Manuscripts and illuminations

MuseumEducational materials and outreachWriting and booksManuscripts and illuminations

Like printed books, codex manuscripts opened with an incipit, a first folio, which bore the title and marked the beginning of the text. The explicit marked the end.

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Cassiodore, Variae, Florence, 1513-1521, manuscrit latin

Cassiodorus, Variae, Florence, 1513-1521, Latin manuscript

The job of the rubric writer (from the Latin ruber, red) was to highlight the titles, subtitles and headings in red ink.

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Cassiodore, Variae, Florence, 1513-1521, manuscrit latin

Cassiodorus, Variae, Florence, 1513-1521, Latin manuscript

 

It was not until the 13th century that the folios were numbered in Roman numerals. This foliotation, as it was called, was replaced with page numbering in Arabic numerals in the second half of the 16th century.

Once the scribe had finished his text, he sometimes included a colophon (Greek for finishing touch) that indicated: the title and sometimes the name of the author and the addressee. Occasionally he would mention the name of the copyist, the date and place the copy was made, and make comments on the difficulties he had encountered. At times he even thanked God and expressed his relief at finishing the job.

An experienced scribe was not expected to produce more than 200 lines a day. It took him two and a half months to finish a 400-page book!

Copyists worked in scriptoria (specially equipped workshops) that were located in monasteries. In the Middle Ages, monasteries were at the heart of Europe’s cultural and spiritual life (Monte Cassino, Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire, Fulda, Reichenau, Saint Gall…). They were hubs of activity where books were produced from beginning to end – from the preparation of the parchment to the final binding.

Codices were often illustrated with elaborate illuminations. Until the 13th century, when illuminating became a layman’s trade, illuminators and miniaturists worked in monasteries. They were experts at creating ornamental letters, flowers, animals and grotesques in margins, and illustrations that filled capital letters. They also drew miniatures that zoomed in on the images in the letters and filled an entire page.

The Bodmer collection owns several manuscripts with beautiful illuminations. A fine example is the 12th century Passionary of Weissenau, a manuscript copied at Saint-Peter’s Abbey in Weissenau (Swabia). The illuminated letter R at the end of the manuscript is unusual for the pre-Gothic period. It was included by the illuminator, a monk called Rufillus, who wrote his name above the letter.

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Cassiodore, Variae, Florence, 1513-1521, manuscrit latin

Cassiodorus, Variae, Florence, 1513-1521, Latin manuscript