Franco-Saxon Decoration

Franco-Saxon manuscript decoration

Manuscripts decorated in the Franco-Saxon style are some of the most visually stunning signs of the flow of inspiration and connections across the English Channel in the early Middle Ages. Emilia Henderson examines the design and production of these works.

The term ‘Franco-Saxon’ (alongside variants such as ‘Franco-Insular’) has been used since the mid-19th century to describe the mixed heritage of the decoration, page layout, and script features of these manuscripts. The ‘Franco’ part of the term refers to Francia, that is, the kingdom of the Franks where these manuscripts were made. While the territories controlled by the Franks expanded greatly under the early rulers of the Carolingian dynasty, who ruled intermittently from 751 to 987, their heartlands remained in an area roughly corresponding to modern-day France and southwest Germany. The other half of the term refers to the incorporation of decorative motifs from Anglo-Saxon and Irish manuscript art of the seventh and eighth centuries, and reflects the synonymous use of anglais and saxon, to mean ‘English’, in early French scholarship.

The defining features of the style include intricate geometric knotwork patterns, designs made up of intertwining stylised creatures, and the heads of birds or other animals at the end of letters. These characteristics are usually referred to as ‘Insular’, derived from their use in art on the islands of both Britain and Ireland (and in the Continental monasteries founded by Anglo-Saxon or Irish monks).

Otho-Corpus Gospels

Cotton MS Otho C V, f. 28r

Opening three letters of the first word of the Gospel of St Mark (British Library, Cotton Otho C. V, f. 28r, detail)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Echternach Gospels

Latin 9389, f. 76r detail

Opening three letters of the first word of the Gospel of St Mark (BnF, Latin 9389, f. 76r, detail)

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This type of knotwork, interlace, and animal decoration was typically applied to large and exuberant initials marking the opening of texts – turning the letters themselves into adornment – as in two Gospel-books made around 700, seen above. If the Cotton Otho book had not been damaged in a fire in 1731, the similarities between the two would be even more prominent. Nonetheless, the brightly coloured ribbons of yellow and red that form the panels of intricate knotwork are still clearly visible in both examples.

Codex Bigotianus (first of two volumes)

Latin 281, f. 137r detail

Initial at the opening of the Gospel of St Luke (BnF, Latin 281, f. 137r, detail)

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Another Insular Gospel-book, (now in two parts, BnF, Latin 298 and 281, made in Southern England at the beginning of the eighth century) has striking animal-based, or zoomorphic, designs in some of its letters. Here an initial of the letter ‘Q’ is decorated with interlacing stylised animals at the bottom and top of the letter, and in many of the compartments making up its body.

As Frankish artists incorporated these elements they combined them with classicising features reminiscent of the late antique Roman Empire. Characteristics such as gold and silver ink and purple backgrounds – evocative of Antique imperial grandeur – were seen as fitting decoration for the luxurious copies of liturgical books in the Franco-Saxon style. This interest is also seen in the attention to symmetry and harmonising proportions, perhaps inspired by Roman monumental inscriptions, which is extended to the layout of the entire page in Franco-Saxon manuscript decoration. The capital script accompanying the decorated initials was also inspired by such Roman inscriptions.

The Three Main Centres of Production

The Franco-Saxon style was particularly popular in what is now the northeast of France. This area was, and still is, a natural point for close connections with England Ireland. Traditionally, the development and refinement of this style has been attributed to three main monasteries in this region: the Benedictine abbeys of St Amand (in Saint-Amand-les-Eaux), St Vaast (in Arras), and St Bertin (in Saint-Omer).

Scholars have assigned different manuscripts to the Franco-Saxon group, but there are 36 manuscripts that are considered central to the group. All of these were probably made in the three monasteries of St Amand, St Vaast and St Bertin, and all of them are biblical or liturgical books. The most common category among them, with 23 representatives, is Gospel-books, but there are also eight Sacramentaries (service books containing all the prayers to be said by the celebrant during Mass) and two Psalters, that is, the book of the Psalms. Another characteristic of the Franco-Saxon style is the relative dearth of figurative decoration. Only eight of the 23 Gospel-books, and two books in other categories, have any images of people. This contrasts with luxury books created in other celebrated Carolingian manuscript workshops, which tend to contain images of Evangelists at the beginning of their Gospels, and sometimes other illustrations.

The most classic and well-studied example of Franco-Saxon decoration is found in the so-called Second Bible of Charles the Bald, King of West Francia (843–877) and Holy Roman Emperor (875–877), now Paris, BnF, Latin 2. The Second Bible is one of only two manuscripts in the Franco-Saxon group – and only a handful of surviving manuscripts from this period – that can be dated with relative certainty. Its production can be dated between 871 and 873, due to references to specific events in its dedication poem. As a result, scholars have sought to group and compare other manuscripts similar in style to the Second Bible to this period of the third quarter of the ninth century.

Most of these books (25) are thought to have been made in the monastery of Saint-Amand, which was one of the leading Carolingian centres of production for prestigious liturgical books during this period. Several of these Saint-Amand manuscripts clearly were intended for other ecclesiastical centres, either as gifts or as commissions. This is especially clear in the Sacramentaries, as the prayers and the saints referred to in them tended to be tailored to the specific custom of each centre.

Local and Regional Styles

Consequently, the Franco-Saxon style of manuscript decoration spread with these exports and seems to have become closely linked with the decoration of liturgical books. This, in turn, is likely to have been an important factor in the appearance of local and regional versions of this style in other parts of Francia.

Gospel-book produced in Northern France

Harley MS 2797, f. 132r

Beginning of St John’s Gospel, from a Gospel-book produced in Northern France, c. 850–875 (British Library, Harley MS 2797, f. 132r)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

For example, the decoration in a Gospel-book made in the third quarter of the ninth century, probably in Reims or another Northern French centre is closely related to the Franco-Saxon style (BL, Harley MS 2797). At the beginning of the Gospel of St John, the words In principio (In the beginning) include Insular features of interlace and knotwork in the first two letters. The characteristically Carolingian elements include the sumptuous colour scheme of gold and silver on a background of imperial purple, with highlights of muted blue and red and the frame with its swirling acanthus leaf motif. Moreover, the letters gradually decrease in size according to a clear hierarchy, changing from the large capital script to a smaller uncial script.

However, there are subtle differences, too. This is most evident in the panel of knotwork in the body of the ‘I’, where the separate strands are hard to make out and not particularly intricate. Similarly, the design of the interlace that fills out the space between the vertical and the diagonal strokes of the ‘N’ is asymmetrical. Perhaps this is indicative of an early attempt at Reims of adopting a new and fashionable style of decoration that was radiating from the main north-eastern monastery workshops.

Franco-Saxon decoration at Tours

The abbey of Saint-Martin of Tours, in western central France, was another highly influential Carolingian scriptorium in the ninth century. During the first half of the century it developed into a powerhouse of manuscript production for export, notable for its refined register of scripts and its command of various classical motifs such as naturalistic figurative illustrations. Towards the end of the century, however, the Franco-Saxon style began showing its impact here as well.

The Abbey’s position on the river Loire made it a target for the Vikings, who ventured further inland as the century wore on. In 853 the Abbey was attacked and burned for the first time. Such attacks became a regular occurrence until 903, often forcing the monks to flee to neighbouring centres for refuge. This also resulted in an influx of books from scriptoria all over Francia to help restore the losses from the library. It is likely that such donated books brought the Franco-Saxon style to the attention of the Tours scriptorium.

9th-century Gospel-book from Tours

Add MS 11849, f. 27r

Opening of the Gospel of St Matthew, from a Gospel-book produced in Tours, c. 850–900 (British Library, Add MS 11849, f. 27r)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

9th-century Gospel-book from Tours

Add MS 11849, f. 26v

The beginning of St John’s Gospel (British Library, Add MS 11849, f. 152r)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

The Tours scribes appear to have incorporated Franco-Saxon features into their own stylistic repertoire quickly and almost seamlessly in the third quarter of the ninth century. Two manuscripts of the third quarter of the ninth century, with strikingly similar types of decorated initials illustrate this point: a Gospel-book (British Library, Add MS 11849) and a manuscript containing various prayers, hymns and other devotional texts (BnF, Latin 13388).

The familiar scheme of the initials, with their orange-red outline filled in with gold, are notable signs of this Franco-Saxon influence. However, these two Tours manuscripts present contrasts from typical Franco-Saxon features as well. Instead of containing the openings of their texts within framed borders, the carefully balanced layout of initial and other text creates its own invisible frame. This is especially clear in the opening to the Gospel of St Matthew above, in which the letters in gold are carefully spaced to create a balance against the two large and lavishly decorated initials Li(ber) (book).

9th-century collection of prayers and litanies

Latin 13388, f. 82r

Beginning of Psalm 1, from a Gospel-book produced in Tours, c. 850–900 (BnF, Latin 13388, f. 82r)

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Similarly, the two lions on top of the ‘I’ (n) at the beginning of St John’s Gospel (British Library, Add MS 11849) and two birds on top of the ‘B’ (eatus) (Blessed) in a Psalter made in Tours (BnF, Latin 13388) have a naturalistic, if simplistic, character, far removed from the highly stylistic and elongated forms of animal heads in the books made in the north-eastern centres such as Saint-Amand. Where the Tours interpretation of the Franco-Saxon style positively excels, however, is the use of highly detailed and painterly acanthus leaf motifs in the panels of the bodies of the initials, instead of knotwork designs.

The endurance of Franco-Saxon manuscript decoration

While most of the strands of art born out of the Carolingian Renaissance waned as the Carolingian dynasty declined in power towards the end of the ninth century, elements of the Franco-Saxon style continued to influence artists for several centuries. Towards the very end of the ninth century, as the Viking attacks became bolder and more frequent, the monks of monasteries close to the northern coasts and rivers like the Seine were forced to flee further inland to the southeast. In doing so they took their books and this style with them to new regions where it informed the subsequent developments in manuscript art.

10th-century Gospel-book, produced in Metz

Latin 9393, f. 29r

Beginning of St Matthew’s Gospel, from a Gospel-book produced in Metz, c. 950–1000 (BnF, Latin 9393, f. 29r)

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The cathedral of Saint Stephen of Metz was one of the new centres that carried on this tradition. One of the most important survivals of the tenth-century Metz scriptorium is another Gospel-book, now BnF, Latin 9393. As was true of a majority of the Gospel-books during the peak of the Franco-Saxon manuscript illumination, this copy does not have any figurative illustration. Its decoration is reserved for the canon tables and the opening word of each Gospel. In one such opening page (above) the frame outlined in gold is filled with a repeating plant leaf motif in gold and silver. However, filling up and almost touching the boundary of that frame is the bold golden ‘LIB’ (er) (book). With its orange-red outline, knotwork panels in the body of the letters, intricate interlace finials, and careful proportions it would not look out of place in one of the Franco-Saxon manuscripts made a century earlier.

The Franco-Saxon style of manuscript decoration stands out among ninth-century trends of Carolingian manuscript production. The artists responsible (or their patrons) chose to focus on decorating the individual letters of Scripture in their liturgical books, taking inspiration from both Anglo-Saxon or Irish, and Antique Roman models. The prestige and wealth of the centres of production is no less remarkable. Seen not only in the precious pigments and the work of the expert scribes and illuminators adorning the pages, it is also demonstrated clearly by the geographical range and the longevity of the style.

Further reading:

Joachim E. Gaehde, with Florentine Mütherich, Carolingian Painting (New York, 1976).

Lawrence Nees, Early Medieval Art (Oxford, 2002), especially pp. 156-74.

Wilhelm Koehler and Florentine Mütherich, eds., Die karolingischen Miniaturen, Bd. 7: Die frankosächsische Schule (Wiesbaden, 2009).

  • Emilia Henderson
  • Emilia Henderson is a PhD student on a Collaborative Doctoral Award, funded by the AHRC, which is jointly supervised by Dr Kathleen Doyle at the British Library and Prof Joanna Story at University of Leicester. Her thesis focuses on ninth-century Franco-Saxon manuscripts and is closely connected with The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project.