How to Make a Medieval Manuscript: An Introduction in 7 Videos

All of us came of age in the era of mass-market books, bundles of text on paper printed quickly, cheaply, and in large quantities. Nothing about that would have been conceivable to the many varieties of artisan involved in the creation of just one manuscript in the Middle Ages. Even here in the 21st century we marvel at the beauty of medieval manuscripts, but we should also marvel at the sheer amount of specialized labor that went into making them.

We might best appreciate that labor by seeing it performed up close before our eyes, and a new video series allows us to do just that. "The British Library has released a set of seven videos to look at the process of creating medieval manuscripts," says

"Patricia Lovett, a professional calligrapher and illuminator, hosts these 2-3 minute videos, which follow the process from the tools used to the techniques employed in designing an illuminated page."

Lovett covers every step in the making of a medieval book: "how to make quill pens from bird feathers"; "the complex process behind making ink for writing in manuscripts" (which involves wasps); "how animal skins were selected and prepared for use in medieval manuscripts"; "the tools for ruling and line marking in medieval books"; "the variety of pigments that were in use in the Middle Ages" to apply vivid color to the pages; "how medieval artists painted the beautiful illustrations in their books"; and "the work behind painting and embellishing manuscripts and reproducing a lavishly illuminated page."

"The word ‘manuscript’ derives from the Latin for written (scriptus) by hand (manu)," writes Lovett and British Library illuminated manuscript curator Kathleen Doyle, and who among us will forget that, after we've witnessed the careful manual labor on display in these videos? For further insight into the medieval manuscript-making process, have a look at the Getty Museum's series of videos on the subject featured last year here on Open Culture.

We've also featured the alchemy of the pigments used to color the pages of medieval manuscripts; the pages of a medieval monk's sketchbook that shows what went into the designs for these manuscripts' illumination; and a look into the making of The Book of Kells, the Irish cultural treasure that stands as one of the very finest surviving examples of the illuminated manuscript form. (And since you'll surely get curious about it sooner or later, we've also put up an explanation of why so many marginal drawings in medieval manuscripts include killer rabbits.)

Just as the books we read today — whether the aforementioned mass-market products or the relatively artisanal small-press creations or even the e-books — reveal important qualities about the world we live in, so medieval manuscripts have much to say about the beliefs, the technology, and societal structures of the times that produced them. But for those who actually developed the skills for and dedicated the time and effort to that production, these manuscripts also showed something else. As Lovett and Doyle quote the 12th-century scribe Eadwine as proclaiming about his Eadwine Psalter, "The beauty of this book displays my genius."


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How Illuminated Medieval Manuscripts Were Made: A Step-by-Step Look at this Beautiful, Centuries-Old Craft

How the Brilliant Colors of Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts Were Made with Alchemy

Behold the Beautiful Pages from a Medieval Monk’s Sketchbook: A Window Into How Illuminated Manuscripts Were Made (1494)

The Medieval Masterpiece, the Book of Kells, Is Now Digitized & Put Online

800 Illuminated Medieval Manuscripts Are Now Online: Browse & Download Them Courtesy of the British Library and Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Killer Rabbits in Medieval Manuscripts: Why So Many Drawings in the Margins Depict Bunnies Going Bad

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Classic Children’s Books Now Digitized and Put Online: Revisit Vintage Works from the 19th & 20th Centuries

Children’s books are big business. And the market has never been more competitive. Bestselling, character-driven series spawn their own TV shows. Candy-colored readers feature kids’ favorite comic and cartoon characters. But kids’ books can also be fine art—a venue for well-written, finely-illustrated literature. And they are a serious subject of scholarship, offering insights into the histories of book publishing, education, and the social roles children were taught to play throughout modern history.

Digital archives of children’s books now make these histories widely accessible and preserve some of the finest examples of illustrated children’s literature. The Library of Congress’ new digital collection, for example, includes the 1887 Complete Collection of Pictures & Songs, illustrated by English artist Randolph Caldecott, who would lend his name fifty years later to the medal distinguishing the highest quality American picture books.

The LoC’s collection of 67 digitized kids’ books from the 19th and 20th centuries includes biographies, nonfiction, quaint nursery rhymes, the Gustave Doré-illustrated edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven, and a number of other titles sure to charm grown-ups, if not, perhaps, many of today’s young readers.

But who knows, King Winter—an 1859 tale in verse of a proto-Santa Claus figure, in a book partially shaped like the outline of the title character’s head—might still captivate. As might many other titles of note.

A sly collection of stories from 1903 called The Book of the Cat, with “facsimiles of drawings in colour by Elisabeth F. Bonsall”; a book of “Four & twenty marvellous tales” called The Wonder Clock, written and illustrated by Howard Pyle in 1888; and Edith Francis Foster’s 1902 Jimmy Crow about a boy named Jack and his boy-sized crow Jimmy (who could deliver messages to other young fancy lads).

An 1896 book called Gobolinks introduces a popular inkblot game of the same name that predates Hermann Rorschach’s tests by a couple decades. Other highlights include “examples of the work of American illustrators such as W.W. Denslow, Peter Newell… Walter Crane and Kate Greenaway,” writes the Library on its blog. The digitized collection debuted to mark the 100th anniversary of Children’s Book Week, celebrated during the last week of April in all 50 states in the U.S.

“It is remarkable,” says Lee Ann Potter, director of the LoC’s Learning and Innovation Office, “that when the first Children’s Book Week was celebrated, all of the books in the online collection… already existed.” Now they exist online, not only because of the technology to scan, upload, and share them, but “because careful stewards insured that these books have survived.”

Digital versions of today’s kids books could mean that there is no need to carefully preserve paper copies for posterity. But we can be grateful that archivists and librarians of the past saw fit to do so for this fascinating collection of children’s literature. The theme of this year’s Children’s Book WeekRead Now, Read Forever—“looks to the past, present, and most important, the future of children’s books.” Enter the Library of Congress digital collection of children’s books from over a century ago (and see the other sizable online archives at the links below) to visit their past, and imagine how vastly different their future might be.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hear J.R.R. Tolkien Read from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit in Vintage Recordings from the Early 1950s

J.R.R. Tolkien was not a big fan of his fandom. He had serious doubts about whether any of the millions of readers who adored The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy understood anything about what he was trying to do. But none of them can be blamed, since he didn’t at first set out to write fiction at all—at least not when it came to The Lord of the Rings. The books, he said, were “an attempt to create a world in which a form of language agreeable to my personal aesthetic might seem real.”

The most famous fantasy series of all time began its life as a linguistic experiment, in other words. “The invention of languages is the foundation,” said Tolkien. “The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse.” Of course, Tolkien fans know quite a bit about how personal his stories became, even as they incorporated more and more mythical elements. How could we possibly understand these stories the way Tolkien did?

Authors do not get to choose their readers, nor can they direct the interpretations of their work. Still Tolkien may have been more misunderstood than others, and maybe more entitled to complain. The scholarly work of philologists like himself—academics who studied the roots of languages and mythologies—had been mangled and misused by the Nazis. The fact caused Tolkien to confess to his son “a burning private grudge against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler” for “ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed” the history Tolkien had made his life’s work. (He also penned a scathing reply to a German publisher who asked him for proof of his "Aryan" descent.)

He would also have been appalled that not long after his death, Middle Earth became a “merchandising juggernaut,” as one student of his effect on popular culture puts it. Tolkien had strenuously resisted efforts by Disney to buy the rights to his fiction, objecting to what he saw as vulgar, mercenary commercialism. The hundreds of millions of dollars poured into the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films, and the empire of games, action figures, t-shirts, etc., might have seemed to him the very image of power-mad wizard Saruman’s designs for world domination.

This isn’t to say we should hear Tolkien scolding us as we pick up our box set of special edition books, Blu-Rays, and LOTR tchotchkes. He was no stranger to marketing. And he produced the inspiration for some of the most beloved adaptations with his own cover art designs and over a hundred drawings and paintings of Middle Earth and its English referents. But perhaps it would repay fans of the many LOTR-themed consumables to attend to the creator of the now-self-existent world of Middle Earth every now and then—to get closer, if not to Tolkien’s intentions, then at least to his mind and voice, both recorded in his letters and his own readings from his work.

In the clips here, you can listen to Tolkien himself read from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, including a recording at the top of him reading one of the fantasy languages he invented, then created an entire world around, the Elvish tongue Quenya in the poem "Namarie." Some of these YouTube clips have received their own cinematic treatment, in a YouTube sort of way, like the video below with a montage of Tolkien-inspired media and a dramatic score. This may or may not be to your liking, but the origin story of the recording deserves a mention.

Shown a tape recorder by a friend, whom Tolkien had visited to pick up a manuscript of The Lord of the Rings, the author decided to sit down and record himself. Delighted with the results, he agreed to read from The Hobbit. He liked the technology enough that he continued to record himself reading from his own work. Tolkien may not have desired to see his books turned into spectacles, but as we listen to him read, it's hard to see how anyone could resist the temptation to put his magnificent descriptions on the big screen. Hear the second part of that Hobbit reading here, and more Tolkien readings in the many links below.

Related Content:

J.R.R. Tolkien, Using a Tape Recorder for the First Time, Reads from The Hobbit for 30 Minutes (1952)

Listen to J.R.R. Tolkien Read Poems from The Fellowship of the Ring, in Elvish and English (1952)

J.R.R. Tolkien Reads From The Two Towers, the Second Book of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

Hear J.R.R. Tolkien Read From The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit

J.R.R. Tolkien Expressed a “Heartfelt Loathing” for Walt Disney and Refused to Let Disney Studios Adapt His Work

J.R.R. Tolkien Snubs a German Publisher Asking for Proof of His “Aryan Descent” (1938)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Street Art for Book Lovers: Dutch Artists Paint Massive Bookcase Mural on the Side of a Building

Bookcases are a great ice breaker for those who love to read.

What relief those shelves offer ill-at ease partygoers... even when you don't know a soul in the room, there’s always a chance you’ll bond with a fellow guest over one of your hosts’ titles.

Occupy yourself with a good browse whilst waiting for someone to take the bait.

Now, with the aid of Dutch street artists Jan Is De Man and Deef Feed, some residents of Utrecht have turned their bookcases into street art, sparking conversation in their culturally diverse neighborhood.

De Man, whose close friends occupy the ground floor of a building on the corner of Mimosastraat and Amsterdam, had initially planned to render a giant smiley face on an exterior wall as a public morale booster, but the shape of the three-story structure suggested something a bit more literary.

The trompe-l'oeil Boekenkast (or bookcase) took a week to create, and features titles in eight different languages.

Look closely and you’ll notice both artists’ names (and a smiley face) lurking among the spines.

Design mags may make an impression by ordering books according to size and color, but this communal 2-D boekenkast looks to belong to an avid and omnivorous reader.

Some English titles that caught our eye:


The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck

Keith Richards’ autobiography Life

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime 

Pride and Prejudice

The Little Prince

The World According to Garp


And a classy-looking hardbound Playboy collection that may or may not exist in real life.

(Readers, can you spot the other fakes?)

Boekenkast is the latest of a number of global bookshelf murals tempting literary pilgrims to take a selfie on the way to the local indie bookshop.

via Bored Panda

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in New York City this May for the next installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Mueller Report Is #1, #2 and #3 on the Amazon Bestseller List: You Can Get It Free Online

Peruse the Amazon bestselling book list and you'll find that the long-awaited Mueller Report is not just the #1 bestseller. It's also the #2 bestseller and the #3 bestseller. Collusion and obstruction--it's the stuff that makes for good book sales, it appears.

You can pre-order the Mueller Report in book, ebook and even audio book formats via the links above. But if you want to download the report for free, and start reading it asap, simply head to the Washington Post and New York Times. Or go straight to the source at the Justice Department web site. Politico has a searchable PDF version here.

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A 16th Century “Database” of Every Book in the World Gets Unearthed: Discover the Libro de los Epítomes Assembled by Christopher Columbus’ Son

The 16th century was a thrilling time for books, at least for those who could afford them: building a respectable personal library (even if it didn't include novelties like the books that open six different ways and the wheels that made it possible to rotate through many open books at once) took serious resources. Hernando Colón, the illegitimate son of Christopher Columbus, seems to have commanded such resources: as The Guardian's Alison Flood writes, he "made it his life’s work to create the biggest library the world had ever known in the early part of the 16th century. Running to around 15,000 volumes, the library was put together during Colón’s extensive travels" and ultimately contained everything from the works of Plato to posters pulled from tavern walls.

Alas, this ambitious library, meant to encompass all languages, cultures, and forms of writing, is now mostly lost. "After Colón’s death in 1539, his massive collection ultimately ended up in the Seville Cathedral, where neglect, sticky-fingered bibliophiles, and the occasional flood reduced the library to just 4,000 volumes over the centuries," writes's Jason Daley. But we now know what it contained, thanks to the discovery just this year of the Libro de los Epítomes, or "Book of Epitomes," the library's foot-thick catalog that not only lists the volumes it contained but describes them as well. "Colón employed a team of writers to read every book in the library and distill each into a little summary in Libro de los Epítomes," Flood writes, "ranging from a couple of lines long for very short texts to about 30 pages for the complete works of Plato."

The Libro de los Epítomes turned up earlier this year in another collection, that of an Icelandic scholar by the name of Árni Magnússon who left his books to the University of Copenhagen when he died in 1730. Fewer than 30 of the 3,000 texts in Magnússon's mostly Icelandic and other Scandinavian-language collection (detailed images of which you can see at Typeroom) are written in Spanish, which perhaps explains why the Libro de los Epítomes went overlooked for more than 350 years. Rediscovered, it now offers a wealth of information on thousands and thousands of books from five-centuries ago, many of which have long since passed out of existence.

Colón’s uniquely exhaustive library catalog opens a window onto not just what 16th-century Europeans were reading, but how they were reading — and how the very nature of reading was evolving. "This was someone who was, in a way, changing the model of what knowledge is," Daley quotes Colón’s biographer Edward Wilson-Lee as observing. "Instead of saying ‘knowledge is august, authoritative things by some venerable old Roman and Greek people,’ he’s doing it inductively: taking everything that everyone knows and distilling it upwards from there." The comparisons to "big data and Wikipedia and crowdsourced information" almost make themselves, as do the references to a certain 20th-century Spanish-language writer with an interest in history, language, and knowledge as represented in books extant and otherwise. If the Libro de los Epítomes didn't exist, Jorge Luis Borges would have had to invent it.

via the Guardian

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Watch Umberto Eco Walk Through His Immense Private Library: It Goes On, and On, and On!

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Salvador Dalí’s Illustrations for The Bible (1963)

Some might have taken offense when Salvador Dalí began illustrating the Bible in 1963. The notorious Surrealist “went to jail for his artworks as a young man,” writes Jackson Arn writes at Artsy, but he “lived long enough to lend his legendary panache to Hollywood movies and Alka-Seltzer commercials.” Along the way, he gained a reputation for having a rather vicious character. George Orwell, reviewing Dalí’s autobiography, described him as “disgusting” for his fanatical harassment and abuse of other people. But, Orwell went on, “Dalí is a draughtsman of very exceptional gifts. He is also, to judge by the minuteness and the sureness of his drawings, a very hard worker…. He has fifty times more talent than most of the people who would denounce his morals and jeer at his paintings.”

Dalí hardly needed the defense of his morals or his paintings, nor might he have wanted it. That was the wrong sort of attention. But maybe he himself was surprised by a later career turn as an illustrator of respectable “Great Books”—including not only Judeo-Christian scripture, but also Don Quixote, Macbeth, The Divine Comedy, Alice in Wonderland, and much more.

The artist who seemed to have nothing but contempt for traditional canons approached these projects with the skill and professionalism Orwell couldn’t help but admire, as well as subtleties and understated tonal shifts we might not have associated with his work.

These are not his first religious subjects; he had always referenced big scenes and broad themes in Catholicism. But the illustrations represent a deeper engagement with the primary text—105 paintings in all, each based on select passages from the Latin Vulgate Bible. Published by Rizzoli in 1969, Biblia Sacra (The Sacred Bible) was commissioned by Dalí’s friend, Dr. Guiseppe Albareto, a devout Catholic whose intention “for this massive undertaking,” writes the Lockport St. Gallery, “was to bring the artist back to his religious roots.” Whatever effect that might have had, Dalí approaches the project with the same diligence evident in his other illustrations—he takes artistic risks while making a sincere effort to stay close to the spirit of the text. If he did this work for the money, he earned it.

Dalí's illustrations “aren’t some kind of subversive prank," writes Arn. "The luminous watercolors he produced for the Bible are, in the main, earnest renderings of their sacred subjects.” Perhaps the book illustrations have attracted so little attention from art historians because they lack the sensationalism and outrage Dalí aggressively cultivated in his public persona. Maybe these paintings, as German gallerist Holger Kempkens puts it, show “something of a spiritual side of Dalí.” Or maybe they just add to a bigger picture that shows what he could do with narratives not of his own making, but which he clearly respected and found challenging and stimulating. These qualities apply to many parts of the Bible as well as to great literary epics, including those based on the Bible, like John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which Dalí illustrated in a series of surprisingly spare, elegant etchings.

You can buy an original set of Dalí’s illustrated Bible in five volumes from The Lockport Street Gallery (email for a price and condition report); buy a more affordable book online that features and explores Dalí's illustrations; or see all 105 of Dalí’s Biblical illustrations (and purchase some 1967 prints) at Artsy.

via Artsy

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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