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 Medievalists.net.
“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.”
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.