Communications

Historiated initials and the medieval selfie

A brief look at a design technique from the 14th century.

A 14th century letter Q with an image of gregory the great and a scribe working inside it.

Thoughtful, systematic page design is nothing new. Humans are meaning-making machines with an impulse to organize. Today we code paragraph breaks into our web pages. In the medieval period they signified paragraph breaks with colour-shifts, and indicated both structure and content using decorative initials.

The latter are the focus of this blog post, but there is so much more to learn! If this piques your curiosity I highly recommend Introduction to Manuscript Studies by Raymond Clemens and Timothy Graham.

Sometimes the planned titles and initials were never entered, with the result that the areas intended to receive them have remained blank.

Raymond Clemens and Timothy Graham, Introduction to Manuscript Studies, 21.

Initials in typography

Decorative initials were used to indicate the beginning of a new section of text. They were most commonly done by a separate artist, and not by the person who had scribed the text. This is what Clemens and Graham are talking about in the quote above. The scribe would leave gaps and indicate an initial should take up the space. If the artist never got to it then it was left that way for us to find!

Some of the most ornate initials are called historiated initials. These are letters that have scenes or portraits inside. What I love about these initials is that they could act as teasers for the forthcoming text. They are often visual representations or contributions to the accompanying textual content. They could also be the medieval equivalent of a selfie. Sometimes they show the scribe actively working with goose quill and pen knife in-hand, and other times they show the artist themselves surrounded by the tools of their trade.

A personal favourite of mine is from a 14th C. copy of James le Palmer’s encyclopedia the Omne Bonum. This initial on folio 329r shows an artist hard at work surrounded by pigments at the beginning of the section on “Colour.”

Nice to know that we had 14th C. design colleagues. Medieval artists had methods akin to (and I would argue significantly cooler than!) our contemporary use of drop caps. Maybe we should be taking notes.

Feature Image from University of Victoria, Special Collections, MS. Lat. 6, Gregory the Great, Dialogi, 1320-1330. Call no. BR65 G54 1320

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