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Illustration from a middle age book

How to Make Your Own Illuminated Manuscript


Seven videos from the British Library show, step by step, how some of the most fascinating objects of art and literature were made.

Perhaps one of the most beautiful eras in the history of books was the Middle Ages. Books were produced and then “illuminated” by hand. More recent centuries have accustomed readers to the immediacy of books made by machines, in series. But still, the charm and value of a handmade book (or any object) remains extraordinary —as if mere intent and contact with human hands can give books a spirit.

So-called “illuminated manuscripts” were works of manuscript art that emerged prior to the invention of the printing press in the 16th century. Among their most beautiful characteristics is the use of stylized calligraphy, and the inclusion of entirely hand-painted illustrations. The pigments —sometimes derived through alchemical processes— were mixed with egg white, which fixed the color to the page. Black or ochre ink was extracted from ground and boiled acorns, and large bird feathers such as those from geese or swans were used for their creation.

Illuminated manuscripts —religiously themed and extremely expensive books— resulted from the collective work of a whole group of scribes (usually monks), who could take some five months to transcribe a 200-page text. Thereafter, another group of artists carefully decorated and illustrated the letters and pages, the covers of which were then covered in the skins of sheep, goat, or deer.

A fascinating tribute to these medieval works of art, the British Library has produced a series of seven short videos which show, step by step, how the manuscripts were produced. The narrator is Patricia Lovett, a calligrapher, illuminator, and expert in medieval technique. She describes the multiple processes, from the making of a pen for calligraphy, to the steps taken to make ink and pigments. A voyage into the very soul of the manuscripts, these tutorials can be used to make one all your own

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