Illustrated Manuscripts...

Vergilius Romanus - 5th century.

Manuscript books began to supplant papyrus scrolls in Antiquity. Rare surviving books of the Fourth Century are surprisingly similar in general appearance to works written a millennium later. Until the late Middle Ages, the great majority of western books were written in monasteries by scribes, who enjoyed the highest social status in their communities. As civilization progressed and the demand for books became greater, later works were executed by pupils of the Renaissance "writing master", who taught the craft to apprentices.

Initial Letter L of Genesis - Wenceslas Bible - c.1389

These early books were mostly written on vellum, a fine grade of goat, calf, or sheep skin, an extremely durable substance which generally survives the centuries well. It was an expensive material, however, and the production of a complete Bible, for example, might require years of a scribe's time, and the skins of several hundred animals, thus making books a rare and expensive commodity. The Medieval practice of autumn livestock butchering, to conserve fodder for the winter, is thought to have been the primary source of skins used in the production of books. As natural animal products, old vellum leaves and documents exhibit wide variations in texture, thickness, and tone, and almost all books exhibit a few small natural flaws in the leaves, around which the copyist skilfully worked his text.

King David Kneeling Before God - Bible of Matthias Corvinus - c.1490

The art of paper-making was first utilized by the Chinese, who appear to have discovered the craft as early as the 2nd century B.C. Paper first became available to the rest of the world in the mid- 8th century, as Arab contacts with the Chinese at Samarkand divulged the secrets of its manufacture, from fibrous vegetable matter. Initially flax and linen were the favoured materials in the west; in later years the rarer cotton was also used. The first European centre of paper-making was in Moorish Spain in the 12th century. From there Italy became the first great centre of the paper-making industry, its factories beginning in 1276 and supplying much of Europe's needs as late as the 15th century. In Germany, France, and the Netherlands there also developed thriving paper-making concerns by 1400. Concurrent with the rise of printing in the last half of the 15th century was the supplanting of vellum by paper in the making of books, with the former all but abandoned within a century.

God As Creator - Bible Moralisee - c.1220

The great majority of early books in the Western world are of religious content, as fitting the "Age of Faith". Consequently, most manuscript leaves and books surviving today are Bibles, Psalters, Books of Hours, and Breviaries. Manuscript books stating the name of the copyist and exact year of their production exist, but they are the rare exception rather than the rule, as our modern notions of self and time were irrelevant to the Medieval world view. The works are, generally, attributed by the style of the script and rubrication (ornamentation), which are quite unique to their time and place of origin and can readily be recognized. Thus surviving works can be attributed with authority to the correct city or region, and to their period within a date range of a generation or so. Even after the advent of printing, traditional manuscript books, especially Hours, continued to be produced for several generations, and these are readily discernible from their ancestors of earlier times.

Book of Hours of the Marshal of Boucicaut - c.1405-1408

At the pre-Renaissance period, Bibles and other sacred books were copied by monks in "carols", small cubicles set up in the cloisters of the monasteries and great cathedrals in response to the unprecedented need for copies of books. It is of interest that the monkish copyists traditionally spoke the words aloud as they wrote them. The reading of the Holy text was also considered a form of meditation in which the scribe savoured Divine wisdom directly from his books, which retained the mystical aura of miraculous objects at this period.
In a surviving sermon of a twelfth century English Bishop to the monkish copyists of Durham Cathedral is found this eloquent summation of both the reverent attitude toward illuminated manuscript books and of the materials used in their production:

"You write with the pen of memory on the parchment of pure conscience, scraped by the knife of Divine fear, smoothed by the pumice of heavenly desires, and whitened by the chalk of holy thoughts. The ruler is the Will of God. The split nib is the joint love of God and our neighbour. Coloured inks are heavenly grace. The exemplar is the life of Christ."

Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary - Sherborne Missal - c.1396-1407

The introduction of printing from movable type in 1455 signalled the end of an era. Within a generation virtually all book production was undertaken using the new and vastly more inexpensive technology of the printing press. The explosion of knowledge brought about by this unprecedented dissemination of books immensely benefitted mankind, helping to usher in the freedom of thought and material prosperity that define the modern world.
Paris remained a centre of the production of handwritten religious books until about 1540, due in no small part to the clout of the scribes' guilds. Catholic Spain was the final bastion of the old ways, where Antiphonals would continue to be handwritten by cloistered monks well into the eighteenth century. Many of the now jobless scribes of the 15th century found employment as rubricators of the earliest printed books, adding the traditional hand painted Uncial initial letters and other embellishments to the printed texts.

Intro to Ecclesiastes 1 - 15th Century Illuminated Bible


“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”  
What profit has a man from all his labor in which he toils under the sun?
One generation passes away, and another generation comes; but the earth abides forever.
The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it arose.
The wind goes toward the south, and turns around to the north; the wind whirls about continually, and comes again on its circuit.
All the rivers run into the sea,
Yet the sea is not full; to the place from which the rivers come, there they return again.
All things are full of labor; man cannot express it.
The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
That which has been is what will be, that which is done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun."

-- Ecclesiastes 1:1-9

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