How modern book design was influenced by illustrated manuscripts

See how the 'graphic design' of the first 800 years of English manuscripts and inscriptions influences design today.

The layout of words and images on a page, and now too on websites, is not often something we think twice about or ever question. That’s because we’re still arranging pages similar to the first 800 years of written English literature.

Bodleian Library Publishing is hosting an exhibition about graphics on the medieval page beginning in December, and to coincide its published Designing English: Early Literature on the Page – an illustrated book exploring layout and design in manuscripts and inscriptions from the Anglo-Saxon to the early Tudor periods.

The book aims to explain our understanding of modern page design with more than 90 different images, a late eighth-century or early ninth-century Latin Gospel – painted in Ireland by Macregol, perhaps Abbot of Birr County Offaly glossed in the tenth century in English by two scribes – an almanac from Worcestershire in c1389, an illustration of deer antlers from a copy of Gaston Fébus’ French hunting manual Le livre de chasse (1387–8) (seen here), Witless, a widely circulated poem and overview of how English first came to be written on the page.

Image: Deer antlers, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

The artist of this hunting manual draws distinctions (literally, draws) between different ages of deer, which would be hard to identify without these pictures of the growth of their antlers.

Using books from the Bodleian Library itself at the University of Oxford – the largest university library system in the UK – in Old English and Middle English, Designing English shows how spacing was used on the page to clarify, present and interpret writing in English, and also examines inscriptions on objects, monuments, and buildings with writing elsewhere. It features bilingual books, format, ordinatio, decoration and reading aloud.

Focusing on the designers of these pages, you’ll be able to explore the craft, and intention of the scribes, painters and engravers and the technical process behind making the artefacts. Consider the degree to which the books and artefacts were formed by conscious design or under other pressures.

For almost a thousand years most texts had been written in Latin, and books in English were often improvisatory or homespun, but they were just as inventive and creative, says Bodleian Libraries.

Image: The Canterbury Tales, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

A copy made around the third quarter of the fifteenth century of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The
Canterbury Tales (1390s); at the division between The Tale of Sir Thopas and The Tale of Melibee, the initial, border, running head and title help the reader to navigate the text.

Advertisement. Article continues below

Designing English: Early Literature on the Page has been curated by Daniel Wakelin, Jeremy Griffiths Professor of Medieval English Palaeography in the Faculty of English, University of Oxford.

Buy Designing English: Early Literature on the Page for £30 from December 1.

You can explore the collections of the library online here. For more historical images to use in your project, check out our feature on the best sites for free vintage images and artworks

Image: Astronomical ‘volvelle’ diagram, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

While some authors and scribes put the data of astronomy and astrology in tables or diagrams, others made books with moving ‘volvelles’ like this: 3D disks revolving on string or a twist of parchment. That let readers make calculations (for the phases of the moon and time of night) for themselves, in more combinations than any one diagram could show.

Designing English: Graphics on the Medieval Page is a free exhibition that runs from December 1 to April 22 at the Bodleian Libraries’ Weston Library.

The exhibition explores materials used, such as animal skin, to the design of texts for different uses, like songs, plays or music. See medical and religious texts among practical manuals and rare examples of unfinished illustrations.

Image: Worcestershire almanac, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

An almanac from Worcestershire in c.1389, on sheets folded in different arrangements. There are many ways of telling time and predicting the future: the church’s liturgy, the farming year, the omens in thunder, astrology. The maker of this almanac shows them all, experimenting with words and pictures in various arrangements. And he stitches the shapes and folds the edges of sheets into varied designs for this varied information – a long strip of zodiac signs or the saints’ days in one giant calendar, for instance.

The Bodleian Libraries has been a legal deposit library for 400 years alongside 28 libraries across Oxford housing a total of 12 million printed items including rare books and manuscripts, maps, music, art and printed ephemera.

Image: Macregol Gospel, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

A late-eighth-century or early-ninth-century Latin Gospel, painted in Ireland by Macregol, perhaps abbot of Birr, County Offaly (d. 822), and glossed in the tenth century in English by two scribes.

Advertisement. Article continues below