Illuminated Manuscript Page Layout

The Size of a Manuscript Page

Today, page layout is usually done on computers and the 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.


Preparation of Vellum

When the pages have been cut to size, they need to be prepared before any calligraphy or painting is done. Vellum, being skin, is naturally greasy. There are two sides to vellum: the hair side and the flesh side. The hair side carries hair follicles and is drier, the flesh side carries the traces of fat and blood vessels and is the greasiest. The hair side is easier to work with. 

  • Check over the skin carefully. Any rough areas can be carefully sanded down or pared down with a knife. Use a curved blade to avoid cutting into the skin.

You will need powdered pumice to degrease the skin. It is a fine, grey powder.

  • Take a little pumice powder. Drop it into the middle of the skin.

  • Using you fingers, rub the pumice powder across the skin in a gentle circular motion.

  • Work from the INSIDE to the outside edge. This prevents the skin from getting caught and creased.

  • When you have worked over the whole of the page, brush off the excess.

  • Mask off areas of the page not being worked on with clean paper or a pad of silk. This prevents the grease from your hands transferring  back onto the vellum page.

  • Make any rulings, pickings etc to guide your work if not already done.

  • If writing on the vellum, pounce over the area to receive the writing with powdered gum sandarac. The powdered gum sandarac should be placed into a muslin or similar bag and this is dabbed over the surface area.

  • Brush off any excess. The gum sandarac acts as a resist to the ink and gives sharper lettering.

  • You may need to periodically rest and flatten the skin under a large, heavy board. As the skin warms up, it will start to revert to the shape of the animal. This means that it starts to curl up.

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© Diane George 2018

39 Stepney Road, Burry Port,SA16 0BE