Medieval Monday: Illuminated Manuscripts

Many people assume that the Middle Ages were governed by ignorance and superstition.  Though there was certainly much that was not yet understood in the realm of science and medicine, people in the Middle Ages were not completely uneducated.

The ancient Greek writers were greatly respected, and their works translated into Latin so they could be made more widely known.  Topics of interest were geometry and mathematics, physics, studies of animals, politics, and medicine.  Medieval thinkers also studied the Bible, which was considered to be more important than any other field of study.  St. Augustine encouraged learning about other subjects, such as music, nature, and mathematics, with the idea that they would help people better understand God and the Bible.

At first monks, and those who wanted to have a career with the Church, were the only ones who sought a higher education.  By the 13th century, learning was available to a larger group of people, though typically schools and universities were still run by the monastic orders.

With the printing press not yet in existence, books for learning had to be written and copied entirely by hand.  Monasteries housed scriptoriums where Bibles, books of prayers, and other books of knowledge were produced. Beautiful, highly detailed illuminations often decorated the margins.  Some of what we know about medieval life today comes from these illuminations.  Where we don’t have archaeological artifacts to learn from, illuminations can take us back in time, showing us what the world looked like hundreds of years ago.

Because books were costly and laborious to make, they were shared as treasures between monasteries, even from one country to another. This is something I carried into my fictional world, where the tomes of knowledge are passed down through generations, copied and shared across monastic orders, and sometimes moved around to protect them from being destroyed by God’s enemies.

Enjoy browsing this small collection of illuminations, and wonder at the steady, masterful hands that made them.  There was no correction tape, no “undo” button, and no easy way to start over once a book was in production.

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