Keith Houston’s trenchant and timely exploration of the most powerful object of our time.

As Keith Houston explains in the introduction, “this is a book about books.” A light-hearted and somewhat simple admission that leads on to a vastly detailed and enlightened journey toward discovering what the essence of “the book” is. Is the book an ontological thing, a body of sorts, that we might think of as having its own historical anatomy, originally fleshed from animal skins? What then happens to that “body” in the digital age and can we “resist the lure of the e-book”? Have we skinned the book alive by stripping it down to the words alone? Does it change the reading experience?

Holding this book in your hands is a uniquely tactile experience that really does surpass anything an e-reading source, “imprisoned behind the glass of a tablet or computer screen…an inert thing by comparion”, can provide. This is a book to be read, preserved, touched, sniffed at — it is an object that demands a visceral response as well as an intellectual one. The book is divided into four parts: The Page, The Text, Illustrations and Form, all of which trace the evolution of books in riveting detail, exposing how we have moved from cuneiform tablets and papyrus scrolls to the hardbacks and paperbacks we now use.

Here we have provided an excerpt from Part 3: Illustrations — Saints and Scriveners: the rise of the illuminated manuscript, accompanied by some beautiful images from the book.

In the course of excavating a temple complex in Luxor, Egypt, in 1895-96, noted archaeologist and eugenics enthusiast Flinders Petrie and his assistant James Quibell discovered a cache of papyrus scrolls in a shaft dating back to the seventeenth century BCE. Named after the temple, which had been dedicated to the great Egyptian king Ramesses II, the “Ramesseum Papyri” became one of Egypt’s most celebrated archaeological finds. And among this famed collection, one scroll in particular stands head and shoulders above the others: Papyrus Ramesseum B, the so-called Dramatic Papyrus, is thought to be the oldest illustrated book in existence.

The visual appearance of the Dramatic Papyrus is at odds with its historical significance. The scroll is badly damaged (the Ramesseum was built near irrigated farmland and the tomb shaft was correspondingly damp), but papyrologists have been able to pick out sufficient detail to establish that it describes a ceremonial play in which priests celebrated the coronation of a pharaoh named Senusret I. The play is written out in columns, as was usual at the time, and, nestling at the bottom of each column and scarcely larger than the hieroglyphs themselves, are crude stick figures acting out the scenes of the play. Senusret himself is among them in the role of the falcon-headed god Horus. Frustratingly, however, the Dramatic Papyrus represents a false start for the history of illustrated books. Archaeological evidence found with it in the shaft beneath the Ramesseum prompted Petrie and Quibell to date it to around 1980 BCE, but no similar works followed for hundreds of years. Paradoxically, Egyptian book illustration only came into its own when it was later applied to an entire genre of books that no-one ever read.

An eighteenth-century depiction of the flowering head of a papyrus reed. The triangular section of the stem is visible at bottom.

From the middle of the second millennium BCE, more and more Egyptians chose to be buried with scrolls containing what early archaeologists thought were religious texts akin to the Bible or the Qur’an. But when one such scroll was deciphered in the nineteenth century it transpired that this “Book of Going Forth by Day,” as the text called itself, focused less on how to behave in this life than it did the next. Its translator, a Prussian named Karl Richard Lepsius, nicknamed it das Todtenbuch — “the Book of the Dead” — and his plain-spoken shorthand title caught the popular imagination.

The Book of the Dead was the last and most widespread iteration of the “Pyramid Texts” and “Coffin Texts” that for centuries had been engraved on tomb walls and carved into wooden sarcophagi. The purpose of the book and its predecessors was to help the occupant of said tomb or coffin to reach the afterlife, whether they were a pharaoh, an aristocrat, or a commoner, and to tip the scales of the final judgment in their favor. Written in the first person, the Book of the Dead offered a kind of positive visualization of the journey to come, including spells to transform the spirit of the deceased into powerful animals, to gain access to higher levels of the afterlife, and to call upon the protection of the gods. It would not be inaccurate to call it “the Guidebook of the Dead.”

If everything went according to plan, the decedent would eventually come face to face with the jackal-headed god Anubis, who balanced their heart against a feather to determine what would become of them. On hand to witness the verdict was Thoth, the god who was said to have given writing to the ancient Egyptians. A fortunate soul could look forward to eternity in the Elysian paradise of the “Fields of Peace”; they might travel the sky with Ra in his sun-boat, or even rule the underworld with Osiris. Those found wanting were cast into the slavering jaws of Ammit the soul-eater, a ferocious if ungainly hybrid of crocodile, lion, and hippo.

All this was written out in the Book of the Dead — and as time went by it was increasingly illustrated to match. The earliest scrolls were prepared by scribes who left blank spaces for subsequent illustration, but gradually this was turned on its head: in later copies, illustrators painted their vignettes as they pleased and scribes were forced to write the text in the whitespace left around them. A wealthy buyer could pick and choose from almost two hundred spells to build a portfolio appropriate to their preferred route through the afterlife, while the less prosperous had to make do with off-the-shelf copies written and illustrated in advance, and with blank lines left for their names to be filled in when the end drew near. However costly a given Todtenbuch had been in life, its fate in death was the same as all the others: to be entombed with its erstwhile owner, and, perhaps, to be disinterred millennia hence by inquisitive archaeologists or grave robbers.

A desert tomb, it turns out, is a very good place in which to preserve a papyrus scroll. One of the main reasons that the Book of the Dead is so well-studied is because so many copies have survived. And among those surviving copies there are those whose illustrations still leap off the page in a riot of color. Intentionally or otherwise, the palettes of ancient Egyptian illustrators were stocked with pigments that proved to be very stable over time: inert carbon was used for black text and painted outlines, hematite and limonite (both oxides of iron) yielded red and yellow respectively, while chalk and gypsum were used to make white ink. Standing out amongst these, however, was “Egyptian blue,” a striking color that varied from a pale, dilute hue to deeper, more vibrant tones. Made from quartz, copper ore, lime, and natron (a salt-like blend of sodium compounds found natively in Egypt), the ingredients of Egyptian blue were mixed together, fired in an oven, and then ground up to yield a brilliant, glassy substance. It was the first-ever man-made pigment.

Unfortunately, this first foray into pigment science was not an unqualified success. The glassy appearance of Egyptian blue is due to the fact that it is glass, to a large extent; the pigment was not especially opaque and had to be daubed on thickly to obtain a reasonable coverage. This is doubly problematic today, when decaying fixatives such as gum arabic have turned brown and darkened inks made with Egyptian blue even further. The simpler, more robust reds and yellows of the Egyptian palette have fared better.

A facsimile of the Book of the Dead of Hunefer. The original is dated to around 1275 BCE. In life Hunefer was a high-ranking official with the titles “Royal Scribe” and “Scribe of Divine Offerings.” Thoth, the divine creator of hieroglyphics, stands to the right of the scales with a palette and brush in hand, ready to record Anubis’s verdict.

Teething difficulties with pigment aside, the many illustrated Books of the Dead that have been unearthed by Egyptologists over the years reveal a robust tradition of mixing words and text. Their subject matter may have been a little monotonous, but it is clear that the ancient Egyptians were past masters at the art of illustrating books. Surely their inheritors in Greece and Rome, those two other beacons of ancient civilization, would carry on the tradition?

In contrast to the dry cocoons of Egypt’s tombs, the temperate climes to the north of the Mediterranean were less conducive to papyrus’s continued survival. There were ways around this, of course — the third-century emperor Tacitus had copies of important works sent out every year to replace those ruined by the damp European climate, but this constant turnover created a unique difficulty for archaeologists and paleographers attempting to trace the path of illustrated manuscripts from Egypt into Europe. Only a literal handful of papyrus fragments have survived from the classical heyday of Greece and Rome to hint at how their illustrated books might have looked, and these few survivors are partial witnesses at best. They all come from the “Hellenized” Egypt of the Ptolemies rather than from Europe itself, preserved by Egypt’s accommodating climate, and they are all frustratingly incomplete.

Needless to say, a gap of this size in the historical record does not sit well with historians. The tools and methods used to illustrate classical books were not much at issue — until printing arrived, the only practical difference between a scribe and an illustrator was that one of them wrote words and the other drew pictures — but the extent to which classical books had been illustrated was completely unknown. And so, despite the paucity of source material, scholars have tried to fill in the blanks by means of detective work, deduction, and the occasional leap of faith.

Foremost among experts on ancient illustrated books was one Kurt Weitzmann, a paleographer who flourished at Princeton and Yale after having fled persecution in Nazi Germany. Weitzmann had pored over mathematical, scientific, and medical works (among them the oldest known illustrated Greek papyrus, an astronomical treatise copied around the second century BCE), but these rarefied works had little to do with the average scroll of the time. As he saw it, the real action — both metaphorically and figuratively — lay in the epic poetry that had come down to the classical Greeks and Romans from time immemorial. For paleographers and historians, epic poems such as the Iliad and the Odyssey are comfortingly familiar. Both poems had been copied and recopied repeatedly since their composition in the eighth century BCE; today, the Iliad accounts for almost one in every five surviving literary papyri and the Odyssey for a further one in ten.

Weitzmann pinned his hopes on a drawing on a scrap of papyrus dated to the fourth century CE and owned by the Bavarian State Library in Munich. It showed a scene that Weitzmann recognized, where Achilles’ concubine Briseis is abducted by King Agamemnon’s henchmen. He matched the image to one in a different copy of the Iliad, the so-called Ambrosian Iliad (named for Milan’s Biblioteca Ambrosiana) dated to the fifth century CE, and argued that these nigh-identical images proved that illustrations had been copied as readily as texts in the classical world. Moreover, Weitzmann said, given that the Ambrosian Iliad boasted fifty-four images in total, divided among its twenty-four books, he guessed that a complete illustrated version could have contained anywhere up to 240 drawings. This would have been as much a graphic novel as it was an epic poem. If Weitzmann was correct, the ancient Greeks had combined words and images in their books with unparalleled enthusiasm.

A fourth-century CE papyrus fragment depicting Briseis’s abduction from Achilles’ tent. This scene from Homer’s Iliad is one of the few that survive in classical Greek manuscripts.

Weitzmann looked further back in time to validate his theory, and found a gently-smoking gun in the form of the Iliacae Tabulae, or “Iliac tablets,” a disparate collection of twenty-two marble reliefs held by museums and universities across Europe and America. Carved between 100 BCE and 100 CE, the tablets depicted scenes from a variety of epic poems attributed to Homer and others — and some of which, to Weitzmann’s eyes, matched illustrations from the fifth-century Ambrosian Iliad. It was (and remains) a contentious connection to draw, but Weitzmann’s theory that Homer’s Iliad had carried along with it a relatively standardized set of images gained at least some credence in the academic world. The chance that one of the handful of illustrated books that have survived the fifteen-hundred–year journey to the present just so happens to mimic a set of reliefs carved five hundred years earlier is a very slim one; therefore, he wrote, the Greeks and Romans must have been illustrating their books for at least that long.

But perhaps Kurt Weitzmann’s hunt for a family tree of carvings, illustrations, and poetry was unnecessary. We know that the Greeks and Romans were prodigious artists: our museums are full of painted vases and classical sculptures; our cities are populated with buildings that emulate the columns and porticoes of ancient Rome and Athens; and our libraries are full of modern copies of ancient books. We may not know what their illustrated books looked like, but we can be sure that they existed.

Though modern academics pine for evidence of illustrated books in the ancient world, the denizens of that world might have been forgiven for a lack of focus on such matters. By the fourth century, when Kurt Weitzmann’s fragment of the Iliad was being copied out, the Roman Empire was sliding into chaos. Though technically still a single political entity, in reality the empire had long since fractured into eastern and western regions, its two halves administered by bickering imperial courts at Constantinople and Rome. The Western Empire in particular was in a parlous state: the citizens on its fringes were going native, identifying themselves with indigenous tribes in preference to the remote Roman elite, and nationalism was on the rise. Rome’s writers, orators, and politicians called them “barbarians,” but the Goths, Vandals, Huns, Angles, Saxons, and Franks would have begged to differ. They were the new face of things, and the tired Western Empire could do little about it.

Things came to a head in the latter part of the fourth century CE. In 376, a huge influx of Goths settled in the Balkans, then controlled by the Romans; a decade later, a civil war with the Eastern Empire saw both Huns and Goths fight against the West; and in 410 an army of Goths sacked Rome itself. All the while, Roman influence waned across the empire and its borders retreated before the encroaching barbarians. Its North African provinces were conquered by the Vandals; in Gaul, the Franks took control, and in Britain the Angles and Saxons rose to power. Finally, in 476, the sixteen-year-old puppet emperor Romulus Augustulus was forced to abdicate by Odoacer, a Germanic military leader, and the Western Roman Empire was no more.

Books were the last thing on anyone’s mind.

A thousand miles from beleaguered Rome, the island of Ireland on Europe’s western edge escaped the worst of the turmoil. Ireland had always been a rural backwater by Roman standards, lacking roads, cities, and even towns of any great size, and yet it was here that the first flickers of a new kind of bookmaking arose in the wake of the fall of Rome. The catalyst was the arrival of a new religion among the pagan túatha, the Irish tribes: Christianity came to Ireland in 431, introduced there by a bishop named Palladius and much reinforced by the ministry of a Roman Briton named Patricius.

Patricius — or Saint Patrick, as he is called today — had a fraught relationship with his adopted country. His first visit to Ireland was an unwilling one: kidnapped at the age of sixteen, he spent six years in captivity on the island before escaping to Britain at the urging of a disembodied voice in his head. On returning as an evangelical cleric some years later, he was met at every turn by distrustful druids and murderous bandits, and it was only by bribing kings and retaining their sons as bodyguards that he saved himself from untimely martyrdom. Eventually, his efforts paid off. Patrick had returned to Ireland in the fifth century; the island was studded with monasteries by the sixth, and by the seventh the scribes of these centers of religious life were experimenting with new forms of decoration and book-making, the better to reflect God’s glory in the written word. The adherents of the old pagan religions might have illustrated their religious books, but the monks of the Middle Ages aspired to illuminate their meticulously-copied Bibles, hymnals, and prayer-books. A new age of lavish illustration was at hand.

The first examples of this scribal renaissance were modest, and the oldest known Irish manuscript, a book of psalms called An Cathach, hints coyly at the glorious books that were to follow. Dated to as early as 560, the Cathach was written in black and red ink, with the latter reserved for enlarged initial letters and occasional embellishments such as dots and spirals. The text itself is a little shaky, though this could only have reinforced the legend that the book had been hurriedly copied one night by Saint Columba himself, another of Ireland’s founding saints, aided by a “miraculous light” of apparently less than optimal brightness.

Columba was far more than just a middling scribe. Before his death at the end of the sixth century, he had founded a string of important monasteries in Ireland and abroad, including one on rugged Iona, off the west coast of Scotland, that helped bring Christianity to the pagan Picts and Gaels. (Rather than deliberately seeking out inhospitable surroundings, it seems that many monks left Ireland to get away from their home villages, finding that the claustrophobic gaze of family and friends distracted them from their quest for true spiritual peace.) A hundred years after Columba had dashed off the Cathach by night, many more monasteries inspired by his mission had been established across northern Britain — and behind their walls, monastic scribes were laboring over some of the most iconic books ever produced.

The upward course of “insular” bookmaking (that is, bookmaking on the British Isles) is charted by a series of remarkable books. The Book of Durrow, for instance, rescued in the seventeenth century from a farmer who used it like a sacred teabag to produce holy water for his ailing cattle, is thought to have been written between 650 and 700. Its pagan-inflected designs and intermittently wavering lines mark the midpoint between Columba’s austere Cathach and the masterworks that were to follow. The makers of the Lindisfarne Gospels, produced around the year 715 at a monastery off the coast of Northumberland, were more confident still, venturing to full-page illustrations of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and amplifying initial letters into sprawling, abstract shapes. But surpassing all these, however, was the celebrated Book of Kells. Completed sometime around the year 800, it was the vehicle for all that had been learned since Columba’s time. It may be the most famous single book in the Western world.

A decorative “chi rho” (<CHI RHO>) from the Book of Kells. This early Christian emblem was derived from the Greek letters chi (χ) and rho (ρ), used together as an abbreviation for the word “Christ.”

Named for the monastery at Kells, County Meath, where it spent much of its life, the Book of Kells was both the pinnacle of the Irish monastic scribes’ art and their last great work before the ugliness of the outside world intruded upon their quiet, cloistered lives. Comprising three hundred and forty vellum leaves, the visual impact of this edition of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John stands in stark contrast to the silent, gloomy scriptoria in which such books were written. Images erupt across the parchment in the form of grandly decorative initial letters, stylized representations of the Four Evangelists, and intricate “carpet” pages of geometric designs that bear more than a passing resemblance to later Islamic art. All these are rendered in red, yellow, purple and black inks that shine almost as brightly today as they must have done twelve hundred years ago. It is only very recently, in fact, that the ink has shown any sign of its age; flown to Australia for an exhibition in 2000, one of the four volumes in which the book is currently bound suffered “minor” pigment damage from the vibrations of the aircraft carrying it. Papers released some years later revealed that Ireland’s arts minister and Taoiseach, or prime minister, were bitterly at odds over the loan.

The text of the Book of Kells, which had been inscribed with almost mechanical precision, was framed by borders of interwoven ribbons and sinuous, contorted animals, many of which echo Pliny’s fast and loose approach to natural history. Another characteristic feature was the extensive use of “diminuendo,” a metrical approach to linking large, decorative capitals to small, unadorned body text. From the capital onwards, each letter or group of letters was drawn successively smaller and with less adornment, until the eye had been led to the body of the page’s text. And for all their relative insignificance, even the unadorned letters of the text itself tell a story of innovation and evolution: Irish scribes had developed a rounded “insular” style of handwriting that was quite different to the angular roman letters favored on the Continent. (Insular script can still be seen today, although it has since come down from its throne of monastic manuscripts to the less sacred environs of the typical Irish pub.)

Equally as important as the Book of Kells’ glorious imagery and careful script was the measured absence of text. Roman writers had never much cared to separate words (a brief dalliance with PLACING·‌DOTS·‌BETWEEN·‌WORDS was over and done with by the second century CE) but their traditional scriptio continua, THE­RUNNING­TOGETHER­OF­WORDS, made for difficult reading for those who spoke and read Latin as a second language. And so, in addition to softening Rome’s abrupt capital letters, Irish monks began to add spaces between words to make their writing duties less onerous. The Book of Kells and its contemporaries are as important for what they tell us about the state of the art in writing practices as what they reveal about art itself.

The blossoming of bookmaking in Ireland was brought to a crashing halt in the dying days of the eighth century, when the marauding Vikings first hauled their longships onto the emerald isle’s hitherto charmed shores — and onto the beaches of its remote monastic outposts. It is safe to say that the invaders were not big readers. Lindisfarne, famed for its lavish Gospels, was sacked in 793; Iona, where the Book of Kells is thought to have been written, was targeted in 795, 802, and again in 806, when sixty-eight monks were slain. An attack in 825 during which the abbot was killed was the final straw, and the island’s religious treasures — including, it is thought, the Book of Kells and Saint Columba’s relics — were evacuated over the following decades to a new monastery at Kells, established safely inland from Ireland’s hazardous coastal waters. The Dark Ages had come to Ireland.

And yet, even as Scandinavia’s roving delinquents made life a misery for the Scots and the Irish, on the Continent the hangover from the fall of Rome was finally ebbing. The hardy souls who escaped from Ireland to mainland Europe took their scribal skills and their sense of aesthetics with them, and the illuminated manuscript was not long to follow.

The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time by Keith Houston is available from 12th August on our website.

Published in the UK by W W Norton & Company Ltd.

Follow us on: Twitter / Facebook / Pinterest

Publishing the finest minds in academia, non-fiction and poetry, since 1923. Updates from the London office. Follow us on twitter

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store