The Electronic Labyrinth

Illuminated Manuscripts

The practice of hand-copying texts used in courtly circles was also the chief means of distribution in the Church. Scribes were paid to laboriously copy out by hand the ornate Gothic script that was the staple of religious discourse. A room in the monastery reserved for this activity was called the scriptorium and here they not only transcribed texts but provided "illumination"--elaborately conceived initial letters, ornamental borders and gilded illustrations. Outstanding examples of illuminated texts include the seventh and eighth century works of the Irish School, particularly The Book of Kells and The Lindisfarne Gospels. Production costs were quite high: an account roll in Westminster Abbey records that one 14th century Mass book cost 35 pounds--the equivalent of several hundred pounds today--but of this the scribe received only 4 pounds for two years' work and 1 pound for clothing. Such books were, understandably, rarities and often chained to the walls of the monastery.

The technique of illumination sought to release the light, the truth, of a text from within. It was a light shone through the text, not on it. The text thus appeared as the walls of a gothic church. These churches were often made of porous stone which allowed light to filter through the walls, the light of God was thus all about the parishioners, it did not shine down on them from above but was the very medium through which they moved. As Marshall McLuhan writes:

Probably any medieval person would be puzzled at our idea of looking through something. He would assume that the reality looked through at us, and that by contemplation we bathed in the divine light, rather than looked at it. (106)

The glosses, learned commentary, border designs and other decorative materials did not "illustrate" the text so much as reveal its inner qualities; text and decoration existed in a kind of continuum that was the truth of The Word.

In the late eighteenth century, William Blake revived the illuminated manuscript as a the ideal vehicle for a revolution of the imagination. In the nineteenth century, John Ruskin singled out the illuminated manuscript as a manifestation of the radical challenge posed by a revival of the Gothic in a utilitarian age. The electronic sign of hypertext also provides new opportunities to reconsider the illuminated manuscript, as is evident in the early work of Judy Malloy.

© 1993-2000 Christopher Keep, Tim McLaughlin, Robin Parmar.
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