Medieval Writing
Initials and Borders (3)
The most extravagantly decorated books were the grand and significant volumes of display, emphasising the significance of social prestige and also the role played by some of these works in the impressive public display of religion. In the early medieval period, the highly treasured gospel books like the Lindisfarne Gospels of the Book of Kells were lavishly decorated. It is a reasonable assumption that these prestigious works have survived selectively over simpler and more humble working volumes.
A marvellous coiled dragon forms the letter P on a page of the late 7th century Lindisfarne Gospels (British Library, Cotton Nero D IV, f.5), by permission of the British Library.
A full decorative page with an initial from the Book of Kells, showing the beginning of the Gospel of St Matthew, Trinity College Dublin, MS A. I. (58), f.29r.
The massive Bibles which sat on lecterns in the church, or the antiphoners and graduals used by the choir were often decorated. The missal or breviary used by the priest was not necessarily lavishly treated, being a work which was used behind the enclosure of the rood screen.

Columbia University displays a late 15th century Italian gradual (Plimpton MS 040A frag, recto) and an antiphoner of similar provenance (Plimpton MS 041, f.1), both with historiated initials and decorative borders. Thrse examples are exceptionally ornate.

The psalter was a work of performance, and around the 13th century some of these were acquired by wealthy members of the laity as prestige goods. These were made in a smaller format, as they were not for the use of multiple members of a choir, but had many of the prestige trappings of decoration with elaborate initials and borders and lashings of gold leaf.
Leaf from a lavishly decorated 14th century psalter (Douai, Bibliothèque Publique, MS 171, f.127). (From New Palaeographical Society 1903)
The Creating French Culture exhibition shows a page with miniature and border from the late 14th century Psalter of Jean de Berry (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Manuscripts Dept, Western Section, Fr 13091).
Certain works which were primarily records, such as chronicles, might be relatively undecorated, although fancy editions could be produced. By the 14th century the private ownership of books was becoming more common among the wealthy and the books themselves were status goods. Lavishly adorned volumes of romance were produced for wealthy private owners.
A dog chases a deer and three people watch a puppet show in a decorative but irrelevant lower border of a page of the Romances of Alexander in French verse (Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 264, f.54). (From New Palaeographical Society 1905)
In the 14th and 15th centuries the book of hours became the book most likely to be owned by the aristocracy and the wealthy middle classes. Many of these were churned out in workshops and the art cognoscenti spurn the quality of some of the painting, although the most elegant and most lavishly produced items rank among some of the finest art works of the era. However, even the shopwork variety was given the full range of decorative treatment, with miniatures, borders, fancy initials and gold leaf decoration.
book of hours book of hours
Leaf from a late 15th century French book of hours. The details have been shown on previous pages. By permission of the University of Tasmania Library.   Page with miniature, decorative initial, rubric and floral borders from a 15th century book of hours produced in Belgium for the English market (National Library of Australia, MS 1097/9, f.7r). By permission of the National Library of Australia.
The Bodleian Library displays a leaf from a Flemish book of hours of c.1360 (Bodleian Library, MS lat. liturg.f.3, f.51r) with rubrics, decorative initials and a border with birds and a fox. From the same source, a mid 15th century English book of hours (Bodleian Library, MS lat. liturg. f.21, f.68v) shows a historiated initial and a most elaborate and lavish foliate border.
In general, the use of rubrics, decorative initials and borders was employed in book production, but is rarely encountered in documents, even those of great importance. There are exceptions, as there are exceptions to every generalisation, but the usual way of adding a certain significance and weight to a legal document was through calligraphic flourishes and the splendour and craftsmanship of the seals attached to them.
Two images from a lavishly decorated document of 1331 (British Library, Harley Charter 83 C.13). (From New Palaeographical Society 1910).
In a truly wondrous exception, this document of 1331 is given the full 14th century treatment. The historiated initial shows the king, Edward III, handing over the document in the presence of witnesses. The borders are adorned with foliage and in one corner a creature with sword and shield attempts to decapitate a snail. This seems an extraordinary image on a document restoring the lands and title to the Earl of Arundel, whose father had been beheaded without trial.
A closer look at some details of initials can give us some information about how a book was constructed.
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