A detail of an elaborate decorated initial and frame from a late 11th-century illuminated Psalter.

English manuscript illumination

Manuscripts reflect the creativity of artists and scribes, and the resources of their patrons. Kathleen Doyle and Eleanor Jackson outline the development of book art in early medieval England.

The Insular Period

Anglo-Saxon England produced books of remarkable beauty and sophistication. From around the seventh to ninth centuries, the style of manuscripts produced in Britain is known as Insular (literally, of the islands). This style originated in Ireland and Britain but spread to Continental monasteries founded by Irish and British missionaries. It is characterised by the synthesis of artistic elements drawn from different cultures. These include animal ornament and interlace from Germanic art, abstract curvilinear decoration from Celtic art, and human figures and vine scrolls from Mediterranean and Antique art.

Otho-Corpus Gospels

An illustration of a lion, the Evangelist symbol of St Mark, from the Otho-Corpus Gospels, damaged by fire in 1731.

St Mark’s symbol of a lion (British Library, Cotton MS Otho C V, f. 27r, detail)

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The earliest flourishing of manuscript culture in Anglo-Saxon England took place in Northumbria, the kingdom that stretched north from the river Humber into Southern Scotland. The conversion of Northumbria was led by missionaries from Ireland, who brought books with them. The manuscripts made in the new monasteries reflected the style of these Irish books and that of other produced elsewhere in Europe. For example, the abbot and founder of the priory of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow, Benedict Biscop, (b. c. 628, d. 690), travelled to the Continent five times throughout his career, and brought back manuscripts and other objects with him each time. Similarly, Wilfrid (b. c. 634, d. c. 709), the bishop of Hexham, made four European trips. Active scriptoria, or places set aside in monasteries for writing, were formed at Wearmouth-Jarrow, near modern-day Newcastle, the island of Lindisfarne and at York, amongst others.

A spectacular example of early Insular painting is included in a decorated copy of the Four Gospels probably made in Northumbria in the early eighth century (now British Library, Cotton MS Otho C V). The Cotton Otho book is now in two main parts: the Gospels of Saints Matthew and Mark were in the collection created by the great antiquary Sir Robert Cotton (d. 1631), now in the British Library, while the Gospels of Saints Luke and John are in Cambridge (Corpus Christi College MS 197b). Sadly, the Cotton portion of the manuscript was damaged in a fire in 1731, resulting in some shrinking of the pages, but even so the bold and stylised style of painting is arresting and powerful.

Important Insular manuscripts were also produced in Southumbria (the area of England south of the Humber river), where the archiepiscopal centre of Canterbury was particularly influential. Manuscripts and Mediterranean style were introduced by foundational figures such as St Augustine, the first archbishop of Canterbury (d. 604), who headed the Gregorian mission from Rome, and Theodore of Tarsus (b. 602, d. 690), archbishop of Canterbury from 668 to 690, who established a prominent school there. The scholars who flocked to the Canterbury school went on to disseminate ideas and manuscripts throughout Southern England and beyond.

Tiberius Bede

A page from the Tiberius Bede, featuring an elaborate decorated initial in red, green, and yellow, with interlace and beasts' heads.

Incipit page to Book One of Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica (British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 5v)

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A splendid example of the sophistication of this decoration is found in a copy of Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica (Ecclesiastical History of the English People) (British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius C II). This book gives its name to a group of manuscripts made in Kent and Mercia (corresponding to an area in the East Midlands) sometimes known as the ‘Tiberius’ group. The array of lively creatures that proliferate from the text and perch inside the decorated initials closely resemble those found on metalwork produced in England at this time.

The Winchester style

In the 10th century, Anglo-Saxon manuscript illumination benefited from the patronage that came with a major programme of monastic reform and increased royal support for the Church. Given their political and religious importance, it is perhaps not surprising that the majority of the illuminated manuscripts surviving from the later Anglo-Saxon period were produced in the centres of Winchester and Canterbury. Indeed the former centre has given its name to a style, characterised by full and heavy borders of fleshy acanthus leaves painted in bright, strong colours with golden bar frames, usually with particularly large groups of leaves at the four corners or centre of the borders.

Winchester Benedictional

A page from the Winchester Benedictional featuring the first blessing for Easter, decorated with a border and letters written in gold.

Gold letters and border at the beginning of the first blessing for Easter, from the Winchester Benedictional (BnF, MS latin 987, f. 31r)

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A wonderful example of this ‘Winchester’ style is the magnificent Winchester Benedictional. The Winchester Benedictional is one of a group of magnificent illuminated manuscripts probably made in Winchester in the later decades of the 10th century, during and following the tenure of Æthelwold, (later saint), bishop of Winchester from 963 to 984. Under his direction, Winchester developed as one of England’s principal centres for monastic reform and manuscript production.

Continental Connections and the Utrecht style

Another characteristic feature of later Anglo-Saxon book art is the use of finely detailed line drawings, often with colours or colour washes rather than fully painted decoration. This style perhaps derives from a remarkable Continental Psalter, now in Utrecht (Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS 32), which was present in Canterbury in the first half of the 11th century. Vibrant and expressive line drawing of this type is therefore sometimes referred to as the ‘Utrecht’ (or ‘Canterbury’) style.

Anglo-Saxon calendar and computistical material

An Anglo-Saxon calendar page for September, featuring a marginal illustration of a hunting scene.

September calendar page illustrated by men and dogs hunting a group of boar or wild pigs in a forest (British Library, Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 7r)

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This style is apparent in the energetic calendar scenes in a manuscript made in Southern England, perhaps in Canterbury, in the first half of the 11th century.

Prudentius, Psychomachia (War of the Soul)

A page from an Anglo-Saxon manuscript of Prudentius' Psychomachia, featuring illustrations of Superbia trying to trample Spes and Humilitas and Superbia falling.

Pride and her fall depicted in the Psychomachia (British Library, Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII, f. 15v)

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Another example of this style is apparent in the personifications of the vices and virtues in the copy of Psychomachia (War of the Soul) produced in the monastic scriptorium at Christ Church, Canterbury at the end of the 10th century.

Eadui Psalter

A full-page illustration of a group of monks presenting a copy of the Benedictine Rule to St Benedict, from the Eadui Psalter.

St Benedict and monks (British Library, Arundel MS 155, f. 133r)

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In some of these books both styles (or perhaps, more properly, techniques) are used side-by-side, and even in the same image. In the Eadui Psalter for example (British Library, Arundel MS 155), St Benedict and the monk prostrate at his feet are fully painted and illuminated with areas of gilding, while the monks of Canterbury on the right are drawn in outline and lightly tinted.

English Post-Conquest Manuscripts

The art of the late 11th and 12th century is sometimes referred to as Romanesque, a term first used in the 18th century to describe Romance languages, and later in the early 19th century to describe the rounded-arch style of architecture, thought to derive from Roman buildings (William Gunn, An Inquiry into the Origin and Influence of Gothic Architecture (1819); Arcisse de Caumont, Essaie sur l'architecture du moyen âge, particulièrement en Normandie (1824)).

The period to which this applies varies substantially in different regions. Indeed Abbot Suger’s (r. 1122–51) great building campaign at St Denis in the Île de France in the 1140s is generally cited as the beginning of the pointed arch style of Gothic architecture. For other types of art, the term is even more problematic. As one leading scholar succinctly commented ‘Romanesque is not easy to define’ (Zarnecki, Romanesque Art (1971)). For manuscripts, perhaps a better term, and one particularly relevant for this project, is the ‘Anglo-Norman fusion’ that is apparent in manuscripts made in England and France in the generations after the Norman conquest of England in 1066 (J. J. G. A. Alexander, in English Romanesque Art 1066–1200 (1984)).

Points of stylistic and artistic contact between Britain and the Continent were frequent from an early date. In England, this continued after the Norman Conquest of 1066 with the influx of churchmen and monks, particularly from foundations in Normandy into important positions in England. Moreover, in the 12th century England was part of a vast Plantagenet empire that reached from Scotland to the Pyrenees.


Passionale (Lives of Saints)

A decorated initial containing a representation of the martyrdom of St Demetrius, from a 12th-century Passionale.

The martyrdom of St Demetrius (British Library, Arundel MS 91, f. 107r, detail)

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One element of manuscript illumination that continues after the Conquest in English art is narrative decoration. Sometimes, the narrative is placed within the body of the initial letter of a word, at the beginning of texts, known as ‘historiated initials’. An outstanding example of this is provided by the lives of saints included in a manuscript made at St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury (British Library, Arundel MS 91). The Abbey was located east of the Cathedral, and like the Cathedral, was an important centre for book production both before and after the Norman Conquest of 1066.

Illuminated Psalter from Winchester

A full-page illustration of the Crucifixion from an illuminated 11th-century Psalter.

The Crucifixion (British Library, Arundel 60, f. 52v)

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Several remarkable Psalters made in England illustrate the continued production of luxury manuscripts in the generation after the Conquest. The first (British Library, Arundel MS 60) features a devotional focus for the contemplation of the Psalms with the insertion of a full-page image of the Crucifixion.

Canterbury or Anglo-Catalan Psalter

A page from the Canterbury or Anglo-Catalan Psalter, showing 12 painted scenes from the Book of Genesis.

12 scenes from Genesis, from the murder of Abel to Joseph storing grain (BnF, Latin 8846, f. 1v)

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Another is the last of the three copies of the Utrecht Psalter made in Canterbury (BnF, Latin 8846). It is an extraordinarily complex book, including all three version of the Psalms in Latin in parallel columns. It is also one of the two surviving copies of an Anglo-Norman gloss on the Hebraicum version of the Psalms, and includes four folios with an interlineal gloss in Old English above the Roman version (ff. 103v, 109v, 135 and 154v). Moreover, it begins with a comprehensive overview of biblical history, with 84 individual scenes covering seven pages, from the Creation of the World to the death of Herod. In each, the essentials of each scene are rendered succinctly and strikingly.

The variety, intricacy and beauty of these manuscripts made over 1,000 years ago belie assumptions about this period as the ‘dark ages’.

Further reading:

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, ed. by Claire Breay and Joanna Story (London, 2018)

Kathleen Doyle and Charlotte Denoël, Medieval Illumination: Manuscript Art from England and France 700—1200 (London, 2018)

Scot McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (London, 2016)

English Romanesque Art 1066–1200, Hayward Art Gallery, London 5 April-8 July 1984 (London, 1984)

The Golden Age of Anglo-Saxon Art 966-1066, ed. by Janet Backhouse, D. H. Turner and Leslie Webster (London, 1984)

Jonathan J. G. Alexander, Insular Manuscripts: 6th to the 9th Century, A Survey of Manuscripts Illuminated in the British Isles, 1 (London, 1978)

Elżbieta Temple, Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts 900-1066, A Survey of Manuscripts Illuminated in the British Isles, 2 (London, 1976)

George Zarnecki, Romanesque Art (London, 1971)

  • Kathleen Doyle
  • Dr Kathleen Doyle is the Lead Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts at the British Library.  She received her PhD in Medieval Art History from the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, where her thesis focussed on 12th-century Cistercian manuscripts and the use of images in monastic art. Her latest publications are with Charlotte Denoël, Medieval Illumination: Manuscript Art in England and France 700–1200 (2018), also available in French, and with Scot McKendrick, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (2016), which has been translated into Dutch, French, German and Italian.  

    Dr Doyle was the co-curator, with Dr Scot McKendrick, of the AHRC-funded exhibition, Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination, and the Lead Investigator for the Royal Manuscripts follow-on project, editing with Dr McKendrick the volume 1000 Years of Royal Books and Manuscripts (2013).

  • Eleanor Jackson
  • Eleanor Jackson is Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts at the British Library. She recently received her PhD in History of Art from the University of York, where her thesis focused on Insular pocket Gospel-books. Her research interests include medieval reading practices, book design and illumination.