An illustrated prayer book or Bible was one of the most rare and valuable possessions a medieval person could own.
The traditional image of a medieval manuscript is a highly illustrated and detailed document written in a beautiful hand. Creating and writing a medieval manuscript was a process which took weeks to complete, making written manuscripts comparatively rare and costly.
Creating a Medieval Manuscript
Before the invention of the printing press in the mid fifteenth century, each document had to be created by hand. Even the parchment on which the text was written took days to produce.
The basis of a medieval manuscript was the parchment, which was used in place of paper. Parchment was animal skin which had been specially treated. The skin of young goats was particularly prized for its smoothness and clean writing surface. The parchment had to be scraped many times during preparation to achieve the desired writing surface.
Once a sheet of parchment was obtained, the manuscript was ruled, to enable the scribe to write across the page in a straight line. The first letter of the manuscript was often huge and ornate, often decorated with animals and flowers.
Preparing a parchment surface and making up the inks and colours to be used on the document was a long and specialised process. Plants and minerals were used in various combinations to produce particular colours.
Highly illustrated manuscripts, such as the Book of Kells were created throughout the period. Just as the decorations in a medieval church were intended to convey messages to people who couldn’t read, so an illustrated manuscript could help the reader understand the text. Many of the images used in an illustrated manuscript followed set conventions with pre-agreed meanings for different images. For example, a snake could mean original sin and a peacock symbolised the incorruptibility of Christ.
Gold and silver were used to illuminate medieval manuscripts, and it is the use of these precious metals which gave a medieval manuscript its unique appearance. The metal was laid in leaf form and sometimes finished with a varnish.
The Scriptorium in a Monastery
The medieval monasteries were important centres of manuscript production and illustration. A number of monks in each community were responsible for creating religious texts for use within the monastery and for circulation beyond their religious community.
A whole room, known as a scriptorium, was often devoted to the creation of manuscripts. At other locations, monks would work in their own cells. Because monasteries aimed to be as self sufficient as possible, many religious houses produced their own ink and parchment.
The sale of religious manuscripts, such as Bibles and religious tracts could bring in funds to the monastery. Larger monasteries had specialised workers, such as a notarius, who worked on legal scripts or an illuminator, whose task it was to illustrate, rather than write the manuscript. The monastery’s patron would often ask for legal or religious documents to be drawn up on his behalf.
The Invention of the Printing Press
Although religious documents were among the most important manuscripts produced during the Middle Ages, documents were also written which created a record of important transactions, such as the transfer of land or a last will and testament.
The Gutenburg printing press was developed in 1452, towards the end of the medieval period and this technology created a new method of communication, causing hand copied texts to gradually fall out of use.
As books became more widely available, the theme and subject of texts widened. Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is an example of a medieval text intended to entertain and inform a wide audience, rather than simply pass on information. The tale is based around a group of characters on a pilgrimage, who came from all walks of life. These were the type of people who would from this time onwards, have access to texts which had previously been limited to the upper classes of society.
Drogin, Marc Medieval Calligraphy: Its History and Technique [Dover Publications, 1989]