Page of an illuminated medieval manuscript. A border of leaves and flowers surrounds Latin text handwritten in black. There are two small images within the text. In the upper left the Virgin Mary holds Jesus inside of an illuminated "O." In the lower left, a person with a halo and a blue cloak holds a goblet.

Skills Lesson: Anatomy of a Manuscript Page

Curriculum Connections: Gender, Religion, and Literature; Image and Text Analysis; Manuscript Studies, Middle English Literature

This Skills Lesson accompanies the Collection Essay Contexts for the Book of Margery Kempe.

Download a copy of this Skills Lesson (with or without instructor answer key) and the “Anatomy of a Manuscript” handout in the Downloads tab.

You don’t need to know Latin to begin to understand how medieval books work, or how they might have been used by medieval people like Margery Kempe. In her autobiography, Margery interacts with books, while claiming not to read them; we’re following her lead. What did those books look like? 

Take a look at the page below, from an illustrated prayerbook in the Newberry Library. Manuscripts like this are written by hand by scribes and decorated by hand by artists working with them; each one is unique. The column on the left gives you the terms to describe what you see.

Infographic showing the different parts of an illuminated manuscript
Discussion Guide for Students and Instructors

We can see many clues on this page that this particular book was made with care. Its owner did not want any old copy of the text of these prayers; this is a deluxe edition. Describe any evidence you see that indicates that this book was a deluxe edition; in other words, how do we know that scribes put effort into presenting the text in this way? Be sure to use the terms from manuscript studies above. 

Look at the prayer on the middle of the page. The manuscript introduces this prayer as “To the image of the Virgin Mary.” Now look at the image in the initial: is this how you would describe the image in the book? Why describe this picture in that way specifically? Margery herself would call this image a “pity” – why? 

Download a copy of the Skills Lesson, the instructor answer key, and the “Anatomy of a Manuscript” handout here.