Dating, Placing, and Illumination

By Stirnemann, Patricia | The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History, Annual 2008 | Go to article overview

Dating, Placing, and Illumination


Stirnemann, Patricia, The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History


Tilly de la Mare, who was a masterfully intuitive paleographer, used to play a parlor game with fellow scholars. She would pass out pictures from Manuscrits dates with the date and place hidden, and each person would have to reason out a dating and placing for his or her manuscript. Those who are interested in dating and placing play the same game of "reasoning out" every day. In this game, illumination in its many forms has a significant role, but one that is more relative than exact. The following remarks are intended more for the neophyte than the veteran, but like Denis Muzerelle and Olivier Legendre in this issue of the Journal of the Early Book Society, I would like to try to establish some ground rules, safeguards, and warnings and also pose some questions.

Ornament is even more important than miniatures as a tool for dating and placing manuscripts because of the pyramid of craftsmen. In this pyramid, scribes form the base; they are the most numerous. Miniaturists form the peak; they are the least numerous. Artists of penwork initials, decorated letters, line endings, and borders occupy the upper-central portion of the pyramid. Not only are they moderate in number but they appear in far more books, so they touch a wider range of literature. They are also creatures of habit, and their forms are relatively simple and easy to classify. Furthermore, since they intervene after the scribes, their work can testify to the temporal and geographic cohesion of a series of textual units written by different scribes but bound together in the same volume.

The study of ornament for dating and placing requires the creation and refinement of individual histories of forms for given locations and time spans, what the Germans call Motivengeschichte. In the study of pen and painted ornament, the notion of form obviously refers to specific motifs that serve as key indicators of time and place, but it also takes on a wider, collective meaning, that of specific motifs in context. When speaking of penwork initials, I am referring to the forms of the initials, the penwork forms that surround them, the relation of the penwork forms to each other and to the initials, their relation to the entire family of penwork forms in the book and in other books made at approximately the same time, and their relation to the script and layout of the different books. In other words, everything is relative.

Ornament is deceptively simple yet quite complicated. Ornamental forms are creations of repeated construction, which breeds a kind of automatic drawing, but the forms and motifs have lives. They are born; they develop or atrophy or deviate, change places, change contexts, die. We cannot always trace their genealogy or itinerary because the artists of ornament are almost always anonymous, and it is rare that we can group enough works together to give any one of them a biography.

As a rule of thumb, ornament tends to begin simply and become more and more complicated, whereupon it is reformed and simplified, having imploded under the weight of its own proliferation. The process then begins again. This is true of script, penwork, ornamental initials, line endings, and borders. This cyclical movement is indeed true of all art.

Why do certain centers produce immediately recognizable script and ornament? It is always a question of quantity. Monasteries with large homemade libraries operate largely in a vacuum and tend to create ingrown families of books with similar script, ornament, and display script that we can structure in time. Renewal is dependent upon new recruits who bring with them new ideas, or it can stem from books that are exemplars, gifts, or purchases. The same is true of book-producing cities that attract and then perpetuate a pool of craftsmen. Unlike the monastery, however, the commercial market tends to encourage standardization, because its artistry is priced per item and governed by customer expectation. …

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