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.”


Relat­ed Con­tent:

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.

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