic mixture of lime, to remove excess tissue and hair, and then rinsed in water. They were then stretched over wooden frames (either circular or rectangular) until taut, and scraped with a sharp, circular knife known as a lunellarium, to remove the remaining hair follicles. A skin could be scraped back to the extent that was required, leaving it either relatively thick for a typical manuscript, or thin for a deluxe (more expensive) manuscript. The skins were then dried, re-wet, before being polished with a pumice stone and rubbed with chalk to produce a smooth writing surface that would hold the ink.
At this point the skins, which may now be called vellum, were ready to be cut to the required size—just like books today, manuscripts were made in a variety of sizes, often according to the purpose of the text. Books made for permanent use in one church or by one scholar could be quite large, while books made to be portable (like breviaries, books of hours and many books used by mendicant friars) were smaller, compact and light.
The skins were not cut into individual pages. Rather, they were cut into the equivalent of either four or eight pages, depending on the eventual size of the book. Each bifolio would have been ruled and written, and then if necessary, sent to an illuminator to complete any decoration. This process would have been repeated over and over again, until the manuscript was ready to be assembled and bound. Keep in mind that when the manuscript was complete, the pages of each bifolio would not have been facing each other, adding to the complexity of the scribe's task. Added to this, the preferred arrangement of folios was to have two hair sides facing, and two flesh sides facing. These differences exist because of the nature of using an animal skin—one side of the skin originally lay on the inside of the animal (the flesh side), and was perfectly smooth, while the other (the hair side), lay on the outside of the animal, and shows where the animal’s hair has grown.
Once the bifolios were ruled, the scribe could begin his work copying the text. Scribes working in monastic or commercial scriptoria used basically the same set-up and tools—a sloped writing desk, ink horns, a quill and a knife. The quill was a specially shaped nib cut from a feather, prepared by the scribe himself, and could be re-sharpened over and over again during the course of a session. It worked to best effect when used at a right angle, and hence the sloped surface of the scribe’s writing desk. Scribes also mixed their own ink, many recipes for which survive today. The most common kind of ink was iron gall ink. This was made by mixing pulverized gall nuts (which produced tannic acid) or fermented gall nuts (which produced gallic acid) with ferrous sulphate (commonly known as copperas), and adding gum arabic as a thickening agent. The resulting ink was black to brown in colour, and extremely long-lasting. There are extant recipes for all shades of ink, the most commonly used (after iron gall) being red ink, which was often made using red lead mixed with gum arabic. The scribe kept his/her inks in hollowed-out animal horns that rested in specially cut holes in the desk.1
When writing a text, a scribe was copying from an exemplar (a model) which rested next to them on the desk. As each book was an expensive production, it was imperative that it have as long a working life as possible, and thus its exemplar would have been the most up-to-date version available to the scribe. There is a huge variety of different styles of scripts, and their study, known as paleography, can assist greatly with identifying the date and original location of a manuscript, as the scripts varied across time and country. When studying or identifying a script, a paleographer looks for details such as the way each letter is formed, whether the letters are joined or separate, and the type of abbreviations used.
The scribe wrote with a quill in one hand and a knife in the other. The knife was used both to hold the springy vellum flat while he wrote, and to quickly erase any mistakes while the ink was still wet. Mistakes were scraped off with the sharp blade, leaving the space for the correct word written over the top. Corrections were also written in other ways, such as by having a line ruled through the erroneous word, sometimes accompanied by a serious of dots above or below the word or letter, all of which indicated it was to be ignored by the reader.
Before the folios could be bound, they often had to be decorated. Folios were sent out to artists to have this work completed, and it is often the case that more than one artist worked on the one manuscript—as the folios were loose, they could be divided up and sent to many places. Sometimes a superior artist would be given the task of completing the major illuminations, while lesser artists created the initials and borders, if required. There is considerable academic debate as to exactly who would have decided on a manuscript's programme of decoration. Did the owner commission a specific set of illustrations from the artist? Or did the artist have more or less free reign with his work? No doubt the reality lies in a combination of these scenarios. Occasionally the owner who would use the book may have had a specific devotional interest, which could be emphasised in the decoration. Patrons of such manuscripts sometimes commissioned artists to include their portraits in the finished work. The evidence that artists may have had at least some autonomy when it came to the design and execution of their work lies in the similarities between different manuscripts—clear styles and themes emerge which show the work of individuals, rather than corporate commissions.
Medieval books are perhaps most famous for their decorated capital letters and borders, in which artists coaxed even the driest text to bloom in delightfully unexpected ways. Initials are described as decorated when they do not include human or animal figures, but instead feature stylized designs. Those initials that include human figures are known as anthropomorphic, and those featuring animals are called zoomorphic. Initials depicting a scene from history (a narrative) are known as historiated. All four types of initials are frequently described as illuminated. The word ‘illuminated’ technically means the decoration includes a precious metal such as gold or silver, which reflected and refracted the light, causing the image to appear ‘lit up’—the word ‘illuminated’ deriving from the Latin for ‘light’. However, in modern scholarship even decoration which includes no use of precious metals is often described as illuminated—it has become a more generic term denoting any artistic decoration in a manuscript. Decorated initials were used as markers of important sections of the text, and thus even while being exceedingly beautiful, they fulfilled a functional role in the manuscript, assisting the reader to find his or her place.
As with the ink used to write the missal, it is possible for scholars to know what ingredients were used in the making of the pigments used to paint these decorations. This information can be learnt both from medieval recipes, and also from modern chemical analysis. The different types of pigment can indicate where and when a manuscript was made, and whether or not it was an expensive manuscript to produce—there is usually more than one way of making a colour, some cheap and others highly expensive. In an expensive manuscript, the blue might be made from azurite, the red from vermillion, and there would be much use of gold leaf. If decoration was to include gold or silver (the latter used less commonly, due to its tendency to oxidise and turn black), these were applied to the manuscript before the pigment. One popular technique involved the use of a substance called ‘gesso’ to bind the gold leaf to the vellum. Gesso was made by mixing plaster, chalk or gypsum together with a glue, and when applied to vellum it created a raised surface. The gold leaf could then be stuck to the gesso, so that it sat in a raised, rounded fashion. It was then burnished using special polishing tools, so that it reflected the light in a three-dimensional way. The raised surface of these gold leaf areas renders them subject to more wear and tear than the rest of the initial.
Finally, the completed folios of a manuscript would be bound together between wooden boards (or more rarely, in metal covers). The boards would sometimes be covered in cloth (another opportunity to customise for the individual), and metal clasps would be added to hold the book closed. Jewels might be added to these clasps, or perhaps a coat of arms or monogram indicating the book's owner. Some books in monastic libraries were kept chained to the shelves (the medieval equivalent of a Reserve section), and so the clasps allowed for chains and locks to be affixed.
Of course, not all manuscripts were illuminated—many theological and scientific texts were working copies, more or less like the Penguin paperbacks that fill the shelves of many a student and jobbing academic today. Some of the most significant medieval texts were not illuminated—illustrated perhaps, like the State Library of Victoria's eleventh-century copy of Boethius' De musica, but not illuminated. But it is for illumination that medieval books are best known—all over the world in this period, from Ethiopia to Russia, books were endowed with heavenly decoration, as befitted their often religious content.
The Church has often been stridently criticised for its luxuriant wealth, possessing a bank balance that appears to make a mockery of Christ's instruction to the apostles, to 'sell all that you have and follow me'. Indeed, such criticism existed in the medieval period, most notably in the creation of the mendicant (begging) orders, the Franciscans and the Dominicans. In their commitment to absolute personal and communal poverty, these men and women were a living critique of the worldly, wealthy Church. In the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century, the Franciscan Durand of Champagne wrote a manual of queenly behaviour for the French queen Jeanne de Navarre (1285–1305), wife of Philip the Fair (1285–1314). In it, he chastised those 'who in all their works consider more what is external and search for beauty rather than real truth ... [they] seek more beauty than goodness, more wanting beautiful books and having them curiously illuminated than true and well corrected ones.'2
But this point of view—that beauty was luxury, and luxury an unworthy distraction—predated Durand, and indeed had been ably answered by the German theologian Hugh of St Victor (1096–1141) a century earlier. Hugh held that 'visible beauty is an image of invisible beauty.'3 Beauty, being inseparable from God, was a way of participating in divinity. Thus to create or contemplate a cathedral or an illuminated manuscript was to participate not only in its aesthetic beauty, but to commune with God himself. Most Franciscans obviously preferred Hugh to Durand on the matter of beauty, as many fine illuminated manuscripts were produced for and by the friars.
Medieval society's dedication to the costly and slow process of producing a book indicates a type of cultural value that most books cannot possess today (at least in wealthy countries), given the accessible, mass-produced and increasingly non-physical (that is, digital) nature of modern publishing. Even the Divine Office now comes as a podcast.4 This is not to say that modern books, both physical and digital, possess no cultural value, or no beauty—of course they do, but it is of a different order. It no longer takes 40 animals and a team of skilled artists to produce one book, working for months or even years. Our books are no longer decorated with real gold leaf. In fact most books for adults are not illustrated at all, in gold or otherwise. It appears we need the excuse of religion or childhood to relish the visual alongside the textual. As the definition of literacy has narrowed, text has triumphed over image. It is no longer an indicator of high social status for a lay person to own a single book (although perhaps owning books in general remains a marker of intellectual status). We can now read on screen or print on demand, as well as purchase low-cost mass-produced books. Yet it's also true that humankind's love affair with book arts is by no means over, as anyone who has made or loved a zine or an artist's book knows. Modern book arts retain something of Hugh of St Victor's ideal, even if the invisible beauty that the visible book articulates is perceived as secular rather than divine. Beauty always takes us beyond ourselves, to whatever we believe is better.
Books are as valuable to us today as they were to medieval people, regardless of their gold leaf content, or the number of them that we own. All books, old and new, digital and material, rare and common, offer us a precious connection with our fellow humans and with ideals beyond the worldly, beyond the prosaic. Books create communities, and books bind communities together, telling their shared stories. Books are at their most precious as the repositories of our dreams, beliefs, certainties, doubts and hopes. Their preciousness goes far beyond the valuable material components of their manufacture, or the nerdish delight of a scholar unpicking the process of that manufacture. Medieval manuscripts are precious to the modern world whether or not you subscribe to their religious content or worldview. They're precious not only because of their golden artistry or their rarity, but because they illuminate history—they make visible the invisible threads that bind us together, and draw us onwards.
Anna Welch is a medieval historian, curator, researcher and teacher. She has worked at the State Library of Victoria, the National Gallery of Victoria and various universities. She prefers books (and people who like books) to most things. Contact her via email@example.com.
- Medieval female authors, scribes and artists such as Christine of Pizan (1365–1430) and Sibilla von Bondorf (c. 1440–1524) have been the subject of much scholarly interest in recent years, challenging the traditional (male) paradigm of book production. For example: Rosamond McKitterick, 'Nuns’ Scriptoria in England and Francia in the Eighth Century', in Books, Scribes and Learning in the Frankish Kingdoms, 6th-9th Centuries (Aldershot: Variorum, 1994); Marilynn Desmond et al, Myth, Montage, and Visuality in Late Medieval Manuscript Culture (Binghamton: University of Michigan Press, 2003), which discusses Christine of Pizan; Cynthia J Cyrus, The Scribes for Women's Convents in Late Medieval Germany (Toronto: Uni of Toronto, 2009).
- Durand of Champagne, Speculum dominarum in Paris BNF lat 3264, ed. by Anne Dubrulle, 'Le Speculum Dominarum de Durand de Champagne', 2 vols. Thèse presentée pour l’obtention du diploma d’archiviste-paleographe, Ecole nationale des chartes 1987–1988, II.17, p. 95. I am grateful to Prof Constant J Mews (Monash University) for drawing my attention to this text and providing this translation.
- Hugh of St Victor, In Hierarchiam Coelestem, II, Patrologica Latina, 175, col. 949.
- Anne Penketh, 'Monks of Le Barroux go live: Matins at dawn – it's iChants for early risers', The Independent, Sunday 12 May 2013.