ABC of Medieval Manuscripts

by Sandra Hindman

Kindly provided by Sandra Hindman of Les Enluminures. Sandra is a leading expert on Medieval and Renaissance manuscript illumination. Professor Emerita of Art History at Northwestern University and owner of Les Enluminures, Sandra is author, co-author, or editor of more than 10 books, as well as numerous articles on history, illuminated manuscripts and medieval rings. AbeBooks posed a number of basic questions about medieval manuscripts and Sandra was kind enough to answer them.

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Antiphonal: Book containing the sung portion of the Divine Office.

Anthropomorphic (initial): Opening letter with decoration composed of human forms.



Bi-folium: Large sheet folded in half to make two folios (or four pages).

Book of Hours: Book of prayers for the eight hours of the day (Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline).

Border: Surround, usually decorative, around or between the columns of the written text.

Breviary: Book containing the texts necessary for the celebration of the Divine Office.


Catchword: The first word (or words) of the next page copied by the scribe on the last page of a gathering, often in the lower inside margin (used by the binder to keep the gatherings in the correct order).

Codex: From Latin caudex (for tree bark) is a book composed of folded sheets, as opposed to a roll or a tablet.

Collation: A description of the structure of a book, indicating the number and order of the gatherings and their internal composition (how many leaves, what is missing).

Colophon: Inscription (usually at the end of a book) recording the circumstances of its production (might include by whom, when, or where it was made).


Drollery: An amusing figure painted in the margin and usually with no relationship to the text.



Exemplar: A book from which another is copied.

Ex libris: An inscription with notes concerning ownership (could be included in a book plate).

Explicit: The last words of the text or a textual unit.


Flourish: Penwork emanating from an initial.

Folio: One sheet of writing material, half of a bi-folium (see Leaf).


Gloss: Written commentary (or translation or explanation) often in the margin or sometimes between the lines.

Gradual: Book containing the sung portions of the Mass.

Grotesque: Comical figures drawn or painted in the margins (see Drollery).

Guide letter: Small letter used to tell the scribe what capital letter or initial to write in its place.


Historiated (initial): Initial that opens the text and is illustrated with a figure or a story (history).


Illumination: Illumination from the Latin verb illuminare, meaning "to light up or illuminate," in an embellishment of the page with coloured paint and gold.


Illuminator: The artist responsible for the illumination, or the embellishment in a book.

Incipit: The first words of the text or textual unit.

Incunable: From the Latin for "in the cradle," an incunable is a book printed before 1501. The word never refers to a manuscript.


Leaf: Half of a bi-folium or two pages (see Folio).

Leaf from Book of Hours

Line ending (line filler): Decoration that fills out the remainder of a line of writing extending it to the margin.


Marginalia: Decoration or sometimes text or diagrams that occupies the margins of a page.

Manuscript: Book written by hand (from manu=by hand and scriptus=to write).

Miniature: An independent illustration, as opposed to a border or an initial, the word deriving from the Latin miniare "to colour with red." Something of a misnomer.


Neo-Gothic: Literally "new" Gothic and relating to the revival or adaptation of Gothic motifs and styles, especially in 19th century architecture and literature but also in manuscripts and printed books.


Opening: The double page visible when a book lies open.


Palimpsest: From the Greek palimpsestos ("scraped again") and referring to a manuscript or page in which the original writing has been erased and the surface reused to accommodate new text; the original text can sometimes still be deciphered.

Parchment: The animal skin (typically cow, goat, or sheep) that serves as the writing support of the majority of medieval manuscripts; the term comes from Pergamon, the city that was one of the centers of production in antiquity.

Penwork: An ornamental initial made exclusively with pen and ink.

Pricking: The system of making holes (with a knife or template) at regular intervals in the edges of a folio in order to rule the sheet for writing.

Provenance: Where the book was made and has been since; a history of the book's production and ownership.


Quire: The basic unit of book production consisting of a group of bi-folia stacked together and folded for writing and decorating, and eventually sewn into a binding with other quire.


Recto: The front side of a folio or leaf (designated as "r" in folio 1r, for example). (see Verso)

Rubric: Text such as a title, chapter heading, or instruction, usually written in red (from rubrica for "red"), but also sometimes in blue or green, that introduces the text that follows.


Scribe: The person engaged in the physical writing of a manuscript.

Scriptorium: The place, often in a monastery, set aside for the writing of manuscripts.

Signature: Numbers or letters written in sequence in a quire, usually in the lower right corner of a folio, to facilitate the arrangement of the sheets (e.g., a,b,c, or i, ii, iii, or I, II, III, and so forth).


Trompe l'oeil: Literally an embellishment that "deceives the eye," such as a painting of a flower or an insect that looks real on the page.


Use: Refers to a rite or religious observance particular to a specific geographic region, town, or religious order (a Book of Hours for the "use of Paris" contains prayers common in Paris).


Vellum: Middle English word derived from Old French vélin, meaning parchment made from young calf skin (veal).

Verso: The back side of a folio or leaf (designated as "v" in folio 1v, for example).


Watermark: Term used to describe the image visible in paper from designs on the wire mesh in the frame used to make paper. Every papermaker might have his own design.

White Vine-Stem: Border typical of Italian humanist manuscript production that is composed of foliage made up of vine stems usually outlined in colour and left white on the parchment (from bianchi giari).

White Vine-Stem

Workshop: Studio where various artists work together (perhaps a misnomer altogether and at the very least different for different towns and geographic regions).


Zoomorphic (initial): A painted or decorated letter composed mostly of animal forms.

Curated Manuscript Collections from Les Enluminures