by Genevieve (originally published in the Baelfyr, the ID newsletter)
For modern people, one of the most evocative symbols of the medieval period is the illuminated manuscript. It represents so many features of medieval life: the power of the church; very limited literacy; crafts and manual skills central to everyday life; the concentration of wealth and artistry into a few precious portable treasures.
Of the many skills practiced by our medieval forebears, the scribal arts are among the most accessible and tangible of arts that modern people can try for themselves. Where we can only imagine many aspects of medieval life (working on a 12th century farm, or serving in a 15th century army), learning calligraphy and illumination is entirely within our reach.
Compared to medieval scribes, we have easy access to the tools and materials of calligraphy and illumination. That precious grounding of literacy, rare in period, is commonplace in our time. And with the Internet, we have both ample sources of instruction, and numberless examples of original medieval artworks to guide our efforts.
While many scribes aspire to working in a dedicated studio with ample daylight, you can start scribing at your kitchen table. You don’t have to spend a lot of money on paint or tools – a little goes a long way! Any active scribe can help you shop if you ask them. To learn illumination, you can make an excellent start with £15-25 or Euro worth of materials. Your main limitation is your investment of time and energy.
Learning new skills and making beautiful things is an intensely rewarding and satisfying experience. But you’ll only find out for yourself if you try.
‘…I have terrible handwriting?’
Handwriting, good or bad, is a learned and practiced skill – as is calligraphy. Both skills require pens, but that’s where the similarity ends.
The medieval scribes who produced beautiful works by hand did not write that way all the time! They learned a range of styles, and they took more or less time and care over their works depending on their purpose. If you remember doing a ‘good copy’ of an essay in school, then you already know how much writing can vary.
So ‘terrible handwriting’ does not determine whether or not you can learn calligraphy – you get to decide.
Being left-handed is no bar to being an illuminator: many splendid artists are lefties.
For calligraphy, lefties have two options: turn the page and work on an angle, to avoid smearing the ink, or learn calligraphy right-handed.
Calligraphy is a new skill. Short of an injury or impediment to one hand or another, you can learn a new skill in either hand. I (Genevieve) opted to learn calligraphy right handed, and continue to sketch and paint with my left hand.
‘…I can’t draw?’
Drawing isn’t an instinct; it too is a learned skill, and is far more methodical than most non-artists realise. There’s huge scope for creativity, but it’s supported by the many small step-by-step processes to produce a final result. You’ll be pleasantly surprised to find how ‘routine’ many drawing tasks are; those routines provide the structure for your own style to build on.
‘…I’m just not creative?’
We now think of artists of people who break conventions and shock viewers. Medieval artists, however, worked within firm conventions and familiar structures. We know a lot about the rare artists who developed new techniques, like the Limbourg brothers, Holbein, Hilliard, and Durer, but for each one of them there were hundreds of now-anonymous copy artists and draughtsmen who made beautiful artifacts, working within the conventions of their art.
So it’s ok if you don’t think you’re creative; much of medieval art is copying the work of others, and learning the distinctive features of each period’s style. And there’s a real joy to be found, seeing something beautiful emerge on a page, through your own efforts.
Learning a new skill can be daunting, especially as an adult. We tend to think it’s ok for kids to have less-than-perfect art, but somehow feel a bit embarrassed that as adults, that we’re not proficient from the outset.
But one of the strengths of the Society is its informal networks of enthusiastic artisans; it’s the most welcoming environment to learn new skills I’ve ever encountered. SCA artisans give their experience and their advice freely, and few would turn away a keen (or even a nervous) novice.
If you want to learn either calligraphy or illumination, feel free to let me know. I’ll be bringing materials and examples to events for the coming season, which you’re welcome to try out for yourself. And I can try to put you in touch with scribes I know who live near you.
A short book list for novice scribes
No single book can teach you everything about an art, but it can introduce you to the basics. This list includes two books each about calligraphy and illumination, and are good starting points for instructions. They are well illustrated, and intended for ordinary readers without a formal art background. They have all been in print for awhile, so check your library, or your favourite used bookstores.
Medieval calligraphy, its history and technique, by Marc Drogin. Dover Publications, 1980.
The Art of Calligraphy, a practical guide to the skills and techniques, by David Harris. DK Publishing, Inc., New York, 1995. Harris is also author of The Calligraphy Bible, a ringbound book with dozens of sample hands, and much of the same instructional content, but not in colour.
The Illuminated Alphabet, by Timothy Noad and Patricia Seligman, Running Press Book Publishers, Quarto Inc., London, 1994.
Paint Your Own Illuminated Letters: A Fascinating Guide to the History of Illumination with More Than 25 Practical Projects, by Stefan Oliver. BookSales Inc, 1999
NB: the colour schemes suggested for illuminations in these books are not necessarily medieval, but are designed to appeal to general readers. I recommend them for the quality of their instruction (what order to paint colours in, which brushes to use) rather than their suggested palettes. Looking at original manscripts, either in person or online, will give you a better sense of the different palettes available to artists at different periods.