Major Styles of Manuscript Illumination: An Art Historical Survey

This is adapted from a handout from a class I taught at a Dragon’s Mist Arts and Sciences day in late April. The full handout is available in the Files section of this blog.

This is a broad overview of major styles in manuscript production in Western Europe. It is NOT a comprehensive list of every type of book art practiced in our time period, although I would love to put that together someday 🙂 This is intended as a guide for scribes, especially charter painters, to begin to recognize distinct styles and make their artwork fit more closely within a target style.

Continue reading “Major Styles of Manuscript Illumination: An Art Historical Survey”

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Five Tips to Make Your Charters Look More Historical

This is adapted from a handout from a class I taught at a Dragon’s Mist Arts and Sciences day in late April. The full handout is available in the Files section of this blog.

Sketching and inking an image from a period original

  1. Pick a style and stick to it. Look at multiple examples from the same time period and place as the finished piece that you are basing your work off of or what you are aiming for. Choose similar colors and use the same types of decorative elements. For more information, see my post of an art historical survey of illumination styles.
  2. Use historical or at least historically plausible colors. Avoid layering white over green, and spend enough time studying manuscripts and pigments that you have a sense of what colors were actually available. Scribes in specific time periods and places used distinct color palettes. Spend time looking at accurate facsimiles of medieval illuminations to determine what colors and combinations they found appealing.
  3. Use gold paint or gold leaf, not both. I have found almost no examples were gold paint and gold leaf were both used in the same page, although I’m sure they exist. Leaf was more commonly used prior to the 15th century, after which gold paint seems to be more common. (I’m still researching this and welcome corrections.)
  4. Go through the process of creating an illumination from start to finish, including planning and ruling out the page, at least once. This will help you see how medieval artists conceptualized the page: manuscript art is unique in that it blends both textual and visual elements. Your painting on a charter needs to reflect the artistic style of the design and be somehow united with the text itself.
  5. Keep in mind the purpose of this art form. Illuminated manuscripts were used devotionally both within public spaces of worship and by private individuals. The aesthetic of illumination grew out of this context. Arguably, this is why manuscript illumination was more stylized than realistic. The artwork that we produce within the SCA is wholly secular; however, it does follow the same stylistic conventions. Additionally, the charters and scrolls we produce are intended to produce strong emotions in their viewers, and are physical relics that our Crowns and Coronets provide to those they value highly. SCA scribes surely take their work just as seriously as medieval scribes did!

Not too Mean, Not too Nice, Just Right: How to be a Good SCA A&S Judge

I’ve had a few opportunities to judge local arts and sciences competitions lately, as well as to be judged at our Kingdom arts and sciences championship, and it’s caused me to think a lot about how this process works. I find the experience of being judged to be incredibly valuable, and I think a lot of that has been I’ve had very good judges (especially recently!); I spent some time thinking about what judges have done that has been useful to me and looked for ways to incorporate it into how I judge entries. I’ve previously (on my old blog) written about how to prepare to compete in the arts and sciences, now I’d like to share my thoughts on the other side of competition.

It’s easy to be judgmental, but it’s hard to be a judge. When you are approached to be a judge at a local competition, you are being tasked with something pretty mighty: you are going to assess another person’s best work, and you have the potential to dramatically shape how they approach their next project. Your job as a judge is not to show off your knowledge, to advance your personal agenda or pet theories, or even to critique a piece. Not surprisingly, my professional experience as a teacher has really colored how I view all of this — judging is exactly like grading! You have to be fair, you have to be honest, and you have to be kind. It’s not about assigning a score, it’s about assessing the quality of the work against the established standard and providing meaningful feedback to the creator. Here are some of my strategies for how to be a great judge:

  • First and foremost, be courteous. True courtesy and honor are the best parts of the Society — be a model of our shared virtues.
  • Go in with the right mindset. See above! The thought that should be uppermost in your mind is that it is your job to promote the arts and sciences. How can you best do that in your role as judge?
  • Give the entrant their due. Read their documentation (in advance if possible), listen to their whole presentation, and give them your full attention. I find it helps me to take notes during presentations. (I do the same thing when my students present in class.) I write down what I like, and what questions I have. This helps me give specific comments later.
  • Ask good questions. Questioning is an incredibly important intellectual strategy that I think can be easily overlooked. The questions you ask should allow the entrant to demonstrate their knowledge (they should not be “gotcha!” questions), or help them consider aspects of their work more deeply. Some ideas to get you started: What was your main goal with this entry? What do you feel like was your biggest success? What was your most significant learning? What was one challenge that you faced and how did you overcome it? What do you have planned next? What will you do differently on your next project as a result of this one?
  • BE. HONEST. Being courteous does not mean you are not allowed to point out areas for improvement — your comments must go beyond “great job” and a pat on the head. If it helps, think less about what they did wrong and more about what they could improve for next time, and use that to frame what you say. Normally, here is where this type of guide would tell you to try a “compliment sandwich,” but I happen to think that isn’t actually that helpful. Imagine this is the feedback you get from a judge: “I like the colors. Your embroidery needs a lot of work. Good job using wool thread instead of cotton.” The sandwich approach doesn’t actually soften the blow much, and these comments don’t help you get better.Here’s a hypothetical example of what I think is a better approach: let’s say I’m judging an entry of delicious and perfectly made suckets that use grapefruit peels. The maker consulted a few websites written by SCAdians, some of which included period recipes (although they didn’t use one specific recipe in their recreation), and they read The Medieval Kitchen and Early French Cookery for some general background information.
    • Here is an example of the type of comments I’d be likely to give them: “These were really delicious, and making suckets is a hard skill to master, which makes it all the more impressive. I was also happy to see that you started with some period recipes, and the secondary sources you looked at are both ones that I trust. Have you tried other types of citrus peels? Grapefruits date to after the SCA’s time period — I can help you find resources on what kinds of peels would be more historical. Now that you’ve gotten good at the general process, your next step could be to research this more deeply, then pick one specific historical recipe to recreate, or a set of them (maybe from different time periods?) to compare, depending on what your overall goals are.” Yes, that’s long. Yes, the forms don’t give you a lot of room. But if I were a competitor, I’d find that so much more useful — the feedback is all specific and actionable, and I think that’s essential.
  • Connect. Give entrants your contact information so they can talk with you more — this is a great way to mentor or work with someone with shared interests. Talk personally with entrants after the competition is over. Just as I would with my students, I find that I tend to say things that praise effort and hard work, encouraging growth rather than “genius;” this can help competitors see the day of competition as one step on their journey to A&S excellence instead of the culmination of something. Also, praising effort is much harder for someone to argue with than other forms of compliments! Here’s one frame if you aren’t used to this: “I hope you had a great experience today! You should feel proud — competing is hard work and takes a lot of bravery. I was really impressed with [a specific aspect of their project, display, or presentation] — it’s clear you’ve worked hard. I’ll look forward to seeing your next project.”
  • Spread the wordfame of the competitors. Tell people about the cool projects you got to judge, and what you liked about them. Introduce competitors to other people who share their interests, and who can help them with research. Shine the spotlight on someone!

This isn’t an exhaustive list by any means. Feel free to leave your own thoughts in the comments. If you found this list useful, please share the link. Also, if you are interested in publishing a version of this in a branch newsletter, use the contact form to get in touch with me and I’d be happy to send you a more usable version.

Photos of my KASC Displays and Entries

Photos of my displays / entries from An Tir’s 2015 Kingdom Arts and Sciences Championship:

My display for my research paper on women in York guilds
My display for my research paper on women in York guilds

 

Pigments, ink, and paint-making supplies
Pigments, ink, and paint-making supplies

 

The paints I made (plus some modern gold paint for comparison)
The paints I made (plus some modern gold paint for comparison) 

 

Complete painting display
Complete painting display

 

All three of the paintings I completed side by side by side
All three of the paintings I completed side by side by side

 

This is the second complete practice painting that I finished. It has my dog in place of the hound from the original, and other than the gold paint I used paints I made myself.
This is the second complete practice painting that I finished. It has my dog in place of the hound from the original, and other than the gold paint I used paints I made myself.

 

The finished miniature, done using historical paints on parchment.
The finished miniature, done using historical paints on parchment.

 

First part of my pie display
First part of my pie display

Closer image of some of my pie display elements.
Closer image of some of my pie display elements.

Another part of my pie display, with all my samples.
Another part of my pie display, with all my samples.

Close-up of one of the historical flours I used
Close-up of one of the historical flours I used

 

Basin and towel for handwashing. We are civilized people!
Basin and towel for handwashing. We are civilized people!

 

I made a pie for the populace to taste, too.
I made a pie for the populace to taste, too.

 

This is the finished pie that I served my judges on Saturday. The one I had for Sunday looked even better, but I didn't get pictures of it.
This is the finished pie that I served my judges on Saturday. The one I had for Sunday looked even better, but I didn’t get pictures of it.

 

This is a photo I took before the event of one of my test pies, showing details of the filling.
This is a photo I took before the event of one of my test pies, showing details of the filling.

Watch my KAS final presentation

If you missed seeing me present my pie entry on Sunday, now you can play along at home thanks to the video by Russ Gilman-Hunt:

Part 1

Part 2

During the Q&A portion I explained more about some of my recreation choices (such as how I chose the spices I used), about pie crusts generally, and where I hope to take this project in the future. Watching this now, I see soooooo much detail I could have added. I felt so constrained by the time limit, which was frustrating. I do wish I had talked more about my process; I think I didn’t give myself enough credit for how much work went into mastering making this one particular pie. But overall I felt incredibly good about my presentation, and I even (shockingly!) don’t hate watching this on film.

And if you want to hear everything I have to say on the subjects of medieval pie, 14th century English cooking, the intersection of food and social class, and how to choose ingredients that are as authentic as possible, clearly the only answer is to take a class from me at an event 🙂

My Kingdom Arts and Sciences documentation

Photo by Morgan Donner
Photo by Morgan Donner
PDF copies of my research paper and documentation for my two projects are up in the files section. Now you too can experience the thrill of reading 64 pages about medieval pies, or the wonder of graphs that help us interpret the lives of medieval women, or the frisson of fear of knowing that I have a lot of toxic pigments in my garage right now.

Here are the abstracts from each of these, to get you a little excited:

Early 16th century French miniature: For this entry I aimed to replicate one of the full-page miniatures found in an illuminated manuscript originally commissioned for a Dominican cloister in Poissy, France around 1510. This work was based in large part on my close study of the manuscript itself and my analysis of the painting techniques used within it. I supplemented this with research into similar manuscripts from the same time period and place, especially ones which are incomplete (which give clues to the techniques used to produce their illuminations). My main interest in completing this project was to practice using more historical materials and techniques in my scribal work. I made my own ink and paints and documented the processes I used for each. The finished painting was completed on parchment using paints I made from period pigments or modern chemically similar substitutes.

Late 14th century pie: For this entry I prepared a meat pie based on a recipe from Forme of Cury, a culinary manuscript attributed to Richard II’s master cooks and believed to have been compiled around 1390. The pie I chose to recreate is representative of trends in foods consumed by high-status individuals in England during the high medieval and late medieval periods. Building on research I did for a pie crust project presented last year, the crust was prepared using stone ground and sieved flour from heirloom rivet and bread wheat grown in mixed fields in England. The filling contains three different types of birds: squab, chicken, and quail (as a stand-in for passerine songbirds, which are largely illegal to kill in the US), as well as eggs, currants, and spices. The consumption of birds was a sign of wealth during this time period, so it is fitting that a royal pie contain multiple types of desirable (and expensive) birds. The other filling ingredients would have been imported to England, adding considerably to their cost. This is also a very labor intensive food; multiple steps and some specialized techniques are required to produce this pie, which is a further indication of the social context in which this pie would have existed.

Women’s Work: Through an examination of archived medieval documents, this paper presents evidence for women in guilds and trades in York during the reigns of Edward I through III. I examined digital transcriptions of primary source documents, including the York Register of Freemen and the Ebor Cause Papers, extracting data about female names and occupations. By analyzing these data, I was able to compare my findings to those of other researchers who have written about women as workers in other areas of medieval Europe. Overall, I found that the situation for women in York was consistent with that for women in other medieval European cities: while women did participate (sometimes significantly) in wage-work, women’s participation was typically limited to certain types of jobs in certain industries, and women rarely achieved full guild membership.

Again, to read the full papers, hop over to files.