If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Secular manuscripts

Not all manuscripts during the Middle Ages and Renaissance were religious in nature. This period abounded with volumes that contained histories, romances, fables, and legal and scientific writings. The rise of universities paralleled the need for a variety of books to fill their libraries. Additionally, as literacy increased in a growing middle class, so did the number of volumes written in vernacular languages.

The bestiary

Bestiaries are collections of stories about animals both real and fantastical. These pseudo-scientific catalogues reached the height of popularity in the 12th and 13th centuries. The texts were filled with moralizing animal descriptions overlaid with Christian symbolism and principles. They satisfied the abundant curiosity about the natural world while simultaneously glorifying God.
Left: Two Lions, FOL. 68. Right: Two Fishermen on a Sea Creature, FOL. 89V. Bestiary, about 1270, unknown, Franco-Flemish, Thérouanne, tempera colors and gold leaf on parchment (7 1/2 inches high x 5 5/8 inches wide (The J. Paul Getty Museum, MS. LUDWIG XV 3)
See more pages from the Bestiary.
The bestiary that includes the pages shown above is illuminated with scenes of birds, beasts, and imaginary creatures including the centaur, phoenix, and dragon. On the page on the left, two lions lean over a cub. The accompanying text describes the male lion breathing life into the cub three days after its birth. In the Middle Ages, the lion served as a symbol of Christ, and thus the legend was a reflection of the three days between Jesus's crucifixion and his resurrection.
On the page on the right, an imaginary fish called the “aspidochelone” is featured. According to the bestiary, this large sea creature would remain motionless with its back above the water line, fooling sailors into believing it was an island, and then dive suddenly into the watery depths. The aspidochelone symbolized the wily devil who deceives sinners, ultimately plunging them into the fires of Hell.
In both images, the illuminators carefully depicted the animals and their environments in thoughtful detail, from the curls on the lions’ manes to the transparent water surrounding the fish. Bands of gold in the borders and patterned backgrounds further heighten the book’s stylistic elegance.

Manuscripts of chivalry

The medieval reader could learn Christian morals from the bestiary, and then turn to law books, romances, and other texts to better understand codes of chivalry. Chivalry was a system of values that permeated almost every aspect of aristocratic culture, from fashion to hunting to codes of law.
Initial E: An Equestrian Duel Between a Creditor and a Debtor (right: detail), Vidal Mayor, about 1290–1310, unknown, Spanish, tempera colors and gold leaf on parchment, 14 3/8 inches high x 9 7/16 inches wide (The J. Paul Getty Museum, MS. LUDWIG XIV 6, FOL. 169V)
One fine example of a manuscript that highlights the chivalric protocol is a Spanish volume from the late 13th century. Called the Vidal Mayor, the book includes laws devoted to a variety of issues, from the legal rights of orphans to those of women leaving their husbands. One particularly beautiful page (shown above) shows a historiated initial E framing two scenes in a sequential narrative. Depicted in the upper portion of the letter E, an enthroned king listens to a dispute between a creditor and debtor. Below, two figures engage in combat, watched by the king. The cross on one combatant's vestment identifies him as a Christian, while the crescent shape on the other's tunic suggests he is Muslim or at the very least a foreigner. The repetition of the figure of the king on both levels suggests that the battle relates to the argument above. The background is covered in pure gold leaf, which adds a luxuriousness and level of importance to the scene.


Courtesy with a Knight, Idleness Opening the Door for the Lover; The Romance of the Rose, about 1405, unknown, French, Paris, tempera colors and gold leaf on parchment, 14 7/16 inches high x 10 1/4 inches wide (The J. Paul Getty Museum, MS. LUDWIG XV 7, FOL. 9V)
Romances grew in popularity in the Middle Ages—most especially, the Romance of the Rose. The story centers on a lover who dreams of a beautiful rose kept captive in a castle. The rose represents the object of romantic love. Allegorical characters in the story, such as Courtesy, Youth, Fear, and Idleness, either help or hamper the lover's attempts to win the rose.
Nearly 300 manuscripts devoted to this tale survive. The Getty’s edition from 1405 is one of the most extensively illustrated copies of the romance, filled with 101 miniatures in a semi-grisaille (monochromatic) style popular in France during this period (see one page at the left).
The first portion of the book features the lover's dream and introduces the allegorical characters who aid or obstruct the lover in his quest for the rose, his lady. The figures wear the fashionable clothes of the nobility of the early 1400s, including lavish sleeves and elaborate headdresses.

Scientific texts

Constellation Diagrams, early 1200s, unknown, English, ink on parchment, 9 1/2 inches high x 6 1/8 inches wide (The J. Paul Getty Museum, MS. LUDWIG XII 5, FOL. 151)
The basic course of learning in the Middle Ages was the study of the seven liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. A renewed interest in the natural world in the 1200s ensured a prominent place for astronomy in the growing universities of Europe. The collection of scientific theories about the constellations and other scholarly texts was probably compiled as a textbook for a university audience. The constellations and signs of the zodiac were rendered in a pen-and-ink technique, lending liveliness to the depiction of the positions of the stars in the sky. On the page at the left, we can recognize several constellations in today’s sky, including Pisces (two fish), Aquarius (the water bearer), and Aries (the ram).

Calligraphy model books

One of the most glorious manuscripts in the Getty’s collection is the Mira calligraphiae monumenta, or calligraphy model book. This work was first created in 1561–62 by Georg Bocksay to demonstrate his mastery of writing styles. Thirty years later, court artist Joris Hoefnagel was asked to illuminate the work. He added fruit, flowers, and insects to nearly every page.
On the page at the left (below), Hoefnagel composed his image in response to the design of the scribe’s words, echoing the curling lines of script with the petals of the flower known as the Maltese Cross. He painted the flower so as to suggest that the stem pierced the page.
Left: Maltese Cross, Mussel, and Ladybird, FOL. 37. Right: Trompe-l’Oeil Stem of a Maltese Cross, FOL. 37V. Mira calligraphiae monumenta,1561–62 and about 1591–96, Joris Hoefnagel, Flemish and Hungarian, Austria, watercolors, gold paint, silver paint, and ink on parchment and paper bound between pasteboard covered with red morocco, 6 9/16 inches high x 4 7/8 inches wide (The J. Paul Getty Museum, MS. 20)
When turning the page (above right), the viewer sees the paint and ink of the preceding illumination and script through the parchment, creating a subdued image in reverse. But in the middle of this page, the stem from the flower here appears to rest above a narrow strip of the parchment. Through this defiant gesture of trompe l’oeil (fool the eye), the inventive illuminator showcased his ability to create visual illusions.

Want to join the conversation?

No posts yet.