Blog post

Lighting the Way

How illuminated initials guided medieval readers through books

Elizabeth MacDonald (opens in new window) (National Library of France)

Many medieval manuscripts are full of decorated capital letters that add colour to the page. They come in all styles and sizes, but what exactly are they and what was their purpose? Zoomorphic initial D with a dragon forming the ascender. Bible, France, 12th century. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Arsenal, Ms 578, f. 6v. NoC-OKLR

What is an illuminated initial?

The word illuminate, in the medieval sense, means to decorate with colours. An illuminated initial is an enlarged and decorated capital letter, the first letter of a section of text. They can vary from the basic pen-and-ink drawn letter to the most elaborate letter painted with gold or silver leaf. Text and illumination were complementary and were either closely related or sharply contrasted. Instead of initials, many Hebrew manuscripts have decorated initial-word panels. There is no distinction between upper and lower case in Hebrew, so the entire first word was often decorated.  

Historiated initial-word panel of the story of Ruth. Bible, Southern Germany, ca. 1322 (Additional 22413, f. 71). Decorated initial-word panel at the beginning of 1 Chronicles in the "Duke of Sussex's Italian Bible". North-eastern Italy, 1448 or 1498 (Additional 15251, f. 313v). British Library, Public Domain.

These initials, like other painted elements, were added after the text had been copied, often by a different person – an illuminator. Space for these letters was marked out and left blank while the scribe worked, with just a small guide letter marked so the illuminator would know which letter to paint. In some manuscripts the initials were never added and you can see the space that was reserved for them.

What are they for?

Illuminated initials could have several purposes in medieval manuscripts. The most obvious is their decorative or aesthetic value.

Initials that include human or animal figures in or around them are said to be inhabited. Others may be more abstract, incorporating geometric or interlace designs - these are simply called decorated initials. Inhabited and interlace initial O. Second Bible of Charles the Bald, Abbey of Saint-Amand, c. 871-877 (Latin 2, f. 272); inhabited champie initial A with a dragon. Songbook of Noailles, Northern France, ca. 1275-1300 (Français 12615, f121v), Bibliothèque nationale de France, NoC-OKLR. Gilded initial S with the "bianchi girari" decoration typical of Italian humanistic manuscripts. Homer, Iliad, Italy, second half of the 15th century (Universitat de València BH Ms 413, f1 - CC BY-NC).

They could also be used to illustrate the text, in addition to or instead of miniatures.Historiated initials show a scene or a recognisable person that relates to the text, in and around the shape of the letter. Sometimes illuminated initials contrast with the text: they might show irreverent or humorous figures and scenes.

Historiated initial D: David beheading Goliath with his sword. Psalter, North-western France, c. 1175 (_Koningklijke Bibliotheek, 76 E 11, f. 51 - Public Domain). Historiated initial C: Ptolemy at work as a geographer. Claudius Ptolemy, Geography, Florence, c. 1475-1480 (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Latin 4802, f. 3 - NoC-OKLR).

When animal or human figures form the shape of the letter, these are called zoomorphic or anthropomorphic initials, or even zoo-anthropomorphic if there are both people and animals. Left to right: the Virgin Mary as an anthropomorphic initial I. Gellone Sacramentary, Meaux or Cambrai, late 8th century (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Latin 12048, f.1v - NoC-OKLR). Zoomorphic initial A formed by two birds. Corbie Psalter, Northern France, 9th century (Bibliothèques d'Amiens métropole, Ms. 18, f68v - NoC-OKLR). Zoo-anthropomorphic E. Songbook of Zeghere van Male, Bruges, 1542 (Cambrai, Bibliothèque municipale, Ms 126 B, f76v - CC BY-NC).

Beyond decoration and illustration, the primary role of illuminated initials was more practical. They provide a visual point of reference, marking the division of the text into books, chapters, paragraphs and sometimes even verses.

Three different sizes of initials, in alternating gold and blue with blue and red pen-flourishing, mark the major and minor divisions within Guillaume de Machaut's poem “Remède de Fortune”. Paris, around 1350-1355 (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 1586, ff. 41v-42 - NoC-OKLR).

Unlike books published today, medieval manuscripts don’t have title pages and new chapters don’t generally start on a new page, because parchment was costly and the space on the page had to be used carefully.

Different types, different styles

Illuminated initials can look very different from one manuscript to another, and even within the same manuscript. This may depend on several factors:

  • when and where the manuscript was decorated 
  • the type of manuscript and its intended use
  • the level of significance of the initials within a programme of decoration
  • the importance and wealth of the person commissioning the manuscript

A puzzle initial is a letter divided into interlocking pieces, often painted red and blue, with a fine line of white to separate the two parts. From left to right: puzzle initial A in red and blue with red and blue pen-flourishing. Lumley Bible, Southeastern England, 2nd half of the 13th century (British Library, Royal 1 E II, f. 370). Puzzle initial B in red and blue with red, blue and yellow pen-flourishing. Bible, Italy or Southern France, 2nd quarter of the 13th century (British Library, Arundel 287, f. 163). Puzzle initial D in red and blue with red and blue pen-flourishing. Book of Hours, 15th century (National Library of Romania, Ms III 28 4, f. 1v). Public Domain

Styles and techniques particular to one region would spread as scribes and illuminators travelled and exchanged ideas and techniques. One example of this is the Channel School. This style of illumination flourished on either side of the English Channel during the 11th and 12th centuries, and also influenced illuminators as far away as Bavaria and Bohemia.

Initials in the Channel School style, from left to right: initial E. Psalter, England 3rd quarter of the 12th century (British Library, Add MS 17392, f. 129v - Public Domain). Initial U. Bible, Foigny, 4th quarter of the 12th century (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Latin 15178, f. 2v - NoC-OKLR). Initial E. Bible "Codex Gigas", Bohemia, ca. 1220 (National Library of Sweden, MS A 148, f. 45v - CC BY).

This practice continued with the first printed books, which were designed to resemble manuscripts as closely as possible. Many printers left space on the page so that initials and other elements could later be added by hand, according to the owner’s specifications.

Be sure to check out our gallery for more illuminated initials! Further reading: Géhin, Paul (dir.), Lire le manuscrit médiéval. Paris: Armand Colin, 2018. Glossary for the British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts Codicologia (IRHT-CNRS), a multilingual glossary for describing medieval manuscripts Codex Gigas (National Library of Sweden) Making Medieval Manuscripts: Making Miniatures (video, British Library)

The blog post is a part of the Rise of Literacy project, where we take you on an exploration of literacy in Europe thanks to the digital preservation of precious textual works from collections across the continent.**