REVIEW: The Gilded Page by Mary Wellesley
A breathtaking journey into the hidden history of medieval manuscripts, from the Lindisfarne Gospels to the ornate Psalter of Henry VIII
“A delight—immersive, conversational, and intensely visual, full of gorgeous illustrations and shimmering description.” –Helen Castor, author of She-Wolves
Medieval manuscripts can tell us much about power and art, knowledge and beauty. Many have survived because of an author’s status—part of the reason we have so much of Chaucer’s writing, for example, is because he was a London-based government official first and a poet second. Other works by the less influential have narrowly avoided ruin, like the book of illiterate Margery Kempe, found in a country house closet, the cover nibbled on by mice. Scholar Mary Wellesley recounts the amazing origins of these remarkable manuscripts, surfacing the important roles played by women and ordinary people—the grinders, binders, and scribes—in their creation and survival.
The Gilded Page is the story of the written word in the manuscript age. Rich and surprising, it shows how the most exquisite objects ever made by human hands came from unexpected places.
I saw the cover and said, “Self, we have to read this.” Self didn’t quite finish reading the blurb and so what I thought would be a book filled with delicious illustrations and some description turned out to be about various aspects of (mainly) medieval manuscripts with some Dark Ages manuscripts, Welsh poetry, and 15th century family letters thrown in. Despite it not being what I thought I was getting, I was fascinated – mostly.
Vegans will want to skip the early section wherein Wellesley discusses how parchment was and (in only one business in England) still is still made. It sounds like something you’d have to get used to but in the end, it produced something that once made into a book has (in one case) survived for over 1700 years. Manuscripts that have managed to survive everything that can be thrown at them (fire, Vikings, being used as a drink coaster, candle wax, war, the Reformation, more fire, etc) are cherished and treasured today – usually being carefully kept in storage conditions that in many cases mean that they are as gorgeous as when they were first made. Her focus is on manuscripts from England though she says England lost far more manuscripts than did European countries.
Wellesley details the laborious process that went into the writing, the illustrations, and the binding. She mentions some little side notes that scribes managed to jot in the margins that mention their aching backs and cold fingers. She talks about some of the best known examples (Winchester Bible, Exeter Book, Luttrell Psalter), then some of the patrons who commissioned books (Queen Emma, twice Queen of England who lived in, shall we say, interesting times and King Henry VIII – both of whom were making a statement with what they chose to have made), and how illustrations were done. There’s also an interesting section about the letters that were written by and for various members of a family in the 15th century and what we can learn about them, the times, and class differences. The final chapter focuses on women, discussing (at too great a length) anchorites and a Welsh female poet Gwerfud Mechain who composed what could be viewed as unashamed feminist poems (“Ode to the Vagina”).
I enjoyed reading about how certain manuscripts made it through the ages despite upheavals all around them but at the same time, the paucity of the survivors makes me sad for what has been lost. Yet there still might be undiscovered treasures such as the one discovered when the head of a family was rustling through a cabinet searching for ping pong balls leading to the discovery of the autobiography of Margery Kempe. Excerpts in Old English, Middle English, and Latin are included along with modern English translations. Have fun and try your hand at deciphering them. Wellesley also pops her opinions and suppositions about some things into the book. Sometimes this was interesting but at other times she seemed to be reaching for actualities that might not be there.
But one thing that I didn’t see, besides the cover, were any illustrations. Perhaps there will be examples of the illuminated capitals of the Winchester Bible or the fun and whimsical illustrations from the Luttrell Psalter in the final copies but alas there are none in the ARC I read. Wellesley knows her stuff and I found her to be an interesting guide. B