The images and text correlate best when viewed on a wide screen rather than on a phone or on an iPad.
The long and lazy days of summer conjure thoughts of rocking on a porch swing, holding a cold drink in one hand, and the perfect book in the other. When an exceptional book ends, it’s a bit exhausting, especially when the characters linger in your mind while trying to select the next book from the millions of possibilities available in stores and online.
Once upon a time, it wasn’t so. In Medieval Europe, until about the 1400s, in all levels of society, when rulers and politicians gained control through inheritance or warring power, most people didn’t read a single book during their entire lifetime. A person was only considered to be literate if they could read and write Latin; the other spoken languages were rarely written or read.
Although the majority of the European population was illiterate, church officials, royal clerks, and academics transmitted the knowledge vital to the functioning of society and the Church in writing in Medieval Latin, the language of scholarship, law, administration, and diplomacy. Every book was a unique manuscript, from the Latin manu scriptus, or written by hand.
Attributed to the Master of Saint Benedict, German; Saint Anne Teaching Her Daughter the Virgin Mary to Read (The Education of the Virgin), c. 1510; Painted and gilded wood; Philadelphia Museum of Art
In the ancient world, books were made from rolled sheets of thin strips of papyrus that had been glued or sewn together. A scroll was typically about 30 feet long (9 meters).
Papyrus Making; Qaramous, Egypt
Papyrus sheets were strong and flexible but it was difficult to write smoothly upon the ridged surfaces. The text could only be written on one side and the reader had to roll and unroll the scroll to view each section at a time.
The text on this papyrus scroll, written in Greek, lists farmers and describes their land; 196-198 CE; Neues Museum, Berlin
In ancient Greece and Rome, written notes were pressed into wax tablets with a stylus. The tablets were made by hollowing out one side of a wooden board, filling it with wax, and then joining the boards together with straps; the wax could be smoothed and used again. Their popularity led to an alternative format for the written word, the codex (pl. codices), a collection of pages stitched together along one side. Compared to the scroll, the codex was more compact, accommodated more text, could be stacked and shelved, and made it easier to find a specific passage.
The transition from scroll to codex was also heavily influenced by the spread of Christianity and the consequent rise of monasticism after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire (395 – 476 CE). Because Christian bibles were configured as codices, by 500, the codex replaced the scroll throughout what was then a Christianized western world.
Artist/maker unknown, Made in Cuzco, Peru; Saint Thomas Aquinas Visited in his Study by Saint Bonaventure, 1700s; Oil on canvas; Philadelphia Museum of Art
Thomas Aquinas sits in his study surrounded by bound manuscripts and the necessary tools of a scribe: a tilted writing desk, a quill, and an ink well. The Holy Spirit appears above his head in the form of a dove and conveys divine inspiration. It was common at the time for Latin American artists to add celestial wings to images of saints to emphasize their angelic nature. Saint Bonaventure, an Italian Franciscan theologian, writer, and contemporary of Aquinas, stands in the doorway.
In 529, Benedict of Nursia, one of the first great Christian monks, founded a large religious order in Italy that was governed by a set of rules for conduct. Monks were directed to listen to readings at certain times of the day and to read privately. Because personal possessions were prohibited, monasteries developed scriptoria, or places designated for manuscript-making. The completed books were organized in the monastery’s communal library.
Sculptor unknown, Italian; Painted by Florentine artist Biagio d’Antonio; Reliquary Bust of Saint Benedict of Nursia, late 1400s; Painted and gilded wood; Philadelphia Museum of Art
This bust can be identified as the Abbot Saint Benedict of Nursia by the portrait of his twin sister, Saint Scholastica, on the back of his cope (liturgical cloak). As a reliquary, it once contained what was believed to be some of the saint’s remains. Writing at a time when books were so rare and expensive, Saint Benedict ordered his monks to care for them with solemnity and to hold “if possible” the books they read “in their left hands, wrapped in the sleeve of their tunics, and resting on their knees; their right hands shall be uncovered with which to grip and turn the pages.”
Nuns also made books. Monasteries, however, typically had larger endowed incomes than nunneries and could more easily specialize in manuscript production.
In 2011, archeologists discovered finely ground particles of lapis lazuli, a mineral used in book production, embedded in the one-thousand-year-old dental plaque of a woman who was buried at a nunnery in Germany. Evidence suggests that she licked the tip of her paintbrush to shape it into a fine point. Lapis lazuli was so rare and expensive that only the most gifted artists were entrusted to work it.
Before 1400, scribes, especially those who were women, rarely signed their names on their manuscripts as a sign of humility. There’s growing evidence that more women were involved than previously thought.
Guda the Nun; Page from Book of Homilies, Self-Portrait of the Guda the Nun; 1100s; Ink on parchment; Stadt-und Universitäts-Bibliothek, Frankfurt
Guda was a member of a convent near Hamburg who painted decorations in books during the 1100s. She also may be the first known woman in western civilization to have created a signed self-portrait. The words surrounding her self-portrait, where she sits in a spiraling recession of space inside the letter D, state that she is the sinner who wrote and pinxit (painted) the book.
As the importance of libraries grew, the practice of lending volumes to other libraries began. Particularly important books were chained to a bookcase so that they could be read at a nearby table but could not be removed from the library.
The Chained Library at Wells Cathedral, Bristol
The beginning of international trade, the rise in the number of universities during the 1200s, and increasing number of literate lay persons in cities throughout Europe further increased the demand for books. Monasteries sought to fill their libraries with sacred texts and literary, scientific, and philosophical works by Greek and Roman authors. Universities not only required numerous texts, they needed translations. The wealthy commissioned elaborate gospel and prayer books for personal use. Churches needed large Bibles and other liturgical works.
The Abbey Library of Saint Gall in Switzerland holds one of the oldest surviving collections in Europe. The Greek words psyché iatreion are inscribed above the door, which translates to “apothecary of the soul”. To find your way around, seek divine help. For example, the astronomy related books are found by the cherub who peers through a telescope.
But before library shelves could be filled, the manuscripts explored, knowledge shared, and curiosity ignited, each book had to be made by hand. Secular workshops, located near the new sites of learning, were staffed by professional parchmenters, senior scribes, junior scribes, rubricators (specialized scribes), miniators (painters), illuminators (artists who worked with gold), correctors, and book-binders who produced books in assembly-line fashion.
A room without books is like a body without a soul. – attributed to Cicero
Until paper was introduced to the West at the end of the 1300s, most books in Western Europe were made from parchment (animal skin, such as sheep, deer, or goat) and vellum (specifically, calf skin) from animals who had been bred for food. For an important commission, a scribe might visit the slaughterhouse to select the supplest skin that was free of flaws, scars, signs of disease, and had the least amount of hair. High quality parchment was one of the most expensive elements of a book after gold.
First, the skins were weighed down with rocks in a shallow stream. The fresh running water removed blood, dirt, and excreta.
The rinsed skins were soaked for up to two weeks in a caustic lime solution to loosen the hair, fat, dirt, and tissue.
The hide was “scudded” with a long, curved knife and rinsed again.
Next, it was tied onto a wooden frame and stretched equally from all sides. Professional parchment-makers drew a lunarium, a double-handled half-moon-shaped blade, across the surface to ensure that it dried flat and taut. A pumice stone rubbed against the surface removed blemishes and scraped each side to an even thinness. Pastes made from a mix of lime, flour, egg whites, and milk were brushed into the parchment so that it became smooth and white.
Pictures in the letters (initials) in the Hamburg Bible (1255; The Royal Library, Copenhagen) portray the process of book production.
In this image, a professional parchment-maker, whose coif identifies him as a layman, presents his finished product to a Benedictine monk, whose halo indicates that he’s also a saint. Note the frame and lunarium in the background.
Imperfect parchment was reserved for less important books. If a tear couldn’t be darned, the scribe wrote around hole.
Copy of Servius’s commentary on the Aeneid, 1000s; Bodleian Library
Each sheet of parchment was measured with a ruler and trimmed with a knife into a rectangle. It was then folded in half as many times as necessary to the desired size of the book.
Once folded, the hair side (which grabbed the ink better than the flesh side) faced hair side and the flesh side (which was waxier, whiter, and smoother) faced flesh side. Certain folds were slit with a knife to make individual pages (also called leaves or folios).
All the pages formed from a single sheet of parchment are known collectively as a quire. A lengthy book is composed of multiple quires.
To guarantee that the text would be written in straight lines across a page, scribes pricked the quire with various tools to create tiny holes along the side margins, which were usually hidden when the book was bound. Next, using a ruler and either a lead point or a magenta-colored pigment and small brush, they connected the dots by drawing a straight line across the page.
Magenta-colored lines added to the decoration of the page. Note that scribes wrote slightly above and not on the lines.
Master of the Collins Hours, Possibly made in Bruges; Book of Hours for Roman Use, c. 1445-1450; Gold and tempera on vellum; Book: 8 3/8 × 6 × 1 7/8 inches (21.3 × 15.2 × 4.8 cm); Philadelphia Museum of Art
A book of hours was a prayer book made for the non-ordained. From 1300 to the mid-1500s, more books of hours were made in Europe than any other book and, because they were all made individually, no two are alike. A patron could choose to add supplemental texts, like calendars and psalms, specify the level of decoration in the borders, and choose whether or not pictures would be full-page. All books of hours, however, share a set of prayers that were meant to be said at regular intervals during a twenty-four-hour day; therefore, individual books became known as a Book of Hours.
Roman emperor Maxentius summoned philosophers and rhetoricians to persuade Catherine of Alexandria to renounce her Christian faith. She refused. As illustrated above, he then ordered for her to be tortured by threading her limbs through turning wheels but when she touched the wheels, they shattered. Unfortunately, she was later decapitated.
Before writing, scribes prepared their quill, made from the feather of a goose or swan (the Latin word penna means “wing”), and a penknife.
The most common ink recipe had been used since Ancient Rome, a combination of smashed oak galls (the swellings on oak trees formed around gall wasp eggs) mixed with iron sulfate.
Gum arabic, found in solid lumps on acacia trees, thickened the ink so it adhered to the parchment. If mixed improperly, the ink was too acidic and burned, and continues to burn, through the parchment.
Scribes rarely composed texts while writing. Instead, they copied existing texts, in order, from the first page to the last, pausing only to let the ink dry before writing on the other side of the page. Division between words wasn’t commonplace until the 1000s; it had to get tedious at times.
Scribes determined the layout of each page and left blank spaces for illustrations, decorated letters (initials), and borders. Here, the scribe placed a small guide letter N in black ink in the left margin so that the person who was responsible for adding initials would know which letter to paint in the blank space (British Library). Initials introduced an important section of text.
As scholastic texts became more complex, books were divided into chapters and new forms of punctuation were introduced.
Scriptorium at the Mont Saint-Michel Abbey, France
The Benedictine monks who settled there began to create a library of manuscripts in the mid-900s.
Sitting at an angled desk to promote the downward flow of ink, scribes held a quill in one hand and a penknife in the other. The knife held the unbound page flat while writing, sharpened blunted quills, and, if the scribe caught a small error, gently scraped the mistake from the parchment’s surface.
Master of the Collins Hours, Possibly made in Bruges; Book of Hours for Roman Use, c. 1445-1450; Gold and tempera on vellum; Book: 8 3/8 × 6 × 1 7/8 inches (21.3 × 15.2 × 4.8 cm); Philadelphia Museum of Art
The evangelist Mark can be identified by his icon, the winged lion. The text begins, “Secundum Marcum”, or “According to Mark”.
For pckt-sized bks, scrbs used abbrev.s to save space. Hopefully, the reader knew what they meant.
DNS with a line above the N is the abbreviation for dominus, or d[omi]n[u]s, roughly Latin for “Lord”.
Occasionally, bored scribes added doodles.
Occasionally, bored readers added doodles.
The book’s multiple quires had to be kept in the correct order.
Each quire was assigned a letter of the alphabet and each bifolium (double-page) of the quire was given a number.
The “quire signature” at the top of the right page indicates that this book is opened to quire C I, bifolio 13.
“Catch words” were written at the very bottom of the quire’s last page. These were the same words that began the next quire. The bookbinder later checked the quire signatures and matched catch words to assemble the final manuscript.
Artist/maker unknown, Made in Poissy, France; Gradual (Choir Book), Made for Dominican Use, c. 1350; Gold and tempera on vellum; Book: 6 7/8 × 5 1/4 × 2 inches (17.5 × 13.3 × 5.1 cm); Philadelphia Museum of Art
“De profun” is written in gold letters at the bottom of the left page; on the top of the right page, the first words are “De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine …” (Out of the depths I cry to You, O Lord).
Mistakes happened, especially when scribes didn’t know the language of the text they were copying.
Attributed to Benedetto di Bindo; Virgin of Humility and Saint Jerome Translating the Gospel of John, c. 1400-1405; Diptych, Egg tempera, silver, and tooled gold on panel with vertical grain; Approximately 12 x 8 x 7/8 inches (30.5 x 21 x 2.2 cm); Philadelphia Museum of Art
This small, two-paneled painting on wood was placed on a table while praying. On the left, Mary nurses Jesus; in the background, spools of thread and a Book of Hours rest on a table. The book is open to an invocation chanted at 3 PM, alluding to the time of death and fate of the baby. On the right, Saint Jerome translates the Gospel of John from Greek to Latin. The Latin is carefully inscribed in the lower book but the artist must have been less familiar with Greek, for the text in the upper book is gibberish.
After the scribe completed a quire, it was checked by a corrector.
Neri di Bicci; Two Youthful Martyrs, Mid-1470s; Predella panel, tempera and tooled gold on panel with horizontal grain; Philadelphia Museum of Art
This error was whited out with lead paint and then corrected.
From a book of hymns made at the convent of St. Agnes in Delft; Prinsenhof, Delft
When a scribe forgot to copy a line of text, the missing line was written in the margin. A little symbol or a drawing of a pointed hand was added to indicate where it belonged.
Here, the forgotten line is written at the bottom of the page. Whomever added the images had a sense of humor; a man pulls the line of text up and into the right position with a rope.
Artist/maker unknown; Leaf from a Book of Hours, c. 1300; Ink and paint on parchment; 10 1/2 x W: 7 3/8 in. (26.7 x 18.7 cm); The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore
Wrong, wrong, wrong – the corrector crossed out the entire page.
Artist/maker unknown; Abbey Bible, mid-1200s; Tempera colors, gold leaf, and ink on parchment covered with oak boards backed in pigskin; 10 5/8 × 7 3/4 in. (27 × 19.7 cm); The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Ninety-five percent of books were not lavishly decorated; they were valued simply for their textual content. For the remaining five percent, it was time to add illustrations and illuminations. The artist drew an outline of the image and then transferred it either by freehand or with a stencil onto the parchment with a bright red-orange pigment made from the mineral minium. Artists who made the small illustrations in the manuscripts were known as miniators and the images were called miniatures – it wasn’t because of their small size.
Left: Minium and Right: Artist/maker unknown, Made in England; Detail of Luxuria and Companions Dancing, from a copy of Prudentius’s Psychomachia, 1000s; British Library
If the book was going to be enhanced with gold, a layer of glair (beaten sticky egg whites) was brushed onto the chosen area. Then, a layer of gold leaf (gold that’s been beaten to a leaf-like thinness) was placed on top with exquisite care and burnished (an animal’s tooth worked especially well) until it shone. Books decorated with gold, or less often silver, are called “illuminated manuscripts”.
Left: Gold Leaf and Right: An unfinished page from the Douce Apocalypse, 1200s; Bodleian Library, University of Oxford
What’s better than having real gold decorate your book? Elevated areas of gold, of course. The illuminator applied gesso (“jesso”, a mixture of clay, chalk, and hide glue) to the desired areas. Once it dried, the illuminator exhaled upon the gesso with just enough gentle, moist breath to make it sticky, carefully placed the gold on top, and burnished the gold.
The gesso raised the surface of the gold slightly above the flat parchment. In the completed manuscript, by sunlight and by candlelight, the reflected gold light appeared to emanate from the book itself.
Artist/maker unknown, Netherlandish, Probably made in Bruges; Book of Hours for Sarum Use and Gallican Psalter with Canticles (Pembroke Hours), c. 1465-70, with additions c. 1550-65; Illuminated manuscript on vellum; Book: 12 1/16 × 8 7/8 × 2 3/4 inches (30.6 × 22.5 × 7 cm); Philadelphia Museum of Art
The image, enlightened with highlights of gold, portrays the Last Judgment. As the dead spring from their graves, Christ sits above the world with outstretched arms. His raised right arm consigns the worthy to the gate of heaven, which is guarded by Saint Peter with his key. Winged angels blow trumpets and golden-haloed saints watch from above. Christ’s lowered left arm condemns the unworthy, who are accompanied by devils, to the flames of hell inside the fiery mouth of a dragon.
After all of the gold had been applied, an apprentice prepared pigments for the master painter. By the mid-1200s, an artist working in a large city for a royal patron could also purchase pigments at an apothecary’s shop. Pigments were made from plants, animals, minerals, and alchemy (chemical reactions).
Left: An Apothecary Shop, from a copy of Taccuinum Sanitatis, a medieval handbook about health that was based the Taqwim al‑sihh (Maintenance of Health), an eleventh-century medical treatise written by Ibn Butlan of Baghdad and Right: Engraving by Joannes Stradanus, Made in Florence; Detail from Nova Reperta: Color Olivi (Invention of oil), 1580s
Plant sources included Brazilwood that had been imported from the Middle East. Shavings soaked in a solution of lye, wine, or urine for several hours, with the addition of various concentrations of alum (potassium aluminum sulfate), produced a variety of yellow-orangish-reds.
Although boiled woad leaves exuded blues, they weren’t reliably stable and might turn green or black over time. Ultramarine was exceptionally stable but it was made from ground lapis lazuli, which had to be imported through Venice from a remote valley in what is now northeast Afghanistan. Ultramarine was as expensive as gold and the ultimate choice for Mary’s robe or heaven itself.
Left: Master of the Collins Hours, Possibly made in Bruges; Book of Hours for Roman Use, c. 1445-1450; Gold and tempera on vellum; Book: 8 3/8 × 6 × 1 7/8 inches (21.3 × 15.2 × 4.8 cm); Philadelphia Museum of Art and Right: Lapis lazuli
Dragon’s Blood pigment was made from the blood spilled as elephants and dragons fought to the death. Its rarity led entrepreneurs to seek other sources. The dried garnet-red sap that exuded from the wounded branches and trunks of certain trees, such as the Dracaena cinnabari in Yemen, was a reasonable substitute.
Verdigris came from exposing copper to the vapor of vinegar, wine, or even urine.
Left: Copper tube sections sit on an egg crate in a glass jar with a small amount of vinegar at the bottom. Right: Three months later, enough copper acetate crystals have formed to make pigment.
To turn pigments into paint, each raw material was ground finely and then mixed with a binding agent, usually egg white or egg yolk. Each color was applied, one at a time, with a brush and allowed to dry before moving on to the next color.
The pictures in the books were intended to visualize the text, make abstract concepts apparent, draw attention to important passages, and educate the reader.
After confirming that the quires were in the correct order, the completed manuscript was ready to be bound.
Professional bookbinders secured each quire across its spine with linen thread. The quires were then stitched onto thick leather cords that had been mounted and spaced at regular intervals upon a frame.
The loose ends of the cords were threaded through the grooves tunneled into the rectangular wooden boards that formed the covers of the book. The wooden boards were covered with stretched leather.
Left: Neri di Bicci; Saint Cyril of Constantinople(?) and an Elderly Carmelite Saint (the Prophet Elijah?), Mid-1470s; Predella panel from an altarpiece, Tempera and tooled gold on panel with horizontal grain; Philadelphia Museum of Art
An embellished leather cover with clasps kept the dried layers of parchment from popping open and the book closed when not in use.
Story written by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, French, 1200s; Book made by the Workshop of Maître François, c. 1440-1480, Paris; Roman de la Rose (The Romance of the Rose); Illuminated manuscript on vellum; Book: 14 × 9 7/8 × 2 3/4 inches (35.6 × 25.1 × 7 cm); Philadelphia Museum of Art
The Romance of the Rose, written in 1230 by French poet Guillaume de Lorris and completed fifty years later by another poet, Jean de Meun, was possibly the most read book in Europe during the 1300s-1400s. The allegorical poem tells the story of a lover who dreams of a beautiful rose that is held captive in a castle; the characters in the story either help or impede his attempts to win the rose. Spoiler alert. In an erotically-worded passage at the end of the book, he plucks the rosebud and, in the final words of the poem, wakes from his dream.
Small portable manuscripts could be worn as a girdle book. The book’s leather binding extended below the cover of the book so that the ends could be tied with a large knot and tucked into one’s girdle, or belt. The book hung upside down and backwards so that was in the correct position for reading when lifted.
Follower of Fernando Gallegos, Made in Spain; Saint Bernardino of Siena, c. 1500; Oil on panel; Philadelphia Museum of Art
By holding the elongated leather covering, the precious interior of the book remained clean.
Master of the Legend of Saint Lucy, Netherlandish (active Bruges); Saint Catherine of Alexandria, with the Defeated Emperor, Probably the left wing of a triptych, c. 1482; Oil on panel; 26 1/4 x 10 5/8 inches (66.7 x 27 cm); Philadelphia Museum of Art
Saint Catherine of Alexandria, the patron saint of students, scholars, and philosophers, reads a girdle book while standing victoriously over the emperor who ordered her death. The artist depicts his hometown of Bruges in the background, rather than Catherine’s native Alexandria.
It all changed when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press around 1440. By 1500, presses throughout Western Europe had produced over twenty million volumes. With cell phones, computer tablets, iPads, and E-Readers, we can sit on a porch swing and hold a vast library in one hand. There’s a cold drink in the other.
Susan Macdowell Eakins; Girl Reading, c. 1920-1925; Oil on board; Philadelphia Museum of Art
– Meighan Maley
Header Image: Found on Google Images, source unknown
A warm thank you must be sent to De La Salle Christian Brothers Leonard Marsh and Robert Kinzler. Their generously shared comprehensive knowledge of religious art and iconography allowed me to write about these works with a deeper understanding and appreciation.
All about Painting on Vellum; Botanical Art & Artists
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Blue Pigments in Medieval Woman’s Teeth Suggest She Was a Highly Skilled Artist; Smithsonian Magazine, January 2019
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Making the 15th C. Style Book; RandyAsplund.com
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Preserving Egypt’s Heritage: The Enduring Skills of Papyrus Making in the Villages of Qaramous; Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Atlantic Council
Prudentius’s Psychomania; British Library
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Price Debbie. Skin Deep: Feeding the Global Lust for Leather; UNDARK
Rudy, Kathryn; Piety in Pieces: How Medieval Readers Customized their Manuscripts; brewminate.com
Scribal Error Corrected; The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore
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St. Catherine of Alexandria, with the Defeated Emperor; Philadelphia Museum of Art
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Zhang, Sarah. Why a Medieval Woman Had Lapis Lazuli Hidden in Her Teeth; getpocket.com