ARC Review: The Gilded Page: The Secret Lives of Medieval Manuscripts


Mary Wellesley loves medieval manuscripts and that love, and her knowledge of these ancient books / art objects, shines through in this fascinating book. Wellesley, a Research Affiliate at the British Library, takes a tour through a number of these books while providing informative background on how manuscripts were produced. 

Every medieval manuscript is unique, and manuscript creation is difficult for our modern minds to really understand. From the author (or authors, as many manuscripts are collections of various works), to the scribes, to the artists who illustrated (or "illuminated"), to the craftsmen who made the parchment, to the binders and makers of the covers - an individual manuscript required varied skills, passed through many hands, and could take years of tedious work to produce. When done, each manuscript would be difficult to recreate and was a prized possession above and beyond the knowledge it contained. 

I read the ebook so I'm not sure how many illustrations are included in the hard cover edition. But, it doesn't really matter as the footnotes in the book provide links and information that allow a reader to quickly jump to the British Library (where most of the books discussed are catalogued) and view online detailed images of the manuscript pages Wellesley describes. I did this a number of times and it really helps to solidify the information Wellesley is providing.

Understanding these manuscripts means having a basic understanding of the times and society that produced them, and there is quite a bit of history in this book. She takes us from the early days of manuscript creation by monks and nuns to the late medieval / early modern time when creating manuscripts was a commercial activity alongside the production of books via printing press.

Wellesley clearly has an interest in understanding the role women took in producing manuscripts, whether as authors or scribes, and provides a number of examples of both. There is a whole section devoted to anchoresses - women who devoted their lives to solitude, prayer and spiritual reflection, depriving themselves of earthly pleasures by allowing themselves to be locked away for life - imprisoned really - in tiny rooms often attached to their local churches. One of the few earthly activities they were allowed was to read and write (with the priest's permission of course). Wellesley describes one of the most well known anchoresses, and whether or not we can know how much of her story comes down to us in her own words.

And that is what makes the book so interesting - Wellesley's ability to take us from the manuscripts she lovingly describes back into the world of their creators. I enjoyed the book and learned quite a bit.  I give The Gilded Page Four Stars ⭐⭐.

NOTE: I received an advanced reviewer's copy of this book through NetGalley and Basic Books in exchange for a fair and honest review. The hardcover and ebook editions are available today, October 12, 2021.

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