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Illuminated Manuscript Page Layout

The Size of a Manuscript Page

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Today, page layout is usually done on computers and printing surface is whatever you can get hold of, at a reasonable price. The layout of a page is largely determined by the pre-sets of whatever computer software you are using. You can burrow down through a variety of sub-menus and change the parameters to an extent and, if you have sophisticated software, you can devise all sorts of ingenious effects. You are also limited by what the printer can actually print. That is probably about as far as it goes. Prior to the Renaissance and the invention of printing, circa 15th Century, page design was, necessarily, very different.
The earliest 'books' to have survived are scrolls (vellum, parchment or papyrus usually) and carved or painted stone. The earliest books in a form that we recognise today date from circa 5th Century. The overall dimensions of the page were limited by the natural processes of growth and the supply of raw materials. In the case of a manuscript on vellum (cow or deer skin), the number and size of pages is determined by such factors as : how many calves have local farmers produced and slaughtered? What age were they at time of slaughter and, consequently, how big had they grown? How healthy was the animal? What is the farmer charging per skin? How many can you afford? How many skins do you have the resources to prepare?

The manuscripts that survive can only give us a general idea of the overall page size and whether there was any significance in the measurements and proportions of the pages. Medieval manuscripts particularly have been rebound and trimmed more than once and hence any such information has been lost. One of the few manuscripts to survive in its original binding is the Cuthbert Gospel of St John. This doesn't give us an awful lot to go on. 

So, a combination of practical and theological considerations is perhaps the best approach. The size of a calfskin will vary. You will need to leave sufficient margins to allow for trimming to a uniform size at the binding stage. A skin is also irregular in outline. You can clearly see where the head, tail and legs used to be and the skin is much tougher in these places. So your page size will need to avoid these areas. Another consideration is whether you want the skin of the spine of the animal to run horizontally or vertically across your page. Horizontal is more stable and the page will not move and cockle as much. This is, though,very wasteful of vellum. 

As vellum is so expensive (and has always been), most people will probably squeeze the largest page or number of pages out of an average size skin that they can. It is then possible to tweak the vertical and horizontal dimensions to accord with a particular proportion or number symbolism. The most common numbers are given in the table below. We can't be sure that all of the meanings and symbolism are absolutely correct, but they are likely.

Triangle, triskeles
pyramid (tetrahedron)
the Holy Trinity; Spirit: the creative basis for all form, fire
Square, rectangle, cube, octahedron
The Evangelists; the Earth:life, air and intellect
Pentagon, 5 pointed star, decagon, icosahedron, dodecahedron.
Divine Man and Earthly Man:soul, water, ether (the 5th unifying element)
Hexagon, 6 pointed star,
Days of Creation:Sun, time (which give and destroy)
Heptagon, 7 pointed star
Sabbath; Mary:the 7th Day, when creation was realised
Octagon, 8 pointed star
Ascension; completionthe Risen Christ
Square root 2, Generation:initial manifestation, root, growth.
root 2 is linked to the number ‘ 3 ‘ in so far as the  pyramid, or tetrahedron, has a side length of  root 2
Square root 3, Formation:unites two worlds, Word manifest, Christ enters in.  
root 3 is linked to both the hexagon and Vesica Piscis, both of which incorporate the measure root 3 .
Square root 5, Phi

Phi = root 5 + 1
Regeneration:rebirth, resurrection. Root 5 is linked to Phi, the Golden Proportion, which is symbolic of Christ.
root 5 is linked to the number ‘ 5 ‘ in so far as the icosahedron has a side length of  phi.
table: Diane George