|London, British Library MS Royal 18 D II, fol. 6r, top margin|
A post from Medieval Codes researcher Hailey Mullock.
Many medieval manuscripts contain elements of decoration, from single-coloured capital letters to fully illuminated pages with illustrations and elaborate borders. The decoration was not only for visual appeal but also worked to organize the text and convey information. Medieval manuscripts were often written in black with few page breaks or divisions, and decoration helped to divide and highlight aspects of a text. In order for the decorations to convey information to the reader, each manuscript, and sometimes text, has its own hierarchy of decoration. The decorative elements often change in size and colour depending on their position and function.
|London, British Library MS Royal 18 D II, fol. 6r.|
MS Royal 18 D II is a miscellany containing several texts, on of which is Troy Book. Troy Book is an account of the story of the Trojan War, written by John Lydgate and commissioned by Henry, Prince of Wales, later King Henry V. Troy Book had considerable reputation and influence in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. The Troy Book text in this manuscript features decorative elements including display initials, rubrics, illustrations, and decorated borders.
Initials of varying size and elaboration are often used as a means of highlighting the various divisions and sections in a text. Within a hierarchy, often the larger and more decorated the letter, the more important the text that follows. The text in this manuscript uses three different sizes of display initials. The largest display initials are used at the beginnings of Books, are surrounded by decorated borders, and follow an illustration.
|London, British Library MS Royal 18 D II, fol. 6r, detail.|
Medium-sized display initials are not only smaller in size but also have significantly less floral decoration around them. They are not regularly accompanied by an illustration or border. They mark something similar to chapters, the next sub-division in the textual structure.
|London, British Library MS Royal 18 D II, fol. 11v, detail.|
In Book Two, the third and smallest display initial is introduced and these tend to mark a change in speaker.
|London, British Library MS Royal 18 D II, fol. 40r, detail.|
|London, British Library MS Royal 18 D II, fol. 15v, detail.|
In the hierarchy of decoration, the colour red lies in the middle of the hierarchy, lying above black and yellow but below blue and green. Black is used for regular text; yellow alone is used to decorate capitals but does not indicate textual structure or navigation.
|London, British Library MS 18 Royal D II, fol. 75r, miniature.|
The decorative elements demonstrate a hierarchy similar to our own. Just as a modern poster has a text and image hierarchy which allows the reader to recognize divisions in the text and the level of importance of each section, medieval manuscripts have a similar hierarchy of decoration that guided the medieval reader through the manuscript.
References and Further Reading
Clemens, Raymond and Timothy Graham. Introduction to Manuscript Studies. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2007.
Morgan, Nigel. “The Decorative Ornament of the Text and Page in Thirteenth Century England: Initials, Border Extension, and Line Fillers.” In English Manuscript Studies 1100-1700, vol. 10: Decoration and Illustration in Medieval English Manuscripts, ed. A. S. G. Edwards. London: British Library, 2002. 1-33.
Scott, Kathleen L. Tradition and Innovation in Later Medieval English Manuscripts. London: British Library, 2007.