Exploring what graphic design looked like in the Medieval era

An upcoming exhibition at the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries will highlight the origins of English graphic design as spearheaded by scribes, engravers and painters during this period.

An almanac from Worcestershire in c.1389, on sheets folded in different arrangements. There are many ways of telling time and predicting the future: the church’s liturgy, the farming year, the omens in thunder, astrology. The maker of this almanac shows them all, experimenting with words and pictures in various arrangements. He stitches the shapes and folds the edges of sheets into different designs for this varied information. MS. Rawl. D. 939. Anonymous almanac; copied roughly 1389; Worcestershire. Credit: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

The University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries is set to open a new exhibition looking at some of the earliest examples of English graphic design.

On display at the Weston Library from next month, Designing English: Graphics on the Medieval Page will largely showcase the work of Anglo-Saxon and Medieval scribes, painters and engravers dating from the fifth to the 15th century.

The exhibition will trace the origins of graphic design from this era, when specialists first began to preserve and present writing in English. For the previous 1,000 years, the majority of texts had been written in Latin. Producing new books in English gave their creators the opportunity to reimagine how they were designed and laid out, according to the exhibition curator, Daniel Wakelin, who is also a professor of Medieval English Paleography at the university.

“Medieval writers had to be graphic designers every time they wrote or carved their words,” says Wakellin. “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.”

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 pictures run across facing pages, so that you can compare samples easily. These pages not only illustrate colour; they organise knowledge in orderly form. Credit: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

The exhibition will feature over 60 manuscripts and objects from the Bodleian collections, which is one of the largest medieval collections in the UK, according to the University of Oxford. These will sit alongside items on loan from the British Museum and Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Exhibits range from medical texts including a rotating volvelle diagram, to religious texts such as an English translation of the Bible that may have belonged to Henry VI, which includes colour coded instructions on how to read them.

Other highlights include some of the earliest known works in the English language, such as Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, and English translations of hymns composed by Caedmon; an illiterate cowherd by trade who is said to be the first English poet.


Designing English: Graphics on the Medieval Page runs from 1 December 2017 – 22 April 2018 at The Weston Library, Bodleian Libraries, Broad Street, Oxford OX1 3BG. Entry is free. For more information, head here.

‘In the beginning was the word’ – A late-eighth-century or early-ninth-century Latin Gospel, painted in Ireland by Macregol, possibly abbot of Birr, County Offaly (d. 822), and glossed in the 10th century in English by two scribes. English translations were added to the original Latin text by medieval scholars. MS. Auct. D. 2. 19, fol. 127r. Credit: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford
‘I vary in my speech’ – A copy made around the third quarter of the 15th century of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1390s); at the division between The Tale of Sir Thopas and The Tale of Melibee, the initial, border, running head and title help the reader to navigate the text. Credit: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford
Our hunting ancestors understood the look of different creatures; this could be shown in pictures, with text just for captions. The artist of this hunting manual draws distinctions between different ages of deer, which would be hard to identify without these pictures of the growth of their antlers. MS. Bodl. 546, fols 2v–3r. Gaston Fébus, The Master of Game, translated by Edward of York between 1406 and 1413; copied between 1413 and 1459. Credit: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford
While some authors and scribes put the data of astronomy and astrology into tables or diagrams, others made books with moving ‘volvelles’ like this: 3D disks revolving on string or a twist of parchment. These let readers make calculations (for the phases of the moon and time of night) for themselves, in more combinations than any one diagram could show. MS. Ashmole 370, fols 24v–25r. Nicholas of Lynn, Kalendarium, composed 1386; copied c. 1425. Credit: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford
King Alfred planned a set of useful translations from Latin, like this manual for clergymen. 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’ with an æstel or pointer. Is the Alfred Jewel the æstel? Credit: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford
King Alfred the Great says in his preface to Gregory’s manual for clergymen, that every copy had an ‘æstel’ on it. What an ‘æstel’ was is not sure, but etymology suggests it was a pointing tool, to follow words when reading. This jewel from Alfred’s era seems to be the handle of such a pointer, and written round the side in gold capitals is ‘AELFRED MEC HEHT GEVVYRCAN’. ‘Alfred had me made’. It is unclear whether Alfred designed it. Credit: Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

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