Jonathan Jones 

Light reading: the illuminated manuscripts of the dark ages

In the digital age we should look back in wonder at illuminated manuscripts: medieval Europe produced some of the most moving images of readers and reading that exist, says Jonathan Jones
  
  

Francesca da Rimini's beauty and suffering are portrayed with serpentine sensuality in a painting by Ary Scheffer in the Wallace Collection in London. In this 1835 picture, Francesca and her lover, naked, turn in the dead air of hell. The poet Dante and his guide Virgil stand close by, contemplating the spectacle of Francesca's damned love. The painting illustrates Dante's Inferno, in which he tells how he saw Francesca da Rimini among the great sinners of lust in the second circle of hell. He felt compassion for her, and asked how she came to sin.

A book was to blame. One day, Francesca explains, she and her brother-in-law sat in a castle reading the chivalrous epic of Lancelot and Guinevere. As they read the story of how King Arthur's most glamorous knight and his queen became adulterous lovers, the two readers looked at one another and they, too, succumbed to passion. Reading is risk: through words on a page, these lovers were led to their eternal pain.

If a book can damn, it can also bless, or so hoped Jean II of France, who carried his Bible into battle with him at Poitiers on 19 September 1356. Whatever solace the book gave him, it did not provide victory. France was defeated by the English that day, and the king's Bible became booty. Bought for 100 marks by William Montagu, Count of Salisbury, as a gift for his wife Elizabeth, it eventually found its way into Britain's royal collections and is today owned by the British Library.

Books in these two tales are powerful, glamorous, sacred things, to be read with profound attention, clutched as talismans, kept as treasures. They are dangerous and redemptive, gateways to adventure and means of salvation. But the books in these stories have something else in common.

They were not printed on paper. They were written out by hand on animal skins. These books were illuminated manuscripts, copied out by scribes and decorated by specialist painters in monastic centres of medieval book production. At least one English noble family, we discover in the exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination at the British Library, created its own scriptorium to produce religious books on demand. There are early printed books that survive only in a single copy, but from this copy the existence of others, identical in their black printed words, may be deduced. A manuscript, by contrast, is unique even when it is part of a large edition – for the hand never produces exactly the same result twice.

Books have never been cherished more than they were in the middle ages. The exhibition at the British Library is a window on a world when the written word was truly valued and reading truly mattered. We, who may be witnessing and participating in the death of the book as an object, are in no position to patronise these medieval readers who adored their books so much they wanted their pages to be glorified with gold. The golden books of the middle ages survive from a world that saw learning as light.

As we see the ambiguous – to say the least – consequences for the book of the technological revolution of our time, a technocratic approach to European intellectual history makes little sense. Printing does not equal progress. European culture was supposedly liberated by printing in the 15th and 16th centuries. Print meant more readers, a greater reach for new books, the standardisation of editions of old ones. It created a new world of publishing that has endured for half a millennium. But were these changes all for the good? In reality, it can be argued, the greatest age of learning was the era of the illuminated book.

This may seem counterintuitive, but consider the Renaissance. In 14th- and 15th-century Italy, scholars and wealthy bibliophiles set out to recover the lost wisdom of ancient Greece and Rome. They wanted to understand classical texts to the letter, to get beyond abstract summaries to appreciate the singular voice of the authors, the "taste" that is in books, as Niccolò Machiavelli said of histories. This was an adventure story. They went to remote monasteries all over Europe to find forgotten classics lying in dusty corners of libraries. Petrarch found Cicero's Letters to Atticus and reconstructed Livy's Histories. Poggio Bracciolini recovered Tacitus.

These classic books of the western world were found, often, in single surviving manuscripts that had been copied by scribes hundreds of years before. So what happened next? Were they immediately taken to a printer? No. They were copied out in new manuscripts for the libraries of princes and bankers. Some of the most beautiful illuminated manuscripts in the world were made in the Italian renaissance. Far from the dawn of the age of print, the renaissance was the last great triumph of a manuscript culture that goes back to the great painted books of the dark ages.

The Royal Manuscripts exhibition includes fine British examples of this last flowering of illumination. Henry VIII reigned in the age of print but commissioned many illuminated books. Henry is portrayed reading in his bedroom at the beginning of his psalter. This is not as introspective and humble as it might appear. Other psalters – books of the Psalms – in the exhibition are illustrated with King David, their supposed author. Henry is here posing as a modern King David.

Before the rise of the Tudors, during the bloody civil wars of the 15th century, Edward IV commissioned a series of books to be made for him in Bruges: his library, all illustrated in the realist detail of Flemish art, is presented in the exhibition as a uniquely lavish display of princely bibliophilia. The scribes in the book houses of Bruges copied out a selection of modern and ancient histories for Edward: Froissart's Chronicles, a life of Caesar, The Jewish War by Flavius Josephus, St Augustine's City of God

The illuminations of these books from around 1480 include not just fantastically embellished letters and swirls of foliage, but superb examples of the new painting of everyday life. A scribe is portrayed at work in his study, resembling depictions of scholarship in contemporary paintings by Botticelli and Antonello da Messina. A landscape with a watermill is pictured with deep perspective.

These big, beautiful paintings in books might seem typical of the Renaissance, yet they echo the generosity of some of the very oldest manuscripts in the show. In the ninth-century Athelstan (or Coronation) Gospels, there is a painting of St Mark writing, seated on a cushioned marble or inlaid wood stool, turning his haloed head; his white-robed figure is set in an ethereal blue that takes your breath away.

This brings us to the very essence of medieval illumination. The book was bright at the beginning of the middle ages because all around it was darkness. There is a book of gospels here from Lindisfarne, the great Northumbrian centre of faith and learning so menaced by Viking raids: it is a reminder that knowledge and reading were treasured in the early medieval world because few people could read and little was known. The heritage of Greece and Rome survived to be revitalised in later centuries because scribes in the eighth and ninth centuries copied out old works that must have seemed very remote from their brutal surroundings.

On the gospels from Lindisfarne, a note was added to record: "King Athelstan freed Eashelm straight away, as soon as he became king." This document of a slave's manumission reminds us of the immense distance between our world and the one that made and revered such books. Out of limitations came wonder: starved of education, short of information, medieval Europe made a cult of the book. That cult produced some of the most moving and eloquent images of readers and reading that exist. Imperial poseur he may have been, but as Henry VIII looks out from his portrait he seems the ideal reader, giving all his attention to a book that was made with love, to be read with love.

Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination is at the British Library until 13 March.

 

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