For more than a thousand years all manuscripts were written and illustrated by hand. By the Middle Ages, books were being made by folding sheets of parchment, arranging them into gatherings, and assembling and binding them together.
“An illuminated manuscript is a manuscript in which the text is supplemented by the addition of decoration, such as decorated initials, borders (marginalia) and miniature illustrations. In the most strict definition of the term, an illuminated manuscript only refers to manuscripts decorated with gold or silver, but in both common usage and modern scholarship, the term is now used to refer to any decorated or illustrated manuscript from the Western traditions. Comparable Far Eastern works are always described as painted, as are Mesoamerican works. Islamic manuscripts are usually referred to as illuminated but can also be classified as painted.
The earliest surviving substantive illuminated manuscripts are from the period AD 400 to 600, initially produced in Italy and the Eastern Roman Empire. The significance of these works lies not only in their inherent art historical value, but in the maintenance of a link of literacy offered by non-illuminated texts as well. Had it not been for the monastic scribes of Late Antiquity, most literature of Greece and Rome would have perished in Europe; as it was, the patterns of textual survivals were shaped by their usefulness to the severely constricted literate group of Christians. Illumination of manuscripts, as a way of aggrandizing ancient documents, aided their preservation and informative value in an era when new ruling classes were no longer literate.
The majority of surviving manuscripts are from the Middle Ages, although many illuminated manuscripts survive from the Renaissance, along with a very limited number from Late Antiquity. The majority of these manuscripts are of a religious nature. However, especially from the 13th century onward, an increasing number of secular texts were illuminated. Most illuminated manuscripts were created as codices, which had superseded scrolls. A very few illuminated manuscript fragments survive on papyrus, which does not last nearly as long as vellum or parchment. Most medieval manuscripts, illuminated or not, were written on parchment (most commonly of calf, sheep, or goat skin), but most manuscripts important enough to illuminate were written on the best quality of parchment, called vellum.
Beginning in the late Middle Ages manuscripts began to be produced on paper.”
– The Catalogue of Digitized Medieval Manuscripts. This site was designed to enable users to find fully digitized manuscripts currently available on the web.
- Blog: Medieval and earlier manuscripts – This blog publicises our exhibitions, digitisation projects, acquisitions and other news.
- Medieval manuscript images from the Bodleian Library, Oxford, UK.
Medieval Illuminated manuscripts – Playlist from the Getty Museum
The Making Of Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts
Illuminated manuscripts are some of the most beautiful artefacts to survive from the Middle Ages. Their production involved transforming animal skins into parchment; copying texts; painting and gilding minatures; and binding folios between boards, a process that reveals much about medieval scribal and artistic practice.
Drawing as an Art Form in Medieval Manuscripts