31 Days of Medieval Manuscripts

Text in Manuscripts – Day Four of Medieval Manuscripts

Cover image: A text page from a Gospel book, about 826–838 CE, Carolingian, from Germany. Ms. Ludwig II 1, fol. 11v, 83.MB.65.11v. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA.

As art historians, we spend most of our time focusing on manuscripts as works of art, and it’s easy to forget that they are books first and foremost. That is to say, they are conveyors of texts. Even the most luxurious manuscripts contain more text than image, and the vast majority of manuscripts have little to no decoration. It’s just that we are much less likely to see un-illustrated manuscripts in photos or museums. Today’s post will at least slightly balance the scales by focusing on text in manuscripts.

Languages, Scripts, and Alphabets

Medieval Ethiopian canon table
Matre Krestos (scribe), Canon table from a Gospel book, early 14th century CE,. Ethiopian, written in Ge’ez script. The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD. (CC0)

Just because it’s not fancy images in lots of bright colors doesn’t mean that text in manuscripts is visually uniform or uninteresting. First of all, there are all the different languages. While the manuscripts we’re generally familiar with tend to be written in Latin, or less commonly a European vernacular like French or Italian, there are also medieval manuscripts in dozens of other languages written in entirely different alphabets. And they completely fascinate me. Some of the obvious ones are Hebrew, Arabic, and Greek, but there are also plenty of others, like Geez (from Ethiopia) and Armenian. Plus, each alphabet has numerous possible scripts (like fonts, but handwritten) that can be used. Their popularity differs according to time and place. The upshot of all this is some incredibly cool stuff to look at, regardless of whether you understand the language in question.

Page Layout

A page from the Rothschild Pentateuch
Unknown illuminator, Elijah ben Meshallum and Elijah ben Jehiel (scribes), decorated text page from the Rothschild Pentateuch, 1296 CE. From France or Germany, written in Hebrew. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA.

It’s not all about the language or script, either. There are also a lot of both aesthetics and practical considerations to the way that text is laid out on the page – stuff like the number and width of columns, the ration of text to white space, the use of colored ink or larger letters to highlight certain sections of text, headings (often in red ink), and the addition of little decorative line fillers to finish out shorter lines of text. Sometimes, we might even see entire text blocks transformed into unusual shapes to accommodate illustrations or add visual interest.

The above page is from the Rothschild Pentateuch, a luxurious Jewish religious book written in Hebrew. It’s a really cool example of how text can be laid out on the page in different patterns. The Rothschild Pentateuch is a hefty (1000 pages) and richly decorated, and you can see the whole thing here.

Different Types of Text

Medieval manuscript text page with marginal notation.
Text page with inhabited initial H, about 1170-1180 CE. From France, written in Latin. Ms. Ludwig XIV 2 (83.MQ.163), fol. 8v. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA.

One more consideration is that the same manuscript can often contain more than one manner of text on the same page. The same content may appear side-by-side in more than one language. A commentary or interpretation (sometimes called a gloss) on the main text is common in manuscripts made for academic purposes. Definitions may follow certain words. All of this content can be in separate columns, in the margins (as seen in the image above), or between the lines (interlinear), and it often appears in smaller lettering than the main text. Also, generations of owners frequently annotated the margins and other white space with their own note, comments, or even unrelated doodles. In other words, there’s a lot to look at on text pages, and we shouldn’t be so quick to ignore them.

Fun Fact: Quite a few modern-day fonts have their origins in the world of manuscripts.

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