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Illuminated manuscript leaves

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Date of creation : [ca. 15th century]

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Format : Manuscript

Donated by The Friends of the State Library of South Australia 1984 and 1986

These two leaves are both from the late 15th century but from different parts of Europe. The page from a Psalter has 76 initials in blue or gold with a pen drawn background; it is written in double columns in a humanist script. It is likely to have been written for a patron from north-east Italy, as saints associated with Ravenna, Bologna and Rimini are named. The humanist script was based on the earlier Caroline script and was valued for its beauty and legibility. This leaf was written by Pietro Ursuleo, who was a scribe in Naples from 1448.

From northern France, possibly Flanders, is a leaf from a Book of Hours. Written in a cursive gothic script known as bastarda, the page is decorated in a five-line initial 'O' in burnished gold on a quartered background painted blue and pink. Delicate filigree work highlighted with blue and gold fills the margin to the left of the letter.

Both of these works were created by hand at a time when printed books were becoming more widely available.

During the Middle Ages before the development of printing from moveable type, manuscripts were created in monasteries and later in lay workshops in the larger cities. Usually written on vellum (animal skin) the text would be highlighted with colour and with such materials as gold, silver and lapis lazuli to achieve the intense colours in the decorations. The level of decoration depended on the size of the buyer's purse.

The blank page was seen as a space to be filled and there were a variety of tasks in the fulfillment of this from the ruling of the lines for the scribe, the adding of the text itself, the initial letters which might be either decorative or historiated, and the borders which surrounded the text to a greater or lesser extent. Historiated initials were highly decorative letters which contained a miniature picture. The most elaborate books were probably Books of Hours, or Psalters.

Besides these personal books however were the religious texts used by scholars and students which were also produced in monasteries for many centuries, and later in the lay workshops. These were decorated to a lesser extent.

Handwriting developed many regional styles throughout Europe, from the insular script of Britain and Ireland, the Carolingian hand largely developed by Alcuin of York for the court of Charlemagne, the later Gothic hand in which the letters became compressed and more angular and finally the humanist script of Italy which was the precursor of the roman type developed by Nicholas Jenson for his printing press.

Thousands of books were produced by hand in the days before printing; many have survived intact and are treasured items with no two copies alike. There is evidence that many were bequeathed to relatives by their owners. Many however fell apart from constant use and pages have been sold singly, purchased by individuals and libraries to provide examples of different scripts and decorative styles.


Further reading

Harthan, John Books of hours and their owners London: Thames & Hudson, c1977

The art of the book: its place in medieval worship edited by Margaret M. Manion and Bernard J. Muir Exeter : University of Exeter Press, 1998

Backhouse, Janet Books of hours London; Dover, N.H.: British Library, c1985

Decoration and illustration in medieval English manuscripts edited by A.S.G. Edwards London: British Library, 2002

Brown, Michelle The British Library guide to writing and scripts: history and techniques Oxford: British Library, 1998


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