The Decorations and Illustrations of Medieval Manuscripts

Paige Yellowlees

Manuscripts in the Middle Ages were decorated using various methods, ranging from simple and inexpensive to elaborate and costly. These illustrations not only brighten the manuscript pages but also grab the attention of the reader.

Image: British Library, Sloane MS 3098, f. 61v , “Pen-Flourished Initial.”

Image: British Library, Sloane MS 3098, f. 61v , “Pen-Flourished Initial.”

The simplest method of decorating a manuscript was through penwork flourishing. Penwork flourishing usually involved using either red or blue ink to create thin-lined designs on the page. While this technique certainly served its purpose of adding colour to the manuscript, penwork flourishing also served to direct the reader to the start of a new segment of text. The specific designs and ink that were drawn using this technique varied depending on when and where the manuscript was created (Kwakkel). For instance, Anglo-Norman manuscripts created before the thirteenth century exhibited designs done in green ink, while manuscripts created between the thirteenth and fifteenth century exhibited designs done in purple ink (British Library).

Another common method of illustration found in medieval manuscripts was the use of historiated initials. A historiated initial is a letter that tells a story related to the text through its decoration. Historiated initials, similar to penwork flourishing, were also used to signify the beginning of a new passage (Kwakkel).

Image: British Library, Burney MS 216, f. 32v, “Historiated Initial.”

Image: British Library, Burney MS 216, f. 32v, “Historiated Initial.”

Similar to historiated initials, historiated borders were also used in the decoration of manuscripts. Common in Gothic and Renaissance illuminations, these decorative borders often framed any text and images in the manuscript. Historiated borders also occupied the margin space and the space between columns of text. These borders were usually shaped as blocky frames around the text or image it surrounded. However, the borders could also be drawn as foliate decorations, which contained plant imagery and were a softer alternative to the rectangular frames. During the fifteenth century, borders that incorporated plants and animals were popularized, as were scatter borders which portrayed items like gilded insects and flowers scattered across the surface of the page (British Library).

Image: British Library, Arundel MS 155, f. 53, “Gilding/Gilt.”

Image: British Library, Arundel MS 155, f. 53, “Gilding/Gilt.”

Gilding, or illumination, was a more elaborate and demanding type of decoration used in manuscripts. Gilding was a more expensive and intensive process than other forms of illustration, such as penwork flourishing. As a result, the use of gilding increased the cost and value of the book (Kwakkel). The illuminator had to wait until a scribe had completed copying the text before they could begin to sketch their design and add details. In order to create gilding, the decorator applied a thin film of flattened gold to the parchment. The gold leaf was applied by first applying the paper with a gesso or gum. Once the gesso or gum was dry, the illuminator would attach the gold leaf using only the moisture from his breath. The excess gold leaf was then brushed away, and the remaining gliding was polished. After the gilding was done, the illuminator painted his design using substances derived from vegetable dyes or water saturated with a mineral substance (Getty Museum).

Another elaborate form of decoration was the use of miniatures: small paintings which illustrated the text of the manuscript. The scribe reserved space for these miniature paintings, separate from the rest of the text. Unlike historiated initials and scrolls, which had small pictures incorporated into them, miniatures were independent illustrations, distinctly detached from any other decorative elements within the manuscript. Like gilding, the use of miniatures increased the cost and value of the work in which it was placed (Kwakkel).

Decorations and illustration in medieval manuscripts served various purposes, from functional to purely aesthetic. While these techniques vary in their cost and skill level, I think each one is a worthy addition to its respective manuscript. Similarly, I think that decorations such as penwork flourishing, historiated initials and borders, and gilding would be worthy additions to modern books. Compared to medieval manuscripts, the books targeted towards the adult readers of today are, frankly, quite drab. Penwork flourishing would be a simple, cost-effective method of adding interest to the everyday novel. The addition of penwork flourishing to modern books would add a distinctiveness to each book, as each illustrator would have a different eye for design and colour. Historiated initials and borders would also be worthwhile additions to the novels of today. Like penwork flourishing, each artist would add their own interpretation, understanding the story in various ways in order to create intricate designs. Gilding would also be an eye-catching method that, while would require a lot of effort, would look beautiful on paper. While each of these illustration techniques would look stunning, the cost of hiring artists who would be willing to mass-produce these books would be immense. In turn, the cost of those same books would increase. The addition of artwork to the everyday novel would result in increased pricing, but I believe that it would be a worthwhile venture and that illustrated books would be just as prized and appreciated as the decorated manuscripts of the Middle Ages.

Work Cited

The British Library. “Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts: Glossaries.” The British Library, Accessed 31 October 2016.

The Getty Museum. “Making Manuscripts.” YouTube; uploaded by the Getty Museum, 17 June 2014, Accessed 31 October 2016.

Kwakkel, Erik. “Decorating the Book.” Quill, Accessed 12 October 2016.

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