Over the years I have produced a number of props for television programmes and films, and have also been filmed writing as historical figures with a quill or pointy pen, or demonstrating what I do – illumination with gold and egg tempera, and writing on vellum with quills – as well as being filmed as myself – a scribe and illuminator. Being commissioned to produce six pages for a mock-up Book of Hours for the BBC series of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall was a really interesting job to get.
The skin from William Cowley was a dream – both hair and flesh side – and I chose sections that had a clear scattering of brown hair follicles so that there would be no confusion that it was paper ‘pretending’ to be vellum.
This is a short film clip of the various stages of the book and how it looked once it had been pasted into the book itself.
I tested the skin to see how much preparation it required (for all the information you need about using and preparing vellum and parchment, see my video, 3+ hours long on everything to do with manuscript crafts and modern materials), and then experimented with pen nib sizes and letter height so that I could replicate the writing. Once these were determined I was able to rule guidelines and see if my test preparations worked for writing.
The pages are based on the Hours of Joanna of Castille, but the designer has added gold and coloured side panels, and imported mediæval animals and motifs to add interest to the pages. The Hours are quite small – page size is 105 x160 mm (4 x 6 ins approx) – which means that the lettering is tiny – about 2 mm high.
There were two main ways of producing these six pages. One is to start from scratch with the text, and design and lay out the pages, inserting larger initials, designing the motifs and so on. This is rarely a real choice because it adds often more than twice as much to the time, which I certainly didn’t have. The other is to copy an already existing manuscript, which is indeed what I did.
I traced the whole page, including the text, to get a sense of the rhythm and form of the script, but decided not to transfer the tracing of the lettering, as this results in rather static rhythm. It did need a lot of concentration to ensure that line endings were reasonably consistent. They looked very even in the original. However, when I was working on the pages I realised that line endings weren’t that consistent in the Joanna Hours. The tracing outline is secured here (right) by red paint – minium in mediæval manuscripts – I use traditional techniques as much as possible.
I drew lines for the text and wrote out the first page which was actually the second one. It is always better to start not at the beginning if you can, as your writing is often tighter and more cramped when you first set out, and this shows if it’s right at the start. I was fortunate in that I had a transcription of the text; some of it was difficult to decipher, for example, domum or domiun (my Latin wasn’t good enough to translate as I went along). The letter i was rarely dotted, and, with wear, the tiny joining strokes at the top of an n and at the base for a u meant that these letters were difficult to distinguish. This transcription made a huge difference. The red rubrics were written as I went along, but I left spaces for the larger painted initials, and completed them after the writing.
Then it was on to the painting.
There was a monkey (right), a rabbit (below), squirrel and two peacocks (one of them is below the rabbit on the right).
The squirrel eating a hazel nut was fun to paint.
And every mediæval manuscript needs a snail!
Then it was on to the gold. There wasn’t enough time to use the traditional mordant of gesso, so I used a modern medium, raised it slightly, and then applied real 23·5 carat gold leaf. Gold leaf on anything other than gesso is never as wonderfully shiny and smooth as in traditional manuscripts, but it will certainly look really illuminated as the pages are turned in the series.
It did look reasonably shiny, though, but as the book was going to be ‘aged’ and rubbed to looks as if it had been in the family for some generations, I didn’t worry too much about taking care with the gilding.
These six pages were sewn into one gathering, and this was then tipped into an already bound book which was aged to look as if it had passed through a few generations.
The original Magna Carta, or the Great Charter of the Liberties of England, was sealed (but not signed) under oath by King John in 1215 on the bank of the River Thames at Runnymede in Surrey. It limited the powers of the king and accepted that no-one could be punished except through the law of the land; this is a right that still exists. The themes of the Magna Carta have led to just laws in countries throughout the world.
Plans for this great charter were made at St Albans two years beforehand when a Council met in the Abbey on 4th August 1213. To commemorate this event, 800 years later, a new ‘Charter’ has been created in St Albans.
A whole skin of parchment was donated by William Cowley Parchment Works, and the work began. Fairness, Justice, Equality and Human Rights are the essence of the first Magna Carta and these words head the 2013 version.
The 1215 great charter was witnessed by a wide representation of the Barons of England. The new 2013 charter has been witnessed by a representation of the citizens of St Albans and its surrounds as was possible. The Lord-Lieutenant of Hertfordshire with her husband head the columns of signatures, followed by Lord and Lady Salisbury. The High Sherriff of the county also signed, as did the Mayor, Annie Brewster (right).
This huge administrative task was masterminded by Rosemary Stevens.
Included too are a butcher, miller and baker, plumber, electrician, goldsmith, tailor, market stallholder, rugmaker, landscape gardener, a street sweeper (see above) and a street musician. A local garden centre, newspaper and radio are represented, also local socities. Judges from the Crown Court, an architect, archaeologists, sports representative, a famous pub, St Albans School, a bank manager, supermarket manager and the manager of a shop selling the latest technological gadgets – which today may seem rather futuristic, but no doubt by 2114 will seem very quaint – are all represented.
Signatures and occupations on their own may have looked a little boring, so colour was added starting with the joining of the signatures of the Bowman James Rose and his wife Liz (right) by an arrow with regal red fletching. Others were linked with suitable symbols and illustrations, including the street sweeper’s cart (see above right), making the document very lively and vibrant.
This is a terrific and significant document and all credit must go to everyone involved in such a wonderful enterprise.
Christina of Markyate (c1096–1155, and probably on the right, closest to Christ), first called Theodora and born in Huntingdon, was clearly a stunner, as it is recorded that various men were attracted to her. The story is that she fled from Burhred, her husband, on their wedding night, having, after a visit to St Albans in her teens, promised to remain a virgin and devote her life to God. It is unlikely, and records suggest, that Christina didn’t actually leave the night of her wedding, though. When she did finally go, she was sheltered by various hermits on the way until she reached Roger, who was a hermit at Markyate, which is close to St Albans. She stayed with Roger until he died, and then took over his cell. Christina attracted other women to her, including her sister Margaret, and eventually the land around Markyate was given to the foundation by Canterbury Cathedral, the previous owners.
Christina was protected by and became friendly with Abbot Geoffrey (1119–1146) of St Albans, who was French and originally from the abbey at near Le Mans. Geoffrey made great changes at the abbey when he took office, commissioning various items for the church including jewelled copes, a silver candlestick, three ampullas, and he also had the shrine of St Albans rebuilt. In addition, Geoffrey commissioned a vita (life) of Christina which has now sadly been lost, but there is a fourteenth century version now in the British Library.
The relationship between Christina and Geoffery is an interesting one. Christina called Geoffery ‘my beloved’ and Geoffery called her ‘my girl and beloved maiden’. Christina had visions and she advised Geoffery as a result of these; it was said that she was ‘sensibly reproving him when his actions were not quite right’. However, Geoffrey’s regular visits to Christina did set the tongues of the gossips wagging and it was written ‘the abbot was slandered as a seducer and the maiden as a loose woman’. Perhaps her making him some underwear for his trip to Rome ‘not for pleasure but to mitigate the discomfort of the journey’ didn’t help either of their reputations!
It is likely that the St Alban’s Psalter was made especially for Christina at the instigation of Abbott Geoffrey. The illuminations are simply stunning, particularly those painted by the Alexis Master. The Psalter (Book of Psalms) was made at St Albans Abbey and no doubt kept at the priory at Markyate. Dates in the calendar relate to Christina with the dedication of her priory, and the deaths of her, and family members, are also recorded. In addition there are dates for female saints and virgins in the calendar which does suggest a female owner.
The Psalter has been being re-bound at the Getty Museum, and there has also been an exhibition of all the unbound pages alongside beautiful stained glass from Canterbury Cathedral.
Whilst at the Getty, there have been major studies on the manuscript and, as part of this, they have been able to identify the face of the devil scratched out and tiny pin pricks in the eyes of demons. A knowledge of the mind-set of the mediaeval has explained these. People believed that to see, rays of light left the eyes, ‘saw’ and then returned. The pin pricks were only in the eyes of the demons. These then ‘prevented’ a potentially dangerous event of the demons’ eyes being able to ‘look’.
It is a wonderful manuscript, and ideal for copying to learn manuscript painting techniques.
I thought it would be helpful to have an easy link to the manuscripts on display at the British Library. Thanks to Dr Kathleen Doyle for supplying the list. I plan to update this when new manuscripts are added or are removed.
These are they:
|Harley MS 4431, ff. 2v-3||Christine de Pizan|
|Add. MS 20698, ff. 69v-70||The City of Ladies|
|Harley 7026 ff. 4v – 5||The Lovell Lectionary, England, 1400 – 1410|
|Egerton 608 ff. 138v – 139||An Echternach Gospel-book, middle of the 11th Century|
|Harley 2804 ff. 216v – 217||The Worms Bible, central Germany, circa 1148|
|Add. MS 16977 ff. 186v – 187||Glossed Bible, Paris, Second-half of the 13th Century|
|Egerton 618 ff. 57v – 58||Early Wycliffite Bible, London circa 1400|
|Royal 1 C viii ff. 325v – 326||Later Wycliffite Bible. London (?), Early 15th Century|
|Add. MS 39625 ff. 71v – 72||The Vidin Gospels, Bulgaria, mid-14th Century.|
|Add MS 39626 ff 292-293||The Gospels of Jakov of Serres|
|Add. MS 39627||The Gospels of Ivan Alexander|
|Sloane 1975, ff.42v-43||Herbal|
|Add 41623, ff.35v-36||Herbal|
|Add 18850, ff.207v-208||Bedford Hours|
|Add 82945, ff.18v-19||Wardington Hours|
|Harley Roll Y.6, first 2 or 3 membranes||Guthlac Roll|
|Add 5111, ff.10-11||Canon tables|
|Burney 19, ff.63v-64||Portrait of Mark|
Taking a book with you to read on a journey was rarely an option in mediæval times. Vellum or parchment pages, oak boards and metal hasps and clasps all resulted in a heavy book, usually far too heavy to carry around easily – as with the book on the right. The eighth-century Codex Amiatinus, written in Northumberland and now in the Laurentian Library in Florence, takes two men to carry it – hardly a pocket book!
There were also special ‘carrying cases’ for smallish books, whereby the book was encased in a soft leather or cloth ‘chemise’ which ended in a knot. The knot was then tucked into a belt or a girdle, and these were called, surprisingly enough, girdle books!
and the knot of a red leather covered one has been tucked firmly into a golden belt. Note the circular mounts on the covers; these were to stop the leather, or sometimes silk covered getting damaged or dirty when the book was placed on the top of a table or shelf.
I was fortunate enough to photograph a girdle book of the Psalms belonging to a private collector. This is not mediæval but from the nineteenth century, it does, though give some idea of the variety of such books. This book comes from Ethiopia and is written on gazelle skin treated to produce vellum. Note the pin prick marks on the right hand side which indicate the line markings.
The book is bound as a coptic binding which is incredibly flexible, and the cords are thought to have been made from the wild banana plant (see also the St Cuthbert’s Gospel – the oldest European bound book).
The covers are from cedar wood, and you can see that the covers, as in all coptic (and some other) bindings are drilled such that they can take the cords which are then tied off inside the back cover.
The book slips inside an animal skin ‘pocket’, which is carefully constructed from stiff vellum-like skin, perhaps a less-scraped skin from the gazelle? The thongs to tie the case together are also animal skin.
The case was obviously made for the book because although it is not tight, it is a snug fit and ensures that the book doesn’t move around inside when being carried.
And lastly, the thongs from the pocket are laced through the top covering to ensure that the book cannot fall out, These thongs, then, can be tied on to a belt for easy carrying. In all the case measures 130 by 110 mm (5 by 4 inches).
This is a book which really can be carried, especially with its handy case – so much better than a Kindle!
There was an article in the paper towards the end of last year which posed the question of whether people would have Christmas or Xmas. The suggestion was that Christmas would be a time of having a loving day with family and friends, caring and sharing, and Xmas would focus on the commercialisation of the season. In fact, Christmas and Xmas, as many know, are one and the same thing. X representing the Greek letter chi, which is the initial letter for Christ. In early manuscripts the names for God and Christ were thought to be so holy that they should be written not in Latin as the rest of the text but in Greek, the language of the early New Testament. These names were called the Nomina Sancta (holy names).
In Insular Gospel books, at the end of the genealogy of Christ in Matthew 1:18, the page is often marked by large decorated initials, such as the one above in the Book of Kells. The letter chi is very large, followed by a smaller rho (looks like the letter p), and this is entwined with the letter i.
Contrast this with that in the Lindisfarne Gospels on the right, where again the letter chi is enlarged, but the letters rho and iota (i) are clearly visible, albeit smaller. The letters on the following line have been outlined in red dots, but are unfinished. Then follows beautifully painted angular letters with colours that bring a subtlety to the whole page. Note, too, the unfinished letter C towards the end of the third line.
Another insular book is the St Gall Gospel shown on the right. St Gall in Switzerland has a famous library with many manuscripts online. It is certainly worth looking at for early books. This Gospel was written by Irish monks around the year 750. The manuscript has the distinctive decoration of many of the books of this time, with, in a strip at the base, interlace, and decorating the space between the chi and the rho, La Tene swirls and geometric decoration.
The Stockholm Codex Aureus has a well-known history, being written probably in Canterbury in the mid-eighth century. It was stolen by the Vikings, its elaborate, decorated cover ripped off, and then bought back ‘with much gold’ by Alderman Alfred and his wife Werburgh to present to the church. There is a note to this effect written in Old English in two lines at the top of the page and continued at the bottom.
The Dering Roll is the oldest roll of English coats of arms and dates from 1270–1280. In the seventeenth century it was acquired by Sir Edward Dering (1598–1644) (right), from Dering in Kent, who is described as a knight and a baronet. He bought it in the seventeenth century, and although it seems dreadful to us now, he ‘modified’ the roll to include a fictitious ancestor of his own. While Dering was lieutenant of Dover Castle, he removed entry number 61 on the roll, the coat of arms of Nicholas de Croill, and put in his own arms with the false name of Richard fitz Dering in its place. This was to prove the ancestry of his family.
The roll itself starts with the two illegitimate children of King John (1166–1216, king from 1199 to 1216) who were Richard Fitz Roy (fitz = son, roy = king) and William de Say, although their coats of arms at the top are difficult to discern because of the condition of the roll.
Made from four strips of 8 inch wide parchment pasted together, and stretching to almost three yards in length, it is a huge piece of work, and it’s remarkable that it has survived so well. The shields are arranged six to a row and there are 54 rows, making 324 shields in all. All but five of them have the individual names of the knights written above them. These names have either been removed or were never written in in the first place. The background to the colourful shields is painted green.
In the twentieth century it was bought by Sir Anthony Wagner (right) who became Garter King of Arms at the College of Arms in London. It was sold at Sotheby’s in 2007 for £192,000 and was due to be exported from the country. A stay of execution meant that the British Library were able to raise the sum of £194,184 to ensure that it stayed in the country. The importance of this heraldic roll is summed up by the Head of Mediæval and Earlier Manuscripts, Claire Breay, who said of the purchase, ‘the acquisition of the Dering Roll provides an extremely rare chance to add a manuscript of enormous local and national significance’.
It is rare to get a ninth century book where the original jewelled cover is still attached to the book. The Lindau Gospels is one such. It was bought by John Pierpoint Morgan and was his first major manuscript purchase. The cover is simply amazing. The centre piece is Christ on the cross in gold, standing proud from the surface. Mourning figures, some with wings, are also in relief in the four surrounding panels. It is thought that below the arms of the cross are the Virgin Mary, John, Mary Magdalene and Mary, the wife of Cleopas (Cleopas was one of the disciples who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus. His wife was Mary, and, in John’s Gospel, she was named as one of the women standing with Mary at the cross). The sun and moon are represented above the cross. (A design point: having a centred design makes the whole thing too far down the cover – how I want to just push it all up a bit!)
The jewels are just stunning – pearls in abundance, amethysts, jade, beryls, and what could be moonstones amongst others. The back cover is not quite so lavish, but wonderful in its own way. Silver and gold have been worked into interlace, similar to that in the Lindisfarne Gospels, and although the jewels are fewer in number, the enamel work in very fine indeed. The additions of two vertical strips at either side edge indicate the the back cover was not made for this book. It is thought likely that the book was produced at the Royal Abbey of St Denis just outside Paris.
There is a discussion of the book cover in detail here.
The Codex Aureus of St Emmeram (Golden Book) is also a ninth century book. The date for this book is quite precise – 870, and it was produced for the Holy Roman Emperor Charles II (the Bald), at his Palace School, probably again at St Denis. There must have been some exceptionally skilled craftspeople around at that time! It is a large book at 420×300 mm. Again there is a central cross shape, but this time the figure is Christ in Majesty holding a book where the text is clear and reads: ‘I am the way, and the truth…’. Around the central figure are the four evangelists’ symbols, and there are images of Christ’s miracles in the four L-shaped panels. It is thought that the monks Liuthard and Beringer wrote the book and to see some inside pages of their work click here.
This is what some jewelled book covers are like now. This is the Codex Aureus of Freckenhorst, which is an 11th century gospel book. Although a few mother-of-pearl remains, with some pieces of jade, turquoise and amethyst, most of the stones have been prized out with a knife, which does leave us a peek at the wooden board forming the structure of the cover below. The central ivory is particularly exquisite. Christ is in a mandorla (this is the shape of two circles overlapping and so is where the circle of heaven overlaps with the circle of earth – which is where Christ is situated), holding a book, which again emphasises the importance of the Word at this time.
A note at the beginning of the Gospel of St Matthew in the Stockholm Codex Aureus tells us that the book was stolen by the Vikings, no doubt for its precious cover, but was bought back ‘with much gold’ and presented to the church. It is quite likely that when it was realised that this was a book not a box, the cover was ripped off and the Vikings were then quite happy to sell the inside of the book on.
You can just about make out the note written above the magnificent ‘Christi Autem’ and then continued at the bottom of the page. It explains that Earl Alfred, from Surrey, and his wife Werburg bought the book from the ‘heathen invading army’. The inside lives up to its name of Codex Aureus. A mid-eighth century book, it was probably produced in Canterbury. Pages of dyed purple vellum with gold, silver and white pigments are followed by undyed skin with black, red and gold. Wulfhelm the goldsmith is named, so too are Ceolhard , Niclas and Ealhhun, who were probably the scribes and illuminators.
St Cuthbert’s Gospels is one of the most covetable books I have ever had the privilege to see close up. Being within a foot or so of a seventh-century book that was found in the coffin of the important Northumbrian saint, St Cuthbert, was an amazing experience. When the coffin in the shrine of St Cuthbert at Durham Cathedral was opened in 1104, the book was found placed there with other objects such as St Cuthbert’s pectoral cross and precious textiles. It fits in the hand, as you can see on the right, and could so easily have slipped into my pocket if no-one had been watching!
What is quite remarkable about the book is that it is still in its original binding, and as such is the oldest European bound book. Deep red leather covers wooden boards. On the front cover a scroll pattern and straight lines (which make a neat frame) have been outlined, possibly with cord or even carved wood which was then glued on to the cover. This meant that, when the red leather was pasted on, these areas became raised from the surface. In the surrounding border and in the upper and lower blocks, an interlace pattern has been indented and also coloured; the yellow pigment is more obvious than the blue in this photograph.
The gospel is a coptic binding, which means that, rather than the sections of folded pages (gatherings) being sewn on to wide tapes and these then attached to the covers, the gatherings are sewn with thick thread in a sort of chain stitch (see right) and these hold the sections of the book together and are then attached to the wooden boards (as you can see on the right). This is how codices (books as we know them) were first made and they rarely have covered spines. The wooden boards of this book (right) – made when I was at college – would then have been covered by red leather and tooled to get the effect of the St Cuthbert Gospel.
The binding is particularly flexible, as you can see again here with that college-made book. When I was being filmed writing the first page of this book at the British Library I was able to speak to the conservation book binder, and he said that the spine is still completely flexible, and it would be possible to turn the book round completely on itself so that back and front cover could touch – of course he hadn’t done this!
Inside the book the text is written in the lettering style of Uncial. There are very few ascenders and descenders and the letters are essentially majuscule. The Gospel of St John starts with a long versal I in red (versals are letters where the thicker strokes are constructed out of two or more pen strokes, rather then simply changing the nib to the thickest angle and making one stroke); this letter is followed by a smaller letter N. The red ink has smudged slightly over the years. The rest of the text is in a dark brown ink. As with most scribes when writing an important manuscript, the first few words are rather tightly written, but by line four things are more relaxed, although it is only in the second paragraph that the scribe really gets into his stride. Notice, too, that the first two words (In principio – In the beginning…) are written with more pen nib angle changes than for the remaining Angled Pen Uncial script. This page, too, because it is the first page, is more discoloured and worn than the rest of the book.
And the remarkable aspect of this book is how even and pleasing on the page the text is. There is considerable consistency to the lettering, and it is quite easy to read with very few contractions, unlike some manuscripts written centuries later. Look out for Lazarus at the end of the second line on the right, for example (obviously this page is about the raising of Lazarus). It is written per cola et commata, that is the length of the line is determined by the sense of the text, and a subsequent clause starts on the next line. You may also be able to see the fuzzy ink indicating an erasing at the start of line 8. The scribe has scratched out whatever it was written in error and the vellum skin is rougher at this point. Look out, too, for where the ink is running out and so the scribe fills his quill for the next letter. In the second to last line the letters TT in quattuor have had additions to the start of the serifs on the crossbar (look closely, and see that the crossbars are fainter at the beginnings and ends, and so the scribe has added tiny strokes with a full quill of ink to emphasise them).
Look also at the free Calligraphy Clips page on this website for how to write this style of lettering (it’s the latest set I’ve put up so you’ll need to scroll to the bottom).
When the St Cuthbert Gospel was saved for the nation, the British Library made a film to celebrate this, and I was lucky enough to be asked to show how the first page was done. I tried to be as ‘period’ as I could. I knew that a plastic ruler wouldn’t quite cut the mustard, so I found a piece of wood to draw the lines (rather large, but it was real wood), and fished out an old bradawl from the tool box to score the lines. There is no sound on this clip, but it does show how the page would have been set out, and how the letters were written.
The book is now at the British Library, and they were thrilled to own it now, as is evident on this BBC World News item with Dr Claire Breay (a couple of seconds in on this clip). It is usually on display in the British Library, and for many years it was shown closed – very frustrating to we scribes! Conservation experts have indicated that it can now be displayed open so everyone can have a chance of studying the wonderful script for themselves.