Illuminated Manuscript Essay

Hello, any feedback on the structure and content of my essay would be greatly appreciated! I'd like to know if you see any awkward sentence or where I should provide more detail if necessary. I would also like to point out that my thesis begins with "In my paper..." because that is specifically how the professor wanted us to write it. Thanks!

The assignment:

You will write an argumentative paper based on a developed thesis statement. This includes an introduction with thesis statement (In this paper I argue that...), supporting arguments based on qualified and cited research, and a conclusion. This paper will be a concise and well-written, well-argued and well-organized research statement about your chosen area of research.

My chosen area is the Illuminated Manuscript.

During the Middle Ages and throughout the Renaissance religion played a large role in society. In previous time, methods of mass communication were essentially non-existent. The illuminated manuscript changed this by allowing texts to be produced and copied for distribution. Illuminated manuscripts reached all people spreading religious ideals and other information. In this paper, I prove that the illuminated manuscript shifted from being used as simply a religious instructional tool to mainstream sources of information and symbols of wealth.

In their initial purposes, illuminated manuscripts from the twelfth century were mostly created to provide religious instruction. During this time, Christianity was a relatively new faith that began to replace previously existing pagan belief systems. A main method for the accomplishment of this feat was through the production of texts that could spread the ideas of the faith. The Christian faith established itself based on the book called the Bible. All stories and guidelines for living life were contained within the book. The Bible made the faith tangible. Because of the large role that the Bible played in Christianity, it was highly regarded by all. The Gospels contained in the books were considered so significant in fact, that many became reliquaries. An issue of the time was a lack of literacy and therefore the inability of the common person to understand the existing versions of the Bible. This limited the audience that could actually understand and interpret the text to only those of spiritual importance. For this reason, great work and effort was put into trying to fully illustrate the bible. Very primitive decoration was used initially. Over time, the decoration was further developed and would contribute to the future of lavish decoration in manuscripts. Tobias as a Prophet in the Giant Bible of Hiarsau from Rome demonstrated one of the earliest decorations. Dated around the second half of the eleventh century, the illustrations it contained were not stylistically incorporated into the pages, rather they were left free standing. The beginning of the Romanesque era marked the significant advancement for bible decoration. Manuscripts created in England incorporated intricately designed initials and elegantly placed illustrations. Because of the large scale and great work that went into producing the manuscripts, they were not readily available to the public and could generally only be found in places of great spiritual importance.

Beginning in the thirteenth century, the purposes of illuminated manuscripts began to shift further away from religious topics and more towards becoming desirable objects of entertainment and general informational sources. This shift accompanied the beginning of the Renaissance era in which the modern world came to be. Inquisition into sciences and how the world operated became popular topics of interest and with it introduced a more literate public. As literacy rose, so did the demand for books. More secular works were produced and private ownership became more common. Works dealing with scientific themes became more widely produced. A plate from Herbal, entitled Representation of Medicinal Plants, which was dated around 1200 from England, depicted plants to aid in their identification. However, as more copies were created, the plants lost their realistic looking features and became more stylized and appealing to the eye. This occurrence was showed the beginning of emphasis on the importance of making manuscripts aesthetically pleasing, which later became attributed with wealth. Another work dealing with botany came about in the second half of the fourteenth century in Northern Italy in Compendium of Medicinal Plants. The plate entitled Picking Cherries depicted plants that appear to have been drawn from real life giving it a more scientific angle. The pieces were significant because of it showed the recognition and curiousness of nature. Continuing the theme of nature, The Hyena from Bestiary, which was dated around 1200 in England, depicts a realistic representation of a hyena. The work was not directly Christian but tied in ideals with an allegory that stated the hyena consumes the flesh of those in tombs. Other animals were also represented, most realistically, throughout the text. This work demonstrates the mixture of both scientific elements and entertainment. Along with scientific works, both historical and romantic volumes were produced as well. Entering the gothic era, a great shift away from biblical ideas occurred. Historical and literary themed texts were produced in great amounts and most were either written in, or translated into the common spoken language. The new accessibility opened up manuscripts to a previously unreached audience. Many works depicted the mundane, every day common tasks of patrons. The Luttrell Psalter from England dated around 1335 to 1340, depicted the life of Sir Geoffrey. In Kitchen Scene, his cook is shown working hard at preparing a meal for a banquet taking place that day. This narrative had no connection to any sort of Christian ideals. The main intent of these works was often more so to make the royalty and upper class citizens glorified by showcasing that they possessed the wealth to have such works about them produced.

The plate entitled Mordred besieging the Tower of London from the Roman Du Saint Graal is an example of such. Dated in the early fourteenth century from Flanders, it includes great tales of contemporary heroes such as Alexander the Great, Charlemagne, and King Arthur and his knights. The major difference between the new generation of manuscripts and the old was that older religious themed works were deemed as "necessary" to know and abide by. The new works however were something more that the general public wanted to read and own because of their own interest.

Along with the creation of secular texts the thirteenth century marked the beginning of rapid development and attendance of universities, which accounts for the flourishing influx of more educational literature than religious. Education also pushed for a more commercial production of books. One such example was the pocket-sized bible that became a highly valuable object and a symbol of an educated person. The bible contained extensively decorated tiny initials making them lavish. A Bible from France in the early thirteenth century, Initials to the Books of the Prophets Obadiah and Jonah, exemplifies the substantial use of complexly designed initials. Because of their intricate details, the bibles would be passed down generations. This passage from generation to generation signified the value of having such a bible.

In addition to the more entertainment and information driven focus of manuscripts, patronage of personal manuscripts began to become more common. The plate entitled Christ's Miracles of Healing in the Bible Moralisée from Paris dated around 1240 is an example of royal patronage. The designs on the pages resembled that of a stained glass window that might be found during the time period. It did not contain text; instead, it took select passages of the Bible and interpreted them allegorically. The great detail and decoration put into the work showcases the power and wealth of the royal family. Another patronized work, Trés Riches Heures, dated January 1411 to 1416 idolizes the Duke of Berry. In addition to being a fashionable tiny book of prayers, the illustrations within it were elaborate and glorified the duke. Elements such as enthronement, hierarchy of scale, and a sort of halo formed around him make him an important figure.

Evolving over the centuries, illuminated manuscripts shifted from being used for the communication of religious ideals to lavishly decorated icons of wealth, luxury, and knowledge. From its primitive beginnings, to becoming great sources of art, illuminated manuscripts played a large part in the spread of information and development of cultures. Through the introduction of this form of mass communication, peoples were changed forever as their access to information both religious and academic became easier and more widely available.


Internet Resources

Robert Miller

Medieval illuminated manuscripts

Online images and resources

Robert Miller is reference and instruction librarian at the University of Maryland University College, email:

© 2017 Robert Miller

With their rich representation of medieval life and thought, illuminated manuscripts serve as primary sources for scholars in any number of fields: history, literature, art history, women’s studies, religious studies, philosophy, the history of science, and more.

But you needn’t be conducting research to immerse yourself in the world of medieval manuscripts. The beauty, pathos, and earthy humor of illuminated manuscripts make them a delight for all. Thanks to digitization efforts by libraries and museums worldwide, the colorful creations of the medieval imagination—dreadful demons, armies of Amazons, gardens, gems, bugs, birds, celestial vistas, and simple scenes of everyday life—are easily accessible online.

Digitized manuscripts

Below are some portals where you can explore digitized illuminated manuscripts directly. Many sites will link you to collection highlights, providing quick access to masterpieces of manuscript art. To search a collection, you can usually bring up interesting images with keywords pertaining to medieval life: saint, devil, dragon, queen, battle, city, etc.

Of course, if you want to reproduce an image via social media or other venue, consult the website’s terms of use. And if you do use an image, always try to cite it for your readers. A citation may include the institution’s name, the shelf mark (a unique identifier for the manuscript, like a call number), the folio (page number), and a URL. A citation for an item from the British library, for example, may look like this: BL Harley 4431 f. 4

  • British Library. You can browse, search by keyword, limit by date, as well as access the British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. There are also links to collection highlights, such as the St. Cuthbert Gospel, the oldest intact European book. Access:
  • British Library Digitised Manuscripts. Permission: © British Library Board

  • Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. A direct way of searching for medieval illuminations in the British Library. Try the “Simple search,” limit to images, and enter keywords like rose, rabbit, etc. Access:
  • Enluminures. A French-language gateway to manuscript collections in Parisian libraries other than the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Access:
  • Free Library of Philadelphia. A helpful introduction to medieval manuscripts together with a highlights tour and search engine. Access:
  • Index of Christian Art. Based at Princeton University, the Index makes several digital image collections available to the public, including thousands of manuscript images. Access:
  • J. Paul Getty Museum. Explore the Getty collection by clicking on “Manuscripts,” then entering a keyword or doing an advanced search. Access:
  • Mandragore. A portal to the illuminated manuscript collections of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. The interface is in French only. Access:
  • Morgan Library & Museum. Browse the Morgan’s collection of medieval and renaissance manuscripts, search by keyword, and see collection highlights. Access:
  • National Library of the Netherlands. View highlights or, for a deeper dive, search by keyword, author, miniaturist, place of origin, and more. Access:
  • Vatican Library. An extensive digitization project is putting manuscript treasures of the Vatican online. As of this writing, the number of digitized manuscripts exceeds 13,000. Access:
  • Walters Art Museum. The Walters provides high-resolution images of many of its more than 900 illuminated manuscripts. Access:


A vibrant community of manuscript scholars and amateur enthusiasts keeps Twitter feeds well stocked with striking illuminations, many of them captioned for comic effect or chosen as wry comments on current events. The #MedievalTwitter community is warm and welcoming: as a mere dilettante in the world of manuscripts, I’ve connected with and learned from professional scholars on Twitter. Here are some accounts to follow:

  • Damien Kempf. A historian at the University of Liverpool, Kempf is the coauthor, with Maria L. Gilbert, of the illustrated book Medieval Monsters (British Library Publishing, 2015). Access:
  • Eleanor Parker. Parker is a scholar who brings the medieval world alive in her blog and in stories for History Today. Access:
  • Emily Steiner. Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, Steiner tweets manuscript images, often adding apposite quotations from medieval literature. Access:
  • Erik Kwakkel. Book historian and Scaliger chair at Leiden University, Kwakkel uses social media to popularize the oddities and wonders of medieval manuscripts. Access:
  • Johan Oosterman. Professor of Medieval Literature, Radboud University, Oosterman leads a team to preserve and digitize the prayer book of Mary of Guelders, a manuscript with its own Twitter account, @mariavgelre. Access:
  • Julian Harrison. Harrison is curator of Medieval Manuscripts at the British Library and a driving force behind the British Library’s outreach efforts to bring their digitized manuscripts to a worldwide audience. Access:
  • Miranda Bloem. A scholar at Radboud University, Bloem is one of the many manuscript experts who brings a wealth of knowledge and a sense of humor to #MedievalTwitter. Access:
  • Owl tweet. Permission: Miranda Bloem and The Morgan Library and Museum. MSM. 1004. Purchased on the Fellows Fund with the special assistance of Mrs. Vincent Astor, Mrs. Charles W. Engelhard, Mr. Haliburton Fales, 2nd, Miss Alice Tully, and Miss Julia P. Wightman, 1979

  • Robert Miller. I have been tweeting illuminations from the British Library’s online collection for about five years. I’ve been fortunate to have made a pilgrimage to the British Library, meeting curator Julian Harrison and seeing priceless manuscripts in person, in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures of the British Library Gallery. Access:
  • Sarah Laseke. A doctoral student at Leiden University, Laseke tweets illuminated manuscripts and founded Hug a Medievalist Day. Access:
  • Sarah Peverley. Professor of English at the University of Liverpool, Peverley broadcasts on the BBC and is a noted public speaker on the Middle Ages. Access:

Blogs, guides, traditions, hugs

Following are informative and entertaining blogs; guides for understanding arcane aspects of illuminated manuscripts; manuscript collections from traditions other than western, Christian culture; and your chance to hug a medievalist, at least virtually.

  • British Library Glossary. Illustrated explanations of the specialized word-hoard employed by manuscript scholars, from acanthus to marginalia to zoomorphic initial. Access:
  • British Library Medieval Manuscripts Blog. British Library staff and guest bloggers share their expertise and, not infrequently, their sense of humor. The 2012 “Unicorn Cookbook” April Fools’ post prompted at least one group from a culinary school to visit the British Library, asking to examine the “long-lost medieval cookbook” containing a recipe for unicorn. Access:
  • British Library Online Gallery: Sacred Texts. An excellent introduction to manuscripts beyond the Christian tradition. View texts sacred to Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism. Access:
  • Medieval Manuscripts Blog. Permission: © British Library Board

  • DMMapp: Digitized Medieval Manuscripts App. An interactive map that links you directly to the manuscript collections of more than 500 institutions worldwide. From the Sexy Codicology team. Access:
  • Hug a Medievalist Day. March 31, 2018, will be the eighth international celebration of this August event. Access:
  • InScribe. Learn the fundamentals of paleography in this open access course from the Institute of Historical Research, School of Advanced Study, University of London. Access:
  • Islamic Manuscripts. The Walters Art Museum provides a handsome interface to explore its collection of Islamic manuscripts, dating back to the 9th century. The site also includes an online exhibition, Poetry and Prayer, featuring Islamic illumination and calligraphy. Access:
  • Manuscript Art. A wide-ranging and well-organized look at manuscript art by scholar Jesse Hurlburt. Access:
  • Medieval Bestiary. Creatures mundane and mythical populate the pages of illuminated manuscripts, and this illustrated website, based on ancient and medieval texts, provides essential information should you ever encounter a bonnacon or want to harvest a mandrake. Access:
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Search for “illuminated manuscripts” to discover essays and illuminations covering a range of centuries and cultural traditions. Access:
  • Polonsky Foundation Catalogue of Digitised Hebrew Manuscripts. This British Library project allows you to explore featured content and themes in an extensive collection, as well as read articles and watch videos. Access:
  • Sexy Codicology. Giulio Menna and Marjolein de Vos, both of Leiden University, maintain this informative and beautifully illustrated blog. Access:
  • Sexy Codicology. Permission: Giulio Menna and Marjolein de Vos

  • The Iris: Behind the Scenes at the Getty. Search for “illuminated manuscripts” to uncover blog posts and podcasts about items from the Getty collection. Access:
  • Treasures of Islamic Manuscript Painting from the Morgan. An online exhibition showcasing beautiful illuminations, many from the Middle Ages. Access:
  • YouTube. Search for “medieval manuscripts” to retrieve a host of videos by institutions like the Getty and renowned experts like Christopher de Hamel. Many videos demonstrate the painstaking process of creating a manuscript as it was done in the Middle Ages. Access:

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