Colouring the Past: Seeing Red in Medieval Manuscripts

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the font is larger than the text that follows and it stands alone at the top of the text. We could apply other typographical variations such as capitalising or italicising the entire heading, or changing the colour. But what did medieval scribes do and how have books changed?

Medieval Manuscripts: How Times Have Changed

Today we have the advantage of page numbering, but medieval manuscripts had no page numbering system. It must have been extremely difficult navigating through hundreds of pages of text – so the scribes wrote key words or headings in red or other colours such as blue or green.

Important initial letters or entire words or phrases might be decorated with floral tracery, inhabited by animals, grotesques and other strange items, or even embellished with brilliant gold. Alternatively, key words might be plainly written but in set in highly ornate boxes to make them stand out.

Using red pigments for headings dates back to late Antiquity and was standard practice from the fifth century onwards. Since medieval manuscripts have no title or content pages, the opening heading of a book might contain such information as the author’s name and the title of the text. Subsequent headings mark the divisions between chapters.

At the end of the text, the final words, known as the colophon, often written in red, might indicate the date, the place of preparation, and occasionally the name of the scribe.

In any case, when you see red in a medieval manuscript you know something important is happening.


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The Hierarchy of Lettering in Medieval Manuscripts

A change of colour or size alters the importance of an initial, a word or a sentence – the larger the letter, the more important the text that follows it. Passages in medieval manuscripts were often written in one solid block with few breaks or division. Changes in the size and colour of initials break up the text visually, making it easier to read.

Why red? Most likely red was the most convenient and easily-created colour. Vermilion (mercuric sulphide) and red lead were both readily available across Europe since ancient times. In classical Latin, the word for red is minium, from which comes our word ‘miniature,’ meaning illustrations in a manuscript. When referring to manuscripts, miniature has nothing to do with the size of the picture. It simply means the use of red ink.

Red Ink and Rubrications

Red headings are particularly common in liturgical manuscripts of Christian Europe. Books created for use in church services, and for devotion at home, have two distinct sets of text. One text consists of the prayers, psalms, hymns etc. that we offer to God. The second set of text addresses the clerics and monks who use the book. These are the rubrications, written in red, instructing when to sing, when to kneel, and so on. The rubricators were specialised scribes. The term rubrication comes from the Latin rubrico, to colour red.

Red Letter Days: Special Events in the Calendar

A Calendar page from the Queen Mary Psalter. Image courtesy of the British Library.

A Calendar page from the Queen Mary Psalter. Image courtesy of the British Library.

One of the most common uses of red in the Middle Ages is in the writing of Calendars. These are found at the beginning of most liturgical scripts, in Books of Hours, and sometimes in domestic books such as books of home medicine or books of legal statutes.

Calendars consist of lists of saints’ days for every day of the year. A very basic Calendar shows saints’ days and church feasts written in black, with major festivals in red. In some Calendars, the hierarchy of days is more complex: Scribes wrote the minor feasts in black, wrote slightly more important feasts in red, and wrote the very important feasts (such as Easter, Christmas, the Enunciation) in blue or gold.

One good example is The Calendar of the Queen Mary Psalter (BL. Royal. MS. 2.B.VII. f.78r). Created in England in about 1320, it shows a complex use of different colours.

The heading for the month of August appears in gold lettering. Regular saints’ days alternate between bright red and dark brown. In the fifth line, we see the feast of St. Margaret in dark red, and in the seventh the festival of St. Mary Magdalene in blue.

Even now, we still talk about red-letter days, days of special importance.

Medieval Manuscripts Are a Blaze of Glorious Colour

Whilst many initial letters are highly complex, decorated and illuminated some, like the ‘R’ on Folio 15 of the British Library’s Historiae adversus paganos (Royal 6 C VIII) is simply drawn in red ink and supported by red scroll-type decorations.

It is the simplicity of the design that makes this particular initial stand out. It is a completely different style to many of the other initials in the manuscript such as the more elaborately formed initials on Folio 81f.

Historiae adversus paganos Folio 81 and 15. Image courtesy of British Library.

Historiae adversus paganos Folio 81 and 15. Image courtesy of British Library.

In the Arnstein Bible (British Library Harley 2799), we see a wide range of initials in different styles, some very simple and others ablaze with colour.

Folio 223v shows two initials. The more important of these is the very large initial ‘P’, marking the beginning of Galatians. To the left of this character instructions to the artist are clearly visible. We can also see where the scribe outlined faintly the area to be left for this initial. A second less important small red initial appears further down the page marking the argumentum to Galatians. Both initials have a fairly simple floral decoration and blue background.

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On Folio 5, three examples of a more complex initial ‘B'(eatus) mark the beginning of Psalms. The initials, with floral decorations, are inhabited by dogs and other creatures. These fascinating characters, written large in red ink, occupy the top third of the page. On the same folio we also see several examples of lesser ranked red initials. One of the Arnstein’s most elaborate initials appears on Folio 57v at the beginning of Proverbs.

The rubric above the initial says: Incipit Parabole Salomonis – the Parabole of Solomon is beginning.

It is clearly a heading, standing above a most luxuriously illuminated letter ‘P’, showing a seated Solomon writing in his book, surrounded by busts of the virtues: fortitude, justice, prudence and wisdom. The scribe decorated the letter with floral designs; human faces and an assortment of creatures also occupy the letter.

Same Texts: New Technology

We’ve come a long way since the Middle Ages but has the book really changed that much?

Oversized decorative initials and headings have largely disappeared. Rubrics only appear on printers’ proofs and might not be produced. Photographic images replaced hand-painted scenes. When we open a new book today, the pages creak and crack as we bend the spine. They smell fresh and new in contrast to their medieval predecessors, whose pages scribes and artists handled over and over.

Perhaps modern texts are not as beautifully written and as interestingly punctuated as they once were, but their purpose remains the same.

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