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Gothic Textualis: Paleography

Section 5: Page Layout in Gothic Manuscripts

The changes in the shape and proportions of letters that come with the development of Textualis — short ascenders, close-set lines, rows of evenly-spaced minims — lend a block of text written in that script a darker, denser appearance than is found in Carolingian manuscripts. The characteristic Gothic page layout is two long, narrow, dense columns whose boundaries are clearly set off from the surrounding space. You can see a trend in that direction in the 12th-century Protogothic manuscript at left, and it is fully developed in this mid-13th-century leaf from a small-format, portable Bible:

12th century

Walters Art Museum, W.18, f. 11v. © 2011 Walters Art Museum, used under a CC BY-SA license.

Mid-13th century

HMML, Arca Artium (aap1306 verso). Used under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license.

Zoom in and take a look at how the proportions of the letters in the 13th-century manuscript above contribute to the very dense appearance of the two columns.

The two-column layout is, of course, not new in this period: we saw it in Bible manuscripts from late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, too. But the long, narrow proportions and density of the columns as blocks of text are an innovation of the Gothic period. Narrow columns make it somewhat easier for the eye to track through text that has little space between lines and is laterally compressed, as well as highly abbreviated.

Smaller-format books often still retained a single-column layout with squarer proportions. This is typical for Books of Hours, luxury private devotional books of the end of the Middle Ages, which were designed to be held easily in the hand and were typically written in large, carefully-formed letters for lay readers. However, the presentation of the text as a densely-set, dark block, clearly bounded by marginal space or decoration, is in keeping with the Gothic aesthetic of the large-format Bibles above.

Ruling becomes a frame

Early in the Gothic period, several changes in ruling technique alter the relationship between ruling lines and the text on the page.

  • Ruling is done in ink, rather than dry-point or faint lead, so it becomes more visible. Indeed, there seems to be no effort to make it invisible, and it increasingly becomes part of the decoration of the page.
  • The first line of text comes to be written below, rather than above, the top ruled line.
  • The feet of letters start to float above the ruled line, rather to sit right on it.

We can see all of these developments in this 15th-century Low German (?) manuscript:

HMML, Arca Artium (aap1301 verso). Used under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license.

The cumulative effect of these changes is that each line of text appears to be contained within a ruled box, while the text as a whole is also bounded by visible lines. Think about how different this is from early-medieval manuscripts in which the ruling was all but invisible. (If you zoom in, you can also pick out some of the letterforms we discussed in the last section.)

More complex layouts and ruling patterns

From the 12th century on, books studied in the new universities and copied by and for students were increasingly provided with standard glosses and commentaries. Elaborate layouts and ruling patterns developed to accommodate marginal and interlinear glosses as well as the main text. This page from a glossed copy of the Gospel of Luke from early 13th-century Paris illustrates these developments:

HMML, MS Frag. 19, recto. Used under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license.

Red and blue pen flourishes, running titles, and numbers were used to help the reader find his way around these complex texts. Both the red-blue color scheme and the proliferation of “signposting” in books are typical of Gothic manuscripts. The somewhat earlier glossed manuscript we looked at early in this lesson also illustrates these developments in layout. If you zoom in, you can see that the page is ruled with double-height spaces for the main text and closer-set lines for the glosses:

Walters Art Museum, W.30, f. 6v. © 2011 Walters Art Museum, used under a CC BY-SA license.


Could you identify a Gothic manuscript at a distance, just by the look of its page? Click ahead to the next exercise to give it a try.