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Illuminated manuscript facts for kids

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Illuminated manuscript
Illuminated manuscript of the Pentateuch, Western Europe in the 12th century
Illuminated manuscript on parchment of the Pentateuch, in Hebrew. National Library of Israel, Jerusalem

An illuminmanuscript is a manuscript in which the text is supplemented by the addition of decoration or illustration, such as decorated initials, borders and miniatures. In the strictest definition of the term, an illuminated manuscript only refers to manuscripts decorated with gold or silver. However, in both common usage and modern scholarship, the term is now used to refer to any decorated manuscript.

The vast majority of surviving manuscripts are from the Middle Ages, although many illuminated manuscripts survive from the 15th century Renaissance, along with a very limited number from late antiquity. The majority of these manuscripts are of a religious nature. However, especially from 13th century onward, an increasing number of secular texts were illuminated.

Most illuminated manuscripts were created as codices, although many illuminated manuscripts were rolls or single sheets. A very few illuminated manuscript fragments survive on papyrus. Most medieval manuscripts, illuminated or not, were written on parchment (most commonly calf, sheep,or goat skin) or vellum (calf skin).

Beginning in the late middle ages manuscripts began to be produced on paper. Illuminated manuscripts are the most common type of artifact to survive from the middle ages. They are also the best surviving specimens of medieval painting. Indeed, for many areas and time periods, they are the only surviving examples of painting.


Woman teaching geometry
Woman teaching geometry

Illumination was a complex and frequently costly process. As such, it was usually reserved for special books: an altar Bible, for example. Wealthy people often had richly illuminated "books of hours" made, which set down prayers appropriate for various times in the liturgical day.


In the making of an illuminated manuscript, the text was usually written first. Sheets of parchment or vellum, animal hides specially prepared for writing, were cut down to the appropriate size. After the general layout of the page was planned (eg initial capital, borders), the page was lightly ruled with a pointed stick, and the scribe went to work with ink-pot and either sharpened quill feather or reed pen.

The script depended on local customs and tastes. The sturdy Roman letters of the early Middle Ages gradually gave way to cursive scripts such as Uncial and half-Uncial, especially in the British Isles, where distinctive scripts such as insular majuscule and insular minuscule developed. Stocky, richly textured blackletter was first seen around the 13th century and was particularly popular in the later Middle Ages.

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