Illuminated manuscripts are some of the most beautiful artifacts to survive from the Middle Ages. Long before the industrial printing press, hand-crafted manuscripts were painstakingly precise pieces of art that catered to an elite society where only a precious few could read.
While originally written to preserve knowledge and the word of God, these illuminated manuscripts—“manuscript” comes from Latin, meaning “handwritten,” while “illuminated” traditionally refers to the addition of gold leaf to the pages— Illuminated manuscripts eventually covered a wide range of topics. The most common types of texts encountered are Bibles, Psalters, Books of Hours, Breviaries, Bestiaries and musical/antiphonal manuscripts.
The creation of an illuminated manuscript was an involved and time consuming process. These expensive books were handmade from leather, lettered by hand, and then “illuminated” with illustrations of burnished gold leaf. Paints made from precious materials like crushed rubies or lapis lazuli, and were used to add rich color to the illustrations. Handwritten on parchment made from animal skins and illuminated with precious materials like gold and ultramarine, it was a slow and laborious process.
A word on medieval illuminated manuscripts...
Before about the year 1200, medieval manuscripts were made in monasteries by monks and sometimes nuns, who were scribes and artists working in the service of God.
Scribes wrote the text, and artists decorated and illuminated the sheets. On the whole, until a professional class of illuminators arose in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, copying text and illustrating manuscripts was just something to do around the monastery, Writing and painting represented labor and discipline; decorating manuscripts kept the hands from idleness.
The decoration of such manuscripts was not necessarily related to their contents. Unnatural creatures often dance in the margins of medieval manuscripts. These images, more commonly known as marginalia and sometimes called ‘grotesques’, are often strange, hybrid man-beast figures, or animals dressed and acting as people, usually in a playful or vulgar manner. The figures are humorous, bawdy, to downright profane. Often there is no direct link to the text appearing above them. These strange scenes occur in both religious and secular manuscripts.
Little is known about what drove craftsmen to paint some of the weirder images in illuminated manuscripts. Scholars have long argued about what drove craftsmen to paint some of the more bizarre images.
For more information on these wonderful art works, take a deep dive at The British Library’s amazing collection of digitized manuscripts.
Or, Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Liverpool, Damien Kempf 's incredible collection of books on the subject