Embellish’d with gold

Join us on a tour of medieval illuminated manuscripts.

By University of Reading Special Collections

Featuring treasures from the European Manuscript Collection.

Manuscript leaf from a Book of Hours, in Latin, produced in France (Paris) (1450) by AnonymousOriginal Source: University of Reading Special Collections: European Manuscript Collection

European Manuscript Collection

Recently we acquired an exciting collection of 143 medieval illuminated manuscripts, from the years 1100 to 1600.  To make the manuscripts available to researchers and preserve them for future generations, we needed to learn more about them. 

Manuscript leaf from a Book of Hours, in Latin, produced in France (Picardy, possibly Amiens) (1300) by AnonymousOriginal Source: University of Reading Special Collections: European Manuscript Collection

The manuscripts included documents used in public and private worship. They are mostly French and include Books of Hours, Missals, Breviaries, Graduals and Psalters.  

Join us as we share what we learned about how the manuscripts were made and what these examples were used for. 

Manuscript leaf from a Book of Hours, in Dutch, produced in The Netherlands (1450) by AnonymousOriginal Source: University of Reading Special Collections: European Manuscript Collection

How were manuscripts made?

Before the invention of the printing press in the 1400s, all books were written by hand. The word manuscript comes from the Latin words manus and scriptus, which together mean ‘handwritten’.​ Monasteries often had a scriptorium, a room where manuscripts were made by scribes. 

Item from MS 5650 European Manuscripts Collection (1441/1448) by AnonymousOriginal Source: University of Reading Special Collections: European Manuscript Collection

Is that real gold?

Nearly all medieval manuscripts were decorated, or illuminated, in some way, usually by monastic scribes. Illuminations were added in order to enhance the text, using rich, bright colours that could include real gold and silver. 

Manuscript leaf from a Missal, in Latin, produced in Southern Germany (or Austria) (1150/1180) by AnonymousOriginal Source: University of Reading Special Collections: European Manuscript Collection

Devotional distractions

However, not all manuscripts were permitted to be flamboyantly decorated. Cistercian monks were not permitted to embellish this Missal with gold (a document in regular use which contained instructions for celebrating mass) as it was considered a distraction from devotion.

Manuscript leaf from a Bible, in Latin, produced in Northern France (Paris) (1250) by AnonymousOriginal Source: University of Reading Special Collections: European Manuscript Collection

Leaf from a Bible (c.1250)

A Bible contains a collection of sacred texts and scriptures. Spot the dragon in the letter ‘T’ in the lower part of the left-hand column. Though not always relevant to the text, dragons were a frequent source of inspiration when decorating medieval manuscripts. 

Manuscript leaf from a Lectionary (or Missal), Latin, produced in Spain (possibly Toledo or Cordoba) (1500) by AnonymousOriginal Source: University of Reading Special Collections: European Manuscript Collection

Leaf from a Lectionary (c.1500)

A Lectionary contains a selection of scripture readings from the Bible, to be read during public worship on specific days. The intricately decorated border shows a host of flora and fauna – flowers, a bird, a butterfly and a small snail appear along the side.  

Leaf from a Lectionary (c.1500)

Animals were a frequent feature in religious manuscripts to the point where they even had their own dedicated book, known as a Bestiary. Many of them had their own symbolic meanings – the peacock, for example, symbolised immortality and eternal life. 

Manuscript leaf from a Gradual, in Latin, produced in Italy (1300) by AnonymousOriginal Source: University of Reading Special Collections: European Manuscript Collection

Leaf from a Gradual (c.1300) - Hymn for Saint Stephen

A Gradual is a choir book that compiles chants for singing in the Mass. You can see a four-line stave ruled in red, rather than the standard five-line stave we see today, as this was a type of musical notation often associated with Gregorian chant. 

Manuscript leaf from a Psalter, in Latin, produced in Italy (1350) by AnonymousOriginal Source: University of Reading Special Collections: European Manuscript Collection

Leaf from a Psalter (c.1350)

The Psalter was the most widespread prayer book before the development of the Breviary and the Book of Hours a few centuries later. Psalters were usually owned by wealthy lay people, and were commonly used for learning how to read.  

Leaf from a Psalter (c.1350)

They contained the Book of Psalms (a group of 150 songs from the Bible) and a calendar of holy days and saints days, recorded in red. These ‘red letter days’ highlight the holy days that held the most personal significance to the owner. 

Manuscript leaf from a Breviary, in Latin, produced in Italy (Ferrara) (1441/1448) by AnonymousOriginal Source: University of Reading Special Collections: European Manuscript Collection

Leaf from a Breviary (c.1441-1448)

Evolving from the Psalter, the Breviary began to be produced in around the 1100s, with the Book of Hours following roughly a century or so later. Like the Book of Hours, a Breviary contained an eight-part daily set of prayers, known as the Divine Office. 

Manuscript leaf from a Book of Hours, in Latin, produced in France (Paris) (1450) by AnonymousOriginal Source: University of Reading Special Collections: European Manuscript Collection

Leaf from a Book of Hours (c.1450)

A Book of Hours is a personalised prayer book of Christian devotion, a popular luxury item. The "hours" were prayers to be said at certain times of day. Hours included compilations of different devotional texts that could be read at home or carried about on special occasions.

Leaf from a Book of Hours (c.1450)

This beautiful border depicts leaves, flowers, and strawberries. Due to their simplified structure and small size, Hours are often considered the ‘best-seller’ of the medieval world. Although the most common type of medieval manuscript to survive today, all Hours are unique. 

Credits: Story

Discover more

We've only been able to share a small fraction of the manuscripts currently held by the University of Reading.  

Click here to visit our A-Z pages and learn more about our collections.

Find out how to visit us and follow us on twitter and Instagram

The European Manuscripts Collection
In 2018 the University of Reading acquired the European Manuscripts Collection, generously presented by a private collector with the support of the Art Fund. This was then followed by an exhibition in 2019.

The collection contained 143 items, from the years 1100 to 1600. Most of the items are illuminated manuscript leaves. They come from a range of different types of manuscript, including Books of Hours, missals, breviaries, graduals and psalters. The items are predominately of French origin (about half of the collection), with about a quarter originating from Italy and others from England, Spain, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. 

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Google apps