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Scribes and Illuminators (1992)

de Christopher De Hamel

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Illuminated manuscripts survive in great numbers from the Middle Ages. They are often beautifully preserved, enabling us to appreciate the skilled design and craftsmanship of the people who created them.Christopher de Hamel describes each stage of production from the preparation of the vellum, pens, paints and inks to the writing of the scripts and the final decoration and illumination of the book. He then examines the role of the stationer or bookshop in co-ordinating book production and describes the supply of exemplars and the accuracy of texts. He follows the careers of a number of specific scribes and illuminators who emerge not as anonymous monks but as identifiable professional lay artisans. He also looks at those who bought the completed books, why they did so, and how much they paid.His survey ranges from the eleventh century through the golden age of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries to the luxurious manuscripts existing at the invention of printing.… (més)
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Part of a series on medieval craftsmen. Lots of pretty illustrations of illuminated manuscripts – as there should be – but also adequately illuminating text. (One of the illuminating things was that, originally, a manuscript was only considered “illuminated” if it had gold or silver leaf applied to illustrations; if it had colored illustrations with no precious metal, it was merely “decorated”. However the term “illuminated” was quickly extended to any manuscript with colored illustrations). We’re taken through the whole process, starting with the preparation of parchment from animal skins (paper was known, as was papyrus; but both tended to fail and tear under repeated use). “Uterine parchment”, supposedly from a fetal calf, was supposed to be the highest quality, but it seems like the term merely meant parchment of extremely good quality.


The prepared pages were ruled; since the pencil hadn’t been invented yet, this could be done with metalpoint (a rod with a lead or silver tip), by impressing lines into slightly damp parchment with a wire frame, or by pricking with a point. An artist would sketch the places where the illuminations would go, then the scribe would ink the text, then the illuminations would be colored (didn’t always have to go in that order). The sketch artist would sometimes do the equivalent of “paint by number”, with tiny letters – “r” for “rubus”, “v” for “vert”, etc – to indicate colors. The scribe had an “exemplar” to copy, and there were various ingenious writing desks that allowed the exemplar and the copy to be positioned side by side.


If the original parchment sheet was folded once, the resulting book was a “folio”; if twice, “quarto”, if three times “octavo”. Scribes would work on the pages before they were bound and cut; thus the writing would be upside-down on some parts compared to others. The folded pages were collected into “gatherings” (I always called them “signatures”, but I learned bookbinding a lot later), and the gatherings were sewn together on tapes or cords (that’s why the backs of old books have that ridged appearance; it’s the cords showing through). Sometimes gatherings were left unbound; this was often the case with textbooks, loaned to impoverished students one gathering at a time. When bound, the covers were often relatively heavy; parchment tends to curl with time and the weight of the covers helped to keep the book tidy (large books sometimes had metal clasps, for the same reason). Production of a full book for a private individual would require locating and furnishing an exemplar and contracting with a parchment maker, a scribe, an illustrator, and a binder; even after printing came in binding was often a separate process – you picked up the gatherings at the printer or bookseller and took them to a binder.


Useful and informative. As mentioned, lots of illustrations; the index and reference list seem a little sparse, though. I can’t close without a mention of my advisor, John Cisne, who showed the inevitable errors introduced by manuscript copyists could be treated exactly the same as evolutionary changes in organisms. ( )
1 vota setnahkt | Dec 18, 2017 |
Excellent introduction to the subject of medieval manuscripts, how they were written and illustrated.
There are three chapters: 1. Paper- and parchment-makers; 2. Ink-makers and scribes; 3. Illuminators, binders and booksellers.
The illustrations in this book are very well chosen and add much to the understanding of the text. ( )
  islandbooks | Aug 3, 2011 |
A terrific introduction, not only to the calligraphy and illumination aspect, but to book production, from hides to bindings. I made a single-signature girdle-calendar on parchment, with this book as my main research source.
  bmlg | Feb 26, 2011 |
This book tries to cover a thousand years of manuscript production from the fall of the Western Empire to the invention of printing, but concentrates on the latter half of that period.

It is worth the price just for the illustrations. The descriptions of processes are a little hard to follow at times and an expanded glossary would have been useful, but the book is full of interesting nuggets of information which more than make up for these defects. ( )
  Robertgreaves | Mar 8, 2009 |
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Illuminated manuscripts survive in great numbers from the Middle Ages. They are often beautifully preserved, enabling us to appreciate the skilled design and craftsmanship of the people who created them.Christopher de Hamel describes each stage of production from the preparation of the vellum, pens, paints and inks to the writing of the scripts and the final decoration and illumination of the book. He then examines the role of the stationer or bookshop in co-ordinating book production and describes the supply of exemplars and the accuracy of texts. He follows the careers of a number of specific scribes and illuminators who emerge not as anonymous monks but as identifiable professional lay artisans. He also looks at those who bought the completed books, why they did so, and how much they paid.His survey ranges from the eleventh century through the golden age of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries to the luxurious manuscripts existing at the invention of printing.

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