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The Aesthetics of Texts: Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts

Dominiczak, Marek H. 

Clinical Chemistry; Washington Vol. 60, Iss. 6, (Jun 2014): 907-8.PDFCite

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Other books from that period which share similar script are the Book of Durrow (created in the 7th century) and the Book of Kells (created around 800), both now in Trinity Col- lege Dublin. Author Contributions: All authors confirmed they have contributed to the intellectual content of this paper and have met the following 3 re- quirements: (a) significant contributions to the conception and design, acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data; (b) drafting or revising the article for intellectual content; and (c) final approval of the published article.

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Books, as we know them today, emerged from earlier re- cords made successively on tablets, papyrus, and scrolls. Around the 4th century, the first form of a book appeared: a codex written on parchment (sheepskin). A more so- phisticated form, the illuminated manuscript (text sup- plemented with decoration) created on vellum (calfskin) succeeded the codex after the fall of the Roman Empire. It remained a dominant form of written text between the years 600 and 1600 (1, 2 ). The next major change took place in the 15th century: after the invention of moveable type printing technology by Gutenberg, paper-based books succeeded the illuminated manuscripts.

In the 7th and 8th centuries, the demand for the writ- ten word was mostly ecclesiastical, stemming from the requirement for exact transmission of the religious mes- sage during the Christianization of Northern Europe. Im- portant centers of manuscript production emerged in monasteries associated with the cult of an Anglo-Saxon monk, St. Cuthbert (ca. 634-687) in the region of today s Ireland, Scotland, and Northern England (3, 4 ). There, the monastic culture was grounded in Celtic tradition, and with it came a distinct kind of art now recognized as Insular Art (5). It included stonework, metalwork, and images of plants and animals, as well as semiab- stract decorative patterns. There also were influ- ences of early Christian (Coptic) art, and Roman, Byzantine, and eastern elements. Manuscripts produced there combined script with both nonfigurative decoration and figurative paintings. In addition, these manuscripts were given highly decorative covers, which might include gold and jewels, making the books valuable both intellec- tually and aesthetically-and also very precious. The illus- trations in the medieval manuscripts provide an unparalleled insight into early painting in Northern Europe during the period when panel painting was still relatively rare (1 ).

The cult of St. Cuthbert was associated with monas- teries at Melrose and Lindisfarne, both in what was then the Kingdom of Northumbria. Lindisfarne was a priory on the Holy Island just off the coast in the North Sea. The island is, subject to tides, accessible on foot for parts of the day. Abishop of Lindisfarne, Eadfrith (d. 721), created a manuscript known as the Lindisfarne Gospels, a page spread from which is shown in Fig. 1. Its earliest binding was made by another bishop, Ethilwald, who suc- ceeded Eadfrith in 721. The Gospels contain text, paintings, and sophisticated ornamentation, includ- ing decorative “carpet pages.” Other books from that period which share similar script are the Book of Durrow (created in the 7th century) and the Book of Kells (created around 800), both now in Trinity Col- lege Dublin. The picture shows a double page from the beginning of St. Mark’s gospel. The left hand side is a carpet page with patterns resembling Celtic met- alwork: the different shade of its center creates the effect of a metal “knob” attached to the page. The opposite page contains decorative lettering: note the decorations placed inside the characters (6, 7).

On the Continent, manuscript production devel- oped during the reign of Charlemagne, crowned Holy Ro- man Emperor in 800. Charlemagne, who regarded acqui- sition of knowledge-and education-as essential for the Empire, recruited Alcuin (d. 804), an eminent scholar from York, to his court in Aachen. Alcuin subse- quently became the abbot of the monastery in Tours, and gained fame for his Latin Bible text, known as the Bible of Tours (8). Characteristically, the Caro- lingian manuscripts were highly sophisticated with regard to layout. They employed several measures to increase the clarity and readability of text such as large display capitals to highlight chapter openings and a hierarchy of fonts. There were headings, sum- maries, and running titles. Diagrams and tables are present, for instance, in Bede’s De natura rerum and De temporibus. The scriptorium in Tours introduced a new script known as Carolinian Minuscule, which was subsequently adopted in the entire Carolingian empire (9). This script was revived later, during the Renaissance, and eventually led to the development of the Roman font.

There was also enormous expansion of the themes of the books. Apart from Bibles, biblical commentaries, and psalters, there were copies of the classical texts, legal books, and books addressing botany (herbáis) and medi- cine, as well as history, politics and, increasingly, tales of fiction. Library catalogues were developed to facilitate re- sourcing the originals to be copied (8 ).

Around the 12th century, universities started to be established, creating centers of knowledge separate from the monasteries. With this, the illuminators’ work- shops appeared in the cities, outside monasteries.

The medieval illuminated manuscripts remain an extraordinary medium of knowledge transmission that made a major impact on the culture of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and beyond. Many were also simply beautiful objects. This aesthetic aspect has a contempo- rary analogy. Today’s e-readers have, for technical rea- sons, a rather unified look. It is interesting that an entire branch of industry is emerging that provides a range of covers for tablet computers, with increasing varieties of colors, textures, and decoration. Well, the monks of Lind- isfarne did a very similar thing 1200 years ago.

Author Contributions: All authors confirmed they have contributed to the intellectual content of this paper and have met the following 3 re- quirements: (a) significant contributions to the conception and design, acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data; (b) drafting or revising the article for intellectual content; and (c) final approval of the published article.

Authors’ Disclosures or Potential Conflicts of Interest: No authors declared any potential conflicts of interest.

Acknowledgments: My thanks to Jacky Gardiner for her excellent secretarial assistance.


1. Backhouse J. The illuminated manuscript. London: Phaidon Press; 1998.

2. British Library. [Online Gallery]: curator’s introduction, onlinegallery/onlineex/illmanus/curatorintro23275.html (Accessed April 2014).

3. St. Cuthbert. (Accessed March 2014).

4. Colish ML. Medieval foundations of the Western intellectual tradition 400- 1400. New Haven: Yale University Press; 1997.

5. Zaczek I. Insular art. In: Farthing S, ed., Cork R, foreword by. Art: the whole story. London: Thames and Hudson; 2010. p 86-7.

6. Brown MP. The Lindisfarne Gospels: society, spirituality and the scribe. London: The British Library; 2003. p 272-394.

7. British Library. Online Gallery: sacred texts, sacredtexts/ (Accessed April 2014).

8. McKitterick R, ed. Carolingian culture: emulation and innovation. Cambridge (UK): Cambridge University Press; 1994.

9. Carolingian minuscule. (Accessed March 2014).

DOI: 10.1373/clinchem.2013.218305


Marek H. Dominiczak*

College of Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, UK.

* Address correspondence to the author at: Department of Biochemistry, Gart- navel General Hospital, 1053 Great Western Road, G12 0YN, Glasgow, UK. Fax +44141-211-3452; e-mail

Received March 6, 2014; accepted March 12, 2014.

Word count: 1111

Copyright American Association for Clinical Chemistry Jun 2014

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