William Morris

Some Notes on the Illuminated Books of the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages may be called the epoch of writing par excellence. Stone, bronze, wooden rune-staves, waxed tablets, papyrus, could be written upon with one instrument or another; but all these - even the last, tender and brittle as it was - were but makeshift materials for writing on; and it was not until parchment and vellum, and at last rag-paper, became common, that the true material for writing on, and the quill pen, the true instrument for writing with, were used. From that time till the period of the general use of printing must be considered the age of written books. As in other handicrafts, so also in this, the great period of genuine creation (once called the Dark Ages by those who had forgotten the past, and whose ideal of the future was a comfortable prison) did all that was worth doing as an art, leaving makeshifts to the period of the New Birth and the intelligence of modern civilisation.

Byzantium was doubtless the mother of medieval calligraphy, but the art spread speedily through the North of Europe and flourished there at an early period, and it is almost startling to find it, as we do, in full bloom in Ireland in the seventh century. No mere writing has been done before or since with such perfection as that of the early Irish ecclesiastical books; and this calligraphy is interesting also, as showing the development of what is now called by printers `lower-case' letter, from the ancient majuscular characters. The writing is, I must repeat, positively beautiful in itself, thoroughly ornamental; but these books are mostly well equipped with actual ornament, as carefully executed as the writing - in fact, marvels of patient and ingenious interlacements. This ornament, however, has no relation in any genuine Irish book to the traditional style of Byzantium, but is rather a branch of a great and widespread school of primal decoration, which has little interest in the representation of humanity and its doings, or, indeed, in any organic life, but is contented with the convolutions of abstract lines, over which it attains to great mastery. The most obvious example of this kind of art may be found in the carvings of the Maoris of New Zealand; but it is common to many races at a certain stage of development. The colour of these Irish ornaments is not very delightful, and no gold appears in them. 1

This Irish calligraphy and illumination was taken up by the North of England monks; and from them, though in less completeness, by the Carlovingian makers of books both in France and even in Germany; but they were not content with the quite elementary representation of the human form current in the Irish illuminations, and filled up the gap by imitating the Byzantine picture-books with considerable success, 2 and in time developed a very beautiful style of illumination combining ornament with figure-drawing, and one seat of which in the early eleventh century was Winchester. 3 Gold was used with some copiousness in these latter books, but is not seen in the carefully-raised and highly-burnished condition which is so characteristic of medieval illumination at its zenith.

It should be noticed that amongst the Byzantine books of the earlier period are some which on one side surpass in mere sumptuousness all books ever made; these are written in gold and silver on vellum, stained purple throughout. Later on again, in the semi-Byzantine-Anglo-Saxon or Carlovingian period, are left us some specimens of books written in gold and silver on white vellum. This splendour was at times resorted to (chiefly in Italy) in the latter half of the fifteenth century.

The just-mentioned late Anglo-Saxon style was the immediate forerunner of what may be called the first complete medieval school, that of the middle of the twelfth century. Here the change for the better is prodigious. Apart from the actual pictures done for explanation of the text and the edification of the `faithful,' these books are decorated with borders, ornamental letters, &c., in which foliage and forms human, animal, and monstrous, are blended with the greatest daring and most complete mastery. The drawing is firm and precise, and it may be said also that an unerring system of beautiful colour now makes its appearance. This colour (as all schools of decorative colour not more or less effete) is founded on the juxtaposition of pure red and blue modified by delicate but clear and bright lines and `pearlings' of white, and by the use of a little green and spaces of pale pink and flesh-colour, and here and there some negative greys and ivory yellows. In most cases where the book is at all splendid, gold is very freely used, mostly in large spaces - backgrounds and the like - which, having been gilded over a solid ground with thick gold-leaf, are burnished till they look like solid plates of actual metal. The effect of this is both splendid and refined, the care with which the gold is laid on, and its high finish, preventing any impression of gaudiness. The writing of this period becoming somewhat more definitely `Gothic,' does not fall short of (it could not surpass) that of the previous half-century.

From this time a very gradual change, during which we have to note somewhat more of delicacy in drawing and refinement of colour, brings us to the first quarter of the thirteenth century; and here a sundering of the styles of the different peoples begins to be obvious. Throughout the twelfth century, though there is a difference, it is easier to distinguish an English or French book from a German or Italian by the writing than by the illumination; but after 1225 the first glance on opening the book will most often cry out at you, German, Italian, or French-English. For the rest, the illuminations still gain in beauty and delicacy, the gold is even more universally brilliant, the colour still more delicious. The sub-art of the rubricator, as distinguished from the limner and the scribe, now becomes more important, and remains so down to the end of the fifteenth century. Work of great fineness and elegance, drawn mostly with the pen, and always quite freely, in red and blue counter-changed, is lavished on the smaller initials and other subsidiaries of the pages, producing, with the firm black writing and the ivory tone of the vellum, a very beautiful effect, even when the more solid and elaborate illumination is lacking.

During this period, apart from theological and philosophical treatises, herbals, bestiaries, &c., the book most often met with, especially when splendidly ornamented, is the Psalter, as sung in churches, to which is generally added a calendar, and always a litany of the saints. This calendar, by the way, both in this and succeeding centuries, is often exceedingly interesting, from the representations given in it of domestic occupations. The great initial B (Beatus vir qui non) of these books affords an opportunity to the illuminator, seldom missed, of putting forth to the full his powers of design and colour.

The last quarter of the thirteenth century brings us to the climax of illumination considered apart from book-pictures. Nothing can exceed the grace, elegance, and beauty of the drawing and the loveliness of the colour found at this period in the best-executed books; and it must be added that, though some work is rougher than other, at this time there would appear, judging from existing examples, to have been no bad work done. The tradition of the epoch is all-embracing and all-powerful, and yet no single volume is without a genuine individuality and life of its own. In short, if all the other art of the early Middle Ages had disappeared, they might still claim to be considered a great period of art on the strength oftheir ornamental books.

In the latter part of the thirteenth century we note a complete differentiation between the work of the countries of Europe. There are now three great schools: The French-Flemish-English, the Italian, and the German. Of these the first is the most, the last of the least importance. As to the relations between England and France, it must be said that, though there is a difference between them, it is somewhat subtle, and may be put thus: of some books you may say, This is French; of others, This is English; but of the greater part you can say nothing more than, This belongs to the French-English school. Of those that can be differentiated with something like certainty, it may be said that the French excel specially in a dainty and orderly elegance, the English specially in love of live and nature, and there is more of rude humour in them than in their French contemporaries; but he must be at once a fastidious and an absolute man who could say the French is better than the English or the English than the French.

The Norwich Psalter, in the Bodleian Library; the Arundel, Queen Mary's, and Tennison Psalters, in the British Museum, are amongst the finest of these English books: nothing can surpass their fertility of invention, splendour of execution, and beauty of colour.

This end of the thirteenth century went on producing splendid psalters at a great rate; but between 1260 and 1300 or 1320 the greatest industry of the scribe was exercised in the writing of Bibles, especially pocket volumes. These last, it is clear, were produced in enormous quantities, for in spite of the ravages of time many thousands of them still exist. They are one and all beautifully written in hands necessarily very minute, and mostly very prettily illuminated with tiny figure-subjects in the initials of each book.

For a short period at the end of this and the beginning of the next century many copies of the Apocalypse were produced, illustrated copiously with pictures, which give us examples of serious Gothic design at its best, and seem to show us what wall-pictures of the period might have been in the North of Europe.

The fourteenth century, the great mother of change, was as busy in making ornamental books as in other artistic work. When we are once fairly in the century a great change is apparent again in the style. It is not quite true to say that it is more redundant than its predecessor, but it has more mechanical redundancy. The backgrounds to the pictures are more elaborated; sometimes diapered blue and red, sometimes gold most beautifully chased with dots and lines. The borders cover the page more; buds turn into open leaves: often abundance of birds and animals appear in the borders, naturalistically treated (and very well drawn); there is more freedom, and yet less individuality in this work; in short the style, though it has lost nothing (in its best works) of elegance and daintiness - qualities so desirable in an ornamented book - has lost somewhat of manliness and precision; and this goes on increasing till, towards the end of the century, we feel that we have before us work that is in peril of an essential change for the worse. 4

The differentiation, too, betwixt the countries increases; before the century is quite over, England falls back in the race, 5 and French-Flanders and Burgundy come forward, while Italy has her face turned toward the Renaissance, and Germany too often shows a tendency toward coarseness and incompleteness, which had to be redeemed in the long last by the honesty of invention and fitness of purpose of her woodcut ornaments to books. Many mostbeautiful books, however, were turned out, not only throughout the fourteenth, but even in the first half of the fifteenth century.6

The first harbinger of the great change that was to come over the making of books I take to be the production in Italy of most beautifully-written copies of the Latin classics. These are often very highly ornamented; and at first not only do they imitate (very naturally) the severe hands of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, but even (though a long way off) the interlacing ornament of that period. In these books the writing, it must be said, is in its kind far more beautiful than ornament. There were so many written and pictured books produced in the fifteenth century that space quite fails me to write of them as their great merits deserve. In the middle of the century an invention, in itself trifling, was forced upon Europe by the growing demand for more and cheaper books. Gutenberg somehow got hold of punches, matrices, the adjustable mould, and so of cast moveable type; Schoeffer, Mentelin, and the rest of them caught up the art with the energy and skill so characteristic of the medieval craftsman. The new German art spread like wildfire into every country of Europe; and in a few years written books had become mere toys for the immensely rich.

Yes the scribe, the rubricator, and the illuminator died hard. Decorated written books were produced in great numbers after printing had become common; by far the greater number of these were Books of Hours, very highly ornamented and much pictured. Their style is as definite as any of the former ones, but it has now gone off the road of logical consistency; for divorce has taken place between the picture-work and the ornament. Often the pictures are exquisitely-finished miniatures belonging to the best schools of painting of the day; but often also they are clearly the work of men employed to fill up a space, and having no interest in their work save livelihood. The ornament never fell quite so low as that, though as ornament it is not very `distinguished,' and often, especially in the latest books, scarcely adds to the effect on the page of the miniature to which it is subsidiary.

But besides these late-written books, in the first years of printing, the rubricator was generally, and the illuminator not seldom, employed on printing books themselves. In the early days of printing the big initials were almost always left for the rubricator to paint in in red and blue, and were often decorated with pretty scroll-work by him; and sometimes one or more pages of the book were surrounded with ornament in gold and colours, and the initials elaborately finished in the same way.

The most complete examples of this latter work subsidiary to the printed page are found in early books printed in Italy, especially in the splendid editions of the classics which came from the presses of the Roman and Venetian printers.

By about 1530 all book illumination of any value was over, and thus disappeared an art which may be called peculiar to the Middle Ages, and which commonly shows medieval craftsmanship at its best, partly because of the excellence of the work itself, and partly because that work can only suffer from destruction and defacement, and cannot, like medieval buildings, be subjected to the crueller ravages of `restoration.'

The illustrations for this article were the following:

1 Example: The Book of Kells, Trinity College, Dublin, &c.

2 Examples: Durham Gospels, British Museum, Gospels at Boulogne, &c.

3 Example: Charter of foundation of Newminster at Winchester, British Museum.

4 In France, Bibles Historiaux, i.e., partial translations of the Bible, very copiously pictured, were one of the most noteworthy productions of the latter half of the century. The Bible taken in the tent of the French King at the battle of Poitiers, now in the British Museum, is a fine example.

5 Though we have in the British Museum some magnificent examples of English illumination of the end of the fourteenth and beginning of the fifteenth centuries, e.g., The Salisbury Book; a huge Bible (Harl. i, e. ix) ornamented in a style very peculiarly English. The Wycliffe translation of the Bible at the Museum is a good specimen of this style.

6 The Hours of the Duke of Berry (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris), and the Bedford Hours, in the British Museum, both French, are exceedingly splendid examples of this period.

Magazine of Art, 1894.