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Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts

The history of books and book-making is a fascinating subject from the making of parchment, to the scriptoriums of the early Middle Ages where rooms of scribes could be seen copying texts by hand. Words not only carry powerful meanings, but centuries of history envelope each one, and the words written early in human history, were also tied to art. This article will briefly cover the history and methods of making an illuminated medieval manuscript, and show how words and art were inseparable at that time.

The word manuscript derives from Latin, with manus meaning ‘hand’ and scriptus meaning ‘written,’ put together and the word manuscript means a text that is written by hand. For a manuscript to be considered ‘illuminated,’ there has to be some part of the decoration in the text that ‘lights up.’ This effect was achieved through the application of gold or occasionally silver leaf. Some scholars use the term ‘illuminated manuscript’ to cover all handwritten texts with decoration whether they have gold leaf or not, but technically an illuminated manuscript has to have the gold elements.

Illuminated manuscripts go as far back as Ancient Egypt. There are copies of the Book of the Dead that have both illustrated decoration and gold leaf (4) which places these texts under that category. When an illuminated manuscript is called ‘medieval,’ that time span is quite large. Most manuscripts were written between 300AD to around the 1500s, which was around the time when the printing press was invented. Once the printing press came into the picture, handwritten books, along with the craft, began to become of lesser importance. There were attempts to print an ‘illuminated manuscript,’ but the result didn’t have the same effect and the practice eventually died.

An innovation that came from the medieval manuscripts is the shape of the parchment or vellum which is still in use today. The illuminated manuscripts of Ancient Egypt were written on papyrus which made into a scroll. Scrolls were long sheets of paper that were rolled into themselves. The medieval manuscripts used animal hides. When an animal hide is stretched out, there are the four legs and the body in the center. The obvious shape for the ‘paper’ had to be a four-sided sheet like a rectangle which was the central part of the hide as the scribes were trying to be both economical and create a standardized shape.

A medieval scribe creating an illuminated manuscript

The technical words for the ‘paper’ used at that time are parchment and vellum. Aforementioned, the ‘paper’ was not a wood product, but an animal product. Each word—parchment and vellum—alludes to a specific animal. For the convenience of this article, the hides will be referred to as paper.

After the paper had been properly cleaned and was ready for use, the scribes would then mark the paper to create guides for the writing and decoration. The modern-day writer now takes advantage of ruled paper, but the scribes had to manually mark their pages to keep everything orderly. This doesn't take away from the fact that their calligraphy was impeccable and that they managed to write slightly above these marked lines. In many cases, they didn't erase the guided lines so the manuscripts still have these markings. They typically used a piece of lead, an ivory pick, or a sort of small metal wheel (like a rotary cutter) to create these markings.

When the scribes wrote, they had a quill in one hand and a knife in the other. The knife had two functions. It was used to keep the paper flat and in place as the scribe wrote, and to 'erase' a mistake. The inks would soak/burn into the paper, but if the scribe caught their mistake quickly, they could chip it out of the page (6).

The inks were made by the scribes and many of them had their own ink recipes. They managed to get a wide variety of colors by using natural dyes to create a pigment. The gold was a gold leaf that they applied first to the paper using a type of gum/natural glue. Then they burnished the gold leaf to make it shiny. The gold was applied before any of the colored inks because the burnishing technique required a rubbing against the paper that would've damaged the inks.

Occasionally, the paper itself was dyed. There are two types of dying that have been found, one using whelk (a type of mollusk) to give the paper a reddish-purple hue, and the other was a copper-iron ink that made the pages black. There are only seven copies of these black illuminated manuscripts in existence today as the dye had deteriorated the pages of other books over time. The calligraphy of these manuscripts was done using silver or gold inks so that they stood out from the page. The copies that remain were made in Bruges, Belgium. Below is a Black Book of Hours and note the guides left on the page.

If looking at the manuscripts alone without the artist in mind, then the design and the work put into making these manuscripts was art in itself. The letters were very stylized, and every monastery had their own aesthetic. Some specialized in miniatures, the small painted scenes that focused on a particular story from the Bible as seen above in the Black Book of Hours. Others combined colors differently and that was what gave their illuminated manuscripts a certain glory and desire. But it's the combination of the calligraphy and painted details that makes these books so alluring.

"It is the writing that makes the book, and every other feature should harmonize with it. Writing itself was an art in the Middle Ages. The shape and size of the letters, the spacing of the lines, the color of the ink, the arrangement of the written material on the page, all this was done with a view to create beauty. Even more than the miniature, calligraphy reflects the artistic tendency of the age." (2)

The art of the illuminated manuscript was steeped in the art of copying. Manuscripts were primarily a copied text which had to be copied verbatim even if there was a grammatical error in the original. A manuscript would be created, distributed, and copied by many other scribes either within the monastery, or would get passed from region to region, monastery to monastery. This makes it hard to tell who was actually considered an 'artist' by today's definition of the word. Artists in those days, especially if the artists were monks and doing the work of God, were less recognized but there are a few who made a name for themselves.

"Cennino Cennini in his late fourteenth-century treatise of instruction tells the aspiring artist that he must first learn to copy his master's style before he can hope to add anything of his own...A twentieth-century discourse stresses the contrary pull between tradition and innovation...[There] are the medieval artists considered responsible for innovations that proved so influential that they were widely copied [...]" (10)

To the left is one example of a famous manuscript by the monk, Beatus de Liébana who was from Asturias, Spain (730-785 AD). The colors of the inks, the calligraphy, and the illustrations are all very different from the illuminated manuscripts above. When Beatus produced this manuscript, it was then copied by scribes all over Spain (mostly Central and Northern Spain since Southern Spain was ruled by the Moors at the time), and this style of manuscript became known as the Beati. Each of the Beatis have the same color harmonies, similar illustrations, and nearly identical calligraphy. In this example, Beatus de Liébana would've been considered the 'master' or the 'artist,' even though he was a lone monk working deep in the mountains of Northern Spain and created this manuscript out of Christian resistance towards the growing Muslim empire.

To use the term 'art' when referring to the Illuminated Manuscripts of the Middle Ages, the 'artist' would've begun as a copier and later would've been able to add his own touches to a design. The methods of making the inks, the paper, and the structure of the book was what made these manuscripts a work of art. Some scribes and monasteries stood out more than others because of how they combined certain aspects of the creation process, and were therefore more original in their designs. Art and the written word being a visual novelty, designed to compliment one another, were created for one another and bound eternally to create a thing of beauty.


1) Photo: The Funeral of Raymond Diocrès, Limbourg brothers, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

2) Haraszti, Zoltán. “Medieval Manuscripts.” The Catholic Historical Review, vol. 14, no. 2, 1928, pp. 237–247. JSTOR, Accessed 1 Feb. 2021.

3) Hutchinson, Susan A. “ILLUMINATED MANUSCRIPTS.” The Brooklyn Museum Quarterly, vol. 13, no. 3, 1926, pp. 73–80. JSTOR, Accessed 2 Feb. 2021.

4) Taylor, John H. (Editor), Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead: Journey through the afterlife. British Museum Press, London, 2010.

5) Photo: National Library of Wales, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

6) Gresham College. "The Making of Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts - Dr Sally Dormer." YouTube, 30 May 2012,

7) Januszczak, Waldemar, director. Dark Ages: An Age of Light. ZCZ Films, 2012.

8) Photo: Master of Anthony of Burgundy, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons.

9) Wikipedia contributors. “Black Books of Hours.” Wikipedia, 4 June 2020,

10) ALEXANDER, JONATHAN J. G. “Facsimiles, Copies, and Variations: The Relationship to the Model in Medieval and Renaissance European Illuminated Manuscripts.” Studies in the History of Art, vol. 20, 1989, pp. 61–72. JSTOR, Accessed 19 Feb. 2021.

11) Photo: Français : Facundus, pour Ferdinand Ier de Castille et Leon et la reine Sancha, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

12) Wikipedia contributors. “Beatus of Liébana.” Wikipedia, 8 Sept. 2020,

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