...in which I share some of my favorite medieval research resources and methods for the benefit of others interested in also writing about the Middle Ages

Monday, July 13, 2009

More About Illuminated Manuscripts

I promised in my last post that I would finish telling you about my experiences with two of the books I mentioned there but ran out of room to discuss: The Illuminated Manuscript, by Janet Backhouse and Illuminated Manuscripts, by D.M. Gill.


Unlike Harthan’s The Book of Hours, which had separate sections for historical information (in the front matter), followed by pages of manuscript reproductions, both The Illuminated Manuscript and Illuminated Manuscripts intermingle the historical research information with manuscript samples.


The historical research information in The Illuminated Manuscript, by Janet Backhouse, lacks the helpful subject headings of The Book of Hours and Illuminated Manuscripts, with all the information running in one long narrative form between the pictures. One is therefore required to pretty much study the entire text, at least up through whatever century you have chosen to place your story in. It’s all easy, non-intimidating reading, though.


My novel, Illuminations of the Heart is set in the year 1180, so for the purposes of my particular story, I was able to stop highlighting information (which I did with a nifty pink marker) once the narrative reached the 1200s and later. Most of the information was very basic, but again, it proved a starting point in my research, raising subjects in my mind to pursue in greater depth elsewhere. For example, a very brief discussion of inks and paints used in illuminated manuscripts made mention of “the most exotic” of paints made from a mineral called lapis lazuli. This mineral, the text said, was mined in far-off Afghanistan. Little more was said about this paint, but I immediately knew I wanted to incorporate its use into my story, and made a mental note to research this paint further.


Some other facts I learned that played parts in my story:

  • Not all scribes and illuminators belonged to religious communities. Although the setting up of craftsmen’s guilds for secular scribes and illuminators began mostly in the 13th Century, evidence that secular illuminators existed can be traced as early as the 12th Century setting of my story. Hence, having my heroine’s father operate a secular illuminating “shop”, though perhaps rare, was not historically implausible.
  • The illuminated Psalter became a popular book for private devotions during the middle of the 12th Century. So my heroine is commissioned to illuminate a Psaltery in the course of my story.

  • In the 12th Century Kingdom of Jerusalem there existed an artist who signed his work with the Greek name, “Basilius”. This artist created Psalteries for Queen Melisende of Jerusalem, so he must have been an artist of some stature and fame. Therefore, it made perfect sense that my heroine’s father might have been sent to Jerusalem to study Eastern methods of illumination with this great man.


There were other fascinating bits of information I picked up from The Illuminated Manuscript, but since they did not appear in my novel, I will reserve my discussion of them until they work their way into a future story of mine. :-)


D.M. Gill’s Illuminated Manuscripts similarly interweaves text with picture replicas. However, t his book is broken down into helpful subsections: A Short Chronology; Early Middle Ages, divided between Sixth to Ninth Centuries, Ninth to Eleventh Centuries, and Twelfth Century; Late Middle Ages, which covers the Thirteenth through Sixteenth Centuries; Materials and Manufacture; Other Cultures, focusing on Jewish and Spanish illumination; and a Conclusion bringing us up to the printing press.


I found the section on Materials and Manufacture to have the most practical application for my story. This section discusses (in greater detail than Backhouse’s book) how parchment was made; how pages were “ruled’ in preparation for adding the text; what kinds of pens and inks were used; how paints of various colors were prepared for the illuminated miniatures (including another reference to lapis lazuli); the application of gold or silver leaf; how the final, completed book was assembled; and even how much some “professional illuminators” charged for their work. I was not able to use a fraction of this information in my novel, Illuminations of the Heart, but I certainly now have a treasure trove of interesting facts for future projects!


I have a few more titles related to illuminated manuscripts to share with you in my next blog. Until then, you might check out the comment left by writemedieval on my last post to check out two books on illumination by Christopher de Hamel. I’ve already put both of these books in my Amazon shopping cart!

1 comment:

Cathy said...

I guess one of the big things I remember about those manuscripts was the use of arsnic in some of the ink!