BA Art History and History

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
The Art of Medieval Manuscripts

Course unit fact file
Unit code AHCP33612
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


This course introduces students to the glorious imagery on the pages of many medieval books in the West, from the first regular appearances of a ‘rectangular object with pages’ in the fifth century to the time when printed books with printed images became relatively commonplace in the sixteenth century. In this period of over a thousand years, Christianity spread throughout the West and eventually bifurcated in the Reformation; battles were waged and alliances agreed over sovereignty and land; commerce and travel expanded; the learning, literature and politics of Antiquity were rediscovered; and Western printing was invented. This complex history was reflected on, responded to, and even shaped by the art found in the books of the societies that produced it. Many illustrated manuscript and early printed books survive, which makes it possible to engage with them as art-historical case-studies for exploring a raft of intellectual questions about the ways in which art, society, politics, religion and economics interacted in the Middle Ages. The survival of this art also promotes cultural enquiry into and understanding of later societies, including the effects of collecting and connoisseurship in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the practices of conservation and curating in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Much of the course takes place at the John Rylands Library where students have access to the wonderful medieval books in its Special Collections.


This course unit aims to: -

  • introduce students to primary and secondary source material – visual and textual – for studying images in Western medieval manuscript and early printed books
  • examine illuminators’ technical and organizational practices
  • explore the relationships between artist, patron and viewer in various genres of book
  • consider the relationships between text and images
  • situate medieval book art within wider medieval debates about visual culture
  • explore the survival of illuminated manuscript and early printed books from the viewpoint(s) of later societies, including today’s

Learning outcomes

By the end of this course students will be able to: -

  • engage critically with artistic and cultural production in the Western Middle Ages, especially in relation to the imagery in medieval books
  • recognize issues of interpretation affecting the study of images in medieval books
  • understand and use specialist language relevant to the creation, use and later legacy of illustrated manuscript and early printed books
  • relate the art in medieval books to wider debates about art


The course will include: -

  • how manuscript books and their images were made
  • image as word: gospel books and the spread of Christianity
  • bestiaries and medieval symbolism
  • gifts, commercialization and illuminators’ workshops
  • books of hours and women’s patronage
  • literature and politics: the illustrated ‘Book of Troy’ (Rylands English MS 1)
  • the invention of print and the painted book in Renaissance Italy
  • the printed image in early modern books
  • collectors and connoisseurs  
  • conservation, cataloguing and curating 

Teaching and learning methods

1 x 3 hour class per week. Includes lectures, seminar-based activities, individual and group study. Classes will be based at John Rylands Library (Special Collections) where specific objects will be studied at close-hand and specialist staff, including the conservation and photographic teams, will offer privileged insights into the work of a ‘rare books’ library. There is good library provision of basic texts for this course; key seminar and other readings will be available on Blackboard. 

Knowledge and understanding

By the end of this course students will be able to: -

  • identify different types of sources for the study of art in manuscript and early printed books
  • explain key issues in the study of art in manuscript and early printed books including key genres, methods of production, workshop practices, patronage, the text-image relationship, collecting and conservation

Intellectual skills

By the end of the course students will be able to: -

  • analyse critically different types of sources
  • articulate intellectual arguments orally and in writing
  • show how political, religious and social contexts are relevant to interpretations of art
  • compare ideas about art in the Middle Ages with ideas about art in other periods

Practical skills

By the end of this course students will be able to: -

  • identify and evaluate different types of sources for discussing art and visual culture
  • identify and contextualize different modes of writing about art
  • read texts effectively
  • write essays that select, interpret and evaluate material in response to given questions

Transferable skills and personal qualities

By the end of this course students will be able to: -

  • attend closely to visual, written and spoken evidence
  • communicate ideas in a logical and engaging manner, both orally and in writing
  • participate confidently and appropriately in group situations
  • manage time effectively
  • respond positively to constructive feedback 

Employability skills

This course unit will enable students to gain and improve a number of skills including: - - reflecting on how things past illuminate and inform the future - developing research skills and resourcefulness - working effectively under direction and supervision - working well in a team - working creatively - working to deadlines - managing preconceptions - responding well to challenges

Assessment methods

Assessment taskFormative and SummativeLengthWeighting within unit (if relevant)
Long Essay PlanFormative500 words0%
Individual PresentationSummative10 minutes/500 words15%
Short EssaySummative1000 words25%
Long EssaySummative2500 words60%


Feedback methods

  • Written feedback on essay plan
  • Written feedback on essay
  • Feedback available during office hours or by appointment

Recommended reading

  • Jonathan J. G. Alexander, The Painted Book in Renaissance Italy 1450–1600 (New Haven & London, 2016)
  • Diane E. Booton, Manuscripts, Market and the Transition to Print in Late Medieval Brittany (Farnham, 2010)
  • Raymond Clemens & Timothy Graham, Introduction to Manuscript Studies (London, 2007)
  • Christopher de Hamel, A History of the Illuminated Manuscript (London, 1994)
  • Debra Hassig, Medieval Bestiaries. Text, Image, Ideology (Cambridge, 1995)
  • Michael Hunter (ed.), Printed Images in Early Modern Britain. Essays in Interpretation (Farnham, 2010)
  • Bernard J Muir (ed.), Reading Texts and Images: Essays on Medieval and Renaissance Art and Patronage (Exeter, 2002)
  • Virginia Reinburg, French Books of Hours. Making an Archive of Prayer, c. 1400–1600 (Cambridge, 2014)

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 22
Seminars 11
Independent study hours
Independent study 167

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Anne Kirkham Unit coordinator

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