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Books Before Gutenberg

St. Michael Archangel. Belleville, Book of Hours. HRC MS. NO. 8. Mid 15th century, France. Written in Latin and French. Page 233v.

Horace's Opera. HRC MS. NO. 35. 15th century, from Italy, written in Latin. Page 56r. There are more Medieval manuscript copies of Horace's works than exist of any other classical author.

St. Jerome, the Translator of the Bible. Belleville, Book of Hours. HRC MS. NO. 8. Mid 15th century, France. Written in Latin and French. Page 231v. There is evidence of four scribes working on this manuscript.

Written by Hand

In the Middle Ages, after the fall of Rome to the Visigoths in the 5th century CE, much of European cultural and intellectual life took refuge in the monasteries. Continuous warfare, poor crops, and abnormally cold temperatures helped to plunge Europe into what some have called "The Dark Ages." Most of the classical texts of the Greeks and Romans were lost at this time. Some, however, were carefully preserved in the libraries of the Byzantine and Muslim empires, and in the silent scriptoria of European monasteries.

The earliest illustrated books were created by the ancient Egyptians. The most notable example is The Book of the Dead, a manuscript that was intended to help the deceased in the afterlife. There are only a few fragments of Greek illustrated scrolls still in existence. The earliest surviving example of an illustrated Roman codex dates from the 4th or 5th century CE. It is during the Medieval Period, however, that books came to be illuminated. They were literally enlightened by the addition of gold, vivid colors, and ornamental letters.

Large monasteries had rooms called scriptoria where monks would copy manuscripts. The scribes in the scriptorium were not allowed to talk, nor were they allowed to correct mistakes in the text from which they were copying, which is why errors grew in each generation of a manuscript. Many historians believe that some copyists may have themselves been illiterate. After the first universities were established in the twelfth century, scribes who were not monks set up shop in areas where students gathered, and even organized business and artisan associations known as guilds.

13th Century Bible from England. Latin text. HRC MS. NO. 26. Notice ruled lines and the prickings in the parchment made by the compass. The rubrics alternate between red and blue. The dots in the lower margin may indicate the number of times the owner read the Psalm. Page 245r.

Cherubs and Camel. Book of Hours. HRC MS. NO. 2. Text and borders 15th century, illumination 19th century. Page 52r.

St Margaret and the Dragon. Belleville, Book of Hours. HRC MS. NO. 8. Mid 15th century, France. Written in Latin and French. Page 237v. St. Margaret is the patron saint of pregnant women. Legend has it that she was swallowed by a dragon and emerged from its womb alive.

Psalter, Book of Psalms, from England. Early 15th century, written in Latin. HRC MS. NO. 14. Page 68r.

Dominican Gradual, chants for the Mass, from Italy. HRC MS. NO. 13. Began in the 14th century, finished in 1517. Written in Latin. Page 29r.

Drawings of the constellations from De natura rerum, by St. Bede the Venerable. HRC MS. NO. 29. Early 11th century from Germany, and written in Latin.

Beginning of The Inferno from The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighiere. HRC MS. NO. 45. Manuscript dated 1363, possibly from Venice, and written in Italian. Page 7r. There are over 600 surviving manuscript copies of The Divine Comedy.

End of The Pardonner's Tale and the beginning of The Shipman's Tale from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. HRC MS. NO. 46. 15th century, England. Written in Middle English. Page 1r.

The Scribe at Work

The subject of a book, how it was to be used, and for whom it was intended, influenced the size, lettering, and decoration. For example, a Bible to be used for the conducting of church services, would be rather large and beautifully decorated, while one destined for personal use might be smaller, and less decorated, depending on the income of the owner. The scribe would begin his work by outlining the margins on the parchment leaf with a compass, pricking marks down the side of the page and drawing a straight line between the points. He would rule the lines in the same way, calculating where the large initial letters and illustrations would fall, and then copy the text, writing with a goose quill. Ink was made from gallnuts, the swellings on oak leaves caused by gall wasp larvae, with the addition of ferrous sulfate, or less often from the black carbon residue on oil lamps.

Until the 9th century, there were no divisions between the words in either Greek or Latin manuscripts. In other words, thereaderwouldhavetoknowwhenonewordleftoffandanotherbegan. The text would be checked for scribal errors only, corrected, and then the rubricator would add the titles, initial capitals and paragraph marks. Rubric comes from the Latin word for red, because these important headings were often inked in red. After the rubrics were added, the manuscript was ready to be sent to the illuminator.

It is certainly possible that one scribe could have completed the whole process by himself, and evidence exists that some did (Cherubs and Camel in the Book of Hours, shown at left, illustrates the assembly-line technique). This is a Book of Hours, a small prayer book for private devotions often owned by women, that was copied sometime in the fifteenth century, but was never finished. The area destined for the illuminations was left blank and then completed much later in the nineteenth century.

Large miniature of two battle scenes from The Chronicles by Jean Froissart, about the 100 years War between France and England. HRC MS. NO. 48. Mid 15th century, France. Written in French. Page 1r.

An astronomic diagram from Surath Ha-Ares (The Form of the Earth), a scientific treatise on astronomy and cosmography, by Abraham Bar Hiyya Ha-Nasi. HRC MS. NO. 31. 15th century, Italy. Written in Hebrew. Page 20v.

Carpet page from an Arabic Koran, dated 1153. Resembling beautiful carpets, the decorative elements in the borders came to be known in the West as arabesques. HRC Eastern Manuscripts #13

The Illuminator

The paintings accompanying the text are often called miniatures, not because they are small, but because the red lead pigment, called minium in Latin, was frequently used to decorate the initial letters. Other pigments in use included various ground stones, lapis lazuli for blue, and malachite for green. Ground orpiment, which comes from arsenic, or saffron were used to make yellow. Illuminators applied the pigments to the page with egg white, which acted as an adhesive, using paintbrushes sometimes as small as a single hair.

There were varieties of pigments in use for each color, with scribes choosing supplies by their local availability and cost. There were no substitutes, however, for gold leaf or gold powder. Gold does not tarnish like other metals, so the gold decoration in illuminated books shines as brightly today as it did when it was first applied. Gold leaf was made by pounding gold to the thickness of spider silk, much thinner than even our aluminum foil. To make the gold appear thicker, more lavish, and three-dimensional, illuminators would build up a layer of chalk, and then add a layer of pinkish clay called bole before applying the gold. Over the years, as the gold wears away, the pink bole often becomes visible.

Some illuminators slavishly copied the original manuscript decorations detail for detail. Others, however, clearly took great pleasure in adding the local flora and fauna, mythical beasts, and exotic creatures to the borders and margins of their pages. Manuscript books can be dated and localized, sometimes down to which monastery they originated from, according to the styles of illuminations and scripts used. Some scribes, however, did sign and date their finished works. Illuminations gradually took up more space in the codex. By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries—widely considered the height of manuscript illumination—some books were almost entirely filled with illuminations. These handsomely illustrated works were mainly cherished for their artistic beauty, rather than their devotional use.

By the 1450s, however, in Mainz, Germany, Johann Gutenberg was already assembling the elements for his printing press, which would eventually doom this fine art. Nevertheless, the first printed books were made to look as much as possible like traditional manuscript books. Many, including the Gutenberg Bible, were conventionally illuminated and rubricated before use.

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