"monks illuminating letters"
An illuminated letter 'P' in the Malmesbury Bible (c. 1407)
Public DomainAn illuminated letter 'P' in the Malmesbury Bible (c. 1407) - Credit: Adrian Pingstone

Illuminated manuscripts date back to the Roman period, but are most commonly associated with the Medieval Ages, from which there are most surviving replicas. Illumination varied from single letters – capitals, usually the first of each page or a paragraph – which were ornamented by pictures in and around the shape of the letter, marginal decorations or whole-page illustrations. Up until the twelfth century, most manuscripts were illuminated in monasteries, either on commission or to add to the library. Larger monasteries had special rooms set aside for the purpose, called the scriptorium – here the scholars could work undisturbed on their manuscripts which could take years to complete.

The majority of illuminated texts are religious books, as it was a lengthy and costly process and only the most important books were deemed worthy of it – the Bible, the Gospels or psaltars. However, by the fourteenth century commercial scriptoria had sprung up in towns, especially in Paris, Italy and the Netherlands, were both men and women were employed in illuminating religious and secular books for wealthy patrons. The invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440 meant that books could be mass-produced, and with this advancement the painstaking process of letter illumination died out.

Technically, a manuscript can only be described as ‘illuminated’ if gold or silver was used in the decoration, but it has become an umbrella term for all ornamented manuscripts of Western origin.