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19.06.01 Brown, Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts

19.06.01 Brown, Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts

Fifty years have passed since L. M. J. Delaissé's pioneering article, "Towards a History of the Mediaeval Book" (Divinitas 11 [1967], 423-435), which argued for a meticulous, quasi-archeological approach to the material structure of the codex. Art historians specializing in manuscript illumination, who had practiced such an approach even prior to Delaissé, and in any case long before the "material turn" in the humanities became fashionable, have been advocating these methods for decades. A milestone in this regard is Michelle P. Brown's handy and reliable glossary of terms pertaining to manuscript illumination, published, amazingly, a quarter of a century ago, halfway between us and Delaissé. Those who use this compact publication for teaching and reference will know that the information it contains remains generally up-to-date, as the world of codicological terminology changes little. Still, the fact that this handbook continues to be reprinted to meet ongoing demand has encouraged Elizabeth C. Teviotdale and Nancy K. Turner to undertake its revision.

This is not a total re-write, but rather a selective update with a fresh array of full-color illustrations drawn almost exclusively from the collections of the J. Paul Getty Museum. While the previous edition relied jointly on examples from Los Angeles and the British Library, the new version consolidates the source of images, as it is now solely a Getty publication rather than a joint editorial venture. The images, it should be stressed, are both more numerous than in the previous edition, and exceptionally well chosen to illustrate the phenomena described. Some appear to have been taken especially for this project, displaying books in their full, three-dimensional reality in order to showcase elements like chains, clasps, sewing cords, goffering (here called Gauffering, which appears to be more widely used in British English), bookmarks, and the like.

Aside from the new illustrations, the most significant update to the handbook consists of the terms related to technical analysis that have been added, drawing on Turner's world-leading expertise in this area. This has indeed been an area of rapid growth over the past several decades. In addition to Turner and her colleagues' numerous contributions to the field, the recent Colour: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts exhibition held at the Fitzwilliam Museum (2016), together with the associated catalogue and conference proceedings publications, demonstrate the strides that have been made in applying new technologies to better understand the production of manuscripts as a whole and miniature paintings in particular. Hence, Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts now includes entries for DNA Analysis (for the identification of species used for parchment), Reflectance Spectroscopy and Raman Spectroscopy (for the noninvasive determination of pigments in specific zones), Microscopy (denoting the use of a microscope for identifying pigments), Multispectral and Hyperspectral Imaging (for rendering underdrawings or erasures visible), Proteomics (for the identification of proteins in organic materials), and X-ray fluorescence (for identifying and mapping the use of metals and heavier pigments).

The description of these technologies in the context of such a handbook is to be welcomed, even if the terms relate to analytical techniques rather than to features of specific books. It might have been useful to also include definitions of some more traditional methodologies frequently applied to manuscripts, such as Connoisseurship or Textual criticism, to balance the selection of terms. A few specific modern tools for analysis are also missing, including the Densitometer, used so productively to determine historical patterns of use by Kathryn Rudy in "Dirty Books" (Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art 2:1-2 [Summer 2010] DOI: 10.5092/jhna.2010.2.1.1) and Image Registration, which has been employed to detect the ongoing flaking of pigment in some manuscripts (see Stephen Parsons, C. Seth Parker, and W. Brent Seales, "The St. Chad Gospels: Diachronic Manuscript Registration and Visualization," Manuscript Studies 2.2 [2017], Regardless, the elucidation of the most prominent new scientific approaches here is most welcome, as it will help to familiarize students with these practices, which can often appear impenetrable to humanists. Some of these techniques are still in their infancy, at least with regard to their deployment for medieval manuscripts: only a very small number of institutions currently have the equipment and staff necessary to perform such analyses. However, one can hope that by familiarizing students with them, more and more upcoming curators, librarians, and art historians will begin to agitate for their implementation in a broader range of collections.

As well as the new scientific terms, a few omissions from the glossary have been rectified in this new edition. Oak gall, Quill pen, and Treasure binding have thankfully been added. The inclusion of Textile curtain is probably the result of recent studies of this phenomenon, which demonstrate that the practice was more widespread than initially imagined, and imparted special meaning on the uncovered images. The similar yet distinct terms Evangelary (meaning Gospel book) and Evangelistary (meaning Lectionary) have been clarified. Where native English words are lacking, several more loans terms have been included. Cadelle, manicula, and stemma, derived from French, Latin, and Greek respectively, are now present. However, some terms used relatively frequently in the discussion of gilding--Mosaic gold, for example, denoting an ersatz tin sulfide mixture, or Punchwork, the decorative tooling of gold surfaces--are still absent, or are buried within the alphabetical entries for other terms. In a few cases, a term is defined by one of its uses, but an alternative meaning might cause confusion: Register, for an art historian, is undoubtedly a horizontal tier in a pictorial composition (as defined here), but for incunabulists it might equally be a printed list of quire signatures included at the end of a book. Roll is of course included, but the often-conflated sister-term Scroll, and the distinction between perpendicular and parallel text,are not discussed. Likewise Primer can be used denote a type of Book of Hours, as it is briefly defined here, but it is more specifically one greatly reduced in complexity or produced specifically as an elementary textbook for teaching children.

These are minor grievances indeed. Overall, this book remains an invaluable resource for the teaching of the study of illuminated manuscripts. The authors of this excellent mise-à-jour should be thanked for their contribution to what will remain a standard introductory and reference resource. The widespread distribution and low cost enabled by Getty Publications will be helpful in consolidating a common baseline of technical terms for English-language scholars and students. Additionally, an almost entirely updated bibliography demonstrates the extent to which the past couple of decades have seen an enormous growth in the number of authoritative publications dedicated to the topic. A more exhaustive guide to technical terms, hindered by its lack of illustrations but having the benefit of showing equivalent terms in the major European languages and even Arabic, remains available through the Codicologia platform of the Institut de recherche et d'histoire des textes ( And yet, this online resource lacks the ease-of-use, unified scholarly voice, and beautiful production values that make the present publication so indispensable.