Medieval Illustrations and Collaborative Works

Hello to those in Medieval Manuscripts,

This blog post is going to talk about the topic of illustration in manuscripts, specifically about the collaborative nature of the artists’ work. While reading about the process of illustration in preparation for leading class discussion, I learned that the organization and different types of illustration was more complicated than I first assumed. With the artists split into smaller workshops, the variety of illustration types, and the complex process of putting together a cohesive manuscript as a multipage work, the illustrating of these pages became a trial in collaborative working and communication. In this post I will explain how these collaborations may have functioned, as well as the impacts this had on the final product, and how we are able to study these manuscripts as collaborative works as opposed to individual projects.

The Driver reading specifically is what I used for most of my questions during class, and I found it explained the breakdown of these collaborations very well, so the evidence will reflect the place the article is set, England. The reading describes how the guild for these illustrators, called “limners” in the article, was created in the fourteenth century in order to aid in artists collaborations, and was meant to help guide the complex social and commercial relations of the practice. This was important, as artists often worked in small workshops that would only fit a few people at a time, and though the shops were often grouped together in the same general area commercially, the communication between them needed to be clear and easily regulated. 

These individual workshops could have been organized according to specializations, as there were several different defined types of illustration that would have been used, with artists often working in one of these types. In the article, the types discussed include opaque pigments, pen and ink drawings, and a coloured drawing style, each having their own varieties. These illustrations then would fall into specific categories depending on their format and use, such as miniatures, marginal scenes, and historiated initials. The wide array of art styles and layouts throughout surviving manuscripts means that there are many ways of categorizing and defining these illustrations, of which the article goes into more detail. This is important to the idea of collaboration because the more art styles and formats that were used in a manuscript, the greater chance of multiple hands with certain specializations being involved in the creation. This can be an explanation as to why the quality, technique, or even colouration can change across a single page, as it would have been passed along the workshops in order to be worked depending upon what the format of the page is to be

The day to day production and organization of these manuscripts is still left largely to speculation, with the collaborative nature often being identified though the presence of differences in style or quality suggesting multiple hands. Though some of the formatting and organization planning can be seen in the use of graphite or charcoal to lightly map out the page, the way that this would have been communicated between workshops and individual artists remains in question. The specialization among the artists, with individuals working in a specific style or part of the page (eg. borders, initials, etc.), spread out to involve many workshops grouped together, would help to explain the multiple hands being identified, but does little to help understand how these artists would have communicated what would have been on the pages themselves.

The close grouping of these shops lead to modern historians assuming that  many of the instructions given between the artists themselves would have been through oral instructions, either through speaking to one another or through others in the shops. There is evidence for written instruction, but are typically short and lack detail. Historiated or illustrated initials may have been lightly outlined, showing where the artist would have painted, which is present in uncompleted manuscripts. For more complex instruction, there would have been short instructions written in the margins, or pictorial models sketched lightly beside the text. The article also briefly discusses “modelbooks”, which was a collection of designs used by guilds that may have been used as reference. 

The evidence of collaboration in medieval manuscripts is one that is hard to distinguish, as the creation of these works would not have been seen as an individualistic project. The article does a good job of explaining how the identity of these artists remain largely unknown, as their work was often done anonymously. This is why using the evidence found in the article, such as the multiple styles, the instructions in margins, and the communication between workshops, is important to deducing the production process and giving insight into the organization of the artists. I found this to be incredibly interesting when doing the reading, as art and bookmaking is often seen as an individualistic project in modern day, and the idea of anonymous work in these books is an idea that goes against the ideas of being acknowledged for work as an individual which are normalized in modern society.