The Illuminated Manuscript Company Presents:

A Peek into the Past – an occasional newsletter on illuminated manuscripts and their history

This Issue:  Common Types of Manuscripts

Many of us may dream of obtaining a page from a book by Chaucer, Boccaccio, or Dante, but in reality such manuscripts are hard to come by.  Few scribes dedicated their time to copying literature and anyone in possession of such a rare gem is likely to hold on tightly  to his/her treasure! Just to give you a sense of how rare early manuscript copies are of these literary works, there are fewer than ten copies (including fragments) of the Chanson de Roland. About fifty various versions of the King Arthur stories exist. For the beloved The Canterbury Tales, only about 85 manuscripts and fragments remain. The most popular work of literature (based on remaining copies), the Roman de la Rose, has only 200 surviving copies, which is a prodigious number compared to the other texts, but still preciously few.  And it’s no wonder.  For this latter text, it took a scribe about 75 days to write out the words for the poem.  Imagine the cost! A patron would have to be astonishingly wealthy to afford such a luxury.  So unless your name is Pierpont Morgan or Henry Huntington, you are unlikely to ever possess such literature.  

You might even be disappointed if you did come across a surviving manuscript, as most are without illustration and decoration (one of the great exceptions being the Ellesmere manuscript of The Canterbury Tales)

Thus, it is no great surprise that if you lived in the Middle Ages, could read, and could afford just one book you would probably choose a prayer book rather than “The Miller’s Tale” (or God forbid, “The Cook’s Tale”!).  Therefore, of course, prayer books are relatively common. But other types of books are available too. Some are for personal use and many are for religious use since every church needed Bibles, song books, etc.  Presented below are some of the most popular types of books found in Europe before Gutenberg dazzled the world with his press.

The Canterbury Tales from the Ellesmere Manuscript at the Huntington Library is unusual for a work of literature in its elaborate illustrations.


The bestsellers of the Middle Ages were the Books of Hours. Designed to be held in the hand, the books were meant to easily be carried and read by the lay person. The dutiful Christian was expected to stop and pray eight times a day at each of the canonical hours (Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline). Because Books of Hours were for private use, the Church did not control the text as tightly as they did other texts. Thus, there are some variations depending on region, time period and individual preference.  Books of Hours reached their heyday of production in the 15th century in Paris, Rouen, Tours, Ghent, and Bruges. We can fairly easily find copies produced in these cities. It’s more difficult to find German and English copies, likely due to the Reformation.  Because of their commonality among affluent families, these books often served purposes beyond prayer in the household.  For example, children were sometimes taught to read from the family Book of Hours (a safer choice than Boccaccio!). For more information on Books of Hours, visit our newsletter on the topic.  (Books of Hours newsletter)


A page from a 15th century Book of Hours with a beautiful border.





The Breviary is the monk's, nun's, or priest’s equivalent to the lay person’s Book of Hours. Like the reader of the BOH, the reader of the Breviary theoretically stops eight times a day to read the appropriate text for the assigned canonical hour. The Breviary contains hymns, readings, psalms, and other prayers. Sometimes Breviaries included all of the Psalms. Often, a parish priest would write out his own Breviary to save some money.

A handsomely illustrated Breviary, small enough to be conveniently carried by a clergyman.


As you may recall from earth science class, "diurnal" means “daily” and in liturgical terms, this is quite literal. A Diurnal resembles a Breviary, but includes only the “day” offices (Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers); it generally excludes the night offices (Matins and Compline).  Considering the Diurnal skips the midnight and 3 am prayers, it’s a very tempting choice for the sleepy monk.  

Leaf from a German Diurnal


The Psalter contains the 150 lyric poems (psalms) written between the 10th and 3rd centuries BCE.  These ancient poems comprise the oldest liturgical book used by monks to celebrate the holy office. The Psalter is also known as the Psalms of David because the poems are traditionally ascribed to King David (whom Christians believe is an ancestor of Jesus Christ).  In addition to the 150 psalms, the Psalter of the Middle Ages often included a calendar, a litany of saints, canticles from both testaments, and other prayers. The Psalters were enormously popular in the Middle Ages and were frequently lavishly illuminated. Due to their commonality, students of the Church often used them to learn to read (just as students of the laity often used the Book of Hours for their literacy instruction. Psalters were sometimes a part of the Breviary and sometimes their own book.

15th Century Psalter

13th Century Psalter


 The Missal is the book used by the priest in celebrating the Mass.  Not to be confused with the Breviary, which was used by the clergy for daily services, the Missal is used at the altar for the sacrament of communion or the Eucharist service.  Missals are generally simply illustrated. Patrons often donated a Missal to the church. The patron could be the bishop, the priest, or a parishioner.


Music Books

All medieval churches and monasteries needed music books as music is central to Christian services. However, unlike today, where parishioners can hold their own copies, before printing music books were shared by the choir alone.  Consequently, the books needed to be large (quite large!) so everyone in the choir could see. A common observation regarding books of music is the variation in the number of lines in a stave.  You will observe that some staves have four lines and some have five.  While a five-line stave generally suggests the book was written after the 15th century, this is not a consistent indicator since the 5-line stave was fairly often used earlier.   In southern Europe, conventionally, the staves were drawn in red and the neumes (notes) are penned sans tails, while in German and Dutch manuscripts, staves are often black.  Music manuscripts are most frequently found from Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian books, but of course, others survive.  One of the fortunate aspects to the modern collector is the grand size of the manuscripts. Because the manuscripts were so large, they were not readily adaptable to the printing press, so we see manuscripts still handmade in the traditional way for centuries after printing began.

There are two main types of music books:


The Gradual contains the music for the Mass; it is the sung portion of the Missal. All medieval churches and monasteries would own a gradual, of course, since music is such an integral part of church services.


The Antiphoner is to the Gradual what the Breviary is to the Missal. In other words, the Antiphoner contains the church music for the daily round of services (as opposed to the music for the Mass).

Page from a Gradual


Page from an antiphonal.  Antiphonals tend to be larger than Graduals


The Latin Bible was the fundamental text of every monastery. Old monastic Bibles were usually quite large and written in several volumes.  Frequently separate volumes existed for each book of the Bible (e.g. Leviticus, Numbers, Mathew, etc). Some time in the late 12th or early 13th century, the format of the  Bible changed. The most notable change was the preference for portability due in part to the growing practice of friars serving as traveling preachers.  Obviously, carrying around a multi-volume Bible was an impossibility for an itinerant preacher.  The Bible, therefore, moved to a single volume. In order to accommodate the small size, the text became tiny and was written in two columns to save space.  To facilitate reading, each page was marked with a heading and chapter beginnings were indicated with red and blue initials. Thin paper was also used to prevent bulkiness. Around this time, the Interpretation of Hebrew Names, a dictionary of the Latin meanings of Hebrew names, was added to the Bible. Interestingly, today’s Bibles are almost the same in their presentation (thin paper, tiny font, two columns, headings, etc).

Bibles quickly became quite popular once they were reduced to a single volume. The 13th century Bible was so popular, in fact, that many fewer were written in the 14th and 15th centuries because so many early copies were still in tact.  During the 15th century, the Bible grew again into a larger book that would sit nicely on a lectern. The first printed book (c. 1455) was a large Latin Bible. Presumably, Gutenberg, eager to make money, started printing the most popular book around.

Leaf from a Latin Bible.  Note the compact font which made it possible to have a book small enough for the carrier to place in his bag. 

The Interpretation of Hebrew Names was an innovation of the 13th century Bible.

Other Types of Books

Of course, religious and literary books were not the only books around. With the advent of the university in the late 12th century, other types of books were also created. Perhaps, the most useful way to think about books is to consider the areas of teaching in the university. There were essentially four areas of teaching: Arts (including grammar, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy), Law, Medicine, and Theology. For each of these areas, books were needed for effective teaching and learning. Although some of these subjects sound secular in nature, they were often religious. Law, for example, covered both church law and secular law.

Image from a medieval medical book. (from the Bodleian Library, Oxford University)


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* For more information on illuminated manuscripts, we recommend:

De Hamel, Christopher. A History of Illuminated Manuscripts. London: Phaidon Press, 2005.