These opening letters for one of the psalms are a classic illustration of medieval illumination, relying on vibrant colors, geometric patterns, and illustrated scenes (image courtesy the British Library).

Medieval globalization may seem like an oxymoron. After all, this fall, historians claimed 536 was the worst year in human history to be alive. The medieval period in Europe is typically thought to mean that the existing cultures were stagnant and isolated from the rest of the world. But a new digitization project that brings together 800 medieval manuscripts offers a different image of the early middle ages: one of connection and exchange, where borders and geography were frequently crossed and redefined.

The project, France and England: Illuminated Manuscripts 700-1200, is a collaboration between the British Library and the National Library of France (Bibliotheque nationale de France), two institutions whose collections of medieval manuscripts are independently world class and unrivalled. After two years of painstaking, labor-intensive, page-by-page digitization, and numerous scholarly conferences and meetings, the two libraries published the results of their efforts: a bilingual educational web resource, a new book, and the online collection.

This collection illustrates the vibrant exchanges and colorful connections that characterized the early Middle Ages and challenges us to consider the historical flexibility of borders across the British Isles and the European continent.

The Anglo-Saxons are some of the heroes of this cross-border narrative. They built monasteries all over British Isles and the European continent. The popularity of monasticism in the islands is theorized as due in part to the connections that Anglo-Saxon monks created with Coptic and Eastern Orthodox monasteries. This theory was confirmed this past year by several researchers who examined the manuscripts held in St. Catherine’s, said to be the oldest working monastery in the world. In these documents, historians discovered evidence for the presence of Anglo-Saxon travelers.

Although Irish and Anglo-Saxon copiers were not the first to create illustrated manuscripts, they developed institutions and centers of production that created a new efflorescence of manuscript illumination, the most well-known of which are the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels, both previously digitized.

This 11th century manuscript binding from the abbey of St. Denis includes ornate details and shapes that demonstrate connections with Anglo-Saxon styles (image courtesy of the BnF).

Most of the manuscripts are religious in nature, but the collections also include histories and other works. One of the new highlights is the Tiberius Bede manuscript, an edition of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. This manuscript includes detailed opening pages to the chapters along with colorful treatment throughout the text. The illuminated letters cover the page and draw on geometric patterns to embellish the initials, the decorated first letters in a manuscript. One common feature is the interweaved pattern found throughout Germanic and Celtic art. Similar to designs found in Anglo-Saxon stone monuments and metalwork, the artists incorporated this pattern into the outline of letters, and colored the design with rich reds and blues. Other elements from this style include natural motifs, such as leaves, ivy, and floral patterns. Beasts, serpents, and fanciful little creatures, additionally, crawl throughout the curves and spaces between the text and letters.

One may imagine medieval people as isolated and tied to villages, but monks were certainly mobile. Already connected with the Eastern Roman Empire, Irish and Anglo-Saxon monks crossed the English Channel and founded monasteries along the coast and interior of the Frankish Empire. These monasteries, established at such places as St. Amand, St. Vaast, and St. Bertin, introduced Insular illumination to the Franks and made it Continental.

One beautiful example contributed by the British Library is the 9th century Gospel Book of Tours. This manuscript includes all four gospels along with additional texts. One of these texts, the Canon Tables — which are an early set of tables that harmonize the gospel narrative — are richly illustrated with arches and columns that include fantastical creatures, as well as floral and ivy motifs. Initial letters often include similar patterns and colors in a range of hues. Each of the gospels includes an incipit page, an introductory sheet that states “here begins the narrative,” which is richly framed in a large rectangle, drawing on additional interlaced and floral patterns, and brings to mind the older and more elaborate Book of Kells.

Because so many monks traveled between the various monasteries on either side of the Channel, instead of imagining this water as a barrier, it served more as a bridge, connecting the continent to the islands. The illumination and handwriting are sometimes so similar that scholars have even called the artwork produced by either Canterbury Schools or monastic centers throughout Northeastern France the Channel Style.

These manuscripts are also testaments to wider geographic connections, because, as works of art, they often served as a gift or objects for exchange for nobles and elites.

One such illustration included in the online collection is the Emma Encomium. Named for Emma of Normandy, twice-named Queen of England, the book demonstrates frequent contact across the Channel. Although based in England, Emma spent some time in Scandinavian strongholds, and commissioned Flemish illustrators to write her “biography.” Drawing on stylistic and textual references, the workshop that produced the text likely was located in the monastery of St. Bertin, one of the centers of Franco-Saxon illustration. While the text is propagandistic, the book includes beautiful animalistic initials and colorful illustrations. After its completion, the manuscript was brought to court, and it even depicts the scene in the opening pages, where the monk hands Emma the manuscript.

Another unique case is the Canterbury Psalter, a collection of psalms often used in Christian liturgy, currently held at the BnF. After the Battle of Hastings in 1066, William the Conqueror initiated the Norman period of English history and intensified connections between the continent and the British Isles. The text is a testament to those border crossings and is a masterpiece of medieval art.

Currently held in Paris, the opening pages of the Canterbury Psalter are some of the most elaborate scenes in illuminated manuscripts. This page depicts several scenes from the book of Genesis (image courtesy of the BnF)

The Canterbury Psalter is one of the last copies of an earlier medieval manuscript, the Utrecht Psalter. This psalter, which gained its name only for its final resting place, was probably commissioned in Reims for one of Charlemagne’s sons, and had an immense impact on Frankish illustration. Its style has been called surrealistic and dynamic. The psalter arrived at Canterbury at some point in the 11th century. The Utrecht Psalter then became an important source for several other illuminated manuscripts in the 11th and 12th centuries.

The Canterbury Psalter includes pages of detailed illustrations and scenes with richly colored initials and capitals. The style is a culmination of the manuscript tradition in medieval France and England. But language adds another dimension. While most manuscripts were Latin, this text is multilingual. The main body contains the Latin translation of the Psalms, yet additional columns employ Anglo-Saxon and Norman French to enrich and explain the text to its linguistically diverse audiences.

This new digitization is huge leap forward for medievalists and scholars. These materials and tools have opened the manuscript archive in an unprecedented way. They have the potential to usher in a range of new scholarship. But for the general public, this collection serves an even more dramatic purpose: the revision of a narrative of an isolated past. More than just shifting our perspective on the medieval period from seeing it as stagnant, to a period of vibrant exchange of ideas, scholars have started to speak of a medieval globalization. The more we see these cross-border histories, the Jewish manuscript tradition; the Ethiopian Age of Discovery; the Muslim cartographers of Naples; the Viking, Rus, and Arab trade; the Chinese monk who traveled to Edward I, etc., the more we see that our current isolationism is an anomaly.

Christopher DeCou trained as a historian at the University of Michigan and the University of Chicago, and is now based out of Tel Aviv, Israel where he writes about science, history, and archaeology. He...

9 replies on “Illuminated Manuscripts Demonstrate that Medieval Borders Were Regularly Crossed”

  1. The author is surprised to learn that which has been known always. Only Jack Chicks and Donald Trumps imagine the mediaeval world to have been closed, illiterate, superstitious, and unwashed.

  2. I don’t know how this time frame relates to present day. Way different demographics and way different dynamics of population!

    1. Exactly. An example of how media pitches it’s material to reflect a particular desired impetus. No educated person could possibly think these small countries were isolated. People walked everywhere and pilgrims were all over Europe hoofing it to the holy land and back. There were almost no border patrols as such. The borders were the gates to the city when the door slammed shut at night.

  3. Great article! Please correct:
    “Bibliothèque nationale de France”: no capital n, nationale has a “e” at the end, accent grave on the e.

  4. Here’s a question…. where’s the Armenian manuscript tradition in this timeline of medieval border crossing?

    1. I thought this article made it clear they were talking about England and France? Otherwise ask what about the rest of Europe, eastward, south and north?

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