Manuscript Basics

Guide | Glossary

A “manuscript” is a book written and produced by hand. During the Middle Ages, before the advent of printing in the fifteenth century, all books were manuscripts, a term which derives from the Latin phrase manu scriptus or “written by hand.” Because medieval manuscripts are handmade, each book is unique, and each one has a story to tell.

Up to the twelfth century, most medieval manuscripts were written by monks living in monasteries. Each monastery would have a “scriptorium,” a room where the monks would produce the books for use in religious ceremonies as well as for study. Beginning in the thirteenth century, as more lay people learned how to read, commercial enterprises sprang up in the cities and towns of Europe, especially around universities such as those at Paris, Oxford, or Bologna. In the fifteenth century, manuscript book production was slowly replaced by the printing press, and by the end of the sixteenth century, very few books were produced by hand.

Manuscripts are valued by scholars because they preserve in their materials so much information about the people who made them: their societies, their beliefs, and even their ideas of beauty. Many manuscripts were illuminated, or decorated, often very lavishly, with gold, silver, and other luxurious pigments that came from far and wide. Some of the great works of art of the Middle Ages can be found within the covers of these precious books.

Manuscript Labeling

The core of the Free Library’s manuscript collection came from the families of two collectors: John Frederick Lewis and P.A.B. Widener. These gifts are reflected in the shelfmarks (labels) of the manuscripts. For example, Lewis E 1 is a manuscript book in the Lewis Collection; Lewis E M 12:4 is a single leaf in the collection; and Widener 2 is one of the nine Widener manuscripts. Other collections represented include the Hampton L. Carson Collection on the growth and development of the Common Law, with call numbers beginning with LC14, and a manuscript from the Moncure Buddle Collection of the works of the Roman poet Horace.

Types and Contents of Manuscripts



The manuscript collection of the Free Library includes a broad sampling of the kinds of books people made and used during the Middle Ages: liturgical books for use in public devotions, prayer books for private use, philosophical and theological texts, Bibles for private study or for public reading, histories, poems, almanacs, and more. The quality of manuscripts could range from hastily made copies of texts intended for the scribe’s personal use to very luxurious productions in which great care was taken in the handling of the script (style of writing), the layout of the page, and the decoration.

Illuminated manuscripts could also vary in type and quality. The most common form of illumination is the decorated initial, or first letter, of a text. In their basic form, initials could simply be made larger and written in a different color of ink, or they could be much more elaborate and filled with intricate designs, or even be used as spaces for narrative illustration. Many of these books include small paintings, called miniatures, which illustrate the texts or function independently within the manuscript, often as images for devotion. In addition to initials and miniatures, the margins of manuscripts could provide space for an illuminator’s flights of fancy.

Manuscript illumination offers many fascinating glimpses into medieval culture. The study of a manuscript’s iconography, or the content and subjects represented in the decoration, opens up many avenues of exploration into the beliefs and values of medieval society. The choices that artists made in how to represent subjects or illustrate a text were often based on changing social or religious concerns. For example, up until the late fourteenth century, the Nativity was typically represented by a scene in which Mary lay within a stable beside the Christ Child in a manger with the ox and the ass nearby. At the end of the fourteenth century, the iconography changed according to a popular vision of Bridget of Sweden in which the Christ Child appeared miraculously on the ground beside the Virgin to save her the pain of labor. In late medieval art, the Nativity is thus represented by the Virgin and Joseph kneeling beside the Christ Child lying on the ground amid a halo of light. Also in these later depictions, the shepherds are often shown just outside the walls of the stable. Their presence points to changing social values instituted by the Franciscans who believed that poverty brought one closer to God. The art of manuscript illumination is full of many other insights that shed light on the history and culture of the Middle Ages. We invite you to explore the images in our collection to learn more.

How Medieval Manuscripts Were Used

Lewis E 157

Lewis E 157

For most of the Middle Ages, manuscripts were used primarily in the service of the Church, either for use in the liturgy, or for the religious ceremonies performed daily. The celebration of the Mass and the daily performance of prayer known as the Divine Office required a number of different manuscripts that contained the various prayers, hymns, and readings for each ceremony. The books made for this celebration are among the largest, and sometimes the most beautiful, surviving manuscripts from this period. For example, Missals contained all of the texts necessary for a priest to say, or sing, the Mass. Lewis E 157 is a missal made in the Southern Netherlands about the middle of the sixteenth century. It would have been kept on an altar for the priest to read from.

Lewis E 20

Lewis E 20

Study was also an important part of religious life, especially in the monasteries. Every monastic library would have included many books on theology like Lewis E 20, which contains several sermons by St. Quodvultdeus, a contemporary and student of St. Augustine.

Lewis E 243

Lewis E 243

The most important text of the Middle Ages, however, was the Bible. In the early Middle Ages, the Bible was usually written not in one book as it is today, but in several volumes based on the major divisions of the books. The four Gospels, for example, were generally gathered into one volume as were the Epistles or the books of the Pentateuch. Eventually, changes in the use of the Bible caused the format of the Bible to change to adapt to the needs of users. Lewis E 243 is an example of the type of glossed Bible that was an innovation of the twelfth century. A glossed Bible contains not only Scripture, which was usually written in large script in the center of the page, but also commentaries gathered from centuries of outside interpretation. The gloss was written in smaller script around the Scripture.

In the thirteenth century, the needs of university students and itinerant preachers required further changes in the format of the Bible. The large multi-volume Bibles of the past were eventually replaced by small, portable, single-volume ones produced in large numbers in Paris, where the first university was established, and eventually other cities with universities such as Oxford and Bologna. These "university Bibles,” as they are sometimes known, are written in tiny, highly abbreviated script in two columns on tissue-thin sheets of parchment, with minimal decoration. These features were used in order to reduce the mass of the Bible. These Bibles are in fact the ancestors of the Bible as we know it today.

Lewis E 28

Lewis E 28

Other innovations that made searching the Bible more efficient are the headings at the top of the page that identify each book as well as the division of each book into standardized chapters. Up until the early years of the thirteenth century, there had been no such standard division. It is odd for us to think of the Bible looking any other way, but these changes were revolutionary for their time. Lewis E 28, which was made in Paris around 1225, is a highly representative example of this sort of book: it is small enough to carry in one hand, and has some small historiated initials and numbered chapters. Its first page has a tiny portrait of St. Jerome, the translator of the Bible into Latin, inside the page-height capital "F" that begins the text of his prologue to the Bible.

Lewis E 121

Lewis E 121

The most common surviving type of book from the later Middle Ages is the Book of Hours, which is a collection of prayers to be read daily at certain times of the day. Books of Hours are sometimes known as the “bestseller” of the Middle Ages. Produced in great quantities and intended primarily for lay people, they were often lavishly illuminated and presented as gifts or kept as family treasures. The Free Library’s collection includes more than fifty Books of Hours. A fairly sumptuous example is Widener 6; a more modest and probably more typical one is Lewis E 121. The pictures in these books were beautiful, but more importantly, they provided a focal point for devotion.

Widener 6 ff 78v-79r

Widener 6

Purely secular works, for entertainment or for instruction, were not uncommon, although far outnumbered by books of religion. One outstanding example in the Free Library’s collection is a fully-illustrated copy of Jean Bruyant’s poem La Voie de Povreté ou de Richesse, called in this manuscript Le Livre du Chastel de Labour, or "The Book of the Castle of Work" (Widener 1). It is a long allegorical poem, inspired by the hugely popular medieval poem "Le Roman de la Rose." The lively miniatures, probably by the anonymous artist known as the Master of Sir John Fastolf, illustrate a dream journey of the protagonist in the company of Dame Reason, who convinces him that hard work is a good thing.

How Manuscripts Were Made

Every stage in the production of a manuscript required intricate and laborious craftsmanship. Details of this process could vary in different regions and countries. Various methods of decoration developed, as did different scripts, but the following basic materials and methods were very much the same wherever manuscripts were created.

Parchment, the material on which most manuscripts were written during the Middle Ages, was made from the skins of various animals—mainly sheep, cows or calves, and goats. (The term "vellum" is sometimes used, but it technically only refers to parchment made from calfskin.) Skins used for parchment went through a long process of soaking, stretching, scraping, drying, and polishing to make them suitable surfaces for writing on. Domestic animals in the Middle Ages tended to be much smaller than their modern counterparts, so one sheep yielded only about two pages of writing surface. By any measure, parchment was an expensive material. From the fourteenth century onward, paper was introduced into the West. Many manuscripts were written on paper, but these were more likely to be modest, undecorated, owner-produced texts.

The other basic material for writing a manuscript was ink. This was made from the black material yielded by oak galls—parasitic growths on oak trees—in a medium containing water, green vitriol, gum arabic, and sometimes lamp black. Lamp black is a pigment made from the soot collected from burning carbonaceous material (Benjamin Franklin had a factory to make it for the ink for his printing presses). Since most scribes mixed their own ink, there would have been many variations in the formula.

A very basic skill for a medieval scribe was the cutting of pens from goose quills; the second and third flight feathers made the best pens. Portraits of the four evangelists, common in Books of Hours, usually depict them as scribes, with small ink-bottles around their necks, and pen-knives for cutting and sharpening their quills. The knife could also be used to scrape away mistakes made while copying a text.

Gold leaf in a closeup of a miniature from the Lewis Psalter

Gold leaf

The pigments used in miniature paintings came from a great variety of sources. The most noticeable material used in illumination is the gold leaf, whose radiance has the effect of lighting up the page—the reason we refer to manuscripts as "illuminated." The miniatures in the Lewis Psalter, for example, include large areas of gold leaf, and the combination of gold with intense reds and blues is quite dazzling. Blue pigments were made from lapis lazuli or azurite; reds, from cinnabar or red lead. (Red lead, minium in Latin, is the source of the term "miniatures" for the pictures in medieval manuscripts.)

Assembling the Manuscript

Once parchment, pens, ink, pigments, gold-leaf, brushes, etc., were all assembled, the work of actually making a manuscript book proceeded in this order:

First, writing out the text: A scribe would take several sheets of parchment, usually from two to five sheets, and lay them flat, one on top of the other. These sheets would be folded to make gatherings that would then be sewn together to form the “codex,” the term used to describe the format of a book made this way (as opposed to a “roll” which consists of several sheets of parchment glued end to end and rolled up to store). If a gathering consisted of two sheets of parchment, it would have four “folios” or leaves; if one consisted of three sheets, it would have six folios, and so on.

Before the gatherings were sewn together, however, they had to be prepared for writing and decoration. Each folio was ruled using either a hard point instrument, lead, or ink to mark the number and dimensions of the lines of text and the spaces for decoration. The text was carefully planned around the miniatures and other decorations; blank spaces were left for these. Copying a text was obviously a slow, laborious process; mistakes were inevitable, and we often find corrections written into the texts of manuscripts.

When the text was completely copied, the decorations—miniatures, initials, and marginal decorations—were added to complete the manuscript. A preliminary drawing was made for each of these. A gesso ground was built up for the gold leaf, and the gold leaf was then applied before any of the other pigments. So much preparation and polishing went into putting down the gold leaf that it would have damaged any other paint already on the parchment.

Once the manuscript had been completely written and decorated, the gatherings would be “gathered,” sewn together, and given a binding. Medieval bindings were usually made of leather covering oak boards. Large liturgical books might also have metal protectors called bosses. These were designed to save the leather itself from the wear and tear of daily use. Many surviving books from the period have been rebound at some point—sometimes more than once—but quite a few retain contemporary bindings: another demonstration of how sturdy and long-lasting medieval books could be.

Read a much more detailed description of the making of medieval manuscripts. A very good book on the subject is Jonathan Alexander’s Medieval Illuminators and their Methods of Work , which describes manuscript production and materials in great detail, and with excellent documentation.