Illuminated Manuscript Studies

One of the great centrepieces of historical re-creation is the study of ancient modes of writing. Since writing has arguably unlocked more knowledge of the past to our modern audience than any single other archaeological find, the study of the methods used to transcribe then, for now, is of paramount importance.

In addition, the use of traditional pigments, surfaces and techniques gives us valuable insight into not just the effort and skill (and determination) of our forebears, but opens a window into their world. If, as McLuhan says, the medium is the message, then the method of creating that medium is as integral to what is conveyed as the words themselves.

Today we focus on the medieval European illumination. A classically recognized trope, the illuminated letter or manuscript pages are some of the first artworks in the post-classical world.  While the figure of the entwined first letter of a work is used often in modern stories and by the visual media, the actual reasons behind this iconic creation are little known.

The idea that words and pictures are related is, of course, as old as transcribed imagery itself. A picture was the first word, and as more complex techniques of description of the world developed, the pictures that formed the basis of these alphabets remained. In Europe, the Nordic and Celtic cultures believed that speech was connected with the natural world itself, particularly with the ancient serpentine gods and spirits that were responsible for creating the flow of life. This is evident in their earliest runestones, some of which survive today. Runic words in particular were held inside the bound of a dragon or serpent, to both protect their intent and to give their words strength and power.


It is easy to see how, when Nordic vikings were converted to Christianity, they continued with the idea of bestowing the words in their manuscripts with the strength and power of the natural world. Their words may not be able to follow a natural ebb and flow as evidenced in the undulations of the serpent on the rune stone, but monks could still endow their new words of power with energy and protection.


ca. 800, this letter “D” from the Book of Kells seamlessly integrates the spirit of early animal protection for the passage with the line-by-line construct of classic literature
In the intermediary period, purely animal forms give way to a more abstract combination of human and vegetative motifs


Lettrine from Gero Codex.jpg
as of the tenth century, recognizable images have faded away, in favor of a completely abstract illumination, one that merely conveys the energy of the sound, rather than the associations with the natural world

illuminated manuscript from germany (letter S) – Gero Codex, 969 AD


These letters were painted using brushes made from fox, squirrel, dog and hare fur. They were painted on treated and tanned sheep and calfskins, oiled and worked until they were smooth. Pigments were ground from earth, stones, minerals and plant matter; binding agents included urine of various animals as well as earwax.

Unlike our modern paints, monks would often have to apply and re-apply layers of color in order to bring out the brilliance of the hues. Gold was laid down in thinly beaten leaves and attached with glues made from animal hooves and other adhesives from fish and plants. The entire process of making a single illuminated manuscript page was involved, utilized the planning and design talents of many monks, and could take weeks or even months.

To fire interest in the study and use of traditional art methods, here are some brief overviews of medeival manuscript illuminations. We encourage all members of the SRS to take any one of these illuminations and provide papers on its technique, or to provide articles on any other historic writing samples.



St. George Slaying the Dragon (detail), Book of Hours, in Latin, Belgium, Bruges, ca. 1450, illuminated by Master of Jean Chevrot




Medieval illumination of Pliny writing in his study and a landscape with animals, rivers, the sea, sun and moon, c.1457-1458



Cistercian illumination, St. Aelred of Rievaulx, a famous Cistercian Abbot and spiritual writer.

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StarkLight Re-Creation Society.


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