“The Gilded Page: The Secret Lives of Medieval Manuscripts,” by Mary Wellesley

Blake Adams
Wednesday, March 16th 2022

In 1934, a family played ping pong in their Georgian home near Chesterfield, England. One of the players accidentally stepped on the ball, crushing it, so the father went to the cupboard to find a replacement. There he met an ordeal, since the cupboard was filled with “an entirely undisciplined clutter of smallish leather bound books” (36). Exasperated, he threatened to burn the lot, but as luck would have it, a certain Charles Gibbs-Smith, an assistant museum keeper, was a house guest that day. He offered to rummage through the cupboard, adding, “after all there may be something of real interest there which you may not at the moment realise [sic]” (36).

Gibbs-Smith’s remark was more astute than even he realized. One of these “smallish leather bound books” turned out to be a copy of the Book of Margery Kempe: the first English autobiography written by a woman. The author had lived during the fifteenth century, but her work had been lost since the sixteenth. Only fragments were known to survive—until a certain ping pong game. It remains the only surviving complete copy.

The opening chapters of Mary Wellesley’s The Gilded Page introduces the reader to the world of manuscript studies with several stories of this kind. She neglects to write a chapter showing how systems of reading performance (e.g., liturgy, prayer offices, etc.) factor in a manuscript’s survival, but her point is well taken: a manuscript’s survival is often a matter of chance. Blind luck is a prevalent feature of manuscript studies. We cannot accept survival as either “normal” or given where manuscripts are concerned. Rather, survival itself is a point of significance that requires an account.

After these preliminaries, Wellesley takes up various notable manuscripts (not all Bibles) and peels back the vellum to uncover the “secret” lives of the authors, scribes, artists, and patrons who produced them. Though the ethic of a medieval reader was to keep a book in as pristine a condition as possible (Richard de Bury’s Philbiblon (14th cent.), for example, insists readers keep their nails clean and trim, lest they leave particles of dirt behind), it is these human blemishes that draw Wellesley’s attention, as well as any marginalia, notes, or personal touches. For example, when illuminators are given creative freedom in a specific section of a manuscript, what, Wellesley asks, do they paint, and why? What does this tell us about the illuminator? Though a “human interest” story, The Gilded Page is a fine introduction to the world of medieval manuscripts.

“Manuscript” means “handwritten.” Opposed to “print,” it refers to a text produced by a scribe. After the invention of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century, printers gradually replaced scribes in the West. Manuscripts still exist (e.g., personal diaries, written correspondences, etc.), but in general scribes were no longer commissioned to reproduce a pre-existing text. At least, such commissions (like the St. John’s Bible, completed in 2001) are rare (and expensive) artistic endeavors meant for ceremonial use or display.

Wellesley’s work is intended for a wide readership, but it has much to offer biblical scholars and historians. This offering consists in her treatment of the manuscript not merely as a message, but as a book—that is, a piece of hand-made technology. Especially where the Bible is concerned, we do not deal with a mere text. The Bible is also a material artifact[1] and a piece of religious art. For most of its existence, no two Bibles were identical, and all were the result of collaborative efforts that could extend for months, if not years. And the creators left their fingerprints behind.

Wellesley focuses on manuscripts of all kinds, but the Bible features prominently since it is, after all, something like the book in Western history. She limits herself to English manuscripts, and she delights in superlatives: Wellesley regularly identifies this or that manuscript as the “earliest” or “grandest” of its kind in some respect. For example, she introduces the reader in chapter one to the Cuthbert Gospel, the personal copy of St. John’s Gospel owned by St. Cuthbert, a seventh-century Anglo-Saxon monk. This manuscript is superlative because it is the oldest Western book with its original cover still intact. (It only managed to survive because it was buried with Cuthbert for centuries.) This makes it, methodologically, the starting point for the history of cover art.[2]

Wellesley employs a feminist historiography in this study. For the most part, this works in her favor, since many of the “secret lives” behind medieval manuscripts are women. Their role in scribal and illumination work is long recognized, making this something like the “right” historiography for this subject. (I would point out that the role of women in book production extends to the ancient period as well. Origen of Alexandria, the most prolific writer of the ancient period, employed a fleet of them.)

However, Wellesley delivers a degree of enthusiasm for her subject matter that occasionally waxes whiggish. Predictably, examples of gifted or influential medieval women are construed as proto-feminist. They are alien queens: modern women out of place in the medieval world; in time out of joint by virtue of being “ahead” of it. The threat here is the reduction of women’s studies into a mere pre-history of the Women’s Movement. It also seems to restrict Wellesley from appreciating the likes of Margery Kempe or Julian of Norwich as medievals, or as credits to their era. Though these women might contend with forces of their world (as humans do and have always done), it is their world nonetheless, and they are not “ahead of it,” nor are they what they are exclusively “despite it.” But I can’t complain too much. This book is, after all, a work of popular scholarship intended for a wide readership. Here, construing a medieval as a feminist is an expedient way to say she had exceptional (or disruptive) independence, skills, or powers of influence. This, combined with Wellesley’s clear delight in discovering the identities of medieval women, endears us to her feminism, showing its function here to be more vocational than ideological. That is, Wellesley implies that she, as a woman and a scholar, has a special interest, even duty, to (re)discover and preserve the stories of forgotten or obscure medieval women. At one point, she suggests it “is appropriate” that the Revelations by Julian of Norwich “was preserved by devoted female scribes and made accessible in the modern era by a female scholar [i.e., Grace Warrack]” (238). Wellesley seems to think it is the special responsibility of women to preserve the works of women; with The Gilded Page, she sees herself engaged in a tradition of women reading and editing and disseminating women. She strongly implies this is necessary because men have a bad track record of preserving women’s voices. At the same time, this assertion puts her in the odd position of implying it can’t be “inappropriate” that men prioritize men, supposing it is “appropriate” that women prioritize women.

At any rate, we can be grateful for the neglected, forgotten, and obscure lives Wellesley brings to our attention.

[1] This understanding of manuscript as artifact is the soul of Larry Hurtado’s The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 2006), a study I cannot recommend too highly, and which complements Wellesley’s work exceptionally.

[2] As you might expect, the cover is the part of a book that suffers the most abuse and is least likely to survive. I happen to own a first edition of Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, and yet, despite being printed as recently as 1850, the binding and cover are not original. Finding a 1,300-year-old book with its cover still intact is less likely than winning the lottery!

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Blake Adams
Blake Adams (MA, Wheaton College) is an editor, writer, and trained historian. His research interests include early Christian history, ascetical theology, and exegesis. He serves as Lead Sacristan at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois. Follow him on Substack at or Twitter @BlaketheObscure.
Wednesday, March 16th 2022

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