When I was in London recently I went along to see the British Library exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination. I’d never been to the Library before, despite it being only a stone’s throw from Euston, and I wanted to see this exhibition after having watched Illuminations: The Private Lives of Medieval Kings, the BBC4 series presented by Dr Janina Ramirez which explored the history and craft behind the treasures of the exhibition.
This is the largest display ever mounted of richly illuminated manuscripts from the Royal collection. It includes over 150 vividly coloured and exquisitely gilded handwritten books, dating between the 9th and 16th centuries, that previously belonging to the kings and queens of England.
The royal collection of manuscripts was given to the nascent British Museum in 1757. Edward IV had started the collection in the 15th century, gathering hand-crafted books designed to display the glory of God and the divinely-ordained right of the English sovereigns and nation to rule. For Edward, the Yorkist victor in the Wars of the Roses,these books confirmed in text and image that God was on his side. Most of them are huge in size and lavishly illustrated: they were designed to be admired and read aloud, to provide both entertainment and edification for the King and his court.
The manuscripts offer unique insights into the lifestyles and beliefs of the monarchs and nobility and the Middle Ages for whom they were made. A manuscript might provide moral and practical guidance or lessons in history, politics and geography. Once handled by royalty such as Henry VIII, the manuscripts have survived in remarkably good condition with their colours still vibrant and gold detail gleaming.
It may be a facile observation, but the vibrancy of the colours, the lavish page spreads and the gathering together of all the known knowledge of the time does suggest that these were the iPads of their day. It’s a parallel that Janina Ramirez tacitly encouraged in her TV series, using her own iPad to swipe through examples of these luminous pages. These books were certainly luxuries, far more expensive than today’s iPads. As Jenny Gilbert observed in her review of the exhibition for the Telegraph:
As we bicker over the merits of paper books versus ebooks, it’s salutary to recall that widespread ownership of books is relatively new. Before industrial production, only the rich had books at home. And before the 16th century, when works of literature were copied by hand, even the plainest tome was an article of such value that it could be used as collateral for loans.
An interesting aspects of the TV programmes was that Ramirez showed us the craft skills that were employed to create these manuscripts – because one of main things that strikes you looking at them is their hand-crafted nature. These are books compiled in a manner not far removed from how, as a child, we might design our own ‘book’: druling lines to keep our writing straight, and dotting the margins with little doodles; perhaps even stitching the sheets of paper together with needle and thread.
Fundamentally, that’s how these books were created, too. The difference being, of course, that these manuscripts and their illuminations utilized the skills of craftsmen of the first rank. Illumination was a complex process, and so and costly that it was reserved for very special books. In the early Middle Ages, most books were produced in monasteries,though later commercial scriptoria grew up in large cities, especially Paris, and in Italy and the Netherlands, and by the late fourteenth century there was a significant industry producing manuscripts.
The text was usually written first on sheets of vellum (specially prepared animal hides) cut down to the right size. First, the general layout of the page was planned, such as the positioning of initial capitals and borders, then the page was lightly ruled with a pointed stick. You can still the ruled lines in the books on display, and it was this that reminded me of the self-made books of childhood. The scribe then went to work with ink-pot and sharpened quill feather or reed pen.
When the text was complete, the illustrator took over, adding the coloured images and gold illumination (a manuscript is not considered illuminated unless one or more images contain gold foil). The application of gold leaf or dust to an illumination was an extremely detailed and skilful process, done by using either gold leaf or specks of gold applied with a fine brush. The gold leaf would have been hammered and thinned until it was ‘thinner than the thinnest paper’.
The exhibition begins with a display of a selection of the fifty illuminated manuscripts acquired by Edward IV between 1461 and 1483. The texts and illustrations reflect the King’s interest in ancient and modern history, while the illuminations have been executed by the finest craftsmen, mainly working in the most important artistic centre of the time, the Flemish town of Bruges.
This is Janina Ramirez introducing the Miroir Historial, made in Bruges around 1478.
A further five sections of the exhibition chart the progress of the illuminated manuscript through to the 15th century, when the arrival of printing signalled the death knell for this labour-intensive art form. The Christian Monarch shows how English kings from the Anglo-Saxons to the Tudors commissioned and owned luxurious handwritten copies of Christian texts. These books included small, handheld prayerbooks for personal devotion, and large, lavish Gospel-books and Bibles given to royal foundations for display and liturgical use.
In Royal Identities a range of manuscripts reveal how monarchs were aided in understanding and presenting their status as royalty through genealogical charts and historical chronicles that underpinned their right to rule. Their content was fashioned to shape the past of the English monarchy and promote the image of the dynastic identity of the Plantagenets as descendants of both the Anglo-Saxon kings and dukes of Normandy. In the example below, the diagram shows the unification of the two lines by Henry I who married Matilda, great granddaughter of the Anglo-Saxon ruler Edmund Ironside
Young princes were urged to read historical and legendary texts because knowledge of history was thought to impart wisdom and provide suitable heroes and role models, including David, Solomon, Alexander and Caesar. These texts are presented in the next section, How to be a King. Then there are the books of reference and learning – digests, geographical and astrological compendia and works on personal hygiene and health – shown in the section, The World’s Knowledge.
Here is an example: Henry VIII’s world atlas. Jean Rotz, a hydrographer and navigator from Dieppe, left the court of Francis I of France to enter the service of Henry VIII. In 1542, he presented to the English monarch his Boke of Idrography, wishing to provide a ‘recreation of the king’s mind’ and a tool for learning some principles of navigation and discovering the countries of the world and their inhabitants. Rotz’s atlas contains eleven regional charts. The map of the coast of Brazil (above) includes an ethnographically precise depiction of a village and several activities of the Tupinamba tribe.
Finally, in The European Monarch, we see the lavishly decorated books of Continental origin that were made for and acquired by successive English monarchs: works of history, devotion, instruction and music. These volumes reveal English royalty closely following fashionable continental styles and the refined art and culture of the Burgundian and French courts.
I was struck by how far some of the later illustrations have become more like paintings than illustrations. In the 1411 Bible Historiale (below), the image of God creating the heavens and the earth could almost be from a Renaissance painting.
Or take this spectacular image of an enthroned king facing a beseeching woman. It opens what was probably the presentation copy of a petition from the city of Prato to Robert of Anjou, King of Naples from 1309 to 1343. The female figure before him is a personification of Italy pleading for Robert’s support.
The Treasury of History (below) is one of the most remarkable manuscripts of a secular text to have been produced in the time of Edward IV. The view of the Flemish countryside is one of the earliest known European paintings in which landscape is the principal subject. It shows a tiny moated castle and surrounding lands (complete with duck paddling in the moat).
This was a superb exhibition (packed out on the day that I visited), full of breathtaking images in manuscripts of all description – Bibles, histories, psalters, bestiaries, tales of mythological heroes and classical history, atlases, horoscopes, encyclopedias and more. The volumes are displayed in vitrines, though of course it’s only possible to show two opened pages of any one volume. But touch screens on the wall allow you to leaf through entire virtual books. If you have an iPhone or iPad, there is an app you can download that does this: which kind of confirms my point earlier! If you don’t have one, check out the wonderful galleries of images in the Facebook albums.
A footnote: dominating the piazza in front of the British Library is the magnificent sculpture by Eduardo Paolozzi, Newton (1995), that follows William Blake’s 1795 print Newton in illustrating how Isaac Newton’s equations changed our view of the world to being one determined by mathematical laws. Just inside the main entrance is a functional seat that is also an artwork – Bill Woodrow’s Sitting on History (1999). The sculpture, with its ball and chain, refers not to medieval chained libraries, but to the book as the capturer of information from which we cannot escape. All of history is filtered through millions of pages of writing.
- Illuminations: The Private Lives of Medieval Kings: a YouTube playlist of clips from the TV series
- Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination: Facebook albums
- Exhibition in focus: Royal Manuscripts, British Library: Telegraph review