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Humanist Manuscripts: Paleography

Section 4: Layout and Decoration in Humanist Manuscripts

Humanist manuscripts share the plain-page aesthetic of Carolingian manuscripts. Note the lightness and spaciousness of the way the text is presented in these Humanist manuscripts, whether in two columns or one:

St. Gallen, Kantonsbibliothek, Vadianische Sammlung, VadSlg MS 298.
Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. Bodmer 137, f. 1r. (www.e‑


Compare the manuscripts above to one of the Carolingian manuscript we saw earlier, The Reichenau Gospels, mid-11th century. The Carolingian manuscript is at left and the Humanist one is at right:

Walters Art Museum, W.7, f. 10r. © 2011 Walters Art Museum,
used under a CC BY-SA license.
Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. Bodmer 137, f. 1r.


This is in part a result of the small minim-height and generous line spacing used in Humanist scripts, as in Caroline minuscule, and in part the result of a conscious aesthetic decision about the presentation of script on the page. In many Humanist manuscripts, the ruling is essentially invisible — a return to the dry-point ruling of the pre-Gothic period. Such ruling may be all but impossible to detect in a digitized image.

Some Humanist manuscripts, however, even though they do not use dark ink for ruling, show that the person who prepared the parchment was trained in typical late-medieval ruling patterns. In this manuscript, you can see that the writing starts below the top ruled line, where a Carolingian manuscript would have the writing start above the top ruled line:

manuscript page showing line on top of page
cropped from Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. Bodmer 137, f. 1r. (www.e‑


This detail does not disturb the overall spaciousness and lightness of the page, but it does remind us that these manuscripts were made by people who practiced many different scripts and were trained in the manuscript production modes of their own day. This is the same manuscript we noted above that contains the round s at word end and other traces of Gothic script features.


Humanist manuscripts borrow their page aesthetics from Carolingian models and, like those Carolingian models, employ decorative schemes that consciously echo antiquity. However, they use a 15th-century version of Classicism, not a 9th- to-11th-century version. Humanist manuscripts have their own decorative vocabulary, in which you may recognize Renaissance naturalistic painting. The most widely-used and easy-to-spot decorative feature is the white vine-scroll. If you see initials or borders with white vine-scrolls, you are definitely looking at a Humanist manuscript, not a Carolingian one.

manuscript page showing script with some larger characters intertwined with vine decoration
cropped from St. Gallen, Kantonsbibliothek, Vadianische Sammlung, VadSlg MS 298 (