The British Library’s exhibition, Royal Manuscripts – The Genius of Illumination – is a display of the art of the illustrated book from the 9th to the 16th Century. This is the medieval world revealed in manuscript form, before and just after Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press and movable type. Only the wealthiest patrons could afford the luxury of these time-consuming, hand painted books and Royalty were among those who bought and commissioned the work from artists and scribes. They were mostly for private consumption rather than public display, but the large size of the books commissioned by Edward IV, illuminated with his heraldic arms, show that they were meant to be admired and read aloud.
The centre for production of these volumes was Paris or Ghent rather than Florence where a different tradition would emerge. The religious subject matter tended to be either, Bibles, Psalters (the Book of Psalms written by King Solomon) or Book of Hours (a collection of prayers and readings for specific times of the day or month) but secular subjects were increasingly popular and were aimed at general education: the activities and genealogy of Kings, astrology, health and legal issues, content that would be familiar to a reader of today’s magazines and publications. There were storybooks for the nobility, drawn and designed in pictorial formats that showed a realism and natural humanity that could be seen as unrefined when compared to the classical art of the Renaissance. The drawings have wit and humour and an eye for the everyday anecdote that matched the subject matter. Titles of these books range from: A Manual of Moral Conduct, A Guide to True Nobility, The Path to True Valour and Knighthood and Moral and Spiritual Guidance for a Pope. One of the most popular was Boccaccio’s Tales of Famous Women, one of the first collections of women’s biography written in Europe, which was widely read by royal and aristocratic readers. Readers interested in death and disaster might read – Visions of the End of Time, an illustrated copy of the Book of Revelation known as the Apocalypse or else turn to animal stories or Bestiaries which contained moral instruction. For those wishing to undertake a trip to Jerusalem, the St Alban’s monk Mathew Paris produced a Route map to the Holy Land. This was illustrated with Castles were the traveller could find rest for the night and instructions on how to proceed onto the next destination.
Although the printing press arrived in England in 1476, illuminated manuscripts were still being commissioned by Henry VII and Henry VIII as they were seen as desirable consumer items as well as objects of beauty in their own right. Scribes and artists hand wrote and painted these books using quality materials such as Parchment or Vellum with ink made from iron gall and the illustrations and decorations were painted with expensive Lapis Lazuli (from Afghanistan) and embossed and burnished in Silver and Gold . The quality and freshness of the images survive through being shut out from the light and stored in Libraries. The size and difficulties of viewing these images make them little known but the concerns of the scribes, illuminators and patrons shine out as being immensely human. This exhibition at the British Library although small in scale brings the medieval world into the present and shines a light on the interests, activities and all too human concerns of a period once referred to as the Dark Ages, but one not too dissimilar to our own.