In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Illuminated Manuscripts

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Exhibition Catalogues
  • Library Catalogues
  • Script, Letter, and Writing
  • Early Christian and Byzantine
  • Merovingian and Carolingian
  • Insular and Anglo-Saxon
  • Ottonian and Salian
  • Romanesque
  • Gothic
  • Late Gothic

Medieval Studies Illuminated Manuscripts
Catherine E. Karkov
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 December 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0047


Manuscripts are books that have been produced by hand. Illuminated manuscripts are books that have been decorated in ways that help bring to light the book’s contents. The word drives from the Latin illuminare (“to light up”), and medieval illumination should be understood as providing a gloss, or visual commentary, on the way the book was intended to be used and/or understood. For example, illuminated letters provided a guide to important passages or sections of a book. Narrative illumination could do the same, but it also often used to provide additional information or commentary on the written words of the text. Depictions of the labors of the months could show the reader what happened on the days listed in a calendar, while images of Christ, Mary, and the saints in prayer books or Books of Hours (late medieval books used for private devotion) provided a focus for the written prayers these manuscripts contained. Such images are called “miniatures,” named after the reddish pigment derived from minium that was used to frame the images of late Antiquity and early Christian manuscripts. The colors used in medieval illumination were, for the most part, mineral pigments. In the classical world manuscripts took the form of scrolls that were unwound as the reader progressed in a linear fashion from beginning to end. During late Antiquity the scroll was replaced by the codex, the form of the modern book, with its gatherings of pages bound together into a volume whose pages were turned individually. The change provided a differently shaped field for text and illumination, and it also allowed readers to make faster progress through the book. Many of the earliest books were written on papyrus, but animal skin provided a more durable surface. Most medieval manuscripts are written on either vellum or parchment. Vellum is literally the skin of a cow and parchment that of a sheep, but the two terms have come to be used interchangeably. The cleaned and prepared skins would be folded and cut to create folios, which had a front (recto) and back (verso). The scribes and artists responsible for producing the text and illumination would often divide up the work so that often one artist would be responsible for illuminated letters, another for blocking out the figures in the miniatures, a third for the addition of gold leaf, and so forth. Completed folios were folded into gatherings of a regular number of leaves and then sewn together bound and covered. Manuscripts were replaced by printed books, which were both cheaper and easier to produce, by the early 16th century.

General Overviews

There are dozens of general books on medieval manuscripts, and this section provides a selection of the more useful and some of the more recent publications on various aspects of the subject. The best place to start is Robb 1973, a clearly written introductory survey. This should be supplemented with Clemens and Graham 2007, which is a helpful introduction to the making and use of manuscripts. Calkins 1983 and Alexander 1992 are useful for understanding some of the major types of illuminated books and of the artists who produced them. Taylor and Smith 1997 is an excellent introduction to issues concerning women as patrons of medieval books and touches on the still-controversial topic of women and literacy.

  • Alexander, J. J. G. Medieval Illuminators and Their Methods of Work. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.

    Based on his James P. R. Lyell Lectures delivered in Oxford in 1983, Alexander provides information on manuscripts and the men and women who made them from the 4th to the 16th century. There is a wealth of information on technical processes, but the book is also noteworthy for its coverage of the social and historical contexts in which artists lived and worked.

  • Bologna, Giulia. Illuminated Manuscripts: The Book before Gutenberg. New York: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988.

    Short on text but beautifully illustrated, this volume includes information on forerunners of the book, scribes, artists and manuscript production, booksellers and libraries, along with a list of known illuminators. This is an English translation of Manoscritti e miniature (Milan: Anaya Editoriale, 1988).

  • Calkins, Robert G. Illuminated Books of the Middle Ages. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983.

    A useful book with chapters devoted to the types of manuscript: Insular gospel books, Carolingian Bibles, Imperial Gospel Books, Ottonian evangelistaries, Mass books, Psalters, liturgical books, and Books of Hours. An appendix contains helpful lists of the contents of the manuscripts discussed.

  • Clemens, Raymondand Timothy Graham. Introduction to Manuscript Studies. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007.

    Extremely useful in providing an overall sense of how manuscripts were made and used. The book is divided into sections dealing with the making of manuscripts, the reading of manuscripts, and manuscript genres. The emphasis is on Latin manuscripts, and there is an appendix on tools for medieval Latin.

  • de Hamel, Christopher. A History of Illuminated Manuscripts. London: Phaidon, 1994.

    De Hamel provides a chronological survey of manuscript illumination based on important groups of readers within each period. Chapters cover books for missionaries, emperors, monks, students, aristocrats, “everybody,” priests, and collectors. The book is aimed at students and the general reader and provides a useful updating of some of the information contained in Robb 1973.

  • Pächt, Otto. Book Illumination in the Middle Ages: An Introduction. London: Harvey Miller, 1986.

    This is not a history of book illumination but rather a collection of chapters on selected facets of manuscript illumination: “Decoration and the Structure of the Book,” “Initials,” “Bible Illustration,” “Didactic Miniatures,” “Apocalypses,” “Psalters,” and “The Conflict of Surface and Space.” English translation of Buchmalerei des Mittelalters eine Einführung (Munich: Prestel-Verlag, 1984).

  • Robb, David M. The Art of the Illuminated Manuscript. Cranbury, NJ: A. S. Barnes, 1973.

    Arranged chronologically, chapters move from the origins of manuscript illumination to illumination in the 15th century; the book includes an appendix on liturgical books. This volume is aimed at the student, with useful and succinct explanations of processes and terminology.

  • Taylor, Jane H., and Lesley Smith. Women and the Book: Assessing the Visual Evidence. London: The British Library, 1997.

    A collection of papers divided into three parts covering “Images of Women,” “Images and Books by Women,” and “Images and Books for Women.”

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