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Title: Some Notes on Early Woodcut Books, with a Chapter on Illuminated Manuscripts
Author: Morris, Willam
Language: English
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Copyright, 1902
By H. M. O'Kane

[Illustration: From Terence's Eunuchus, Ulm, Conrad Dinckmut, 1486]

Notes on Woodcut Books


The invention of printing books, and the use of wood-blocks for book
ornament in place of hand-painting, though it belongs to the period of
the degradation of mediæval art, gave an opportunity to the Germans to
regain the place which they had lost in the art of book decoration
during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. This opportunity they
took with vigour and success, and by means of it put forth works which
showed the best and most essential qualities of their race. Unhappily,
even at the time of their first woodcut book, the beginning of the end
was on them; about thirty years afterwards they received the
Renaissance with singular eagerness and rapidity, and became, from the
artistic point of view, a nation of rhetorical pedants. An exception
must be made, however, as to Albert Dürer; for, though his method was
infected by the Renaissance, his matchless imagination and intellect
made him thoroughly Gothic in spirit. Amongst the printing localities
of Germany the two neighbouring cities of Ulm and Augsburg developed a
school of woodcut book ornament second to none as to character, and, I
think, more numerously represented than any other. I am obliged to
link the two cities, because the early school at least is common to
with the prolific birth of Augsburg.

It is a matter of course that the names of the artists who designed
these wood-blocks should not have been recorded, any more than those
of the numberless illuminators of the lovely written books of the
thirteenth and fourteenth centuries; the names under which the Ulm and
Augsburg picture-books are known are all those of their printers. Of
these by far the most distinguished are the kinsmen (their degree of
kinship is not known), Gunther Zainer of Augsburg and John Zainer of
Ulm. Nearly parallel with these in date are Ludwig Hohenwang and John
Bämler of Augsburg, together with Pflanzmann of Augsburg, the printer
of the first illustrated German Bible. Anthony Sorg, a little later
than these, was a printer somewhat inferior, rather a reprinter in
fact, but by dint of reusing the old blocks, or getting them recut and
in some cases redesigned, not always to their disadvantage, produced
some very beautiful books. Schoensperger, who printed right into the
sixteenth century, used blocks which were ruder than the earlier ones,
through carelessness, and I suppose probably because of the aim at
cheapness; his books tend towards the chap-book kind.

The earliest of these picture-books with a date is Gunther Zainer's
Golden Legend, the first part of which was printed in 1471; but, as
the most important from the artistic point of view, I should name:
first, Gunther Zainer's Speculum Humanæ Salvationis (undated but
probably of 1471); second, John Zainer's Boccaccio De Claris
Mulieribus (dated in a cut, as well as in the colophon, 1473); third,
the Æsop, printed by both the Zainers, but I do not know by which
first, as it is undated; fourth, Gunther Zainer's Spiegel des
Menschlichen lebens (undated but about 1475), with which must be taken
his German Belial, the cuts of which are undoubtedly designed by the
same artist, and cut by the same hand, that cut the best in the
Spiegel above mentioned; fifth, a beautiful little book, the story of
Sigismonda and Guiscard, by Gunther Zainer, undated; sixth, Tuberinus,
die geschicht von Symon, which is the story of a late German Hugh of
Lincoln, printed by G. Zainer about 1475; seventh, John Bämlers Das
buch der Natur (1475), with many full-page cuts of much interest;
eighth, by the same printer, Das buch von den 7 Todsünden und den 7
Tugenden (1474); ninth, Bämler's Sprenger's Rosencranz Bruderschaft,
with only two cuts, but those most remarkable.

To these may be added as transitional (in date at least), between the
earlier and the later school next to be mentioned, two really
characteristic books printed by Sorg:

(a) Der Seusse, a book of mystical devotion, 1482, and

(b) the Council of Constance, printed in 1483; the latter being, as
far as its cuts are concerned, mainly heraldic.

At Ulm, however, a later school arose after a transitional book,
Leonard Hol's splendid Ptolemy of 1482; of this school one printer's
name, Conrad Dinckmut, includes all the most remarkable books: to wit,
Der Seelen-wurzgarten (1483), Das buch der Weisheit (1485), the
Swabian Chronicle (1486), Terence's Eunuchus (in German) (1486).
Lastly, John Reger's Descriptio Obsidionis Rhodiæ (1496) worthily
closes the series of the Ulm books.

It should here be said that, apart from their pictures, the Ulm and
Augsburg books are noteworthy for their border and letter decoration.
The Ulm printer, John Zainer, in especial shone in the production of
borders. His De Claris Mulieribus excels all the other books of the
school in this matter; the initial S of both the Latin and the German
editions being the most elaborate and beautiful piece of its kind;
and, furthermore, the German edition has a border almost equal to the
S in beauty, though different in character, having the shield of
Scotland supported by angels in the corner. A very handsome border (or
half-border rather), with a zany in the corner, used frequently in J.
Zainer's books [by the by, in Gritsch's Quadragesimale, 1475, this
zany is changed into an ordinary citizen by means of an ingenious
piecing of the block], e.g., in the 1473 and 1474 editions of the
Rationale of Durandus, and, associated with an interesting historiated
initial O, in Alvarus, De planctu Ecclesiæ, 1474. There are two or
three other fine borders, such as those in Steinhowel's Büchlein der
Ordnung, and Petrarch's Griseldis (here shown), both of 1473, and in
Albertus Magnus, Summa de eucharistiæ Sacramento, 1474. A curious
alphabet of initials made up of leafage, good, but not very showy, is
used in the De Claris Mulieribus and other books. An alphabet of large
initials, the most complete example of which is to be found in Leonard
Hol's Ptolemy, is often used and is clearly founded on the
pen-letters, drawn mostly in red and blue, in which the Dutch
'rubrishers' excelled. [Another set of initials founded on twelfth
century work occurs in John Zainer's folio books, and has some
likeness to those used by Hohenwang of Augsburg in the Golden Bibel
and elsewhere, and perhaps was suggested by these, as they are not
very early (c. 1475), but they differ from Hohenwang's in being
generally more or less shaded, and also in not being enclosed in a
square.] This big alphabet is very beautiful and seems to have been a
good deal copied by other German printers, as it well deserved to be.
[The initials of Knoblotzer of Strassburg and Bernard Richel of Basel
may be mentioned.] John Reger's Caoursin has fine handsome
'blooming-letters,' somewhat tending toward the French style.

In Augsburg Gunther Zainer has some initial I's of strap-work without
foliation: they are finely designed, but gain considerably when, as
sometimes happens, the spaces between the straps are filled in with
fine pen-tracery and in yellowish brown; they were cut early in
Gunther's career, as one occurs in the Speculum Humanæ Salvationis, c.
1471, and another in the Calendar, printed 1471. These, as they always
occur in the margin and are long, may be called border-pieces. A
border occurring in Eyb, ob einem manne tzu nemen ein weib is drawn
very gracefully in outline, and is attached, deftly enough, to a very
good S of the pen-letter type, though on a separate block; it has
three shields of arms in it, one of which is the bearing of Augsburg.
This piece is decidedly illuminators' work as to design.

Gunther's Margarita Davidica has a border (attached to a very large P)
which is much like the Ulm borders in character. A genealogical tree
of the House of Hapsburg prefacing the Spiegel des Menschlichen
lebens, and occupying a whole page, is comparable for beauty and
elaboration to the S of John Zainer above mentioned; on the whole, for
beauty and richness of invention and for neatness of execution, I am
inclined to give it the first place amongst all the decorative pieces
of the German printers.

Gunther Zainer's German Bible of c. 1474 has a full set of pictured
letters, one to every book, of very remarkable merit: the foliated
forms which make the letters and enclose the figures being bold,
inventive, and very well drawn. I note that these excellent designs
have received much less attention than they deserve.

In almost all but the earliest of Gunther's books a handsome set of
initials are used, a good deal like the above mentioned Ulm initials,
but with the foliations blunter, and blended with less of geometrical
forms: the pen origin of these is also very marked.

Ludwig Hohenwang, who printed at Augsburg in the seventies, uses a
noteworthy set of initials, alluded to above, that would seem to have
been drawn by the designer with a twelfth century MS. before him,
though, as a matter of course, the fifteenth century betrays itself in
certain details, chiefly in the sharp foliations at the ends of the
scrolls, etc. There is a great deal of beautiful design in these
letters; but the square border round them, while revealing their
origin from illuminators' work, leaves over-large whites in the
backgrounds, which call out for the completion that the illuminator's
colour would have given them. Bämler and the later printer Sorg do not
use so much ornament as Gunther Zainer; their initials are less rich
both in line and design than Gunther's, and Sorg's especially have a
look of having run down from the earlier ones: in his Seusse, however,
there are some beautiful figured initials designed on somewhat the
same plan as those of Gunther Zainer's Bible.

Now it may surprise some of our readers, though I should hope not the
greatest part of them, to hear that I claim the title of works of art,
both for these picture-ornamented books as books, and also for the
pictures themselves. Their two main merits are first their decorative
and next their story-telling quality; and it seems to me that
these two qualities include what is necessary and essential in
book-pictures. To be sure the principal aim of these unknown German
artists was to give the essence of the story at any cost, and it may
be thought that the decorative qualities of their designs were
accidental, or done unconsciously at any rate. I do not altogether
dispute that view; but then the accident is that of the skilful
workman whose skill is largely the result of tradition; it has thereby
become a habit of the hand to him to work in a decorative manner.

To turn back to the books numbered above as the most important of the
school, I should call John Zainer's De Claris Mulieribus, and the
Æsop, and Gunther Zainer's Spiegel des Menschlichen lebens the most
characteristic. Of these my own choice would be the De Claris
Mulieribus, partly perhaps because it is a very old friend of mine,
and perhaps the first book that gave me a clear insight into the
essential qualities of the mediæval design of that period. The
subject-matter of the book also makes it one of the most interesting,
giving it opportunity for setting forth the mediæval reverence for the
classical period, without any of the loss of romance on the one hand,
and epical sincerity and directness on the other, which the flood-tide
of renaissance rhetoric presently inflicted on the world. No
story-telling could be simpler and more straightforward, and less
dependent on secondary help, than that of these curious, and, as
people phrase it, rude cuts. And in spite (if you please it) of their
rudeness, they are by no means lacking in definite beauty: the
composition is good everywhere, the drapery well designed, the lines
rich, which shows of course that the cutting is good. Though there is
no ornament save the beautiful initial S and the curious foliated
initials above mentioned, the page is beautifully proportioned and
stately, when, as in the copy before me, it has escaped the fury of
the bookbinder.

The great initial 'S' I claim to be one of the very best printers'
ornaments ever made, one which would not disgrace a thirteenth century
MS. Adam and Eve are standing on a finely-designed spray of poppy-like
leafage, and behind them rise up the boughs of the tree. Eve reaches
down an apple to Adam with her right hand, and with her uplifted left
takes another from the mouth of the crowned woman's head of the
serpent, whose coils, after they have performed the duty of making the
S, end in a foliage scroll, whose branches enclose little medallions
of the seven deadly sins. All this is done with admirable invention
and romantic meaning, and with very great beauty of design and a full
sense of decorative necessities.

As to faults in this delightful book, it must be said that it is
somewhat marred by the press-work not being so good as it should have
been even when printed by the weak presses of the fifteenth century;
but this, though a defect, is not, I submit, an essential one.

In the Æsop the drawing of the designs is in a way superior to that of
the last book: the line leaves nothing to be desired; it is thoroughly
decorative, rather heavy, but so firm and strong, and so obviously in
submission to the draughtman's hand, that it is capable of even great
delicacy as well as richness. The figures both of man and beast are
full of expression; the heads clean drawn and expressive also, and in
many cases refined and delicate. The cuts, with few exceptions, are
not bounded by a border, but amidst the great richness of line no lack
of one is felt, and the designs fully sustain their decorative
position as a part of the noble type of the Ulm and Augsburg printers;
this Æsop is, to my mind, incomparably the best and most expressive of
the many illustrated editions of the Fables printed in the fifteenth
century. The designs of the other German and Flemish ones were all
copied from it.

Gunther Zainer's Spiegel des Menschlichen lebens is again one of the
most amusing of woodcut books. One may say that the book itself, one
of the most popular of the Middle Ages, runs through all the
conditions and occupations of men as then existing, from the Pope and
Kaiser down to the field labourer, and, with full indulgence in the
mediæval love of formal antithesis, contrasts the good and the evil
side of them. The profuse illustrations to all this abound in
excellent pieces of naïve characterisation; the designs are very well
put together, and, for the most part, the figures well drawn, and
draperies good and crisp, and the general effect very satisfactory as
decoration. The designer in this book, however, has not been always so
lucky in his cutter as those of the last two, and some of the pictures
have been considerably injured in the cutting. On the other hand the
lovely genealogical tree above mentioned crowns this book with
abundant honour, and the best of the cuts are so good that it is
hardly possible to rank it after the first two. Gunther Zainer's
Speculum Humanæ Salvationis and his Golden Legend have cuts decidedly
ruder than these three books; they are simpler also, and less
decorative as ornaments to the page, nevertheless they have abundant
interest, and most often their essential qualities of design shine
through the rudeness, which by no means excludes even grace of
silhouette: one and all they are thoroughly expressive of the story
they tell. The designs in these two books by the by do not seem to
have been done by the same hand; but I should think that the designer
of those in the Golden Legend drew the subjects that 'inhabit' the
fine letters of Gunther's German Bible. Both seem to me to have a kind
of illuminator's character in them. The cuts to the story of Simon
bring us back to those of Spiegel des Menschlichen lebens; they are
delicate and pretty, and tell the story, half so repulsive, half so
touching, of 'little Sir Hugh,' very well. I must not pass by without
a further word on Sigismund and Guiscard. I cannot help thinking that
the cuts therein are by the same hand that drew some of those in the
Æsop; at any rate they have the same qualities of design, and are to
my mind singularly beautiful and interesting.

Of the other contemporary, or nearly contemporary, printers Bämler
comes first in interest. His book von den 7 Todsünden, etc., has cuts
of much interest and invention, not unlike in character to those of
Gunther Zainer's Golden Legend. His Buch der Natur has full-page cuts
of animals, herbs, and human figures exceedingly quaint, but very well
designed for the most part. A half-figure of a bishop 'in
pontificalibus' is particularly bold and happy. Rupertus a sancto
Remigio's History of the crusade and the Cronich von allen Konigen und
Kaisern are finely illustrated. His Rosencranz Bruderschaft above
mentioned has but two cuts, but they are both of them, the one as a
fine decorative work, the other as a deeply felt illustration of
devotional sentiment, of the highest merit.

The two really noteworthy works of Sorg (who, as aforesaid, was
somewhat a plagiaristic publisher) are, first, the Seusse, which is
illustrated with bold and highly decorative cuts full of meaning and
dignity, and next, the Council of Constance, which is the first
heraldic woodcut work (it has besides the coats-of-arms, several fine
full-page cuts, of which the burning of Huss is one). These armorial
cuts, which are full of interest as giving a vast number of curious
and strange bearings, are no less so as showing what admirable
decoration can be got out of heraldry when it is simply and well

To Conrad Dinckmut of Ulm, belonging to a somewhat later period than
these last-named printers, belongs the glory of opposing by his fine
works the coming degradation of book-ornament in Germany. The
Seelen-wurzgarten, ornamented with seventeen full-page cuts, is
injured by the too free repetition of them; they are, however, very
good; the best perhaps being the Nativity, which, for simplicity and
beauty, is worthy of the earlier period of the Middle Ages. The
Swabian Chronicle has cuts of various degrees of merit, but all
interesting and full of life and spirit: a fight in the lists with
axes being one of the most remarkable. Das buch der Weisheit (Bidpay's
Fables) has larger cuts which certainly show no lack of courage; they
are perhaps scarcely so decorative as the average of the cuts of the
school, and are somewhat coarsely cut; but their frank epical
character makes them worthy of all attention. But perhaps his most
remarkable work is his Terence's Eunuchus (in German), ornamented with
twenty-eight cuts illustrating the scenes. These all have backgrounds
showing (mostly) the streets of a mediæval town, which clearly imply
theatrical scenery; the figures of the actors are delicately drawn,
and the character of the persons and their action is well given and
carefully sustained throughout. The text of this book is printed in a
large handsome black-letter, imported, as my friend Mr. Proctor
informs me, from Italy. The book is altogether of singular beauty and

The Caoursin (1496), the last book of any account printed at Ulm, has
good and spirited cuts of the events described, the best of them being
the flight of Turks in the mountains. One is almost tempted to think
that these cuts are designed by the author of those of the Mainz
Breidenbach of 1486, though the cutting is much inferior.

All these books, it must be remembered, though they necessarily (being
printed books) belong to the later Middle Ages, and though some of
them are rather decidedly late in that epoch, are thoroughly 'Gothic'
as to their ornament; there is no taint of the Renaissance in them. In
this respect the art of book-ornament was lucky. The neo-classical
rhetoric which invaded literature before the end of the fourteenth
century (for even Chaucer did not quite escape it) was harmless
against this branch of art at least for more than another hundred
years; so that even Italian book-pictures are Gothic in spirit, for
the most part, right up to the beginning of the sixteenth century,
long after the New Birth had destroyed the building arts for Italy:
while Germany, whose Gothic architecture was necessarily firmer rooted
in the soil, did not so much as feel the first shiver of the coming
flood till suddenly, and without warning, it was upon her, and the art
of the Middle Ages fell dead in a space of about five years, and was
succeeded by a singularly stupid and brutal phase of that rhetorical
and academical art, which, in all matters of ornament, has held Europe
captive ever since.

[Illustration: From John Zainer's Griseldis, Ulm, 1473]

[Illustration: From Gunther Zainer's Speculum Humanæ Salvationis,
Augsburg, C. 1471]

[Illustration: From Gunther Zainer's Ingold, Das Golden Spiel,
Augsburg, 1472]

[Illustration: From John Zainer's Boccaccio de Claris Mulieribus, Ulm,

[Illustration: From Gunther Zainer's Epistles and Gospels, Augsburg,
C. 1474]

[Illustration: From Gunther Zainer's Spiegel D. Menschl. Lebens,
Augsburg, C. 1475]

[Illustration: From Gunther Zainer's Tuberinus, Geschicht von Dem
Heiligen Kind Symon, Augsburg, C. 1475]

[Illustration: From the Æsop]


Notes on Woodcut Books

I shall presently have the pleasure of showing you in some kind of
sequence a number of illustrations taken from books of the 15th, and
first years of the 16th centuries. But before I do so I wish to read
to you a few remarks on the genesis and the quality of the kind of art
represented by these examples, and the lessons which they teach us.

Since the earliest of those I have to show is probably not earlier in
date than about 1420, and almost all are more than fifty years later
than that, it is clear that they belong to the latest period of
Mediæval art, and one or two must formally be referred to the earliest
days of the Renaissance, though in spirit they are still Gothic. In
fact, it is curious to note the suddenness of the supplanting of the
Gothic by the neo-classical style in some instances, especially in
Germany: e.g., the later books published by the great Nuremberg
printer, Koburger, in the fourteen-nineties, books like the "Nuremberg
Chronicle," and the "Schatzbehalter," show no sign of the coming
change, but ten years worn, and hey, presto, not a particle of Gothic
ornament can be found in any German printed book, though, as I think,
the figure-works of one great man, Albert Dürer, were Gothic in

The most part of these books, in fact all of them in the earlier days
(the exceptions being mainly certain splendidly ornamented French
books, including the sumptuous books of "Hours"), were meant for
popular books: the great theological folios, the law books, the
decretals, and such like of the earlier German printers, though
miracles of typographical beauty, if ornamented at all, were
ornamented by the illuminator, with the single exception of
Gutenberg's splendid "Psalter," which gives us at once the first and
best piece of ornamental colour-printing yet achieved. Again, the
dainty and perfect volumes of the classics produced by the earlier
Roman and Venetian printers disdained the help of wood blocks, though
they were often beautifully illuminated, and it was not till after the
days of Jenson, the Frenchman who brought the Roman letter to
perfection, it was not till Italian typography began to decline, that
illustration by reproducible methods became usual; and we know that
these illustrated books were looked upon as inferior wares, and were
sold far cheaper than the unadorned pages of the great printers. It
must be noted in confirmation of the view that the woodcut books were
cheap books, that in most cases they were vernacular editions of books
already printed in Latin.

The work, then, which I am about to show you has first the
disadvantage of the rudeness likely to disfigure cheap forms of art in
a time that lacked the resource of slippery plausibility which helps
out cheap art at the present day. And secondly, the disadvantage of
belonging to the old age rather than the youth or vigorous manhood of
the Middle Ages. On the other hand, it is art, and not a mere trade
"article;" and though it was produced by the dying Middle Ages, they
were not yet dead when it was current, so that it yet retains much of
the qualities of the more hopeful period; and in addition, the
necessity of adapting the current design to a new material and method
gave it a special life, which is full of interest and instruction for
artists of all times who are able to keep their eyes open.

All organic art, all art that is genuinely growing, opposed to
rhetorical, retrospective, or academical art, art which has no real
growth in it, has two qualities in common: the epical and the
ornamental; its two functions are the telling of a story and the
adornment of a space or tangible object. The labour and ingenuity
necessary for the production of anything that claims our attention as
a work of art are wasted, if they are employed on anything else than
these two aims. Mediæval art, the result of a long unbroken series of
tradition, is preëminent for its grasp of these two functions, which,
indeed, interpenetrate then more than in any other period. Not only is
all its special art obviously and simply beautiful as ornament, but
its ornament also is vivified with forcible meaning, so that neither
in one or the other does the life ever flag, or the sensuous pleasure
of the eye ever lack. You have not got to say, Now you have your
story, how are you going to embellish it? Nor, Now you have made your
beauty, what are you going to do with it? For here are the two
together, inseparably a part of each other. No doubt the force of
tradition, which culminated in the Middle Ages, had much to do with
this unity of epical design and ornament. It supplied deficiencies of
individual by collective imagination (compare the constantly recurring
phases and lines in genuine epical or ballad poetry); it ensured the
inheritance of deft craftsmanship and instinct for beauty in the
succession of the generations of workmen; and it cultivated the
appreciation of good work by the general public. Now-a-days artists
work essentially for artists, and look on the ignorant layman with
contempt, which even the necessity of earning a livelihood cannot
force them wholly to disguise. In the times of art, they had no one
but artists to work for, since every one was a potential artist.

Now, in such a period, when written literature was still divine, and
almost miraculous to men, it was impossible that books should fail to
have a due share in the epical-ornamental art of the time.
Accordingly, the opportunities offered by the pages which contained
the wisdom and knowledge of past and present times were cultivated to
the utmost. The early Middle Ages, beginning with the wonderful
calligraphy of the Irish MSS., were, above all times, the epoch of
writing. The pages of almost all books, from the 8th to the 15th
century, are beautiful, even without the addition of ornament. In
those that are ornamented without pictures illustrative of the text,
the eye is so pleasured, and the fancy so tickled by the beauty and
exhaustless cheerful invention of the illuminator, that one scarcely
ventures to ask that the tale embodied in the written characters
should be further illustrated. But when this is done, and the book is
full of pictures, which tell the written tale again with the most
conscientious directness of design, and as to execution with great
purity of outline and extreme delicacy of colour, we can say little
more than that the only work of art which surpasses a complete
Mediæval book is a complete Mediæval building. This must be said, with
the least qualification, of the books of from about 1160 to 1300.
After this date, the work loses, in purity and simplicity, more than
it gains in pictorial qualities, and, at last, after the middle of the
15th century, illuminated books lose much of their individuality on
the ornamental side; and, though they are still beautiful, are mostly
only redeemed from commonplace when the miniatures in them are
excellent. But here comes in the new element, given by the invention
of printing, and the gradual shoving out of the scribe by the
punch-cutter, the typefounder, and the printer. The first printed
characters were as exact reproductions of the written ones as the new
craftsmen could compass, even to the extent of the copying of the
infernal abbreviations which had gradually crept into manuscript; but,
as I have already mentioned, the producers of serious books did not at
first supply the work of the illuminator by that of the woodcutter,
either in picture work or ornament. In fact, the art of printing
pictures from wood blocks is earlier than that of printing books, and
is undoubtedly the parent of book illustration. The first woodcuts
were separate pictures of religious subjects, circulated for the
edification of the faithful, in existing examples generally coloured
by hand, and certainly always intended to be coloured. The earliest of
these may be as old as 1380, and there are many which have been dated
in the first half of the 15th century; though the dates are mostly
rather a matter of speculation. But the development of book
illustration proper by no means puts an end to their production. Many
were done between 1450 and 1490, and some in the first years of the
16th century; but the earlier ones only have any special character in
them. Of these, some are cut rudely and some timidly also, but some
are fairly well cut, and few so ill that the expression of the design
is not retained. The design of most of these early works is mostly
admirable, and as far removed from the commonplace as possible; many,
nay most of these cuts, are fine expressions of that pietism of the
Middle Ages which has been somewhat veiled from us by the strangeness,
and even grotesqueness which has mingled with it, but the reality of
which is not doubtful to those who have studied the period without
prejudice. Amongst these may be cited a design of Christ being pressed
in the wine press, probably as early as the end of the 14th century,
which may stand without disadvantage beside a fine work of the 13th

The next step towards book illustration brings us to the block-books,
in which the picture-cuts are accompanied by a text, also cut on wood;
the folios being printed by rubbing off on one side only. The subject
of the origin of the most noteworthy of these books, the "Ars
Moriendi," the "Lord's Prayer," the "Song of Solomon," the "Biblia
Pauperum," the "Apocalypse," and the "Speculum Humanæ Salvationis,"
has been debated, along with the question of the first printer by
means of movable types, with more acrimony than it would seem to need.
I, not being a learned person, will not add one word to the
controversy; it is enough to say that these works were done somewhere
between the years 1430 and 1460, and that their style was almost
entirely dominant throughout the Gothic period in Flanders and
Holland, while it had little influence on the German wood-cutters. For
the rest, all these books have great merit as works of art; it would
be difficult to find more direct or more poetical rendering of the
events given than those of the "Speculum Humanæ Salvationis;" or more
elegant and touching designs than those in the "Song of Solomon." The
cuts of the "Biblia Pauperum" are rougher, but full of vigour and
power of expression. The "Ars Moriendi" is very well drawn and
executed, but the subject is not so interesting. The "Apocalypse" and
"The Lord's Prayer" are both of them excellent, the former being
scarcely inferior in design to the best of the Apocalypse picture MSS.
of the end of the thirteenth century.

We have now come to the wood-cuts which ornament the regular books of
the Gothic period, which began somewhat timidly. The two examples in
Germany and Italy, not far removed from each other in date, being the
"Historie von Joseph, Daniel, Judith, and Esther," printed by Albrecht
Pfister, at Bamberg, in 1462; and the "Meditations of Turrecremata (or
Torquemada)," printed at Rome by Ulric Hahn, in the year 1467, which
latter, though taken by the command of the Pope from the frescoes of a
Roman Church (Sta. Maria Sopra Minerva) are as German as need be, and
very rude in drawing and execution, though not without spirit. But,
after this date, the school of wood-carving developed rapidly; and, on
the whole, Germany, which had been very backward in the art of
illumination, now led the new art. The main schools were those of Ulm
and Augsburg, of Maintz, of Strasburg, of Basel, and of Nuremberg, the
latter being the later. The examples which I shall presently have the
pleasure of showing you are wholly of the first and the last, as being
the most representative, Ulm and Augsburg of the earlier style,
Nuremberg of the later. But I might mention, in passing, that some of
the earlier Basel books, notably Bernard Richel's "Speculum Humanæ
Salvationis," are very noteworthy; and that, in fourteen-eighties,
there was a school at Maintz that produced, amongst other books, a
very beautiful "Herbal," and Breydenbach's "Peregrinatio," which,
amongst other merits, such as actual representations of the cities on
the road to the Holy Land, must be said to contain the best executed
woodcuts of the Middle Ages. Of course, there were many other towns in
Germany which produced illustrated books, but they may be referred in
character to one or other of these schools. In Holland and Flanders
there was a noble school of woodcutting, delicately decorative in
character, and very direct and expressive, being, as I said, the
direct descendant of the block-books. The name of the printer who
produced most books of this school was Gerard Leeuw (or Lion), who
printed first at Gouda, and afterwards at Antwerp. But Colard Mansion,
of Bruges, who printed few books, and was the master of Caxton in the
art of printing, turned out a few very fine specimens of illustrated
books. One of the most remarkable illustrated works published in the
Low Countries--which I mention for its peculiarity--is the "Chevalier
Deliberé" (an allegorical poem on the death of Charles the Rash), and
I regret not being able to show you a slide of it, as it could not be
done satisfactorily. This book, published at Schiedam in 1500,
decidedly leans towards the French in style, rather than the native
manner deduced from the earlier block-books.

France began both printing and book illustration somewhat late, most
of its important illustrated works belonging to a period between the
years 1485 and 1520; but she grasped the art of book decoration with a
firmness and completeness very characteristic of French genius; and
also, she carried on the Gothic manner later than any other nation.
For decorative qualities, nothing can excel the French books, and many
of the picture-cuts, besides their decorative merits, have an
additional interest in the romantic quality which they introduce: they
all look as if they might be illustrations to the "Morte D'Arthur" or

In Italy, from about 1480 onward, book illustrations became common,
going hand-in-hand with the degradation of printing, as I said before.
The two great schools in Italy are those of Florence and Venice. I
think it must be said that, on the whole, the former city bore away
the bell from Venice, in spite of the famous Aldine "Polyphilus," the
cuts in which, by the way, are very unequal. There are a good many
book illustrations published in Italy, I should mention, like those to
Ulric Hahn's "Meditations of Turrecremata," which are purely German in
style; which is only to be expected from the fact of the early
printers in Italy being mostly Germans.

I am sorry to have to say it, but England cannot be said to have a
school of Gothic book illustration; the cuts in our early printed
books are, at the best, French or Flemish blocks pretty well copied.
This lamentable fact is curious, considered along with what is also a
fact: that in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the English
were, on the whole, the best book decorators.

I have a few words to say yet on the practical lessons to be derived
from the study of these works of art; but before I say them, I will
show you, by your leave, the slides taken from examples of these
woodcuts. Only I must tell you first, what doubtless many of you know,
that these old blocks were not produced by the graver on the end
section of a piece of fine-grained wood (box now invariably), but by
the knife on the plank section of pear-tree or similar wood--a much
more difficult feat when the cuts were fine, as, e.g., in
Lützelberger's marvellous cuts of the "Dance of Death."

[Mr. Morris then showed a series of lantern slides, which he described
as follows:]

1. This is taken from the "Ars Moriendi," date about 1420. You may
call it Flemish or Dutch, subject to raising the controversy I
mentioned just now.

2. The "Song of Solomon," about the same date.

3. From the first illustrated book of the Ulm school. The Renowned and
Noble Ladies of Boccaccio. It begins with Adam and Eve. The initial
letter is very characteristic of the Ulm school of ornament. The trail
of the serpent forms the S, and in the knots of the tail are little
figures representing the seven deadly sins.

4. Another page from the same book. "Ceres and the Art of
Agriculture." One of the great drawbacks to wood block printing in
those times was the weakness of the presses. Their only resource was
to print with the paper very wet, and with very soft packing, so that
the block went well into the paper; but many books, and this amongst
others, have suffered much from this cause.

5. Another page of the same book. The date is 1473.

6. This is from an Augsburg book. "Speculum Humanæ Vitæ," written by a
Spanish bishop, which was a great favourite in the Middle Ages. It
gives the advantages and disadvantages of all conditions of life. This
block contains a genealogical tree of the Hapsburg family, and is an
exceedingly beautiful piece of ornamental design, very well cut.

7. From the same book; representing not the "Five Alls," with which
you are familiar, but the "Four Alls;" the gentleman, the merchant,
the nobleman, and the poor man, who is the support of the whole lot,
with his toes coming through his shoes. This is a fine specimen of
printing of Gunther Zainer. The initial letters are very handsome in
all these Augsburg books.

8. There is a picture of the Unjust Lawyer, from the same book, taking
money from both sides. The date of this book is about 1475.

9. From "Æsop's Fables," a reproduction of the "Ulm Æsop," by Antony
Sorg, of Augsburg (but the pictures are printed from the same blocks),
the "Fly on the Wheel," and the "Jackdaw and Peacock." These designs
for the Æsop pictures went all through the Middle Ages, with very
little alteration.

10. "King Stork and King Log," from the same book.

11. This is from the Table-book of Bidpay, by Conrad Dinckmuth, who
carried on the early glories of the Ulm school in a later generation;
about 1486.

12. The Parrot in a Cage, with the ladies making a sham storm to cause
the poor bird to be put to death. Dinckmuth did some very remarkable
work: one of the best of which was a German translation of the
"Eunuchus" of Terence; another the "Chronicle of the Swabians."

13. The "Schatzbehalter," published by Koburger, of Nuremberg, 1491.
Although so late, there is no trace of any classical influence in the
design. The architecture, for instance, is pure late German

14. From the same book, "Joshua Meeting the Angel," and "Moses at the
Burning Bush."

15. A page, or part of a page, from the celebrated Nuremberg
Chronicle, printed by Koburger in 1493. This is, in a way, an
exception to the rule of illustrated books being in the vernacular, as
it is in Latin; but there is also a German edition.

16. Another specimen of the same book.

17. From a curious devotional book, "Der Seusse," printed by Antony
Sorg, at Augsburg, about 1485.

18. Another page, which shows the decorative skill with which they
managed their diagram pictures.

19. An example of the Flemish school, and characteristic of the design
of white and black, which is so often used both by the Florentine and
the Flemish wood-cutters. It is from a life of Christ, published by
Gerard Leeuw in 1487.

20. Another page from the same book. There are certainly two artists
in this book, and the one on the left appears to be the more pictorial
of the two; though his designs are graceful, he is hardly as good as
the rougher book illustrator. Gerard Leeuw had a very handsome set of
initial letters, a kind of ornament which did not become common until
after 1480.

21. Another one from the same book.

22. From another Flemish book, showing how the style runs through them
all. St. George and the Dragon; from "A Golden Legend," 1503.

23. One of French series, from a very celebrated book called "La Mer
des Histoires." It begins the history of France a little before the
deluge. It is a most beautiful book, and very large. One would think
these borders were meant to be painted, as so many "Books of Hours"
were, but I have never seen a copy which has had the borders painted,
though, as a rule, when the borders are meant to be painted, it is not
common to find one plain.

24. Another page from the same book; but the slide does not do justice
to it. I will here mention that one failing of the French publishers
was to make one picture serve for several purposes. The fact is, they
were more careful of decoration than illustration.

25. Another French book by a French printer, the "Aubre des
Batailles," which illustrates that curious quality of romance which
you find in the French pictures. It is true that many of these cuts
were not made for this book; in fact, they were done for another
edition of the Chevalier Delibré, the Flemish edition of which I have
mentioned before, for some have that name on them.

26. Another from the same book.

27. Another good example of the French decorative style. It is from
Petrarch's "Remedy of either Fortune." This is the author presenting
his book to the king, and is often used in these French books.

28. From another French book of about the same date (the beginning of
the sixteenth century), "The Shepherd's Calendar," of which there were
a great number of English editions, even as late as 1656, the cuts
being imitated from these blocks.

29. A page from one of the beautiful "Books of Hours," which were
mostly printed on vellum, every page of which is decorated more or
less with this sort of picture. Here is the calendar, with the signs
of the Zodiac, the work of the months, the saints that occur in it,
and games and sports; on the other side is the Sangraal. This book is
throughout in the same style--wholly Gothic. It was printed in 1498,
and about twenty years after these service-books became very much
damaged by having Renaissance features introduced from German artists
of the time.

30. Another page from the same book. The Resurrection, and the raising
of Lazarus are the principal subjects.

31. Nominally an Italian woodcut; the book was printed at Milan, but
this cut is probably of German design, if not execution.

32. From a very beautiful book in the Florentine style. One of the
peculiarities is the copious use of white out of black.

33. Another from the same--"The Quatre reggio," 1508.

34. Another, very characteristic of the Florentine style, with its
beautiful landscape background.

35. This is one in which the ornament has really got into the
Renaissance style. It is a sort of "Lucky Book," with all sorts of
ways of finding your fortune, discovering where your money has gone,
who is your enemy, and so on. One of the Peschia books, actually
printed at Milan, but of the Venetian school.

36. From a book of the Venetian style, about the same date. I show it
as an example of the carefulness and beauty with which the artists of
the time combined the border work with the pictures. There is
something very satisfactory in the proportion of black and white in
the whole page.

Now you have seen my examples, I want once more to impress upon you
the fact that these designs, one and all, while they perform their
especial function--the office of telling a tale--never forget their
other function of decorating the book of which they form a part; this
is the essential difference between them and modern book
illustrations, which I suppose make no pretence at decorating the
pages of the book, but must be looked upon as black and white pictures
which it is convenient to print and bind up along with the printed
matter. The question, in fact, which I want to put to you is this,
Whether we are to have books which are beautiful as books; books in
which type, paper, woodcuts, and the due arrangement of all these are
to be considered, and which are so treated as to produce a harmonious
whole, something which will give a person with a sense of beauty real
pleasure whenever and wherever the book is opened, even before he
begins to look closely into the illustrations; or whether the
beautiful and inventive illustrations are to be looked on as separate
pictures imbedded in a piece of utilitarianism, which they cannot
decorate because it cannot help them to do so. Take, as an example of
the latter, Mr. Fred. Walker's illustrations to "Philip" in the
"Cornhill Magazine," of the days when some of us were young, since I
am inclined to think that they are about the best of such
illustrations. Now they are part of Thackeray's story, and I don't
want them to be in any way less a part of it, but they are in no
respect a part of the tangible printed book, and I do want them to be
that. As it is, the mass of utilitarian matter in which they are
imbedded is absolutely helpless and dead. Why it is not even ugly--at
least not vitally ugly.

Now the reverse is the case with the books from which I have taken the
examples which you have been seeing. As things to be looked at they
are beautiful, taken as a whole; they are alive all over, and not
merely in a corner here and there. The illustrator has to share the
success and the failure, not only of the wood-cutter, who has
translated his drawing, but also of the printer and the mere
ornamentalist, and the result is that you have a book which is a
visible work of art.

You may say that you don't care for this result, that you wish to read
literature and to look at pictures; and that so long as the modern
book gives you these pleasures you ask no more of it; well, I can
understand that, but you must pardon me if I say that your interest in
books in that case is literary only, and not artistic, and that
implies, I think, a partial crippling of the faculties; a misfortune
which no one should be proud of.

However, it seems certain that there is growing up a taste for books
which are visible works of art, and that especially in this country,
where the printers, at their best, do now use letters much superior in
form to those in use elsewhere, and where a great deal of work
intending to ornament books reasonably is turned out; most of which,
however, is deficient in some respect; which, in fact, is seldom
satisfactory unless the whole page, picture, ornament, and type is
reproduced literally from the handiwork of the artist, as in some of
the beautiful works of Mr. Walter Crane. But this is a thing that can
rarely be done, and what we want, it seems to me, is, not that books
should sometimes be beautiful, but that they should generally be
beautiful; indeed, if they are not, it increases the difficulties of
those who would make them sometimes beautiful immensely. At any rate,
I claim that illustrated books should always be beautiful, unless,
perhaps, where the illustrations are present rather for the purpose of
giving information than for that of giving pleasure to the intellect
through the eye; but surely, even in this latter case, they should be
reasonably and decently good-looking.

Well, how is this beauty to be obtained? It must be by the harmonious
coöperation of the craftsmen and artists who produce the book. First,
the paper should be good, which is a more important point than might
be thought, and one in which there is a most complete contrast between
the old and the modern books; for no bad paper was made till about the
middle of the sixteenth century, and the worst that was made even then
was far better than what is now considered good. Next, the type must
be good, a matter in which there is more room for excellence than
those may think who have not studied the forms of letters closely.
There are other matters, however, besides the mere form of the type
which are of much importance in the producing of a beautiful book,
which, however, I cannot go into tonight, as it is a little beside my
present subject. Then, the mere ornament must be good, and even very
good. I do not know anything more dispiriting than the mere platitudes
of printers' ornaments--trade ornaments. It is not uncommon now-a-days
to see handsome books quite spoiled by them--books in which plain,
unadorned letters would have been far more ornamental.

Then we come to the picture woodcuts. And here I feel I shall find
many of you differing from me strongly; for I am sure that such
illustrations as those excellent black and white pictures of Fred.
Walker could never make book ornaments. The artist, to produce these
satisfactorily, must exercise severe self-restraint, and must never
lose sight of the page of the book he is ornamenting. That ought to be
obvious to you, but I am afraid it will not be. I do not think any
artist will ever make a good book illustrator, unless he is keenly
alive to the value of a well-drawn line, crisp and clean, suggesting a
simple and beautiful silhouette. Anything which obscures this, and
just to the extent to which it does obscure it, takes away from the
fitness of the design as a book ornament. In this art vagueness is
quite inadmissible. It is better to be wrong than vague in making
designs which are meant to be book ornaments.

Again, as the artists' designs must necessarily be reproduced for this
purpose, he should never lose sight of the material he is designing
for. Lack of precision is fatal (to take up again what I have just
advanced) in an art produced by the point of the graver on a material
which offers just the amount of resistance which helps precision. And
here I come to a very important part of my subject, to wit, the
relation between the designer and the wood-engraver; and it is clear
that if these two artists do not understand one another, the result
must be failure; and this understanding can never exist if the
wood-engraver has but to cut servilely what the artist draws
carelessly. If any real school of wood-engraving is to exist again,
the wood-cutter must be an artist translating the designer's drawing.
It is quite pitiable to see the patience and ingenuity of such clever
workmen, as some modern wood-cutters are, thrown away on the literal
reproduction of mere meaningless scrawls. The want of logic in artists
who will insist on such work is really appalling. It is the actual
touches of the hand that give the speciality, the final finish to a
work of art, which carries out in one material what is designed in
another; and for the designer to ignore the instrument and material by
which the touches are to be done, shows complete want of understanding
of the scope of reproducible design.

I cannot help thinking that it would be a good thing for artists who
consider designing a part of their province (I admit there are very
few such artists) to learn the art of wood-engraving, which, up to a
certain point, is a far from difficult art; at any rate for those who
have the kind of eyes suitable for the work. I do not mean that they
should necessarily always cut their own designs, but that they should
be able to cut them. They would then learn what the real capacities of
the art are, and would, I should hope, give the executing artists
genuine designs to execute, rather than problems to solve. I do not
know if it is necessary to remind you that the difficulties in cutting
a simple design on wood (and I repeat that all designs for book
illustrations should be simple) are very much decreased since the
fifteenth century, whereas instead of using the knife on the plank
section of the wood, we now use the graver on the end section.
Perhaps, indeed, some of you may think this simple wood-cutting
contemptible, because of its ease; but delicacy and refinement of
execution are always necessary in producing a line, and this is not
easy, nay it is not possible to those who have not got the due
instinct for it; mere mechanical deftness is no substitute for this

Again, as it is necessary for the designer to have a feeling for the
quality of the final execution, to sympathise with the engravers
difficulties, and know why one block looks artistic and another
mechanical; so it is necessary for the engraver to have some capacity
for design, so that he may know what the designer wants of him, and
that he may be able to translate the designer, and give him a genuine
and obvious cut line in place of his pencilled or penned line without
injuring in any way the due expression of the original design. Lastly,
what I want the artist--the great man who designs for the humble
executant--to think of is, not his drawn design, which he should look
upon as a thing to be thrown away when it has served its purpose, but
the finished and duly printed ornament which is offered to the public.
I find that the executants of my humble designs always speak of them
as "sketches," however painstaking they may be in execution. This is
the recognised trade term, and I quite approve of it as keeping the
"great man" in his place, and showing him what his duty is, to wit, to
take infinite trouble in getting the finished work turned out of hand.
I lay it down as a general principle in all the arts, where one
artist's design is carried out by another in a different material,
that doing the work twice over is by all means to be avoided as the
source of dead mechanical work. The "sketch" should be as slight as
possible, i.e., as much as possible should be left to the executant.

A word or two of recapitulation as to the practical side of my
subject, and I have done. An illustrated book, where the illustrations
are more than mere illustrations of the printed text, should be a
harmonious work of art. The type, the spacing of the type, the
position of the pages of print on the paper, should be considered from
the artistic point of view. The illustrations should not have a mere
accidental connection with the other ornament and the type, but an
essential and artistic connection. They should be designed as a part
of the whole, so that they would seem obviously imperfect without
their surroundings. The designs must be suitable to the material and
method of reproduction, and not offer to the executant artist a mere
thicket of unnatural difficulties, producing no result when finished,
save the exhibition of a tour de force. The executant, on his side,
whether he be the original designer or someone else, must understand
that his business is sympathetic translation, and not mechanical
reproduction of the original drawing. This means, in other words, the
designer of the picture-blocks, the designer of the ornamental blocks,
the wood-engraver, and the printer, all of them thoughtful,
painstaking artists, and all working in harmonious coöperation for the
production of a work of art. This is the only possible way in which
you can get beautiful books.


Notes on Illuminated Books

The Middle Ages may be called the epoch of writing par excellence.
Stone, bronze, wooden rune-staves, waxed tablets, papyrus, could be
written upon with one instrument or another; but all these--even the
last, tender and brittle as it was--were but makeshift materials for
writing on; and it was not until parchment and vellum, and at last
rag-paper, became common, that the true material for writing on, and
the quill pen, the true instrument for writing with, were used. From
that time till the period of the general use of printing must be
considered the age of written books. As in other handicrafts, so also
in this, the great period of genuine creation (once called the Dark
Ages by those who had forgotten the past, and whose ideal of the
future was a comfortable prison) did all that was worth doing as an
art, leaving makeshifts to the period of the New Birth and the
intelligence of modern civilisation.

Byzantium was doubtless the mother of mediæval calligraphy, but the
art spread speedily through the North of Europe and flourished there
at an early period, and it is almost startling to find it as we do in
full bloom in Ireland in the seventh century. No mere writing has been
done before or since with such perfection as that of the early Irish
ecclesiastical books; and this calligraphy is interesting also, as
showing the development of what is now called by printers "lower-case"
letter, from the ancient majuscular characters. The writing is, I must
repeat, positively beautiful in itself, thoroughly ornamental; but
these books are mostly well equipped with actual ornament, as
carefully executed as the writing--in fact, marvels of patient and
ingenious interlacements. This ornament, however, has no relation in
any genuine Irish book to the traditional style of Byzantium, but is
rather a branch of a great and widespread school of primal decoration,
which has little interest in the representation of humanity and its
doings, or, indeed, in any organic life, but is contented with the
convolutions of abstract lines, over which it attains to great
mastery. The most obvious example of this kind of art may be found in
the carvings of the Maoris of New Zealand; but it is common to many
races at a certain stage of development. The colour of these Irish
ornaments is not very delightful, and no gold appears in them.
[Example: "The Book of Kells," Trinity College, Dublin, &c.]

This Irish calligraphy and illumination was taken up by the North of
England monks; and from them, though in less completeness, by the
Carlovingian makers of books both in France and even in Germany; but
they were not content with the quite elementary representation of the
human form current in the Irish illuminations, and filled up the gap
by imitating the Byzantine picture-books with considerable success
[Examples: Durham Gospels, British Museum, Gospels at Boulogne, &c.],
and in time developed a beautiful style of illumination combining
ornament with figure-drawing, and one seat of which in the early
eleventh century was Winchester. [Example: Charter of foundation of
Newminster at Winchester, British Museum.] Gold was used with some
copiousness in these latter books, but is not seen in the
carefully-raised and highly-burnished condition which is so
characteristic of mediæval illumination at its zenith.

It should be noticed that amongst the Byzantine books of the earlier
period are some which on one side surpass in mere sumptuousness all
books ever made; these are written in gold and silver on vellum stained
purple throughout. Later on again, in the semi-Byzantine-Anglo-Saxon or
Carlovingian period, are left us some specimens of books written in
gold and silver on white vellum. This splendour was at times resorted
to (chiefly in Italy) in the latter half of the fifteenth century.

The just-mentioned late Anglo-Saxon style was the immediate forerunner
of what may be called the first complete mediæval school, that of the
middle of the twelfth century. Here the change for the better is
prodigious. Apart from the actual pictures done for explanation of the
text and the edification of the "faithful," these books are decorated
with borders, ornamental letters, &c., in which foliage and forms
human, animal, and monstrous are blended with the greatest daring and
most complete mastery. The drawing is firm and precise, and it may be
said also that an unerring system of beautiful colour now makes its
appearance. This colour (as all schools of decorative colour not more
or less effete) is founded on the juxtaposition of pure red and blue
modified by delicate but clear and bright lines and "pearlings" of
white, and by the use of a little green and spaces of pale pink and
flesh-colour, and here and there some negative greys and ivory
yellows. In most cases where the book is at all splendid, gold is very
freely used, mostly in large spaces--backgrounds and the like--which,
having been gilded over a solid ground with thick gold-leaf, are
burnished till they look like solid plates of actual metal. The effect
of this is both splendid and refined, the care with which gold is laid
on, and its high finish, preventing any impression of gaudiness. The
writing of this period becoming somewhat more definitely "Gothic,"
does not fall short of (it could not surpass) that of the previous

From this time a very gradual change--during which we have to note
somewhat more of delicacy in drawing and refinement of colour--brings
us to the first quarter of the thirteenth century; and here a
sundering of the styles of the different peoples begins to be obvious.
Throughout the twelfth century, though there is a difference, it is
easier to distinguish an English or French book from a German or
Italian by the writing than by the illumination; but after 1225 the
first glance on opening the book will most often cry out at you,
German, Italian, or French-English. For the rest, the illuminations
still gain beauty and delicacy, the gold is even more universally
brilliant, the colour still more delicious. The sub-art of the
rubricator, as distinguished from the limner and the scribe, now
becomes more important, and remains so down to the end of the
fifteenth century. Work of great fineness and elegance, drawn mostly
with pen, and always quite freely, in red and blue counterchanged, is
lavished on the smaller initials and other subsidiaries of the pages,
producing, with the firm black writing and the ivory tone of the
vellum, a beautiful effect, even when the more solid and elaborate
illumination is lacking. During this period, apart from theological
and philosophical treatises, herbals, "bestiaries," &c., the book most
often met with, especially when splendidly ornamented, is the Psalter,
as sung in churches, to which is generally added a calendar, and
always a litany of the saints. This calendar, by the way, both in this
and succeeding centuries, is often exceedingly interesting, from the
representations given in it of domestic occupations. The great initial
B (Beatus vir qui non) of these books affords an opportunity to the
illuminator, seldom missed, of putting forth to the full his powers of
design and colour.

The last quarter of the thirteenth century brings us to the climax of
illumination considered apart from book-pictures. Nothing can exceed
the grace, elegance, and beauty of the drawing and the loveliness of
the colour found at this period in the best-executed books; and it
must be added that, though some work is rougher than other, at this
time there would appear, judging from existing examples, to have been
no bad work done. The tradition of the epoch is all-embracing and
all-powerful, and yet no single volume is without a genuine
individuality and life of its own. In short if all the other art of
the Middle Ages had disappeared, they might still claim to be
considered a great period of art on the strength of their ornamental

In the latter part of the thirteenth century we note a complete
differentiation between the work of the countries of Europe. There are
now three great schools: the French-Flemish-English, the Italian, and
the German. Of these the first is of the most, the last of the least,
importance. As to the relations between England and France, it must be
said that, though there is a difference between them, it is somewhat
subtle, and may be put thus: of some books you may say, This is
French; of others, This is English; but of the greater part you can
say nothing more than, This belongs to the French-English school. Of
those that can be differentiated with something like certainty, it may
be said that the French excel specially in a dainty and orderly
elegance, the English specially in love of life and nature, and there
is more of rude humour in them than in their French contemporaries;
but he must be at once a fastidious and an absolute man who could say
the French is better than the English or the English than the French.

The Norwich Psalter, in the Bodleian Library; the Arundel, Queen
Mary's, and Tennison Psalters, in the British Museum, are among the
finest of these English books: nothing can surpass their fertility of
invention, splendour of execution, and beauty of colour.

This end of the thirteenth century went on producing splendid psalters
at a great rate; but between 1260 and 1300 or 1320 the greatest
industry of the scribe was exercised in the writing of Bibles,
especially pocket volumes. These last, it is clear, were produced in
enormous quantities, for in spite of the ravages of time many
thousands of them still exist. They are, one and all, beautifully
written in hands necessarily very minute, and mostly very prettily
illuminated with tiny figure-subjects in the initials of each book.
For a short period at the end of this and the beginning of the next
century many copies of the Apocalypse were produced, illustrated
copiously with pictures, which give us examples of serious Gothic
designs at its best, and seem to show us what wall-pictures of the
period might have been in the North of Europe.

The fourteenth century, the great mother of change, was as busy in
making ornamental books as in other artistic work. When we are once
fairly in the century a great change is apparent again in the style.
It is not quite true to say that it is more redundant than its
predecessor, but it has more mechanical redundancy. The backgrounds to
the pictures are more elaborated; sometimes diapered blue and red,
sometimes gold most beautifully chased with dots and lines. The
borders cover the page more; buds turn into open leaves; often
abundance of birds and animals appear in the borders, naturalistically
treated (and very well drawn); there is more freedom, and yet less
individuality in this work; in short the style, though it has lost
nothing (in its best works) of elegance and daintiness--qualities so
desirable in an ornamental book--has lost somewhat of manliness and
precision; and this goes on increasing till, towards the end of the
century, we feel that we have before us work that is in peril of an
essential change for the worse. [In France "Bibles Historiaux," i.e.,
partial translations of the Bible, very copiously pictured, were one
of the most noteworthy productions of the latter half of the century.
The Bible taken in the tent of the French King at the battle of
Poitiers, now in the British Museum, is a fine example.] The
differentiation, too, betwixt the countries increases; before the
century is quite over, England falls back in the race [though we have
in the British Museum some magnificent examples of English
illumination of the end of the fourteenth and beginning of the
fifteenth centuries, e.g., "The Salisbury Book;" a huge Bible (Harl.
i., e. ix.) ornamented in a style very peculiarly English. The
Wyclifite translation of the Bible at the Museum is a good specimen of
this style], and French-Flanders and Burgundy come forward, while
Italy has her face turned toward Renaissance, and Germany too often
shows a tendency toward coarseness and incompleteness, which had to be
redeemed in the long last by the honesty of invention and fitness of
purpose of her woodcut ornaments to books. Many most beautiful books,
however, were turned out, not only throughout the fourteenth, but even
in the first half of the fifteenth century. ["The Hours of the Duke of
Berry" (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris), and the "Bedford Hours," in
the British Museum, both French, are exceedingly splendid examples of
this period.]

The first harbinger of the great change that was to come over the
making of books I take to be the production in Italy of most
beautifully-written copies of the Latin classics. These are often very
highly ornamented; and at first not only do they imitate (very
naturally) the severe hands of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, but
even (though a long way off) the interlacing ornament of that period.
In these books the writing, it must be said, is in its kind far more
beautiful than the ornament. There were so many written and pictured
books produced in the fifteenth century that space quite fails me to
write of them as their great merits deserve. In the middle of the
century an invention, in itself trifling, was forced upon Europe by
the growing demand for more and cheaper books. Gutenberg somehow got
hold of punches, matrices, the adjustable mould, and so of cast
movable type; Schoeffer, Mentelin, and the rest of them caught up the
art with the energy and skill so characteristic of the mediæval
craftsman. The new German art spread like wildfire into every country
of Europe; and in a few years written books had become mere toys for
the immensely rich. Yet the scribe, the rubricator, and the
illuminator died hard. Decorated written books were produced in great
numbers after printing had become common; by far the greater number of
these were Books of Hours, very highly ornamented and much pictured.
Their style is as definite as any of the former ones, but it has now
gone off the road of logical consistency; for divorce has taken place
between the picture-work and the ornament. Often the pictures are
exquisitely-finished miniatures belonging to the best schools of
painting of the day; but often also they are clearly the work of men
employed to fill up a space, and having no interest in their work save
livelihood. The ornament never fell quite so low as that, though as
ornament it is not very "distinguished," and often, especially in the
latest books, scarcely adds to the effect on the page of the miniature
to which it is a subsidiary.

But besides these late-written books, in the first years of printing,
the rubricator was generally, and the illuminator not seldom, employed
on printed books themselves. In the early days of printing the big
initials were almost always left for the rubricator to paint in in red
and blue, and were often decorated with pretty scroll-work by him; and
sometimes one or more pages of the book were surrounded with ornament
in gold and colours, and the initials elaborately finished in the same

The most complete examples of this latter work subsidiary to the
printed page are found in early books printed in Italy, especially in
the splendid editions of the classics which came from the presses of
the Roman and Venetian printers.

By about 1530 all book illumination of any value was over, and thus
disappeared an art which may be called peculiar to the Middle Ages,
and which commonly shows mediæval craftsmanship at its best, partly
because of the excellence of the work itself, and partly because that
work can only suffer from destruction and defacement, and cannot,
like mediæval buildings, be subjected to the crueller ravages of


      *      *      *      *      *      *

Transcriber's note:

Minor typographical errors have been corrected without note.

Irregularities and inconsistencies in the text have been retained
as printed.

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