Medieval graphic design celebrated in new Bodleian show

Designing English: Graphics on the Medieval Page “charts the skills and innovations of the very first graphic designers of English on the page”

That the manuscripts and other objects created by Anglo-Saxon and medieval scribes, painters and engravers are some of the most beautiful examples of craftsmanship we have is in no doubt, but how much can such work also be thought of as graphic design?

How to tell the age of deer from their antlers: from Gaston Fébus, The Master of Game, translated by Edward of York between 1406 and 1413; copied between 1413 and 1459. Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

A new show at the Bodleian Libraries’ Weston Library seeks to place work such as illuminated gospels and objects engraved with lettering within the origins of “early English graphic design”. The exhibition “explores all elements of design, from the materials used, such as the size and shape of animal skins used to create parchment, to the design of texts for different uses, such as for performing songs, plays or music,” the library promises. “Medical texts and practical manuals feature alongside ornate religious texts, including rare examples of unfinished illustrations that reveal the practical processes of making pages and artefacts. The use of English is traced from illicit additions made to Latin texts, to its more general, every day use, and spread to more ephemeral formats.”

In this copy of Gregory the Great’s translated Pastoral Care, sent between 890 and 897 to Wærferth, Bishop of Worcester, the book ‘speaks’ (bottom left) and tells how Alfred ‘sent me to his scribes north and south’.

Some would argue that ‘graphic design’ as we know it begins with the invention of printing with moveable type but this show invites us to look further back in history. “In an age when each book was made uniquely by hand, each book was an opportunity for redesigning,” it points out. “The introduction of English text [as opposed to Latin] posed questions: How did scribes choose to arrange the words and images on the page in each manuscript? How did they preserve, clarify and illustrate writing in English? What visual guides were given to early readers of English in how to understand or use their books?”

The Alfred Jewel, thought to be the handle of an ‘æstel’, a pointing tool used to help read text. Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
Gold ring found at Godstow Priory, Oxford. The inscription reads ‘Most in mind and in mine heart, loathest from you far to depart’. British Museum

Designing English is curated by Daniel Wakelin, Jeremy Griffiths Professor of Medieval English Palaeography at the University of Oxford, which is one of the few posts in the world dedicated to the study of medieval English manuscripts. “Medieval writers had to be graphic designers every time they wrote or carved their words,” he says, “Tracing the earliest uses of English, from illicit annotations on Latin texts, to more everyday jottings in ephemeral formats, this exhibition celebrates the imagination and skill of these early writers. Their craft and inventiveness resonates today when digital media allow users to experiment with design through word processing, social media and customised products.”

The Twenty Jordans, MS. Ashmole 1413. These are flasks of urine. Diagnosing disease from the colour of urine was common in medieval medicine; almost five hundred copies survive of writings in English alone on this topic. The colours are striking; if your urine is black like lead, you’re not well. But as important is the layout: the pictures run across facing pages, so that you can compare samples easily. These pages not only illustrate colour; they organise knowledge in orderly form.
Astronomical ‘volvelle’ diagram. Such 3D disks revolving on string or a twist of parchment allowed the user to make calculations for the phases of the moon and time of night
In this copy of The Canterbury Tales, the initial, border, running head and title help the reader to navigate the text
A late-eighth-century or early-ninth-century Latin Gospel, painted in Ireland by Macregol, perhaps abbot of Birr, County Offaly. English translations were added to the original Latin text by medieval scholars

Designing English: Graphics on the Medieval page is at The Weston Library, Bodleian Libraries, Oxford from December 1 to April 22. Admission is free

All images: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford unless otherwise stated