Before the introduction of printing to Western Europe during the mid-15th century, all books were written by hand. The Latin for hand, ’manus’, and for writing, ’scriptum’, give us the word manuscript. Making a manuscript was slow and demanding: sometimes routinely laborious, sometimes creatively glorious, and always expensive.
The most luxurious manuscripts were illuminated: lit up by decorations and pictures in brightly coloured pigments and burnished gold leaf. They are among the most dazzling and intriguing objects ever created, and the British Library’s collection is one of the finest in the world. More than 3,000 images have been selected here from manuscripts associated with particular places or regions across the British Isles. They reflect almost 1,000 years of history, from around 600 to 1600.
Masterpieces such as the Lindisfarne Gospels are justifiably famous, but for every one of these ‘stars’ there are thousands of less elaborate manuscripts. Each tells us something of the faith, politics and economics that underpinned daily life from the collapse of the Roman Empire to the Reformation.
The conversion of the British Isles to Christianity brought a demand for copies of scripture and for commentaries expounding its meaning. Manuscripts were both imported from Europe and produced at home: artistic styles were absorbed and cross-fertilised. The Lindisfarne Gospels was made at the monastery on Holy Island. Its pages blend native Celtic and Anglo-Saxon elements with Roman, Coptic and Eastern traditions to create an artistic expression of the cultural melting pot that was Northumbria in the eighth century. Such manuscripts helped define the growing sense of ’Englishness’ - a spirit epitomised by Bede’s ’History of the English Church and People’, completed in 731.
Though Latin was the universal language of Christian Europe, some manuscripts were written in the vernacular, the local tongue. Around the year 1000, Aelfric, Abbot of Eynsham, produced a ’Readers’ Digest’ style English paraphrase of the first six books of the Old Testament. Aelfric was a famous preacher and a prolific translator of Latin texts into English. He was inspired by the belief that the Apocalypse, the end of the world, was approaching and everyone had to be prepared for the divine judgement that would follow.
Manuscripts in the vernacular also preserved indigenous literature, drawing on the rich oral traditions that had produced such epic poems as the English ’Beowulf’ and the Irish ’Táin BÓ Cuailnge’
Books relating to topics such as medicine and astronomy joined those on scripture and theology. Ancient knowledge was transmitted through the monastic scribes. In early 11th-century Canterbury, for example, a manuscript was made of Cicero’s ’Aratea’, a Latin translation by the first-century Roman poet of a verse textbook on astronomy written three centuries before Christ by the Greek, Aratus of Soli.
During the twelfth century the number of monasteries and abbeys grew, all needing manuscripts for their libraries. From around 1200, alternative centres of learning appeared in the shape of the first universities. Production of manuscripts began to shift from monastic scriptoria to professional workshops in the new university towns. Their subject matter became broader and more secular.
As literacy increased from the thirteenth century onwards, manuscripts provided visual and literary entertainment for the wealthy elite. Books such as Chrétien de Troyes’ stories of King Arthur and his knights gave old tales a new chivalric twist and reflected the cosmopolitan culture of aristocratic life. The fateful meeting of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere at the feast is among the 14th-century paintings added, in Bohemian style, to an earlier English manuscript written in the Norman French spoken at the royal court.
The number of people able to afford and read books increased apace during the 14th and 15th centuries. Clergy, landowners and merchants all aspired to own a Book of Hours - a series of daily prayers and devotions. These were the most common of medieval manuscripts. Some were ’mass produced’ and sold ready-made or bought second-hand. Others were specially commissioned, every detail of quality and decoration designed to fit each patron’s purse. Books had become as much status symbols as spiritual aids. The Hours made for Thomas Butler, 7th earl of Ormonde and great grandfather of Anne of Boleyn, is just one of many including the family coats of arms amid its religious imagery.
While most people could not hope to own even a single book, the wealthy enjoyed an almost unlimited choice. The manuscripts made for them reveal a privileged world of hunting, heraldry, chess problems and romantic tales of chivalry.
Doctors, lawyers, civil servants and teachers owned illuminated books too, but as the tools of their profession. A London civil servant, James le Palmer, put together a vast illustrated compendium of knowledge in the late 14th century. His ’Omne Bonum’ compiles information from different sources into alphabetically ordered subjects, including the liberal arts, theology and canon law, sciences and history. Even legal and government documents were sometimes decorated with portraits and heraldic emblems, embellishing their practical intent with expressions of power and pedigree.
Books may not have been owned by those who tilled the land or laboured in towns, but their illuminated pages often give unparalleled insights into otherwise unrecorded scenes of everyday working life. One of the most evocative is the Luttrell Psalter, a Book of Psalms made in the 1330s for Sir Geoffrey Luttrell, Lord of the Manor of Irnham in Lincolnshire. His estate is presented as a microcosm of divine order, over which Sir Geoffrey reigned on behalf of God and King. Nightmarish monsters inhabit the manuscript’s margins, reminders of the ever-present forces of evil and chaos kept at bay by the rule of religion and feudal law - a rule already being challenged before the coming of the printing press further democratised knowledge and changed the world order for ever.