“So, what is ‘illumination’ anyway?” “Are you talking about castle lighting when they say ‘illumination’ in the Middle Ages?” Most people on tour at the Ozark Medieval Fortress have not been to a castle before and have not studied the Middle Ages so that makes this a very good question. Others have come on tour and been part of study or reenactment groups and are almost reverent about Medieval illumination. In a nutshell, Medieval illumination is not talking about lighting, but rather the artwork found on manuscripts and in books. The term comes from the Latin “illuminare” meaning “to light up” and it refers to the fact that the early art on manuscripts was done with silver or gold leaf, which made the pages seem to glow, or light up.
Even if people have not been familiar with the term “illumination”, they have often seen it in Bibles, certificates, old books or documents. It is the artwork that you see around the printed word. Before the printing press was introduced in Germany (in about 1450), Bibles and manuscripts were all hand written and copied. That means a lot of work. It also means that each copy was valuable. People tend to add art to those things they value, especially the Bible.
The heyday of illumination was the Middle Ages. With the change from the scrolls of antiquity to the books of the Medieval there was more demand for manuscripts. There was also a change from only expensive parchment (made from animal hide) to the availability of less expensive paper (made from wood pulp or cotton rags). The result was there was an increase in the over all volume of the written word. There remain today thousands of manuscripts produced during the Middle Ages, unlike the few, by comparison, that remain from ancient times.
The illuminators were at first only monks or nuns, but as the demand grew and there were more and more secular works, professional scribes and artists became involved. Some illuminators were official court artists and others local itinerant scribes and painters. Also as time went on, colors other than silver or gold were included in the illumination. The artwork also began to include a broader range of decoration of the page from a simple beginning letter to border decoration to full illustrations. Illumination became a valued and respected form of art. It was also among the crafts in the Middle Ages that were available for women. At the Ozark Medieval Fortress, illuminators have come from Missouri, Tennessee, and Mississippi.