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Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts

How was an illuminated manuscript made?
This antiphonary page is made of vellum.
zoom This antiphonary page is made of vellum.


Manuscripts were written on either vellum (calf skin) or parchment (sheep or goat skin). The skins were cleaned, stretched, scraped, and whitened with chalk to provide bright, strong, and smooth pages for writing.

Before starting to copy a text, the scribe marked the margins of the page and ruled lines to write on. Then he began, writing in ink with a quill pen made from a goose or swan feather. The lines of text were fairly short, usually no more than four to nine words each. Most scribes knew several writing styles, and a person commissioning a book could select the lettering style.

When the scribe finished the writing, the illuminator went to work painting the illustrations and decorations. First, gold or silver was put on, a process called gilding. The illuminator applied small, delicate sheets of gold or silver leaf with a wet glue and then polished with a smooth stone or even a hound’s tooth. Next the pictures, border decorations, and ornamented letters were painted, in colors made from natural pigments.

Finally, all of the pages were folded, sewn together, and bound between covers of wood or leather. Often metal clasps or leather ties would hold the book shut.

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1. A close look at this manuscript reveals the ruled lines that were a guide for the scribe.
2. Here we see a scribe preparing a quill for writing. The feathers have been removed and the tip is being cut into a point.
3. This picture shows how a book was sewn together.


April 2005