Collaborative Blog #1

Decorative Features in Medieval Manuscripts

By Sian Witherden, Resources Description Librarian

This blog post has been published in collaboration with Teaching the Codex at Teaching the Codex is an interdisciplinary project on the teaching of palaeography and codicology. It was launched with a colloquium at Merton College Oxford on 6th February 2016 as a special event in the calendar of Merton’s History of the Book Group. This event brought together academics from a range of disciplines who are experienced in teaching palaeography and codicology, which enabled a series of discussions on diverse pedagogical approaches. 


I recently joined the St John’s College (Oxford) library team to work on the TEI project, my main role being to incorporate existing catalogue records into the Medieval Manuscripts in Oxford Libraries online database. Due to Coronavirus restrictions, I was initially unable to consult the medieval manuscripts at St John’s College in person. Instead, I was working almost exclusively with Ralph Hanna’s Catalogue (bibliographic details below).

Focusing so heavily on catalogue entries reminded me that the terminology for medieval manuscript decoration can be quite esoteric. Some terms, like border, are self-explanatory. But others, like historiated initial and rubrication, can be opaque for the non-expert.

St John’s College Library is fortunate to have so many beautifully decorated medieval manuscripts in its collection. This blog post will showcase a variety of examples, while also explaining the terminology used to describe the decoration. My hope is that this blog post will not only be a feast for the eyes, but also a useful introduction for people unfamiliar with the field.

In the space of just a blog post, it is difficult (if not impossible) to convey the sheer variety of decoration that can be found in western medieval manuscripts. Nevertheless, I have tried to include a range of material. The manuscripts on display here span the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries. The books I have chosen were variously produced in England, Flanders, France, and Italy—though the majority of my examples are English as this is by far the most well-represented material in the St John’s College collection.

It is easy to be blinded by the beauty of medieval manuscript decoration, especially when faced with a collection as rich as that of St John’s College Library. However, decorative features in medieval manuscripts often had functional benefits as well as aesthetic appeal. Further, decoration can shed valuable light on reading practices, manuscript production, and cultural values in the medieval period.


A decorative initial is generally larger and more ornate than the surrounding text. Decorative initials can help to highlight important textual divisions, and so they made books easier to navigate as well as visually pleasing for medieval readers.

One of the most elaborate types of decorative initial is the historiated initial, which features a person or scene relevant to the text (if the scene is not relevant to the text, then the term inhabited initial can be used). A striking historiated initial can be found in MS 131, a Psalter and Hours of the Virgin produced in Italy c.1475. As the name suggests, a Psalter contains the Book of Psalms. The Hours of the Virgin is a series of prayers, readings, and psalms.

Oxford, St John’s College, MS 131, fol. 7r

This particular historiated initial is from the opening of Psalm 1, which begins: “Beatus uir” (blessed is the man). Inside the initial ‘B’ is an image of King David, to whom the Psalms are traditionally ascribed.

Arabesque initials are characterized by their interlacing foliage and curvilinear style. There is a particularly elaborate arabesque ‘A’ in MS 17, a computistical miscellany produced in England early in the twelfth century.

Zoomorphic initials have animal forms. For example, an initial ‘S’ is made to look like a dragon(?) in MS 20, a copy of Haymo (? of Auxerre) on Isaiah produced in England in the middle of the twelfth century. Pen-flourished initials have thin lines extending from the initial, usually in a different colour from the letter itself. There are many pen-flourished initials in MS 131, the Italian Psalter introduced above. The example below is a gold leaf ‘S’ on purple flourishing.

Left to right: Oxford, St John’s College, MS 17, fol. 123vb; Oxford, St John’s College, MS 20, fol. 2vb; Oxford, St John’s College, MS 131, fol. 11r

How did the process of adding decorative initials work? Scribes typically wrote the body of the text first, leaving spaces for decorative initials to be filled in later. Sometimes the scribe would also add a guide letter indicating what needed to be supplied.

St John’s College MS 56 gives us an excellent opportunity to see this process in action. This manuscript was produced in England at some point between 1450 and 1475, and the main text is John Lydgate’s Life of Our Lady. The scribe left space and a guide letter for a decorative ‘W’ at the start of Book II of the Life. However, for whatever reason, decorative initials were not ultimately added to this manuscript.

Oxford, St John’s College, MS 56, fol. 11v

Undoubtedly, MS 56 would have been more aesthetically pleasing if the planned initials had actually been added. Interestingly, however, the space and guide letter still serve a function: at a glance, it is immediately obvious where a new textual section begins.


Headings and titles were often written in red ink in medieval manuscripts, a decorative feature known as rubrication. The term derives from the Latin word rubricare, which means ‘to colour red’. The example below is from MS 5, which was produced in England c.1150–1175. The text is Hrabanus Maurus’ De universo, a kind of early encyclopaedia. In essence, the rubrication explains that we are at the end of book three and the start of book four. This is in fact incorrect because book five starts here. It was not uncommon for scribes and rubricators to make mistakes such as these.

Oxford, St John’s College, MS 5, fol. 30r

Of course, rubrication is not the only indicator of an important textual division on this page; the adjacent historiated initial serves the same purpose. If you look closely at the outer margin of the page below, you will see that there is a snippet of text written vertically. What is happening here? Rubrication was generally added after the main text had been copied, and so scribes sometimes left instructions to the rubricator indicating what text needed to be added. The idea was that these instructions would later be trimmed off. In the case of MS 5, however, the process went slightly awry and the ad hoc instructions are still partially visible. Examples like this one give us a valuable insight into the planning stages of medieval manuscript decoration—much like the guide letter in MS 56 above. Even with careful planning, however, mistakes could happen.


Line fillers are decorations that bridge the gap between the end of the text and the end of the line. A number of different line fillers can be seen in the example below from MS 204, a Psalter produced in Northern France in the mid-fourteenth century. Some of the line fillers here are geometric in style, while others might best be described as undulating. The use of gold in the line fillers complements the chrysography on the page, i.e. writing in gold. Note also the appearance of (small) pen-flourished initials here.

Oxford, St John’s College, MS 204, fol. 134r


Borders, much like decorative initials and rubrication, help the reader to navigate the text. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these various features can be found in combination. Two manuscripts from St John’s College, both produced in England, will demonstrate how borders could complement other aspects of decoration.    

MS 257, produced c.1500, contains the Statutes of England. The beginning of each reign warrants elaborate decoration, as we can see with Edward IV’s statutes below. Not only is there a historiated initial depicting the King enthroned, but this initial has also been integrated with a four-sided border of vines and flowers, known as a full vinet. Similar borders that enclose just three sides are known as demi-vinets. There is an excellent example at the beginning of MS 187 (produced c.1475). This manuscript contains the Hours of the Holy Spirit, a set of meditations. The partial border works in tandem with other decorative techniques to announce the start of the text: this page also has rubrication and a historiated initial depicting the dove of the Holy Spirit.

From left to right: Oxford, St John’s College, MS 257, fol. 86r; Oxford, St John’s College, MS 187, fol. 1r


The margins of the medieval page can sometimes house rather bizarre decorations known as drolleries or grotesques. For example, what are we to make of the strange creature sitting in one of the borders of MS 82? It appears to be a curious hybrid between a bearded man and a dog.

Oxford, St John’s College, MS 82, fol. 30r

The manuscript in question is an Hours of the Virgin with Psalter produced in Flanders c.1475. To a modern observer, eccentric images such as these might seem out of place in a devotional manuscript. Michael Camille, however, has argued that the margins offered important cultural spaces for confrontation and negotiation in medieval art (full bibliographic reference below). Decoration in medieval manuscripts is not merely something to admire—it can raise important questions about the relationship between the centre and the periphery, the serious and the light-hearted, the sacred and the profane.


Illustrations in medieval manuscripts are generally known as miniatures if they are not connected to any other feature of decoration, such as a border or a decorative initial. Unfortunately, miniatures (and indeed decorative initials) have sometimes been cut out of medieval manuscripts by overzealous readers and collectors. This appears to have happened to MS 94, an early-fifteenth century English manuscript that contains the Hours of the Virgin and Middle English devotional texts. There were once four quarter-page miniatures on folios 1v–2r, the first of which has been excised. It would have depicted the Trinity, yet now the ghostly hole in the vellum exposes an endpaper. The three remaining miniatures (from left to right) depict the Virgin as Queen of Heaven, the Annunciation, and Jesus emerging from the tomb.

Oxford, St John’s College, MS 94, fols 1v-2r

We can also note the appearance of rubrication on these pages, as well as the use of decorative initials. This particular style is known as champ initials (or simply champes). Some champes, like these ones, have ornamental extensions in the margin called spray. The ‘P’ for Pater in the far-right column has very little spray in comparison with the surrounding champes, likely because there was less space available here.


As I bring this blog post to a close, I would like to make two caveats. Firstly, my overview has been far from exhaustive; there are necessarily some features of decoration that I have not had room to cover. Secondly, I have focused on the higher end of the decorative spectrum. Not all medieval manuscripts are as heavily decorated as the ones shown here. Many have only rubrication, or indeed no decoration at all. Ironically, such manuscripts may actually have been far safer from the hands of vandals…


Beal, Peter. A Dictionary of English Manuscript Terminology 14502000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Brown, Michelle P. Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts: A Guide to Technical Terms, revised edition(Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum 2018).

Camille, Michael. Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art (London: Reaktion Books, 1992).

Clemens, Raymond, and Timothy Graham. Introduction to Manuscript Studies (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007).

Hanna, Ralph. A Descriptive Catalogue of the Western Medieval Manuscripts of St John’s College Oxford (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

Kerby-Fulton, Kathryn, Maidie Hilmo, and Linda Olson. Opening up Middle English Manuscripts: Literary and Visual Approaches (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012). Watson, Rowan. Illuminated Manuscripts and their Makers: An Account based on the Collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum (London: V&A Publications, 2003).


‘Decoration and Illumination’ (Manuscripts and Special Collections, University of Nottingham Website), at

Glossary accompanying Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts (The British Library), at

‘King David: Life and Soul of the Psalter’ (British Library Medieval Manuscripts Blog), at

Medieval Manuscripts in Oxford Libraries, at     

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