Manuscripts and Special Collections

Decoration and illumination

Most manuscripts either show simple decorative schemes or are plain and unadorned. When manuscripts were decorated to any degree the process and scheme of this decoration was usually planned before the text was copied.

Decoration in medieval manuscripts performed a number of functions. It was used to enhance the appearance of the book, and its value. It might also function as a statement of the importance of the person or institution that had commissioned or owned the book. However, decoration was also intended to aid literacy by offering visual as well as textual contents, to help the reader find his or her way around the book, or to aid the interpretation of a text. The use of initials, illustrations and borders could announce text divisions, or indicate important sections of a work, or could be designed to help the reader engage with the contents of text.

An illuminated manuscript is the most expensive and ornate type of decorated manuscript. Illuminations are illustrations which are made using gold or silver leaf or powder to reflect light and add a luminous, bejewelled quality to the design. Other semi-precious stones were sometimes used in the decorating of fine illuminated manuscripts, including lapis lazuli, which was ground to make ultramarine. A range of coloured paints (white and different shades of blue, red, green and yellow) made from naturally available pigments were available. If a design included gold leaf, this had to be applied before coloured pigments or inks. Applying gold leaf was a delicate and highly skilled process.  



One of the simplest ways to decorate a manuscript book was to incorporate a design into the presentation of initials. Sometimes this was done at a very basic level through rubrication – picking out initials in red ink. Sometimes an initial would be made just a little larger than other letters, perhaps two-lines, rather than one, in height. It could be elaborated with pen-work flourishes, usually in red or blue ink. In the example below, the capital 'L' on the left has been decorated with the design of a human face.

Detail from the Wollaton Antiphonal, MS 250, f. 393v

The example below is from an early thirteenth-century French book. The book is decorated with large pen-flourished initials to signal text divisions. The initials are eight lines in height, with party-coloured bars in red and blue. These kind of decorated initials are called 'lombards', and were commonly used in late medieval (post-1200) manuscripts. There is considerable variety in the detail within these examples and in the degree to which they are associated with marginal flourishes. 


Detail from 'L'Estoire del Saint Graal', WLC/LM/7, f. 70r

However initials could be more splendid still. Inhabited initials contain heads or faces (animal or human) or grotesques (a bizarre, distorted or hybrid creature), or full representations of unknown people, animals or plants. Historiated initials contain a narrative scene or a number of identifiable figures, sometimes drawn from the text. Heraldic devices, such as coats of arms pertaining to the commissioner or owner of the book, could also be used within initials, or as part of the general decorative scheme.

Historiated initial 'S' from the Wollaton Antiphonal, MS 250, f. 393v, part of the service for All Saints

Even more than other types of manuscript decoration, initials had a function beyond the decorative: they would draw the eye to the beginning of texts, or important sections or sub-divisions of text. 



Borders were used in manuscripts to frame the text and lend coherence to the page. They could be made using pigment and gold or drawn in simple pen-work (usually using red or blue ink). Borders may be ‘full’ or partial and may appear in the left, right, upper and lower margins, and also between two columns of text on the page. In the early medieval period they were rigid frames which controlled the text space. From the early thirteenth century they became more fluid and we first find the growth of a vine-like extensions developing from the corner or tail of an initial and working their way down the page. Three-sided borders are common in English manuscripts from the late thirteenth century onwards.

In fine and expensive books, borders would appear on every page, but in less splendid books they may appear only on the first page of the volume or to introduce each new text.

Flourish work border at the top left corner of the page, detail from William of Waddington, 'Le Manuel des péchés', WLC/LM/4, f. 135r

Bar border to three sides, from prayer book, WLC/LM/11, f. 1r


Illustrations and miniatures

‘Miniature’ is another term for the illuminated illustrations in fine manuscript books which are not connected to other parts of the book’s decorative design (such as the border or initials). In luxury books miniatures are works of art which can be enjoyed for their aesthetic beauty. They could be illustrative, providing a commentary on the text or deepening the reader’s understanding of its contents. They could reflect the power of the patron who had commissioned the volume, for instance by using elements from a coat of arms. In devotional manuscripts they might act as an aid to contemplation or meditation. It is certainly likely that a great deal of thought went into the placing as well as the execution of the miniature.

Initial and miniature details from ‘Le Roman de Silence’, in volume of French romances and fabliaux, WLC/LM/6, f. 203r

In this example the miniature replaces the first letter of the line, '[A]nchois quil fusoent ariue'. The miniature shows two jongleurs with the child Silence, one of whom holds her hand, and is placed at the beginning of the section of the story in which Silence learns to become a jongleur.

There was a conventional iconography which is evident in the decoration of medieval religious or liturgical books, and in wider religious art. Figures such as Biblical characters and saints could be recognised by the way in which they are depicted, or the object they are depicted with (their 'attribute'). For example, the Virgin Mary is conventionally depicted wearing blue; St Peter carries the keys of Heaven and Hell; St Catherine is shown with the wheel on which she was martyred; and the four Evangelists are represented by a winged man or angel (St Matthew), a winged lion (St Mark), a winged ox (St Luke), and an eagle (St John).


Next page: Two examples of decorative schemes


Manuscripts and Special Collections

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