The Initial Phase

Only the ruler of the land, the officials of the church and the very wealthy could own books during the Middle Ages. Hence the view of the illuminated manuscript as something to be revered and contemplated.

St. Lawrence is depicted in works of art carrying a gridiron for roasting meat. The grill is intended for him: according to tradition, he was executed by roasting in August of the year 258 C.E. Lawrence, who was the "keeper of the treasures of the church" in the third century C.E., when Christians were still being persecuted by the Romans, became the patron saint of Christian librarians. Those who cherished his memory would mark the anniversary of his death by eating meat, cold or roasted.

Librarians needed a patron saint in the Middle Ages, or at least someone to symbolize their rising position. Most of Christian society's books were held in monastery libraries. Only the ruler of the land, the officials of the church and the very wealthy could own books in those days. A rich man's library would consist of no more than three or four books; the collection of an average monastery library usually did not exceed 50-100; and the largest, most important libraries in Europe boasted about 500 volumes apiece. These circumstances shaped the medieval view of the illuminated manuscript: It was a valuable work, intended not for one-time reading but for extended contemplation. Whether it was the Scriptures, used for prayer in the monastery chapels, or chivalric tales read over and over at family gatherings, illuminated manuscripts had much to offer those who browsed through them.

Books generally had a fairly uniform structure. The shape of the medieval codex was derived from the lightly waxed wooden tablets used for writing in late antiquity. The book thus assumed its familiar form: a cover (usually rectangular) protecting a sheaf of pages with horizontal lines of text, written from left to right and running consecutively from line to line and from page to page.

Preparing an illuminated manuscript was a costly and, above all, time-consuming affair. First, the material on which the book would be written had to be chosen. In medieval Europe, manuscripts were written on an array of materials prepared from the hides of most domestic animals and even from the skins of fish. The two materials most commonly used were sheepskin parchment, whose name is believed to be derived from the name of the town Pergamon, and vellum, made of calfskin. The hides of stillborn calves became the finest vellum of all, on which some of the most magnificent Bibles in history were written. Oxen and pigs provided hides for relatively cheap parchment, used for household account-books or book-covers. Covers could also be made of wood or ivory, and sometimes they were ornamented with gold or gems. To be made suitable for writing, the animal's skin was cleaned and smoothed flat.

Clusters of pages (for example, of eight leaves containing 16 pages) were finally gathered into a book. Those clusters were produced by folding and refolding a large sheet of parchment, whose folded edges were then slit open with a knife. Fixing the clusters together into a book was done only after the text had been inscribed on the parchment and illuminated.

Before the writing and illumination were done, the page was marked with four lines (sometimes double lines) forming a rectangle. This was the outline of the space for writing and illumination. The area surrounding the rectangle would be a wide margin, intended to protect the manuscripts from the unclean fingers of careless readers. The margins were also used for adding notes and corrections to the text. Unlike the modern view of the book as a "completed" work that should not be altered, the nature of the illuminated manuscript made it more dynamic.

Carefully proportioned

The proportions between the different parts of the page were also carefully considered, giving the entire work a pleasing, aesthetic quality. For example, in many cases the height of the inscribed section is identical to the width of the entire page; the empty space at the bottom of the page is more or less identical to the unwritten space between two adjoining pages; and the upper margins are one-half the size of the lower margins. Even in the Middle Ages nothing was perfect: Such meticulous planning was often undone during the binding stage, when some pages were moved and others damaged.

When the page was being prepared for writing, horizontal lines were usually scored on it. This was done even on pages intended for illustration, where the lines might be helpful for copying paintings or large-scale works. For centuries the markings were drawn with a blunt knife, resulting in "sunken" lines (that protruded on the page's other side); if the scribe was not careful, small pools of color would collect in them. During the Carolingian era, some scribes avoided this mishap by writing between the lines and not directly on them. In the 11th century a pencil-like instrument came into use for drawing the lines; in the 13th century it was replaced by pale-colored ink.

The many unfinished manuscripts in existence demonstrate the order in which the work was performed: First, the text was written on the page, and only then were the illuminations added. Especially in the first millennium C.E., texts were densely written, with no spaces between words and sentences.

The headings of the book's various parts were written in red ink, to distinguish them from the rest of the text, which was written in black. The use of red ink began in antiquity and peaked in the Middle Ages. In the Scriptures the holy text was written in black, whereas instructions for various liturgical rites were painted red. The word "rubric" is derived from the "rubrum" (Latin for "red") typical of these lines. The copyist-scribe who wrote the text on the parchment or vellum left empty spaces for the illuminator, for decorative motifs and miniatures (a term that had nothing to do with diminutive size, but with a Latin word, "minium," that denoted two red pigments). A special place was reserved for the "initial" - the enlarged first letter of the text, which did not fall under the scribe's professional responsibility.

Up until the 11th century, many monks could perform both the inscription and the illumination. Later, as monasteries proliferated and the number of libraries increased, there was also a greater demand for vellum- and parchment-makers, skilled scribes, illustrators and binders. The monasteries began to approach professionals outside the religious community, beyond the limits of their own orders. It was vital that the scribe and the illuminator work in coordination. The former had to instruct the latter how to draw the page. Certain surviving pages still bear the instructions to the illustrators, such as "do not write." Small markings - a crown-shape, for example - were used for telling the possibly illiterate illuminator what to draw.

In medieval times even the Latin alphabet was subordinated to a global hierarchy. A trace of this practice can still be glimpsed in our own day, in the capital letters used at the beginning of sentences. In illuminated manuscripts, the "initials" were given special attention - painstakingly decorated, sometimes taking up a whole page, gilded or even containing an entire picture.

In the late Middle Ages the bands surrounding the written space became an important illustrative field, containing various fantastic beings with no connection whatsoever to the text. On the margins, sometimes half-concealed within the heavily decorated pages, we encounter the best of the medieval grotesque tradition, lurking just "off-limits": dragons, ridiculous animals, monkeys in human dress, birds in boots and even clergymen with their buttocks bared.

(Second in a series)