Book Design in the Middle Ages

Designing a book in the Middle Ages was a whole different process than it is today. In fact, a book was a completely different kind of object than it is today. It wasn’t meant for everyday use, to be read once and then to be discarded. It was an object of prestige, for special occasions only; to be carried on from generation to generation and to be kept safely for hundreds or thousands of years.

Today, we have printers and computers to mass produce books. But until about 1500, everything was done by hand. How were medieval books made?

Leber Book of Hours, Bruges, ca. 1500-1525 & Les Très Riches Heures by the Limbourg Brothers, France, 1409.

Step 1.  Preparing parchment

Parchment was made from dried and stretched animal skins. Before these were ready to write on, they had to be scraped and rubbed with a special powder, so ink would stick. Then, they were cut into rectangles to shape the pages of the book.

Step 2. Text writing

The person who would write the texts in the book was called a scribe. First, he measured and ruled the lines. With a quill, the texts would be written on the parchment. Errors could be scratched off: the parchment was strong enough.

Step 3. Illumination

After the scribe was finished, a illuminator began to illustrate the texts. Next to the straight text blocks, the margins of a page proved the place where artists could let their creativity reign. Here you can find the craziest decorations: many flowers, animals and all kind of fantasy figures.

Space was left for miniatures. For a long time, these miniatures were merely meant to accompany the texts, but over the years they got more and more status – and today they are considered pieces of art in itself.

A breakthrough in book illumination was the creation of depth in miniatures. Artists started to give the suggestion of three dimensionality within the frame of the miniature. The little images gave the illusion of a window opening up to an outside world.

 Fun decorations in the margins of a page of the Luttrell Psalter, England, 1325-1340.

Left: Trivulzio Book of Hours, ca. 1470.
With fading blue colours depth is created in this image of the crucifixion.

Right: Book of Hours of Maria of Burgundy, 1475-1480.


Step 4. Binding

When the illuminators were finished, all the pages would be sown together by use of linen thread.  Wood was used for the covers of the book. These were then covered with leather, and  – according to the wealth of the owner – finished off with decorations such as metals, satin, ivory or gemstones.

Jeweled Covers of the Lindau Gospels, ca. 875 and  the Gospels of Judith of Flanders, c. 1060.



Thanks to:
Museum Catharijneconvent Utrecht, Magical Miniatures (February 28 – June 3, 2018)
Claudine Chavannes-Mazel, De Ruimte van de Middeleeuwse Bladzij, in Het Reizende Detaill van Mariëtte Havekamp en Annemiek Overbeek, 2016.
J.P. Getty Museum, Los Angeles, The Making of a Medieval Book (May 20 – September 28, 2003)


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