The term ‘manuscript’ comes from the Latin for ‘handwritten’: before the invention of printing all books had to be written out by hand. This was a time-consuming and labour-intensive process, and could take months or years. Although paper was available in southern Europe from the twelfth century, its use did not become widespread until the late Middle Ages - there was no paper mill in England until the fifteenth century. Before this the usual support for writing was parchment (also known as vellum), made from stretched, treated animal skins. A large manuscript might require one whole cow- or sheep-skin to make a folded sheet of two to four pages, and a thick book could require the hides of entire herds. Medieval books were therefore expensive items.
Some manuscripts were made even more precious by ‘illumination’. This term comes from the Latin word for ‘lit up’ or ‘enlightened’ and refers to the use of bright colours and gold to embellish initial letters or to portray entire scenes. Sometimes the initials were purely decorative, but often they work with the text to mark important passages, or to enhance or comment on the meaning of the text.
The British Library has one of the finest collections of illuminated manuscripts in the world, rivalled by very few other institutions. This tour will give you a quick introduction both to some of the Library’s treasures and to the history of manuscript illumination in the West.
Select a date range below for an introduction to manuscripts of that period. Click on an image for an enlarged view and more detailed description of the manuscript and its significance.