Tiny dragons and pretty pigs: Decoration in medieval Welsh manuscripts

Collections - Posted 07-06-2021

During lockdown, many of us have perhaps taken the opportunity to be more creative, whether that might be through art, crafts, or maybe learning a new skill such as a musical instrument. But if you were a medieval scribe, perhaps your only opportunity to channel your inner Van Gogh was by adding some colour to that manuscript you were working on. Scribes could add decoration to their work in a number of ways, so how about taking a look at some of the manuscripts that can be found in our digital collections at NLW for artistic inspiration?

Manuscripts were usually made of sheepskin or goatskin which was cleaned, stretched and dried to create parchment sheets. These sheets would be folded to create a quire (or gathering); four sheets made eight leaves (or bifolia) each with a recto and a verso side depending on the flesh or hair side of the parchment. To create a manuscript volume, several quires would be bound together. This was an expensive and time-consuming process, and the need to avoid wasting parchment coupled with natural imperfections in the material meant that manuscript pages were rarely perfectly even. So before writing on a page, the scribe would usually prick holes in the outer edges and rule each page with horizontal and vertical lines to maintain consistency. Spaces would be left for the insertion of decorations, as the scribe and the decorator were not always the same person.

Numerous different colours were used for decoration, which could be made from natural sources varying in rarity and cost. The ink used for text in medieval Wales could be oak gall-based (or gallotannic) ink, which presented a dark brown hue, but many other colours could be made from powder bases, such as red and orange from red lead (or minium), white from white lead, green from copper salts, and blue from lapis lazuli. These would all be mixed with a binding agent such as gum Arabic. Don’t try this at home though – many of these paints were poisonous! They were also expensive, so manuscript decoration was a sign of a wealthy patron.

The most common and simplest form of decoration was probably rubrication, or red lettering. This can be seen in many medieval Welsh manuscripts and was used for capital letters and headings. The Hendregadredd manuscript, containing Welsh poetry and the earliest parts of which date from the late 13th– early 14th centuries, demonstrates this, using red ink for poem titles, capital letters, and patterned space-fillers.

Rubricated letters were often alternated with another colour, which in the above instance was blue. But blue ink was expensive, so green was often substituted as a cheaper alternative. The rubricator of the 13th-century Llyfr Aneirin used green instead of blue, and additionally alternated green and red for its space-fillers.

Capital letters could also contain intricate drawings. If you like tiny dragons, you’ll love the zoomorphic letters in Peniarth 540B, a 12th-century Welsh-produced copy of Bede’s De natura rerum.

In some instances, the scribe really went for it and drew capital letter decorations along the entire page, as is the case with NLW MS 3024C, a 14th-century copy of the works of Gerald of Wales. The decorator of this manuscript even drew a bearded face – a contender for ‘Movember’ perhaps? (f. 42v).

If tiny dragons aren’t your thing, other beasts also feature. Scribes sometimes wrote the first words of the next page in the bottom right hand corner of the previous page or column as a guide. These catchwords could be decorated, with those in the 13th-century Black Book of Carmarthen (which contains a collection of Welsh poetry), decorated with a lion (f. 4r) and a rather shocked-looking sea creature (f. 49r).

But decoration wasn’t just limited to the mythical – everyday scenes could also be represented. The 13th-century Peniarth MS 28, a Latin manuscript of the Laws of Hywel Dda, contains several colour illustrations depicting a number of scenes enacted from the Welsh laws. The manuscript contains colourful figures including images of snappily-dressed court officials and animals of value such as deer, horses, and oxen, but the prize for the best illustration must surely go to the pig (f. 25r), drawn complete with curly tail!

When we think of the medieval period, we perhaps think of muted colours and faded pages. But tiny dragons and law-abiding pigs aside, we can see how these medieval Welsh manuscripts are not only texts, they are a showcase for the creativity and skills of their decorators and scribes even centuries after they were made. So the next time you pick up a pen or paintbrush, why not take inspiration from our manuscripts, and unleash your inner medieval scribe!

Lucie Hobson
Assistant Archivist

Further reading:

  • Daniel Huws, Medieval Welsh Manuscripts (Cardiff, 2000)
  • Daniel Huws, Peniarth 28: Darluniau o Lyfr Cyfraith Hywel Dda = Illustrations from a Welsh lawbook (Aberystwyth, 2008)
  • Myriah Williams, ‘The Black Book of Carmarthen: Minding the Gaps’, National Library of Wales Journal 36.4 (2017), 357-375
  • Gerald Morgan, ‘The Book of Aneirin and Welsh manuscript prickings’, Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies 20.1 (1962), 12-17
  • J. J. G. Alexander, Medieval Illuminators and their Methods of Work (New Haven/London, 1992)
  • Daniel V. Thompson, The Materials of Medieval Painting (London, 1936)

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