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Medieval Manuscripts in the Digital Age

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Painted book page depicting two women in flowing robes, one in orange and one in blue, surrounded by an intricate border of blue, red and pink flowers and green vines.
Detail from the “Book of Hours.” published in France, circa 1420. Rare Books and Special Collections Division.

This is a guest post by Marianna Stell, a reference assistant in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. It appeared earlier this year in the Library of Congress Magazine.

Like contemporary digital interfaces, medieval manuscripts anticipate an engaged user. Imagine that you are viewing a well-designed webpage from behind the glass of a museum case. The glass would prevent you from interacting with the page as the designer intended. You would be an observer, not a user.

Viewing a medieval manuscript without information about its historical context can be a similarly limited experience. Medieval manuscripts are not static products. Like a website, a manuscript realizes its purpose in its dynamic engagement with its user. Rather than simply instructing readers, a manuscript’s compositional program is designed to move viewers to some action. The nature of the action depends upon the context for which the manuscript was created to function.

An illuminated prayer book, like the one by the Boucicault Master pictured above, is designed to catch the user’s attention. Light dances off the many flecks of gold leaf used in the borders and the miniatures, catching the eye of the reader with even the smallest motion and making the page appear as though it is illumined from within. Books of Hours like this one were created to allow laypersons to participate in the cycle of prayers that priests and monastic orders kept. The program of images and words connected domestic habits to the larger rhythms of the church festival calendar and the cycle of the seasons.

Intended to be portable, Books of Hours were sometimes fashioned as a girdle book. The length of cloth attached to the binding was tied in a knot and often tucked into a belt for easy transport. As a consequence, Books of Hours were used at home, at church and even at gravesides.

Not all medieval manuscripts were created for a ritual context, however. Some manuscripts were created to prompt mental rather than physical engagement. Manuscripts created for personal study assumed use in the active theater of the reader’s mind. A 15th-century encyclopedic manuscript in the Rosenwald Collection contains compositions that are built to generate mental associations. The design is a testament to the medieval creator’s ability to nest layers of information into a central image so that the reader might more easily remember the content.

This medieval manuscript references a metaphor that scholars ride on the shoulders of their mightier predecessors. Germany, circa 1410. Rare Books and Special Collections Division.

A 15th-century reader would recognize an image of what looks to be a piggyback ride as referring to a famous metaphor attributed to Bernard of Chartres, who claimed that modern scholars (i.e., those working around 1150 A.D.) are like dwarves being carried by giants. The modern scholar can see further into the horizon only because the ancients, like the giant, have given him a leg up. Modern knowledge therefore rests in a privileged position only because of those giants who wrote and studied beforehand. Illustrating this point, the giant’s surcoat (what we’d call an overcoat today) is inscribed with references to the seven liberal arts, which the medieval educational system inherited from the Romans.

The design of the composition moves the reader around in a circle, like the one labeled “macrocosm” above the head of the dwarf. By following the internal itinerary of the page, the reader actively experiences and internalizes its informational content. In so doing the reader becomes part of the manuscript’s larger message: Each human being is a microcosm of the greater macrocosm of the universe.

For those of us studying book arts in the digital age, we are the dwarves and the medieval manuscript designers are our giants.

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Comments (6)

  1. A very nice article. Some comments. The URL link below the second image is in error. This image is taken from MS Rosenwald 3 ( [Encyclopedic manuscript containing allegorical and medical drawings]. This leaf [6a] depicts an allegorical representation of literary authority in the form of a giant, representing the authority of ancient writers, and a dwarf, representing the relative insignificance of modern authors. The text appears to be, at least in part, a middle high german translation of Isidore Etymologiae, bk 1.1-3 where he discusses the divisions of the liberal arts. What is interesting about this particular leaf is that the Latin poem centerpiece harkens back to an early medieval style of poetic anagram where the words of the poem outline a figure. The text of the poem duplicates one found in a late medieval preface of Alexander de Villa Dei’s Doctrinale, a versified grammar from the 13th c.: Philosophia docet inquirere quid sit honestum, / quid mare, quid celum, quid homo, quid terra, quid aer (Philosophy teaches us to ask what is (the nature of) truth, what is the sea, what the sky, what man, what the earth, what air)…etc.

    • Link is fixed; thanks for the heads up!

  2. Viewers should be aware that many digitized images of medieval manuscripts (including illuminated ones and Islamic ones) are available through World Digital Library, which is linked at LOC. (Classroom teachers, this is a great resource!)

  3. would like copies of manuscripts please

    • Hi there,

      You can print copies of any online manuscripts at the Library, or the many other institutions that feature them online. An internet search will bring those up. For help at the Library, check with our Ask a Librarian service, tailoring your request to the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. The link is here:


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