Saturday, February 11

With a Little Help from the Saints: Medieval Lovers.

You probably can't have failed to notice that wherever you turn at present, your senses are assailed by objects of the red, heart-shaped variety. Although it's not a particular wave I personally like to get swept up in, I couldn't fail to be halted by this gem in a local card shop: 'To My Gran on Valentine's Day.'  I did brace myself for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to come crashing through the door at any second, but all remained calm. And just as I was about to deride twenty-first century consumerism for this new level of madness, it occurred to me that, like so much in our world, it is all the fault of the medievals.

From: The Roman de la Rose
The Lover (L'Amans) in bed with a man (Dangier, or Danger) holding a club.

The medievals loved their love and especially of the courtly variety. It found its expression in poetry and among the most famous is the French Roman de la Rose, or The Story of the Rose. It was composed by two authors: Guillaume de Lorris in around 1230 and Jean de Meun in around 1275, some forty years later. The poem takes the form of a dream, in which the dreamer, the Lover, approaches the rose (the symbol of his lady's love) in a garden but is spurned. The Lover then has to learn the rules of love to win the object of his desire. The complete work is over 21,000 lines and was hugely popular amongst the elite of England and France. Several copies are still in existence.

The Lover pierced by an arrow,
kneeling before the God of Love (Diex d'Amour).

I have chosen the images from a manuscript from c1320-1340 for this post. Interestingly, it is a non-religious work, so no saints (of which more later). The fourteenth century also saw the introduction of a custom for lovers within court circles that is still with us: Valentine's Day. February 14th is the day that the medievals reckoned birds began mating. So why not have a day when refined men and women could do the same in elaborate rituals and games?

Male Lovers pierced by arrows.

The poetry of the time again reflects the custom. Geoffrey Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls is the earliest, dating from around 1381. In it, lovers are birds, quarrelling over the finest partner on Valentine's Day.

Female Lovers- and a Monk.

By 1400, the French Court had founded the Cour Amoureuse, or the Court of  Love, supposedly in honour of women. It first met on Valentine’s Day in 1400, ruled over by a ‘Prince of Love’ who was a professional poet. Noble ladies heard various love-poems and presented prizes to the winners. It sounds very charming until one realises that around 600 people took part. One can only suppose that, with those sorts of numbers, everyone probably went home with something out of the day.

The God of Love taking hold of the Lover.

In the fifteenth century, the poet and prior of Hatfield Regis, John Lydgate, wrote ‘A Valantine to Her That Excelleth All’.  And we start to see the custom of the Valentine move beyond the confines of the court. In a letter dating from 1477 Norwich, Margery Brews writes to her fiancé John Paston as her ‘right wellbelovyd Voluntyn’.

Envie (Envy) looking at a pair of lovers.

What's even more interesting is that Margery's mother Elizabeth also writes to John to ask that the marriage takes place on 'Sent Volentynes Day'... [when] every brydde chesyth hym a make.' Yes, we have mention of the bird choosing a mate again. But we also have reference to Saint Valentine. It is likely that clerics began making the connection between a saint and the secular customs around finding a partner. Two third century saints were named Valentine: Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Interamna (modern Terni in Italy). We know little about them other than they were martyred and that is commemorated on February 14. They had never been associated with lovers up the middle ages.

Vilenie (Villainy, Abuse, Baseness)
offering the Lover a potion.

Of course other medieval saints were on hand to help steer the course of true love. Fifth century Saint Dwynwen is the Welsh patron saint of love. Dwynwen was one of the twenty four daughters and eleven sons of King of Wales, Brychan Brycheiniog and his wife, Prawst. When I came across those statistics, I felt perhaps that Brychan should patron saint of something, but I wasn’t quite sure what. Prawst, I continue to feel, should just be regarded with awe.

Oiseuse (Idleness, Ease, Leisure)
admitting the Lover through the gate.

Dwynwen was not as fortunate - or fruitful - in love as her parents. Her love story is of a bleaker kind and she suffered horribly at the hands of a man who should have loved her. After much travail, Dwynwen’s prayers were answered. As a mark of her thanks, she devoted herself to God's service for the rest of her life. She founded a convent on Llanddwyn, on the west coast of Anglesey, where she was joined by other broken-hearted women. After her death in 465AD, a well named after her became a place of pilgrimage and it remains there today.

Tristece (Sorrow or Misery), tearing her hair and clothes.

I think blaming the medievals for the annual fuss about Lovers is fair. But I did find an account where some level-headed souls decided it might be nice to use the day to celebrate neighbourly love. A 1415 charter from Norwich records that the citizens should some together on Valentine's Day, 'make peace, unite, and accord, poore and ryche to ben one in herte, love and charite.' Now, that's more like it. And even if they didn't get a card, I'll bet all the Grans were happy.

All images are in the Public Domain and are part of the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. 
Drabble, Margaret, ed. et al., The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature (3 ed.), Oxford University Press (2007, Online version: 2007)
Knowles, Elizabeth, ed.: The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (2 ed.) Publisher: Oxford University Press (2005, Current Online Version: 2014)
Lindahl, C., McNamara, J & Lindow, J. (eds.): Medieval Folklore, Oxford University Press (2002)
Livingston, E.A.,ed.:The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (2 rev.ed.), Oxford University Press (2006, Current Online Version: 2013)
MacKillop, James: A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology , Oxford University Press (2004, Current Online Version: 2004)
National Library of Wales: Dictionary of Welsh Biography Online.
Simpson, Jacqueline & Roud, Steve: A Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford University Press (2003, Current Online Version: 2003)

I wrote this post or an edited version of it for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog on February 12 2016. 

Friday, December 23

Isabella of Angoulême: Families, Fairies & Fish- Guest post by Erica Lainé

I would like to bet that not many readers of this blog have had the experience of being brought together by King John-- on Twitter. But that is how I came across historical novelist Erica Lainé. Both Erica and I have written about John in our novels: in mine, he is the eighteen year old sent by his father Henry to sort out medieval Ireland. (Spoiler: he doesn't. Or may be not a spoiler. He is John, after all.) In the first in Erica's The Tangled Queen series, we meet the very young Isabella of Angoulême who was abducted by John in 1200. Isabella became his second wife and queen consort, aged 12.

Yes- it's King John on Twitter. #unexpected
Both Erica and I are followers of (and are followed by) the man himself @JohanSanzTerre. John aside, Erica and I developed a mutually supportive relationship on Twitter. As with many online relationships, they remain just that. But at the Historical Novel Society's Oxford conference in September, fate intervened. The main dinner on the Saturday evening saw rain that was bouncing off the pavement and a mad scramble for seats and dryness. It may also have been the sniff of drink: historical novelists tend to drop all decorum when that's mentioned. In the random assembling, a woman dropped into the seat next to mine. Of course we introduced ourselves: historical novelists like to find out just who we're fighting for that bottle. And of course it was Erica. And of course we tweeted King John.

Erica & I at our serendipitous meeting!
Our dinner companions were at that point wondering just what was in that bottle but we explained- I think. Better than that, we talked all things John and writing and as happens at many HNS conferences, a lovely new friendship was formed. As her research provides another fascinating view of John's life through his relationship with Isabella, Erica very kindly agreed to write a guest post on Isabella's life and the mythology surrounding her family. So without further ado, I hand over to Erica's capable hands from hereon in.

Isabella of Angoulême
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
No one knows for sure when Isabella of Angouleme was born but it was probably about 1188 as her parents were not married until 1186. She had good connections across Europe; her mother was the daughter of Peter of France who was the son of King Louis V1. Her maternal uncle was Peter de Courtney the Latin emperor of Constantinople. Her great uncle was Louis V11 who had been married to Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Eleanor later became Isabella’s mother in law. Isabella, a tangled Queen indeed! Isabella was an heiress in her own right, Countess of Angoulême suo jure and therefore a good marriage could be expected for her.

Battle scene at sea from Roman de Mélusine by Jean d'Arras c. 1450
Public Domain via British Library
Her father was Ademar, Count of Angouleme, and a Taillefer. His ancestors had been put into Angouleme in the mid-9th century by Charles the Fat, a great grandson of Charlemagne, to repulse the Vikings as they raided all the rivers of France. They came up the Charente to Angoulême three times and three times were driven back. What was once a wooden fort on a rocky promontory became a stone castle with commanding views.

Knights in Combat from Roman de Mélusine
Public Domain via British Library
The counts, lords and dukes of early medieval south west France were independent, fierce and not very loyal. Any king who lived north of the Loire had a difficult time keeping their fidelity. Oaths of fealty were easily broken. Near Angoulême, close to Poiters, was Lusignan and over the centuries the Lords of Lusignan and the Counts of Angoulême had quarrelled, fought, become allies, intermarried and quarrelled again.

Detail of miniature from Roman de Mélusine depicting Raymond
accidentally killing his uncle while hunting in the forest.
Public Domain via British Library
Lusignan and the Lusignans had a wonderful history of how their castle came to be built. Raymond the count of Lusignan had been hunting and after a hunting accident that killed his uncle, he was wandering through the forest at night, feeling desolate and guilty. He came to the Fountain of the Fays where he met Melusine a fairy spirit who entranced him. By dawn they were planning marriage but she, as all fairy spirits do, had conditions, he was never to seek for her on Saturday nights. He promised. They were married and she offered him much help.

The marriage of Melusine and Raymond.from Roman de Mélusine.
Public Domain via British Library
Everyone marvelled at the speed in which she built a strong beautiful château. Melusine definitely used magic. ‘A mouthful of water and two handfuls of stones’ were all she needed.

Melusine supervises the building of a fortified chateau in Roman de Mélusine.
Public Domain via British Library
The couple had several children and lived together happily but Raymond broke his promise and spied on Melusine to discover her in her bath with a serpent’s tail or dragon tail. He blurted out the truth in the Great Hall and betrayed her. She flew away lamenting and weeping, returning only to fly above the turrets and towers for the death or birth of a Lusignan.

Melusine discovered, circa 1450 and circa 1500
Anonymous (, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Isabella aged about 12 was betrothed to Hugh le Brun of Lusignan and living there when King John saw her, and with her father’s connivance, kidnapped her and married her in Angoulême on 24 August 1200. It was a mixture of politics and passion. He did not want the two domains linked by marriage; he did want the beautiful Isabella, considered a medieval Helen of Troy.

The Angevins also had a story of being descended from Melusine. Indeed many families claimed water spirits as their beginning including the French royal family, hence the Dauphin or dolphin.

Miniatures of dolphins and a scorpion in Roman de Mélusine.
Public Domain via British Library.
Isabella was destined to be part of that watery story, for after John’s death she returned to France in 1217 and married the son of Hugh le Brun. He was Hugh or Hugues the X, altogether there were 13 Lusignans called Hugh, which makes life tricky for the writer.

The castle in Lusignan burnt down in 1250; a violent fire destroyed it all. But it was rebuilt and is shown in the 1416 Book of Hours belonging to the Duc de Berry with Melusine flying overhead.

Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry Folio 3, verso: March.
Limbourg brothers, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Some say that the logo for Starbucks is based on Melusine so in our very modern life we are reminded of water fairies dating back thousands of years. 
Many thanks Erica for a delightful post- I'm sure King John enjoyed it, too!
Images: Isabella, Melusine discoveredTrès Riches Heures du duc de Berry are in the Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Roman de Mélusine Images are in the Public Domain via the British Library.

Erica Lainé was born in Southampton in 1943 and originally studied for the theatre at the Arts Educational School in Tring. She worked as a library assistant in London and trained as a speech and drama teacher before moving with her family to Hong Kong in 1977. Here she worked for the British Council for 20 years as a teacher and educational project manager. Since 1997 she has lived in South West France where she became interested in all sorts of historical research and writing, as President of the Aquitaine Historical Society.

This led to a focus on Isabella of Angouleme and her life and times. The Aquitaine region is rich in English and French history and Isabella is a person who was woven into both. Erica has begun writing Part 2 of The Tangled Queen which will show how Isabella played all sides against each other and how her intrigues became part of the beginning of the 100 Years War.

Find her on Facebook as An Aquitaine Historical Society and Isabella of Angouleme the story. She's on Twitter @LaineEleslaine. Isabella of Angouleme (The Tangled Queen Part 1) is available on and

Tuesday, November 1

Spreading the Word: Having a Novel Translated by Amazon Crossing

Every writer knows the amount of work that goes into a 100,000 word novel. The research, the plotting, the writing, the rewriting, the editing, the proofing, the cover design and more. All add up to many hundreds of hours before your story, that tale that started life in your head, becomes a reality and hits the electronic/physical book shops. Then comes the miracle of readers discovering what was in your head and even more miraculously, loving it. It’s all good. Your story is out there, and readers are reading it. Job done. On to the next.

But there are of course those readers who can’t discover your story. Those who speak a different language to yours, who read in it. They remain out of your reach as a writer.

Age-old problem: this fox doesn't speak Goose. Or Hen. 
So as a writer, the only way to bridge that gap is to have your novels published in translation. Happily for me, I got that very opportunity in January 2016, when the first novel in my medieval thriller Fifth Knight series, was published in Germany as Der fünfte Ritter. Even better, Der fünfte Ritter was published by Amazon Crossing, who are currently a global success story in translated genre fiction. Sir Benedict Palmer's first outing in German hit the Bild bestseller list. Now book two in the series, The Blood of the Fifth Knight, sees its release today as Das Blut des fünften Ritters.

Amazon Crossing invited me to Frankfurt Book Fair last month to talk about my experience in having my books translated. It was interesting that many of the questions I received at Frankfurt from German authors were exactly the same as those I received from those here in the UK. I thought I’d share the most common.

‘You’re having a book translated? How do you trust someone with your novel?’ 

I have to admit that this one surprised me the first time I was asked it. But as I get asked it more and more, it’s clearly something that bothers authors. It’s worth mentioning that we authors are very well known for our control freakery. Manuscripts often have to be prised from our cold, dead hands before we allow them to go through the editorial process. Part of the fear with translation is that we have very little control over what happens. We have to allow a professional translator to do their amazing job- but we have no way of checking up on them. I suspect that many scribes are coming out in hives even at the thought. But that’s the deal. If you want your work to be translated (and like me, don’t speak a word of the translated language) then you’re going to have to trust the translator.

Me at Frankfurt-where (thankfully!) 
my lovely audience were fine with me speaking in English.
My Amazon Crossing translator for both books has been the very wonderful Oliver Hoffmann. The perceptive amongst you will wonder how I know he’s wonderful. Aside from his consulting with me on my exact meaning from time to time, the answer lies in the reviews. I have had many great ones but also a few negative ones (yes, astonishingly: they do exist), which I’ve accessed via the wobbly Google Translate. I’m very pleased to report that those negative reviews were from readers who didn’t like my book. And here’s the thing: none of them cited poor translation.

With translated books, clunky translation almost always gets a mention and it puts other readers off. It also leads to lower ratings. So for those who may be going down the Indie route and are considering hiring a translator, consider it as just as an important investment as you did when you hired an editor, cover designer etc. A good translator is another professional who is going to help you put the best book out there.

‘Do you have the same covers as the English version?’

Short answer, no. Amazon Crossing produced their own covers for the German Editions. They know their market and what is likely to appeal. Asking which I prefer is too much of a Favourite Child question. But there is no doubt that the guy who has found his way onto Der fünfte Ritter is a big hit. Funnily enough, no one mentions language when they comment on him. Even my sister (otherwise known as The World’s Toughest Sell) refers to him as Mr. Broody.

Book Covers as seats at the Amazon stand- cool!
My book as a seat- even cooler!
One thing about cover design that is common to both Amazon Crossing in Germany and Amazon Publishing’s Thomas & Mercer in the UK is how much they consult on cover design. I do feel ever so slightly sorry for them when they send me a very eye-catching draft and I tell them that the sword has a flat pommel (the bobble on the end of the sword) where it should be round, or a shield that would be better used for jousting and could I please have a Norman kite shield instead. I always send them pictures of what I mean. To their credit, they pull out all the stops and said shields and swords are found. I’m only guessing, but I’ll bet at times they’re really dreading my emails. Pommelgate, anyone?

‘Do you feel frustrated that you can’t read your own book now that it’s in another language? I know I would!’

To a very minor extent. But, for me, a translated book of mine is no longer mine alone. The translator now tells my story, too, so it can’t be 100% me anymore. Oliver Hoffmann's name is on the cover along with mine, which is exactly how it should be. Translation is not just the swapping of language for another. It's a creative process in its own right.  Done well, it captures the nuances and colour and tone of the original. Translation is a collaboration that means my words are brought to a whole new audience.

We historical fiction authors pride ourselves on being able to bridge time. Thanks to translation, we can cross borders, too. And that’s a rather wonderful thing.

Sunday, October 23

Medieval Medley: Guest Interview with Anna Belfrage

I'm sure it's glaringly obvious to those who read this blog that I'm just a bit interested in* (*trans: obsessed with)  all things medieval, so to host somebody who has also been bitten by the medieval bug is marvellous. 

I'm delighted to host fellow historical fiction author, Anna Belfrage. Anna has had great success with her acclaimed time-slip series The Graham Saga. That series has won multiple awards, including the HNS Indie Award 2015. But Anna has turned medieval for her new The King’s Greatest Enemy series. Set in the 1320s, it features Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures during Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. Book #2, Days of Sun & Glory, has been longlisted for the Historical Novel Society Indie Award 2017.

So I'm intrigued to hear Anna's medley of what's best in medieval for her. Here we go!

Medieval Mate- who’s your ideal medieval hero/heroine?

One mate only? This is when I realise I have a tendency towards promiscuity – at least when it comes to favourite medieval characters.

Medieval Lovers
(note: this is not the same as Medieval Lovers)
I’m not so sure my medieval heroes or heroines are all that ideal – I gravitate towards those who have flaws, who have a huge appetite for life. If I have to choose a lady, I’d go for Urraca of Castile and León, most reluctantly named his heir by her father who wanted a son but had to make do with three daughters. Her first marriage resulted in two surviving children, her second marriage was a sequence of brutal abuse, and once free of her bastard of a husband she went on to become queen in her own right, proclaiming herself Empress of Spain.

Urraca I de León
José María Rodríguez de Losada, 19th C
Now, if I were to choose a man…hmm…Renaud de Dammartin? Except that he was a turncoat, and I don’t like turncoats. Edward I (one of those flawed but brilliant peeps I am so entranced by) William Wallace? James Douglas? Edward III? Or why not the closest thing we have in Sweden to a truly flamboyant medieval duke, Duke Erik, who imprisoned his brother the king, reconciled with said brother (or so he thought) only to have his royal sibling throw him into a dungeon some years later, lock the door and leave him to starve? Decisions, decisions… *takes several gulps of tea & nibbles at a biscuit while pondering* Right: I’m going to tread on some toes here and choose Edward I.

King Edward I at the summit of a family tree
tracing his ancestors back to William I the Conqueror 

Medieval Manor- where would you live?

Ah. Well, I do have a thing about castles, and I’m thinking Wigmore Castle in its heyday must have been quite the impressive abode, balancing atop its narrow hill. Or Nottingham Castle, with those gorgeous views due south. On the other hand, castles were cold and draughty places, which has me leaning towards appropriating the medieval Bishop’s Palace in Lincoln. Gorgeous location, fabulous décor and a high level of comfort.

Des res: Edward I's bedchamber
as re-created in the Tower of London today.
© E.M. Powell

Medieval Métier- what would your job be?

King or queen would suit me fine. I think I have an aptitude for ruling – especially the medieval way, when decisiveness and a tendency to steamroll the opposition were considered strengths, not flaws. Somewhat more realistically, I’m guessing that had I been born back then, I’d have made a good merchant’s wife (I’m great at book keeping). Of course, my life would probably have been short – one baby or so every other year would have had me worn out by the time I was forty…

Queen Anna, anyone?

Medieval Meal- what’s on your table?

According to Swedish medieval historian Mikael Nordberg, it would mostly be porridge made with barley (which is actually quite nice). Add to this the standard staple of bread, and that would be about it, now and then enhanced by some smoked fish or some bacon. Unless, of course, I was a queen, in which case I’d be feasting on fish in various varieties on the stipulated fish days (including beaver, seeing as everyone knows beavers are fish…) and just as many varieties of game and meat the other days.

A medieval beaver fights back: no one ever had this trouble with a haddock.

No chocolate, though, seeing as it wasn’t around back then. Most unfortunate – and should I ever time travel, I’d be bringing along an adequate stash…

Medieval Madness- what behaviour could you never accept today?

Well, I do have a major problem with executions – especially the gory varieties including disembowelment and such. Or burning at the stake. I also have a major dislike of the medieval fashion of subjecting people to in-depth inquiries as to their faith, using methods involving a lot of pain. The Inquisition and its brutal approach to those it deemed heretic is best left in the past. Having said that, the Inquisition survived well into Early Modern times, and has never been officially abolished by the Catholic Church – just renamed (and, one hopes, cleansed of some of its more doubtful methods of interrogation).

The hanging of traitors? Not under Queen Anna's watch.

Medieval Military- what’s your weapon of choice?

The sword. I practise extensively with a large wooden stick, going at the various trees that stand sentinel around our house and barn.

Look out, trees: she's getting ready again!
Medieval Matters- why do you love it so much?

Why? What sort of an unnecessary question is that? *rolls her eyes* I guess it’s the fact that life was so much more in your face back then. Birth, death, the forging of various national states, war and battle – they happened all around you, and from a distance it all comes across as pretty exciting and colourful.
When you have a lion in your boat: definitely excitement & colour. 
I imagine it was anything but for the people living through it, instead life was short and uncertain – even quite frightening at times. Ultimately, of course, studying any historical period serves as a way to understand why we ended up where we are and why.

Perfectly summed up, Anna, and thank you for your wonderful medley!

Had Anna Belfrage been allowed to choose, she’d have become a professional time-traveller. As such a profession does not exist, she settled for second best and became a financial professional with two absorbing interests, namely history and writing. Find out more by visiting her website

Anna's on Twitter @abelfrageauthor and her Facebook Page is Anna Belfrage Author.  She also blogs regularly on

All her books are available on Amazon.

Saturday, August 13

Illuminated Manuscripts: Treasures from the Medieval Scribes.

The word manuscript literally means ‘written by hand’ and medieval manuscripts refers to those books produced in Europe between about the fifth century and the late fifteenth century. Illuminated manuscripts are works which are decorated with a variety of pictures and ornamentation.

Psalm 27 from the Vespasian Psalter- 8th Century Kent.
It is the earliest surviving English biblical example of an initial with a narrative scene.

The word ‘illuminated’ comes from a usage of the Latin word illuminare in the sense of its meaning ‘to adorn’. Burnished gold was often used in the decorating of books from the 13th century onwards but the term ‘illuminated’ does not only apply to manuscripts where gold or silver is used. It applies more broadly to any manuscript that is more elaborately decorated than with simple coloured initials.

From the early writings of Saint Jerome (who died c.420) to around 1100, the vast majority of manuscripts were produced in the scriptoria or cloisters of abbeys and monasteries. They were primarily theological, liturgical and academic works.

The Lindisfarne Gospels- 8th Century
Written & illustrated probably by Eadfrith, bishop of Lindisfarne.

Prior to the time of Saint Jerome, manuscripts (such as those produced in Rome) were in scroll format and made of papyrus. The use of papyrus is problematic in that, as a material, it is more likely to break, especially if it is handled frequently. Early medieval scribes moved to the use of prepared animal skin, the material that we refer to as parchment or vellum. The format also underwent a significant change to that of the book or codex, with separate pages that can be turned, read in sequence and much more easily navigated by a reader.

Initial from the Howard Psalter & Hours- England,1310 -1320.
Clerics sing from a scroll, which contains musical notation. 

The codex didn’t only make life easier for readers. It also improved the lot of those who wrote and illustrated the manuscripts—our medieval scribes. It is much easier to write on the flat, stable surface of a page than on a lengthy, unrolled scroll. But it’s probably fair to say the ‘easier’ is a relative term. Even the preparation was laborious and demanded perfection. Producing fine vellum involved the soaking in lime and skilled, meticulous scraping and stretching of expensive calfskin. Inks such as oak gall and lampblack had to be produced. Guide lines had to be ruled with absolute precision.

Book of Hours- Oxford, 1240, written in & illuminated by William de Brailes.
It is the earliest surviving English Book of Hours.

Note that such precision also had to be achieved using a feather quill pen. Quill pens were introduced around the sixth century and replaced the reed pen. They were most commonly made from the flight feathers of geese but could also be made from swan, duck, crow, or even pelicans and peacocks. Most of the feather was removed and the end sharpened and slit so it could be filled with ink.  The sharpening of the nib was done at different angles, which would make pen strokes of differing thickness. Such careful nib-work didn’t last long. A scribe would have to trim it frequently with a quill-cutter to keep its sharpness.

A seated scribe from the Life of St Dunstan.
Canterbury- late 11th/early 12th Century

All that before the most challenging and skilled task of all: the writing and illustrating of the text. One can only deeply admire the concentration, dedication and sheer physical toll it must have taken, with scribes having no reading glasses, no electric light and no modern heating through freezing and damp winters.

The fruits of their labours, that are the decorations on medieval illuminated manuscripts, are of three main types. First, larger illustrations that can take up a whole page and /or miniatures or small pictures incorporated into the text. These usually illustrate or complement the content of the text.

A map of the whole known world from Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon.
England, last quarter of the 14th century.

The second type are initial letters that contain scenes (known as historiated initials) or that have elaborate decoration. Again, these usually illustrate or complement the content of the text.

Historiated initial 'D'(omine) with a crowned Virgin and Child.
English Book of Hours, 1st quarter of the 15th century.

Third, we have borders and line-endings, which may have many detailed images/miniatures in them. These often do not relate directly to the text and can contain unusual figures.

Marginal illustration from the Gorleston Psalter- Norfolk, early 14th century.
How much do we love the medieval duck? 

And while the illuminations could serve to illustrate or to decorate, they also provided aids for contemplation and meditation for those reading them as part of their daily prayer and devotion. On another (very practical) level, the illustrations were useful markers for less literate readers to be able to navigate a lengthy manuscript. One does not have to be able to read to identify a picture of the Virgin Mary or one of the story of Adam and Eve.

Four scenes from the Book of Genesis, with three of Adam & Eve.
The Huth Psalter, England, late 13th century.

Although so many wonderful works were produced by men (and women) of the church, by 1100 this situation began to change. The production of manuscripts was no longer the preserve of the church, and secular scribes and illustrators rose in importance. This was in part due to the expansion of the content of manuscripts. Romances, chronicles, medical and other texts and aristocratic family trees all began to be produced. The rise of the universities and the increase in book ownership by the wealthy saw a thriving secular book trade in Paris and Bologna by the 13th century.

Guinevere questioning Lancelot about his love for her.
Lancelot du Lac, France, c.1316.

It was another university city, the city of Cologne, that was to trigger the start of the demise of the manuscript. By the 1470s Cologne had become the most important centre of printing in north-west Germany and where a certain William Caxton was perfecting his own particular art. Handwritten texts were being replaced by the printed version.

From the Arnstein Bible, a large two-volume MS, Germany c. 1172.
It was written by a single scribe, a monk named Lunandus.

But it was English Reformation that was to see the wanton destruction of the illuminated manuscript. Henry VIII decreed that the 'images and pictures' of Saint Thomas Becket shall 'through the whole realm be put down and avoided out of all churches, chapels, and other places.’ The Act against Superstitious Books and Images (1550) ordered that prayer and service books that did not comply with the reformed liturgy should be destroyed. The religious communities did their best to keep their handwritten treasures safe. Books were smuggled out of religious houses and hidden in sympathetic homes. But not all could be saved. Priceless manuscripts were torn up, burned, used to clean candlesticks, clean boots, stop up beer barrels and even deployed in the privies.

The martyrdom of Thomas Becket from the Harley collection-
a rare survival in an English context.
Netherlands, 3rd quarter of the 15th century.

Yet despite all of this appalling vandalism, medieval manuscripts have preserved for posterity the lion’s share of medieval painting. As Beal so beautifully puts it: ‘Books have a knack of surviving.’ It is our great good fortune that they do.

Detail of marginal images of apes with books.
France, 1318-1330.

All images are in the Public Domain and are part of the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. (This online resource is truly a treasure trove and I cannot recommend it highly enough.)
Beal, Peter, A Dictionary of English Manuscript Terminology 1450–2000: Oxford University Press, Current Online Version. (2011)
Brigstocke, Hugh, The Oxford Companion to Western Art: Oxford University Press, Current Online Version (2003)
Chilvers, Ian, The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists (4 ed.): Oxford University Press, Current Online Version (2014)
De Hamel, Christopher, A History of Illuminated Manuscripts (2nd ed.), London: Phaidon Press Ltd. (1994).
Kerr, Julie: Life in the Medieval Cloister, London, Continuum Publishing (2009)
Whittock, Martyn, A Brief History of Life in the Middle Ages: London, Constable & Robinson (2009)

I first wrote this post for the English Historical Fiction Authors Blog, where it was published on May 21 2016.
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