It is likely that the first sacred European illuminated manuscript emerged from Late Antiquity in the Byzantine Empire after the Ostrogoth King, Odoacer, during the period between 489 and 553. This literary format began its expansive culture highlighting gospels and hymns. Its ceremonial trait was especially noted for its decorous gold backing and leafy, inflated capitals that headed each page. This complex procedure that used vellum and animal skin still fascinates us. However, this mesmerizing form of literature actually began much earlier in Islam. Its purely religious content, however, evolved and later manuscripts recalled specific legendary and military traditions of the creator’s immediate culture. Even more wondrous was its function.

     Early manuscripts were created for art patrons such as bishops and emperors, usually in scriptoriums at royal courts to emphasize the roles they played in historical events. Among the most famous are those of later centuries Charlemagne’s Bayeux Tapestry, King Arthur’s Rochefoucauld Grail or Très Riches Heures, by du Duc de Berry. The most integral value to our culture today is one we should all teach: in spite of biased perspectives, all literature is sacred.

     After an introduction to the middle ages, a comprehensive grade five lesson plan should focus on those who tackled the process, and related vocabulary.

Long Range Objective:

     The grade five/six student will be able to understand the function of literacy and literature in the middle ages as an evolution of the extensive, older visual culture of papyrus manuscripts and compare it to the value of text and illustrations in popular culture today.  The following resources and materials are suggested, but there are many other resources available to the elementary level student.

     Immediate Objectives

      The student will read text and watch an online documentary about medieval manuscripts and be able to correctly describe several procedures involved in manuscript history and creation in a follow-up discussion.

     The student will understand and be able to accurately describe in several written paragraphs the required elements of an illuminated manuscript using effective vocabulary.

     The student will be able to understand that the content of an illuminated manuscript could be religious, political, medical, or legendary by choosing one manuscript illumination, re-creating it, and labelling its essential parts.

Suggested Vocabulary

     Bishop Burnish Calfskin Codex Color Court Cowhide Cardinal Emperor Gold Durham Gospels Historiated Initial Illumination Illuminated King Lapis Lazuli Lord Manuscript Miniature Monastery Monk Narrative Nun Parchment Purple Quill Saffron Saint Scribe Scriptorium Tumeric Vellum Vienna Dioscurides


     Documentary “A Brief History of Illuminated Manuscripts, ” and “Illuminations: Treasures of the Middle Ages;” Markers, Booklet, Ruler, Pen, Pencil, Eraser, Historiated Initial Design, Content, such as a hymn or legend, Glitter, Gold Foil, Construction Paper, Tissue Paper, Glue, Scissors


     Watch two online documentaries and note the different kinds of manuscripts. For homework, write out some names and research them further in books. Answer the following in a discussion the next day.

1. In Europe, when did manuscript illumination begin? What years does this culture represent? [Began in 6th century and lasted throughout the middle ages to 16th century]

2. What was the main idea behind these works of art? [It was an attempt to put together all the very best literature.] What makes them gleam? [Application of Burnished Gold]

3. Which historical figures do the manuscripts teach us about? [Mohammad, Jesus, Aristotle, Plato] Why are medical manuscripts so difficult to study? [They are vulnerable if encased as specimens and not experienced up close.]

4. What does “manuscript” literally mean? [Written by hand.] What were medieval manuscripts made of? [Calfskin, vellum, fragrant flowers] What were they made of earlier? [Stone, Clay, Papyrus Scrolls]

5. Why did the rectangular Codex format emerge in the 4thcentury? [The page was heavy and scrolls “unwieldly.”

6. Who began to illustrate their books in Italy? [Monks] What kind of life was presented by monks and nuns and when was it established? [Isolation from the world to pray and meditate, established in early Christian times.]

7. Who gave the impetus to develop the institution of monasticism in the 6th century? [Benedict of Nicaea.] What did Benedict stress, and where were books made and read? [Work as much as prayer, Benedict’s monasteries became centers where books were made and read]

8. What tradition does manuscript illumination come from? [Monasticism] What did monks become? [Monks became scribes, illuminators, and missionaries.] What did the monks preach? [The word and image of God.]

9. What period was England in during the 6th century? [Dark Ages, the period of King Arthur.] What movement did the Romans begin in Northern Europe, and what was it called? [Evangelism, the New Christian Empire.]

10. What did the Church of Rome arm Saint Augustus with in England, 597 and why? A lavish set of Gospels and a manual of Salvation, for England’s conversion to Christianity.]

11. What did the manual of Salvation contain? [A picture of each of the four writers Matthew Mark Luke John and a series of comic book pictures that were unique to each of the Gospels.] What is it still used for? [Oath-taking for Bishops of Canterbury.]

12. What does the “miniature represent? [The centrepiece.] How are illustrations created? [Design transfer.] What is slunk vellum? [Skin from an unborn calf.] What does slunk vellum look like? [Thin and see-through.]

13. What is a Salter and when was it popular? [Book of Devotion, late middle ages.]

14. How was blue made? [Ground Lapis Lazuli stone.] How were other colours obtained for manuscripts? [From plants and minerals: Red Saffron Plant, Turmeric plant, Mercury Sulfide, Weld Plant, Duckthorn Berries, Indian Ochre, Yellow Orpimont Verdigus Malachite Azurite Smalt Woad Plant Indigo Plant Chalk Anthracite Ivory Iron Gall Gold Silver]

     For homework, write out several paragraphs about the procedures involved in manuscript making. Use examples and include a description of historical context the names of any institution, group, or individual connected to them. Use as many vocabulary words you can. At home, prepare a draft for your very own center-page in a medieval illuminated manuscript to be created for a creative art assignment. Work on the alphabet and historiated initial.

Bring your draft to class ready to complete the page. Make sure your creation answers the following questions: What content will the manuscript hold? Who is the manuscript for? Who is the designer, and where is the work produced? What is the cover made of? Is the manuscript religious or part of a literary tradition? What event does it represent?

     Remember, your work must reflect a realistic time in medieval history, a real historical figure, and a real place.


     Go over your completed work and check facts like titles, dates, and names. Research them again in classroom books or online. Were you right about the names and figures? Did you use correct terms?  Score yourself out of 20 points, and don't forget to remove all grammatical and spelling errors.


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