Celebrating National Book Lover’s Day with Medieval Treasures

August 9th is National Book Lover’s Day. To celebrate, the Toppan Rare Books Library is presenting a couple of our (personal) favorite books from the collection: a 15th century Belgian prayer book and an illuminated religious song book, also from the 15th century.

Illuminated manuscripts were extremely valuable books in the medieval world, each meticulously handcrafted from binding to text. Thanks to the expansive Fitzhugh collection, Toppan boasts a couple of extraordinary examples. These particular manuscripts have been broadly dated to the 15th century.

Before the printing press began to revolutionize and democratize printed culture in the early sixteenth century, books were the possessions of the wealthy classes and the Church. They were frequently produced in the scriptoria of monasteries by monks and nuns trained as scribes, or in universities after 1200. Luckily for us, unique scribal hands can sometimes be attributed to particular monastic members or by colophons in the bindings. Through colophons and scribal hand comparison studies, Cynthia J. Cyrus identified 460 manuscripts made by 286 female scribes across forty-eight German women’s convents.

Something that many are drawn to at first glance are the colors on the pages – just as vibrant all these centuries later. Each of these pigments had specific recipes, meanings, and values.

Gold was the most valuable since it was real gold that had been pounded into fine leaves and carefully applied to the design. In other cases, it was pounded into a powder and made into a paste using a liquid like mercury or vinegar. Ultramarine was an extremely difficult pigment to mix for various reasons. Lapis lazuli was expensive, and it was back-breaking to acquire it from the mountains in the Sar-e-Sang region of Afghanistan. It was also made up of a plethora of impurities. The artist had to separate the deep blue color from these impurities which took about three days to complete. For this reason, the recipe to make ultramarine blue was shrouded in secrecy. Due to its brilliance and value, artists relegated this blue pigment to the robes of one precious figure in particular: the Virgin Mary.

Another fascinating color to behold in illuminated manuscripts is green. Based on the way the pigment has interacted with the paper in the Toppan Library’s Fitzhugh manuscripts, it is likely that it is what was known as verdigris. Verdigris is created through the intentional corrosion of copper with air, moisture, and acid – or vinegar. Cennino Cennini, a fourteenth century artist, noted that because verdigris was produced using copper, it was liable to break down over time. Such breakdown appears in the form of chemical reactions between the paper, binder material, and color. Examining degradation patterns today depends on factors such as pollution, environmental conditions, and storage methods. In the case of the Toppan manuscripts, there is minimal degradation aside from the pigment gradually bleeding through the parchment. This is influenced by the fact that the book has been kept under controlled low humidity in a dry Wyoming environment. Those in locations with higher humidity might observe the color beginning or already eating through the page entirely.

Illuminated manuscripts were owned and commissioned by the wealthiest of medieval people. Books of hours like these were one of the most common types of bound volumes produced in the Middle Ages. They were meant to structure the days or years of the owner and encourage private and individualized devotion times throughout a given timeframe. Frequently found are lists of saints and their feast days as well as the legends of some saints that the owner found especially venerable.

Especially interesting is the frequency with which books of hours were owned by women. Mothers were in charge of their daughters’ educations. Wealthy mothers might commission a personalized volume that taught girls how to be pious and good wives and mothers themselves, and they may choose specific saints’ legends to meet this end. Illuminated manuscripts were valuable enough to be included in dowries, and books of hours could be given as wedding gifts to the bride. Excitingly, recent noninvasive scientific examinations of the books themselves and substances found on them have shown evidence of illuminated books’ role in the elite birth room. Prayers and legends – such as that of Saint Margaret of Antioch, the patron saint of childbirth – could hold incredible power for a woman in labor who believed that the saint’s protective powers could transfer to her if she bound the text to her thigh or abdomen.

Illuminated manuscripts are more than just books. They are works of art, expressions of faith, and windows into the past. They reveal the skills, creativity, and devotion of the people who made them and used them. They also show the challenges and changes that these books faced over time, from the invention of the printing press to the preservation efforts of today. The Toppan Rare Books Library is proud to have these illuminated manuscripts in its collection and to share them with the public on National Book Lover’s Day and beyond. If you are interested in seeing these manuscripts in person or learning more about them, please visit the website for more information.

Post contributed by Toppan Library Assistants Marcus Holscher and Emma Comstock.


Sources consulted:

[Anonymous illuminated ms. prayer book. Belgian], [15th century?], Fitzhugh Collection. ND3380.M36x. Toppan Rare Book Library, University of Wyoming.

[Anonymous illuminated ms. song book], [15th century?], Fitzhugh Collection. ND3380.M37x. Toppan Rare Book Library, University of Wyoming.

Banik, Gerhard. “Discoloration of Green Copper Pigments in Manuscripts and Works of Graphic Art.” Restaurator 10, no. 2 (1989): 61-73.

Brown, Michelle P. The British Library Guide to Writing and Scripts: History and Techniques. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.

Cennini, Cennino D’Andrea. The Craftsman’s Handbook. Translated by Daniel V. Thompson, Jr. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1960.

Cyrus, Cynthia J. “Appendix B: Forty-eight Women’s Convents with Active Scriptoria in Late Medieval Germany.” In The Scribes for Women’s Convents in Late Medieval Germany, 217-220.Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009.

Colour: The Art & Science of Illuminated Manuscripts. Edited by Stella Panaytova, Deirdre Jackson, and Paola Ricciardi. London: Harvey Miller Publishers, 2016.

Donohoe, Róisín. “‘Unbynde her anoon’: the Lives of St. Margaret of Antioch and the lying-in space in late medieval England.” In Gender in medieval places, spaces and thresholds. Edited by Victoria Blud, Diane Heath, and Einat Klafter, 137-156. London: University of London Press, Institute of Historical Research, 2019.

Fiddyment, Sarah, et al. “Girding the loins? Direct evidence of the use of a medieval English parchment birthing girdle from biomolecular analysis.” Royal Society Open Science 8 (2021): 1-14.

Finlay, Victoria. The Brilliant History of Color in Art. Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2014.

Finlay, Victoria. Color: A Natural History of the Palette. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2004.

Groag Bell, Susan. “Medieval Women Book Owners: Arbiters of Lay Piety and Ambassadors of Culture.” Signs 7, no. 4 (Summer 1982): 742-768.

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