Skip to main content

Trinity College Dublin, The University of Dublin

Menu Search

Reading the Manuscript Page: Design Features of the Medieval Book

Modern readers today rely on design features found in the pages of printed books to navigate their way through the text, but did you know that medieval manuscripts were read in much the same way? This post looks at the design features added by scribes to medieval pages, using a 14th-century Latin Vulgate Bible produced in East Anglia (TCD MS 35) and recently digitised as part of the Manuscripts for Medieval Studies project: click here to see the manuscript in full. This decorated single-volume Bible features layout elements typically found in books of the Middle Ages to guide readers when consulting their manuscripts.

An interactive guide to the design features of a medieval page, from a 14th-century illuminated Bible (TCD MS 35, f. 17v)

Running Titles

By the later Middle Ages, the Bible was widely available in a single volume with the biblical books arranged in the same approximate order that modern audiences read today. The pages of medieval manuscripts were rarely numbered, so readers first looked to running titles at the top of the page to locate individual books or chapters of works. This medieval Bible features running titles in Latin for each biblical book, in eye-catching blue ink with red penwork decoration such as DANIELIS for the Book of Daniel. Medieval readers also often used bookmarks like silk ribbon or parchment tabs to mark frequently consulted portions of text.

The running title of the Book of Daniel (DANIELIS) in blue ink with red penwork decoration (TCD MS 35, f. 251r)


The opening of new passages in manuscripts is commonly highlighted with text in red ink known as rubric, to stand out from the page for the notice of readers. The opening of the Book of Daniel in this Bible is indicated by the indicating phrase Incipit liber danielis (‘Here begins the Book of Daniel’) in red ink with the ‘I’ initial of Incipit in blue. The name of these rubric indicators derives from the Latin name for red ink, rubrica, meaning ‘red earth’. Red inks were generally made from natural minerals, including lead.

The rubric opening (Incipit liber danielis) of the Book of Daniel (TCD MS 35, f. 251r)

Decorated Initials

Luxury manuscripts feature decoration to accompany the main text, and some forms of decoration functioned as visual navigational aids to the reader. The beginning of each new book in this medieval Bible opens with a decorated initial of the first letter of the opening word of text. The Book of Jonah opens with a decorated ‘E’(t) initial, inhabited by several figures. Jonah is depicted first on the left, turned from God above to avoid His command to travel to Nineveh. Jonah is depicted again on the right, being thrown from the galley ship by sailors into the mouth of the whale. The image is decorated in rich colours including gold, signalling to the reader the start of the Book of Jonah.

As well as scenes relating directly to the main text, some initials also feature scenes from the life of Christ such as the opening of 2 Maccabees which opens with a decorated ‘F’(ratribus) initial of a man kneeling in prayer before the Virgin and Child. Biblical prologues also open with smaller initials with gold decoration. The use of gold in manuscripts is often referred to as illumination, as the gold literally illuminates or lights up the page to readers.

Decorated initials of the letter ‘E'(t) from the Book of Jonah (left, TCD MS 35, f. 263v) and the letter ‘F'(ratribus) from 2 Maccabees (f. 281r)

Chapter Numbers

To arrange the text clearly for the reader, each biblical book is then sub-divided into numbered chapters. Each new section begins in this manuscript with blue initials decorated with red pen-flourishing and accompanied by chapter numbers in blue ink. For example, the 13th chapter of 2 Corinthians (2 Cor. 13) opens with the ‘E’(cce) initial and the first line of text is followed by the Roman numerals XIII representing 13.

Opening of 2 Corinthians 13 with decorated initial and chapter number and blue and red inks (TCD MS 35, f. 331v)

Reader-added marginalia

Readers of medieval manuscripts frequently added their own navigational aids to books to highlight useful or interesting passages, and this Bible contains signs that indicate it was actively used as a reference text. One reader had evidently studied the text of 2 Paralipomenon with care as they added marginal notations to passages of the text, including nota marks to note for future reference. A second reader also drew hands pointing to the text, known as manicula (‘little hands’). We hope this guide helps modern readers to take note themselves and explore the fascinating features of medieval manuscripts – start by browsing our Digitised Collections online!

Reader marginalia such as these nota marks and pointed-hand manicula are frequently found in medieval manuscripts (TCD MS 35, f. 121v)

Dr Alison Ray

Follow us on Twitter @TCDResearchColl

The work of the Manuscripts for Medieval Studies project has been made possible by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Further reading:

M.P. Brown, and revised by E.C. Teviotdale and N.K. Turner, Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts: A Guide to Technical Terms (Los Angeles, 2018)

P. Lovett, The Art & History of Calligraphy (London, 2017)

R. Clemens and T. Graham, Introduction to Manuscript Studies (New York, 2007)

Virtual Trinity Library is a digitisation initiative of the Library of Trinity College Dublin’s most valued collections. It will conserve, catalogue, curate, digitise and research these unique collections of national importance, making them accessible to a global audience, from schoolchildren to scholars.