Gold, Gospels and Knights Fighting Snails: An Introduction To Illuminated Manuscripts

Creating books in the Middle Ages was a challenge. Before the introduction of the printing press, all books were painstakingly copied out by hand and those such as the Bible could take several years to complete.

One particularly famous type of manuscript from the medieval period is the illuminated manuscript. The words in these manuscripts were embellished with ornate borders, detailed illustrations, and gold-leaf work, turning them into beautiful pieces of medieval art. Better still, many of them have survived to the present day, making them a rich source of information for medievalists and other historians.

In this post, we are going to take a look at what exactly an illuminated manuscript is, talk a little about the digitisation of them, and found out just why so many illuminated manuscripts feature knights fighting snails.

What is an illuminated manuscript?

Illuminated manuscripts were a type of manuscript that were produced mainly in Western Europe from the 6th century until the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. Like all manuscripts, they were written by hand on a page of parchment, usually a piece of animal skin known as “vellum”. Many illuminated manuscripts were then bound into an early type of book called a “codex” (“codices” in the plural). A codex consisted of numerous sheets of parchment sandwiched between two pieces of wood, just like a modern book has pages bound between the covers. Luckily for today’s medieval historians, the wood preserved the pages inside, keeping them in peak condition and making it possible to still read the manuscripts today.

But what sets illuminated manuscripts apart from other medieval documents are the ornate illustrations, or “illuminations”, that adorn each page. Illuminations ranged from decorative borders around the page to a full-page illustration depicting an event described in the text. The first letter on a manuscript page — the “illuminated capital” — was also often enlarged and colourfully decorated. Often, this decoration was then enhanced with gold or silver leaf, especially if the manuscript was of particular importance. These shiny materials were said to “illuminate” the text, giving the manuscripts their name.

The Bird Psalter, London (1284) © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

How were illuminated manuscripts made?

The first illuminated manuscripts were created in monasteries in Northern Europe, most notably in the British Isles and Ireland. Most monasteries at the time had not just a library but also a “scriptorium”, where manuscripts and books were created.

Some monks worked as scribes. They were responsible for preparing and cutting the vellum and adding the text to the page in a certain colour of ink. If more colours were required, the page would then be passed to another scribe working with that colour. Other scribes in the room would be responsible for proofreading the text and checking that everything had been copied correctly. Once the scribes were finished with the text, the page was handed over to another monk, known as the “illuminator”, who worked essentially as an artist. He would add the illustrations to the page, as well as any gold leaf decoration that was required.

By the late medieval period, monks were no longer the only people creating illuminated manuscripts. With the rise of universities and the middle class, books started to become more popular and book production was increasingly more profitable. Therefore, booksellers in cities started to hire their own scribes and illuminators to create books outside of the monastery context.

Musical notation was also illuminated. © Yair Haklai / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

What kind of illuminated manuscripts are there?

As you might expect from a monastery, the majority of illuminated manuscripts are religious in nature. This included Bibles, copies of certain gospels or religious texts, and most commonly, books of hours. A book of hours was a collection of prayers, texts, and psalms, organised into the different canonical hours of the day. They became enormously popular during the late medieval period when rich families would commission individual collections for their households. Due to the sheer numbers created during that period, many books of hours have survived until the present day.

But illuminated manuscripts were also created on secular topics, too. Visual topics, for example, herbs or astrology, were the ideal material for illuminated books, and many such manuscripts were produced. Illuminated texts were also created about the lives of saints or famous adventurers, particularly towards the end of the Middle Ages.

The book of hours by the Master(s) of Zweder van Culemborg (public domain)

Why are the margins so important in illuminated manuscripts?

If you search online for information about illuminated manuscripts, you will find that many people talk about the “marginalia”. For historians, it is often the details included in these margins that are particularly interesting.

Creating manuscripts was difficult work. Scribes worked long hours, usually in silence, and copying the same text all day long was tedious. Therefore, they would often leave personal comments in the margins, such as: “The ink is thin”, “I am very cold”, or more poetically, “As the harbour is welcome to the sailor, so is the last line to the scribe.”

Perhaps even more shocking are the small illustrations that appear in the margins of medieval illuminated manuscripts. These often included nudity or scenes of a sexual nature, which were very much at odds with the religious content on the page! Another common theme in marginalia was illustrations of animals, particularly of animals doing human activities such as baking bread or playing instruments. Scholars believe these were often drawn as a form of artistic parody.

One animal-themed manuscript illumination frequently found in marginalia is the depiction of a knight fighting a snail. These little illustrations can be found in various manuscripts throughout the 13th and 14th centuries, and there are several ideas about their meaning. Some scholars believe the snails represent the Lombards, a group vilified in medieval times for their unchivalrous behaviour. Others say the illuminations symbolise the struggles of the poor against an oppressive aristocracy. Whatever the reason, it is details like these that make a medieval manuscript so fascinating to study.

Knight vs Snail from the Gorleston Psalter © British Library

Which are the most famous manuscripts?

There are thousands of illuminated manuscripts still around today, which can be viewed in an institution such as a museum or library. However, some manuscripts hold a particularly important place in history. Here are three examples:

The Book of Kells

This 9th-century manuscript is probably one of the most famous around the world. It contains the four gospels of the New Testament, adorned with many different illuminations, including Celtic knotwork typical of County Meath, where the book was stored for centuries.

Nowadays, the Book of Kells can be seen at Trinty College Dublin, who are a member of READ-COOP. Only certain pages of the manuscript are on display at any one time, and these are rotated frequently. It can also be viewed online on the Trinity College website.

Christ’s arrest in the Book of Kells (Folio 114v) © Trinity College Dublin

The Lindisfarne Gospels

Written in the 8th century, this renowned illuminated manuscript was produced at the island monastery of Lindisfarne, in the north of England. Like the Book of Kells, it is a copy of the four gospels and is a prime example of medieval manuscript art. Over 90 colours were produced for the book, with gold used in just a few places.

The Lindisfarne Gospels are housed at the British Library in London, who are also a READ-COOP member.

A page from the Lindisfarne Gospels. © British Library

Westminster Abbey Bestiary

In the Middle Ages, bestiaries were one of the most popular types of illuminated manuscript. Officially an encyclopedia of the animal kingdom, they often included fantastical beasts as well as actual creatures, accompanied by an explanation of the animal’s Christian significance. The illuminations in these manuscripts were sometimes so famous that they were replicated in other types of medieval art, such as carvings and tapestries.

The Westminster Abbey Bestiary is a fine example of a bestiary. Believed to have been produced in York at the end of the 14th century, it contained 164 miniatures of animals with Latin descriptions alongside. The bestiary is preserved by the Library of Westminster Abbey in London and can be viewed on request.

A fantastical creature from the Westminster Abbey Bestiary. © Westminster Abbey

How do you digitise an illuminated manuscript?

Thanks to handwriting recognition technology like Transkribus, it is becoming easier and easier to digitise and transcribe historical manuscripts. Many museums and libraries have already scanned their collections of illuminated manuscripts and made them publically available online, for example, the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts at the British Library. These scans can then be inputted into Transkribus to create an automatic transcription of the text.

However, illuminated manuscripts still cause some problems for handwriting recognition software, mainly because the software sometimes has trouble distinguishing between the ornate text and the illustrations. This is particularly true for illuminated capital letters, which are a mixture of both text and image.

That said, technology is improving all the time. The READ-COOP team is currently developing improved layout recognition software, which will be capable of recognising images much more accurately and should be a big boost for medievalists looking to transcribe these kinds of manuscripts.

Additionally, historians in the Transkribus community have also been working hard to produce public models that are suitable for transcribing medieval manuscripts, including illuminated manuscripts. Below are some models to try:

  • Latin and German Gothic Book Scripts – This model is designed for use with book scripts from the 13th-15th centuries and was trained with a variety of different documents in both Latin and German.
  • Medieval Latin 13th-15th Century – Also suitable for documents from the 13th-15th centuries, this model was trained specifically for the transcription of legal documents in medieval Latin, including idiosyncratic abbreviations and random word hyphenations.
  • Old Czech Handwriting (with spaces) – This new model was trained on two old Czech illuminated manuscripts, making it one of the more suitable models for manuscripts of this kind.
  • French and Latin Chancery Documents – Trained as part of the HIMANIS project, this model is designed for medieval chancery documents in French and Latin.
  • Medieval Scripts M2.4 – The documents from the HIMANIS project were also used to train this more general model for medieval manuscripts, along with manuscripts from several other similar projects. It covers several languages, including Dutch, French, German, Latin, and Flemish.
  • Latin and Dutch – For medieval legal records and minutes in Dutch, this model is ideal. It was trained by the Huygens Institute for History of the Netherlands.

For more information about how to use public models with Transkribus, check out this How-to Guide.


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