Illuminated Manuscripts

Illuminated manuscript was a method of communication during the medieval era in which book-like text was decorated using the likes of silver, gold, and decorative designs (Campbell et al., 2017). The main purpose of illuminated manuscript was to communicate an idea using visual aid or simple language due to the high illiteracy rates at the time and a lack of method to mass communicate such as the printing press.

The original purpose of illuminated manuscript was to create a visual aid for religious ceremony and practice. These were estimated to have originated to have come into existence between the 4th and 7th century (Sheposh 2016). The work was put on the material known as Vellum (made of sheep and calf skin) and in order to catch the eye and convey the message of the manuscript, intricate eye-popping visual art of sorts and rather simple language was used. The main reason for this was the high illiteracy rates at the time of the manuscript’s release. The earliest works were used specifically for the uses of Christian scripture, however as time went on the purpose of the art shifted and began to vary more than just spiritual uses, due to the dense visual imagery and carefully constructed geometric designs the rich took interest in manuscripts as an art. This is when they began to transcend just simple scripture and become a highly sought-after commodity. This led to the use of manuscripts for upper class education and information with the rise of university and other higher education (Sheposh 2016).

The popularity of these manuscripts continued through much the medieval era and lasted until the mid-15th century with the invention of the Guttenberg printing press. The main reason why the manuscript died with the invention of the printing press was the relatively arduous process and long amount of time it took to create an illuminated manuscript. When a customer would order a manuscript from a bookseller the process took two years to make by hand (one 512 page manuscript even took 5 to 10 years to complete), required the work of both an illustrator and also cost approximately several thousand dollars in today’s money (Sheposh 2016) in comparison to the low price and rapid ease of the of the printing press.

The importance of illuminated manuscripts to the entirety of media is high, as is it is widely considered one of the most influential pieces of communication and media in our society. Illuminated manuscript was really one of the first mass consumable communication in our world. Sure, there was the advent of papyrus and parchment based scripts (Campbell et al., 2016) but there none of those pieces of communication were put on quite as large of a scale as the production of illuminated manuscript. Their use as not only a way to convey their intended message but also become it’s own form of art in the meantime encapsulates the overall meaning of our modern media, and this was well over a millennium ago before our preconceptions of modern media.


Campbell, R. (2017). Media & Culture: mass communication in a digital age. S.l.: Bedford Books, St Martin.

Sheposh, R. (2016). Illuminated manuscript. Salem Press Encyclopedia.

Written by Alex Abbott, 2017