Some of the most exquisite and elaborate lettering was created for the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages. These hand-made books not only consisted of text, but painted illustrations and borders, many of which included initial letters which were painstakingly painted by hand, and lucky for us, have withstood the test of time.
A Brief Background
Books today are available to almost everyone, as they are mass produced and affordable, as well as easily borrowed from libraries. On the other hand, the process for making books in the Middle Ages was dramatically different, and not readily available to the general public, the majority of which did not know how to read anyway. Books were all written and drawn by hand, with each step done by a different person: scribe, rubricator, illustrator, etc. They were known as Illuminated Manuscripts: “illuminated” from the Latin word lumen, meaning light, and “manuscript” from the Latin words manus meaning hand, and scribere meaning to write. So an illuminated manuscript is one in which the text is embellished or enhanced with the use of decorative elements, including initials, borders, and other illustrations, using luminous colors, often including gold and silver.
These precious and expensive books were most commonly associated with religious manuscripts, often created in monasteries by monks, and commissioned by wealthy patrons. Bibles were a frequent subject for illumination. The use of gold leaf or foil, or gold specks or dust, as well as silver, which is applied with a brush, is a characteristic feature of most from the Middle Ages.
Many of these manuscripts contain illustrated initial letters that frequently were seen at the beginning of a chapter or section. Decorative initials found in mid-century manuscripts are usually one of three kinds:
Historiated Initial: An initial letter that contains within it a scene or figure related to the text.
Inhabited Initial: An initial letter that contains human or animal figures that are decorative only and bear no relation to the text.
Decorated Initial: An initial letter that is decorated and embellished but does not necessarily contain a picture, or a decoration that relates to the text.
The production of an illuminated manuscript began with the text, which was usually written first. Then, sheets of parchment or vellum which were animal hides specially prepared for writing, were cut down to the required size. The layout of the book was then planned, including placement of the text, initial letters, borders, and any other illustrations and decorative elements. Next, the grid for each page was lightly ruled with a pointed stick, after which the scribe went to work using ink and either a sharpened quill feather or reed pen. Next, the illuminator (or illustrator, as we now call them) created all the remaining elements.
These amazing manuscripts are a fantastic source of inspiration for today’s designers, as initial letters and other decorative elements are still used in books, magazines, annual report, brochures, and any instance where eye-popping graphics serve to draw attention to text, and also to help illustrate the content. Shown below is a selection of illuminated manuscripts with a broad range of initial letter treatments.Tags