Medieval Writing
Initials and Borders (2)
Some initials became more elaborate, and also emphasised their function as a place marker to identify sections of text, with the development of historiated initials. The example at right is reportedly one of the earliest examples of the type.
historiated initial
Initial at the beginning of the heading in the last example (British Library, Cotton Vespasian A1, f.31), from the early 8th century. By permission of the British Library.

The Bodleian Library displays a historiated initial E representing Joshua speaking to the people, from a 13th century English Bible (Bodleian Library MS lat.bib.e.7, f.69r).

Particular forms and images were associated with specific parts of the text of standardised works like the Bible. The decorative style changed with the fashions of the day. To designate these as place markers is possibly reducing their function to the ordinary and banal, when in fact there was a spiritual dimension. The examples below refer to the beginning of the Psalms, those songs of praise found not only in their original source of the Bible, but featured in all the works of church liturgy and in the book of hours for the laity. The extravagant BEATUS marks not only the page of a book but a spiritual space. Similarly the significant In principio erat verbum ... passage at the beginning of St John's gospel was often singled out for special treatment; a definingly spiritual passage embedded in the narrative of Christ's life.
beatus beatus
Two examples of the initial B of the word Beatus which begins Psalm i, both from 12th century manuscripts. That on the left is from the Melissande Psalter (British Library, Egerton MS 1139, f.23) and features David playing his harp among twining foliate ornament and animals, including a lion eating the foliage. That on the right is from a Bible (Paris Bibliothèque St Geneviève, MS8-10, vol.ii, f.194) and includes the foliage and an image of David with his harp along with other scenes. Yes, they would look much more impressive in colour. (From New Palaeographical Society 1907 and 1908)

For a full colour example, the Creating French Culture exhibition shows the Beatus initial from an 11th century psalter-hymnal of St Germain des Pres (Bibliothèque National de France, Manuscripts Dept, Western Section, Lat.11550).

historiated initial A historiated initial illustrates the text in some way, possibly providing not only a place marker but a mnemonic device to jog the memory. In the example at left the letter C begins the phrase cantate domino, which is what the little group of clerics are doing, singing to the Lord
From the Luttrell Psalter (now in the British Library). (From New Palaeographical Society 1904)
While initials bore a relationship to the text, borders seem to most often contain purely decorative elements or those whose significance is related to the art style and psyche of the era rather than the content of the page. During the 14th century borders broke out in an extravaganza of mad imagery, with fantastic creatures, little genre scenes and crazy whimsical anomalies. Solemn and prestigious works were not immune from this phenomenon. In fact, they were the most likely subjects for it. It seems to go along with similarly bizarre representations in church art, where what seem like inappropriate things appear in holy places. I shall not even attempt anything so fanciful as to relate it to the famines and plagues of the era and a desperate attempt to mock gently at God in order to get his attention. However, if you find a monkey examining a urine flask or a creature with three heads and no legs standing upside down, you have hit the era from around 1330.
A furry footed fiddler makes the bow hair fly in a margin of the Luttrell Psalter (now in the British Library). (From New Palaeographical Society 1904)
A monkey examines a urine flask in a 14th century nave window in York Minster.
border By the 15th century there was a return to floral and foliate ornament, only with a more naturalistic representation than the twining jungle vines of the 12th century. That is to say, there was plenty of curling and less interlacing, but recognisable species of flowers, fruit and sometimes animals and birds were sprinkled among them. You can put it down to Italian influences on the more accurate representation of reality, to a growing interest in the natural world, to a more benign social and natural environment which requires fewer monsters to scare the demons away, to the commodification of culture and the moving of prestige goods into the comfort zone. Or you can just say it's very pretty.
At left, floral and foliate border on a leaf from a late 15th century book of hours, by permission of the University of Tasmania Library. At right, similar ornament on a leaf from a late 15th century French book of hours, from a private collection.


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