January 26, 2004

Modern Illumination (Presentation)

The major art form for literature has for centuries been the book. In ancient times, written language was displayed on scrolls of papyrus, a type of paper made from the papyrus plant. It wasn't until the Medieval Era that books became a popular way of displaying literature. Once books became popular, they stayed popular, surviving and changing throughout the centuries as technology expanded and tastes changed. Today's books, for instance, are vastly different from the books of the Medieval Age. In this presentation, I'll look at how books are designed and bound, both in the modern day and in the Medieval Era.


Medieval books were written on vellum or parchment. Both are specially treated animal skins that were stretched taut and trimmed into the proper shape. Here is an example of a modern recreation of vellum. The vellum was ruled, sometimes with colored inks, so that the text would be level and straight.The text itself was written by hand with a quill, or a feather from a goose or a swan. The quill's nib, or the sharpened point, created the shape of the text. This often varied, depending on the shape and angle of the nib.

This is vastly different from modern day printing. Modern books are printed using a mechanical press onto paper made from pulped wood. The paper is cut mechanically.

Illumination and Illustration

Illumination is a technique used in Medieval illustrations. Medieval books were generally filled with illustrations in the margins and the body of the text. These illustrations were often illuminated by using silver and gold leaf. The background of these illustrations is usually solid gold or silver leaf, while the foreground and content of the illustrations were made of pigments mixed with egg whites to form a kind of tempera paint.

Modern books often aren't illustrated. Children's books and some young adult books are illustrated, usually with photo-printed paper or reproductions of paintings. Some books have dividers on chapter pages, usually a small graphic that doesn't take up much of the page. For the most part, modern books remain unillustrated, with the exception of cover art. Modern books pride themselves on their cover art, which is usually bright and eye-catching to attract a buyer. I'll go into this again in Binding.


In Medieval binding, the parchment were folded and nested into sections called "gatherings". These were sewn together with leather thongs and then attatched to wooden boards that formed the front and back covers of the book. The covers were then covered with dyed fabric or leather, and decorated with metalwork on the corners of the covers and on the center of the front cover.

Modern binding is a bit different. The printed pages are trimmed and folded, and then attatched to an adhesive spine, which may be sewn to add further support. The spine is attatched to the cover, which is geither made of board or cardstock, depending on whether the book is a hard or paper back. If the binding is a hardback, the cover comes with a dustjacket, that contains the cover art and spine art, along with a short summary on one flap and a brief introduction to the author on the other flap. The back cover also contains art and information. On a paperback book, the cover art and summary are printed straight onto the cardstock and covered with a laminate to make it long lasting.


Medieval books were archived only in the houses or manors of the very wealthy or in the monasteries where they were created. In monasteries, books were kept in Scriptoriums, where they could be copied by hand and distributed to other churches or patrons.

Modern books are archived in libraries, such as the Library of Congress in the United States, or smaller libraries that spend many years expanding their collections. These books are often on public display and can be borrowed for reading from a public library. Some libraries do not lend their books to the public, but do allow the public to view them.

Here is a more in-depth look at the creation of a Medieval text.

Here are some examples of modern bindings and cover art.

Posted by RachelCrump at January 26, 2004 12:17 AM

Thanks for this handy collection of links, Rachel!

Posted by: Dennis G. Jerz at January 28, 2004 01:35 PM

dude this rocks man ive been studying this for forty years and still live with my parents. I like children

Posted by: Mike Hunt at March 23, 2004 09:37 AM
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