31 Days of Medieval Manuscripts

Initials and Capital Letters – Day Six of Medieval Manuscripts

Today, I want to take a look at capital letters in manuscripts. In medieval manuscripts, capital letters, usually termed initials, are a key venue for illustration and decoration, but they’re also much more than that. They often serve functions similar to paragraph breaks, chapters, or subheadings in order to help the reader navigate through the text. Dividing up the text, their presence makes it easier to read and indicates where important sections begin and end. This was especially important before the use of page numbers and tables of contents. (Some manuscripts have so-called canon tables at their beginnings, but while they might look like tables of contents upon casual glance, they are something completely different.) 

Leaf with initial Q from a Gospel book, late 10th century CE, French. The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD. (CC0).

At the simplest, an initial may stand apart from others via a few strokes of colored ink (usually blue or red), a slightly different style, or by being slightly larger than the surrounding text. At the most dramatic, a single, highly-significant letter may take up most of the page, like the enormous initial Q above. In between, there is the possibility for lots of color, gilding, and decoration of all varieties. Naturally, the more luxurious the manuscript, the more elaborate the capitals, and a hierarchy of capital letter sizes can also indicate different levels of division within the text. Those introducing individual paragraphs would likely be smaller and less ornate than those introducing sections or chapters. The image below gives a good example of multiple types of initials in a hierarchy on the same page.

Manuscript page with two initials
Historiated initial C with King David from a Psalter, first half of the 13th century CE, German. The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD. (CC0).

One type of initial deserves special attention – the historiated initial. These are large initials framing vignettes that usually relate to the subject matter of a section. They often introduce key sections of a text. Scenes from the Old Testament and New Testament, the life of Christ, and saints or other important religious figures were common subjects for historiated initials in sacred texts. Closely related is the inhabited initial, which contains depicts humans or animals (or, less commonly, is actually formed from such depictions) but doesn’t have the narrative qualities of the historiated initial. Some of the most beloved images in medieval European manuscripts are historiated or inhabited initials. The image below is an example of an historiated initial, and the page shown above contains one historiated and one inhabited initial.

Historiated initial D medieval manuscript
Niccolo da Bologna, Historiated initial D with Pentecost, second half of the 14th century CE, Italian. The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD. (CC0).

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