31 Days of Medieval Manuscripts (2015) · Medieval Art and Architecture

Initials and Capital Letters – Day Six of Medieval Manuscripts

Decorated initial ‘S'(anctissimo) at the beginning of Bede’s life of Cuthbert. (BL. MS. Arundel 222 f.1)

Today, I want to take a look at capital letters in manuscripts. In medieval manuscripts, capital letters, termed “initials”, often served functions similar to line breaks, chapters, or subheadings. They divided up the text, making it easier to read and indicating where important sections began and ended. There are many different ways that initials can be differentiated from each other. They may be in different colored ink than the surrounding text, or they can be written in different styles of lettering. In fact, quite a few modern-day fonts have their origins in the world of manuscripts.

Larger, colored initials set off the beginnings of different sections in this manuscript page. Also note that some lines are completely in red ink. (BL. M#. Harley 447 f. 53v).

They can be larger than the surrounding text as well as larger or smaller than other initials; the size of the letter starting a paragraph or section can be taken to indicate that section’s importance relative to other sections. Initials are often highly-detailed and elaborately-decorated. Some take up most of a page.

In this selection from the famed Lindisfarne Gospels (BL Cotton MS Nero D IV), the elaborate Greek letters chi and rho take up much of the page. The other letters are colorful as well. By Eadfrith (Lindisfarne Gospels, c 700 AD) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Finally, key sections of a text often commence with large initials framing vignettes relating to the subject matter of the section – these are called “historiated initials”. Scenes from the Old Testament and New Testament, the life of Christ, and saints or other important religious figures were common subjects for historiated initials in sacred texts.

Historiated initial B from a 13th century illuminated illuminated manuscript: Legenda Aurea (Keble MS 49, fol 162r). It depicts Bernard of Clairvaux, founder of the Cistercian order. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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