Historical Book Arts Collection
Click on links below to view items grouped by specific Medieval manuscript categories.
The first forms of the book predate anything we would commonly identify as a book-wall paintings, incised stone, hunks of clay, piles of leaves, curls of bark. People drew and wrote on anything that was handy, without much thought of how long the surface would last. Some surfaces worked better than others and what we have left to us reflects not only the tradition of writing and bookmaking but also the longevity of particular materials.
In Western European culture the material often used for writing was parchment or vellum, forms of treated animal skin. These terms seem to be used interchangeably, depending on who's talking and are often used incorrectly to mean a type of paper. Since any animal skin can be treated to produce a surface that will accept writing, the actual term used is not so important. Traditionally European parchment is made from sheep or goat skins and the word vellum applies only to calf.
Parchment and vellum differ from tanned skin in the processing of the skin. Tanned skin, such as what is now used for shoes and garments, is generally used for binding books, not surfaces for writing. To produce parchment and vellum, skin is treated in a bath of lime, stretched on a frame and scraped until the skin has the required surface and thinness. Sometimes the skin was rubbed with a pumice stone and whitened with chalk.
The study of European medieval manuscripts requires extensive research in to ink, writing surfaces, writing tools, scripts, illumination and decoration. Texts are religious and secular and cover all types of subjects and time periods. Thousands of books are available that attempt to cover focused periods, countries or themes. See Bibliography.
The majority of manuscripts seen on these pages are individual fragments, dating from the 12th Centuries to the 16th Centuries. Each has a brief description based on information from the donor or bookseller, often enhanced by a faculty member or scholar. We recommend Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts; A Guide to Technical Terms by Michelle P. Brown as a basic text for use in the study of medieval manuscripts.