Rubrication and Illustration: Misconceptions, Reality and Art

Illustration is a significant part of my manuscript and has been the major focus for my research. As such the readings on rubrication and illustration left me with a lot to consider for my manuscript. When I first did the reading of Driver and Orr I was struck with the reality of decoration that was very different from my own conceptions. My conception of manuscript creation was this image of a monk alone in a room slowly bit by bit completing each section on the manuscript.  Driver and Orr discuss the collaboration that took place on a manuscript. The manuscript was sent around, and different people would use their different skills to produce the different parts of the manuscripts.

Despite my initial and incorrect mental image of the past I found that this explanation actually made a lot of sense with modern thinking. In the modern conception of how books and in fact the majority of consumed products are made it is assumed that multiple people work on it. In a book that is published now I expect to see an author, a cover designer, a publisher, an editor, and more. During the book dissection at the start of this class we reviewed all of the aspects that went into modern books and none of that was much of a surprise for me.  If one author were to do multiple roles to produce a book this would be a rare thing that is considered quite impressive. It makes sense that medieval creators would approach the complex manuscripts in the same way. In looking at my manuscript I can see evidence for multiple hands in the different artistic elements. The roundels have a very different style from the figures inside the illuminated letters. This differs of course from the text which could have been done by a different set of hand entirely, and the same goes for the border details and flourishes.


Yet I still found the information Driver and Orr presented surprised me. Why is that? Why did I conceptualize the past so separately from the methods of today? I think that in learning about the past in my degree I am used to thinking about the past (particularly the ancient past) as completely separate from today. I think about modern history as being in a similar world to my own. I’m unsure of how the medieval past fits into modern thinking. It made me recall the first reading of the year, The Devil’s Historian, which demonstrated how we conceptualize the medieval past all wrong, particularly due to misrepresentations of it. I feel I am constantly being reintroduced to that idea throughout this course.


Driver and Orr then go on to develop more on the advancement of images with printing. During the switch to print culture pictures went from manuscript to printing and back again. This concept was more familiar to me. The transition of technology is a problem that is easy to compare to the modern world. I would imagine there could have been a preference for the manuscript images over the printed ones, there might have been a problem in early printing that made the images bad or difficult to produce. While new technology is always useful or intriguing there are still places for older methods to stay relevant. Think of how film cameras are very popular now despite everyone having a good quality camera on their phone. Each method has its place and a use, even if one is newer.


In relation to the images themselves Driver and Orr mention that images were often copied from edition to edition even if the text was changed. How images and design materials (like woodcuts) would be reused with no connection to the text. They go onto suggest that this might mean that readers were familiar with “a world of visual images” that functioned separately from the text. I cannot think of a modern equivalent for this. Images accompanying a text have clear relations to each other in our times, it is part of the way we read and understand. This medieval system of understanding images is, to me as a historian, frustrating and fascinating. Frustrating because of how much I would like to understand the images in the same way they would have, but I am damned by time. Fascinating because the mere existence of such a system is exactly why I find history so interesting.

In my manuscript I began to try to decode some of the images myself. The boarder decoration in my manuscript is rich with images. It contains a peacock and peahen, many kinds of flowers, vines and flourishes. I believe the roundels are recalling standard biblical iconography. So, the question is do I have the kind of manuscript that is associated with the text or the kind where the images function on their own. I am researching this very question. The answer of course would lie within understanding text. In considering the text I began to think how books are art.


Books are art. This isn’t necessarily a bold claim, an unfounded claim, or an unstated claim but it’s a new way for me to think of the ‘books’ within this class. It seems obvious when we see a page with an image that that page is art. What I mean to say is that the very existence of the book is art. Everything within a manuscript seems to demonstrate that it is art. The mis-en-page is a form of art. The text itself is a form of art. This was proven to me in our readings on scripts that explained how the different styles and smallest flourishes can help find the date and origin of the manuscript. Just like how different artistic styles are used in art history to do similar dating and originating. Illuminated letters stand out for their beauty, colour and designs but all of that also serves a function by organizing the page and separating the text. While the text and images in a manuscript might not always be related, they should always be considered the artistic representation form of the text that they are.