This commentary is based on the classroom activity: Illuminated Manuscripts in the Middle Ages
Q1: What evidence is there in these sources that some of the illustrators were women?
A1: In source 2, Christine de Pisan points out that some manuscript artists were women. Source 3 also provides support for this view.
Q2: Why is the Luttrell psalter so important to historians writing about everyday life in the Middle Ages? Why would historians need to check the information contained in the Luttrell psalter with other sources?
A2: The Luttrell psalter is important to historians as it contains detailed visual evidence of everyday life in the Middle Ages. Historians would need to check this information because they would want to find out if the pictures in the book were reliable. For example, it is possible that the Luttrell estate used farming methods that were different from estates in other parts of Britain. It is always necessary to consult a wide variety of sources before making firm judgements about what happened in the past.
Q3: Read source 6. This source was produced over 700 years after the death of Matthew Paris. What kind of sources would Janet Blackhouse have looked at before making these comments about the illustrations of Matthew Paris? How would she have checked this information?
A3: Janet Backhouse in source 6 claims that Matthew Paris (source 7) was "an accomplished artist, adding with his own hand the coloured drawings that embellish most of his original manuscripts." Blackhouse's judgement was obviously based on looking at the original manuscripts. However, Blackhouse would have also wanted evidence that Paris was the man who actually did these drawings. In source 4, Thomas Walsingham provides evidence that Matthew Paris did his own illustrations. This appears to be fairly reliable information as Walsingham worked in the same monastery as Matthew Paris. Although Paris was dead by the time Walsingham wrote his book, he was in a good position to check whether this information was accurate.
The phrase “Middle Ages” tells us more about the Renaissance that followed it than it does about the era itself. Starting around the 14th century, European thinkers, writers and artists began to look back and celebrate the art and culture of ancient Greece and Rome. Accordingly, they dismissed the period after the fall of Rome as a “Middle” or even rk” age in which no scientific accomplishments had been made, no great art produced, no great leaders born. The people of the Middle Ages had squandered the advancements of their predecessors, this argument went, and mired themselves instead in what 18th-century English historian Edward Gibbon called rbarism and religion.”
Did you know? Between 1347 and 1350, a mysterious disease known as the "Black Death" (the bubonic plague) killed some 20 million people in Europe percent of the continent’s population. It was especially deadly in cities, where it was impossible to prevent the transmission of the disease from one person to another.
This way of thinking about the era in the “middle” of the fall of Rome and the rise of the Renaissance prevailed until relatively recently. However, today’s scholars note that the era was as complex and vibrant as any other.
Written in the Stars: Astronomy and Astrology in Medieval Manuscripts
Humankind has always looked to the sky in wonder, with a desire to understand our place in the universe. Eclipses, comets, and star and planet sightings mesmerize us and inspire awe. In the medieval world, from about 500 to 1500, astronomy was a required field of study. From London to Baghdad and beyond, students of medicine, philosophy, and even theology carefully observed the astrological relationship between the 12 signs of the zodiac and one’s physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. Indeed, peoples of many religions believed that the radiant sun, full moon, twinkling stars, and distant planets held great power over their lives, the seasons, and daily activities.
The Getty Center’s exhibition The Wondrous Cosmos in Medieval Manuscripts (April 30 to July 21, 2019) invites you to marvel at the complexity of the celestial realm in European faith and science traditions, with a glimpse at how similar beliefs held sway in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. The illuminated manuscripts show how astronomy and astrology infused everyday life in the Middle Ages, from medicine to religion and beyond.
Astronomy and Astrology
Philosophy Presenting the Seven Liberal Arts to Boethius from Consolation of Philosophy, about 1460–70, Boethius, made in Paris, France. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 42 (81.MS.11), leaf 2, verso
Faith and science—or the humanities and the sciences—were closely aligned in the Middle Ages. Universities across Europe organized their courses and bookshelves around the seven liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, logic, music, geometry, arithmetic, and astronomy. As the study of the physics of cosmic orbs and other astral phenomena, astronomy was the foundation for astrology, which seeks to correlate these celestial events with happenings on Earth and individual human affairs. By looking at a range of manuscripts containing texts from astronomy and astrology, the exhibition shows the close relationship between the two.
A cutting from the manuscript The Consolation of Philosophy, written by the fifth- to sixth-century writer Boethius, depicts the author speaking to Philosophy, who leads personifications of each of the aforementioned subjects. The last personification is Astronomy, who gazes up at the sun and moon while holding an armillary sphere, a model of the celestial universe.
Another example from Boethius proposes a relationship between music and astronomy. In a scheme known as “the music of the spheres,” Boethius assigned musical value to each of the known planets based on their positions in the sky relative to the Earth, similar to a musical scale. The basic scale begins with the Moon, followed by Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. An illumination in an early-fifteenth-century copy of the text shows Boethius explaining his method to a group: a hovering golden orb indicates a musical tone, the diatessaron (a fourth above the tone), and diapente (a fifth above). (The movement of the celestial spheres has inspired composers and musicians to the present, from Palestrina to Beyoncé, and from Franz Joseph Haydn to Nico Muhly, Sufjan Stevens, and Ariana Grande. See astrophysicist and musician Matt Russo’s brilliant TEDx talk, “What Does the Universe Sound Like? A Musical Tour” for a captivating demonstration of this long history.)
The Influence of the Stars
The Planet Jupiter Represented as a Bishop on Horseback (left) and Venus Riding a Stag (right) in an Astronomical Miscellany, shortly after 1464, made in Ulm or Augsburg, Germany. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig XII 8 (83.MO.137), fols. 49v and 50v
All year round, from sunrise to sunset, people in medieval Europe regulated their lives based on the position and movement of heavenly luminaries (the sun and moon), the planets, and the stars that constitute the signs of the zodiac. Even the language for the days of the week shows this influence, with Latin-based names derived from planets:
- Monday is moon day, and moon in Latin is luna, from which we get lundi (French), lunes (Spanish), and lunedì (Italian).
- Tuesday is Mars-day (mardi, martes, martedì).
- Wednesday is Mercury-day (mercredi, miércoles, mercoledì).
- Thursday is Jupiter-day (jeudi, jueves, giovedì).
- Friday is Venus-day (vendredi, viernes, venerdì).
- Saturday is Saturn-day, but in Latin languages is the Judeo-Christian day of Sabbath (samedi, sábado, sabato).
- Sunday is the day of the sun or day of the Christian God when derived from Latin.
A manuscript with various astronomical texts—called a miscellany—illustrates the degree to which cosmic forces were thought to influence one’s life. It features a series of watercolors personifying planets or celestial bodies, including the Sun as an emperor, the Moon as a woman, Mars as an armored knight, Mercury as a doctor, Jupiter as a bishop, Venus as a lady holding an arrow of love, and Saturn as an elderly man. Each figure is associated with a color and adorned accordingly: golden yellow (the Sun), green (the Moon), red (Mars), silver (Mercury), blue (Jupiter), white (Venus), and black (Saturn).
Pisces and Diagram for Friday (left) and Libra and Taurus (right) in an Astronomical Miscellany, shortly after 1464, Ulm or Augsburg, Germany. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig XII 8 (83.MO.137), fols. 56v-57
Several pages later, circular diagrams declare the relationship between the luminaries or planets and the days of the week. For example, “Friday belongs to Venus.” At the center of the concentric circles is a representation of the planet named after the Roman goddess of love and beauty imagined as a white, six-pointed burst emanating red rays.
The 24 hours of the day—indicated by Roman numerals I through XII repeated twice—are color-coded to the heavenly body that governs quotidian activities. Thus at noon on Friday we are under the influence of the moon, whereas at six o’clock in the evening Mars holds power over us. Representations of the zodiac signs Pisces, Libra, and Taurus are also found on these pages, each accompanied by planets or a luminary (Pisces features Jupiter and Mars, Libra the moon, Saturn, and Jupiter, and Taurus Mercury, the Moon, and Saturn).
Month by Month
April Calendar Page with Saint George (left) and May Calendar Page with Gemini and Courtly Love (right) in a Book of Hours, about 1440–50, made in Paris, France. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig IX 6 (83.ML.102), fols. 4v-5
Devotional or liturgical manuscripts often feature calendars that provide a wealth of information about faith and the cosmos. One such codex type, the book of hours, contains prayers and readings for daily to annual use. A calendar for the month of May in a mid-15th-century book of hours from Paris, for example, begins with an inscription stating that May has 31 days and 30 appearances of the moon. The first column includes Roman numerals to help readers determine the phases of the moon. They used this information to make decisions, such as when to fast or seek medicinal remedies. The second column indicates the days of the week, lettered A through G. At the bottom of the page, the artist included the so-called Labor of the Month, a seasonally appropriate activity such as picking flowers in April or sowing a field in October. Each sign of the zodiac was assigned to a full month during the Middle Ages, whereas today’s astrology follows a slightly different dating system.
The modern timeframes in the year for the zodiac signs have shifted from those in the Middle Ages, when they also dictated daily activity.
A diagram from a 1518 calendar manuscript indicates 54 major veins that may be drained according to the phases of the moon or the season of the year. This practice of bloodletting, an ancient medical process of withdrawing blood, seeks to balance bodily fluids known as humors (such as black and yellow bile and phlegm).
Left: Zodiacal Man in The Great Roman Calendar, 1518, Johann Stoeffler, made in Oppenheim, Germany. Getty Research Institute, 87-B635
Right: Zodiacal Man in Très Riches Heures de Jean de Berry, 1413–16, the Limbourg Brothers, made in France. Chantilly, Musée Condé, Ms. 65
The figure depicted also contains zodiac symbols, each one holding power over a particular body part: Aries (♈) on the head Taurus (♉) on the neck Gemini (♊) on the shoulders Cancer (♋) on the chest Leo (♌) on the sternum Virgo (♍) on the stomach Libra (♎) on the lower abdomen Scorpio (♏) on the genitalia Sagittarius (♐) on the thighs Capricorn (♑) on the knees Aquarius (♒) on the legs and Pisces (♓) on the feet. The most famous medieval representation of the Zodiacal Man appears in the French manuscript known as the Très Riches Heures de Jean de Berry, illustrated by the Limbourg Brothers.
Visions of the Universe in the Christian Tradition
Left: The Fall of the Rebel Angels in Livre de Bonnes Meurs, about 1430, made in Avignon, France. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig XIV 9 (83.MQ.170), fol. 3v
Right: The Crucifixion in the Katherine Hours, about 1480–85, Jean Bourdichon, made in Tours, France. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 6 (84.ML.746), fol. 77
A selection of manuscripts in Wondrous Cosmos provides insights into Christian theology and celestial themes in sacred scripture and art. These include a music manuscript showing the creation of the world the Book of Good Manners detailing the cosmic battle between warrior angels and rebel angels and numerous episodes from Christ’s life (the angelic annunciation of Jesus’s birth to shepherds, the magi following a star to find the Christ child, the eclipse during the Crucifixion, and Christ’s ascension into heaven). The images and accompanying texts demonstrate the central role of heavenly lights, angels, and demons in church services and private devotional practices.
The Woman Clothed in the Sun in the Getty Apocalypse, about 1255–60, probably made in London, England. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig III 1 (83.MC.72), fols. 19v-20
A centerpiece of the exhibition is the Getty Apocalypse, a mid-13th-century English manuscript containing the biblical book of Revelation (also called Apocalypse), which describes enigmatic visions of the end of time. One of the most stunning page spreads features the so-called Woman Clothed in the Sun, with the moon at her feet, stars in her hair, and sunlight wreathing her body. The commentary tells us that the woman represents the Church, which gives light to both day and night. She gives birth to souls saved by angels, while a dragon, representing the devil, gathers one-third of the stars of the heavens in its tail, a symbol of Apocalypse.
Out of this World Connections Across the Globe
Left: Initial C: The Creation of the World from a noted breviary, about 1420, made in northeastern Italy. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 24 (86.ML.674), leaf 5
Right: Map Rock petroglyph, 1054, Shoshone-Bannock People, Givens Hot Springs, Canyon County, southwestern Idaho. Photo: Kenneth D. and Rosemarie Ann Keene
Several manuscripts and printed books in the exhibition reveal the global entanglements of astronomical or astrological ideas during the Middle Ages. For example, two miscellanies at the Getty contain constellation diagrams with the names of star groupings sometimes provided in Latin, Greek, and Latinized Arabic. This linguistic diversity confirms the connections among universities in Western Europe and centers of learning in Eastern Europe, Western Asia, and the vast Muslim world, where texts in many languages were copied, translated, and transmitted.
The tale of Barlaam and Josaphat by Rudolf von Ems, from about 1200 to 1254, illustrates cosmic themes through a story in India. At the beginning of the tale, the imaginary King Avenir of India consults astrologists to interpret omens of planetary and astral alignment related to the birth of the future prince Josaphat. They predict that the young prince will convert to Christianity, which angers the king, who then confines his son to the palace. Inspired by encounters with sickness, poverty, old age, and death, the prince still becomes Christian, fulfilling the celestial prophecies. The saying “written in the stars” expresses the belief that cosmic or universal forces control the future, a theme found in this story as well as works of history, literature, and oral tradition around the world since time immemorial.
The architecture of sacred structures built or enlarged during the medieval period and sites of pilgrimage also often evoked ideas of the cosmos and the place of humans within it. A major pilgrimage site in India, the Great Stupa at Sanchi, offered Buddhists a metaphorical microcosm of the universe. For Muslims, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem commemorates the Night Journey, when the angel Jibril (Gabriel) transported the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Jerusalem and into Heaven. Meanwhile, sculptors adorned the façade of Amiens Cathedral in France with the Virgin and Child and saints, making it a heavenly portal into the church space.
Art and Wonder Across Time
I have always been fascinated by the celestial realm. This exhibition is inspired by a range of sources in my life, including my childhood spent stargazing on camping trips and watching Star Trek and Star Wars. Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage is a long-time favorite (as is Neil deGrasse Tyson’s edition).
More recently, I’ve become fascinated by an event that captured the attention of people worldwide many centuries ago. In 1054, people witnessed the light burst of what is now known as the Crab Nebula, a supernova. Contemporaneous texts describing the fantastic cosmic event exist in Japan and Iraq later references to the awesome astral phenomenon can be detected in China and Central Europe. Pictographs, carvings, rock art, and cave paintings found across North America may also memorialize the sighting.
Clearly an interest in the cosmos has a long history, and there is still so much to learn about our shared global past. Archeoastronomers and archivists continue to piece these clues together, drawing connections between distant communities, the medieval world, and our own time. I hope visitors to the exhibition will take a moment to pause from the business of life to ponder these connections, inspired by medieval illustrations about the cosmos.
Explore a Global Middle Ages through the Pages of Decorated Books
Manuscripts and printed books—like today’s museums, archives, and libraries—provide glimpses into how people have perceived the Earth, its many cultures, and everyone’s place in it. Toward a Global Middle Ages: Encountering the World through Illuminated Manuscripts, a new book from Getty Publications, invites you to explore this theme, presenting a range of book types from premodern Africa, Europe, Asia, the Americas, and Austronesia.
Gospel book, about 1480–1520, made in Gunda Gunde Monastery, Ethiopia. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 105 (2010.17). Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program
Books produced during a global Middle Ages reveal a vast variety of structures and styles. Pages from a Prajnaparamita (The Perfection of Wisdom) manuscript (detail), 1025, made in Bihar, India. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, M.86.185a-d. Image: www.lacma.org
The production of books is a collaborative undertaking. In the premodern period, this process could involve the makers of writing surfaces, binding supports, scribes, procurers and creators of pigment, merchants, artists, patrons, and eventually the readers, viewers, or listeners. Toward a Global Middle Ages includes essays by twenty-six authors who are specialists of the art of the book.
Whose Middle Ages?
The Rothschild Pentateuch, 1296, made in France and/or Germany. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 116 (2018.43)
Mogao Caves 16-17 (Library Cave), Dunhuang, Gansu Province, China, 862 (sealed around 1000). Photo courtesy of Dunhuang Academy
Folios from a Qur’an, Shiraz, Iran, 1550–75. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, M.2010.54.1. Image: www.lacma.org
What do we mean by a global Middle Ages (or medieval period)? Writing about the Middle Ages has traditionally centered on the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities in Europe, Western Asia, and the greater Mediterranean between the years 500 and 1500. The term “Middle Ages” was used in the nineteenth century to describe a medium aevum, a middle age between the Roman Empire and the Renaissance.
For decades, scholars have challenged this Eurocentric view of the past, turning attention to a global Middle Ages that includes Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Austronesia. Some of these scholars seek to uncover networks, pathways, routes, or links between people and places. In doing so, an aim has been to reveal the lives of those who have been silenced by history or tradition: women, enslaved individuals, Indigenous peoples, queer or disabled groups. Others take a comparative approach, examining similar phenomena in different places at the same time or over time. Toward a Global Middle Ages expands upon these perspectives.
There are also discussions about the meaning of “global” at a local level, and whether it is possible to speak of early globalities prior to the sustained transatlantic contacts between Europe, the Americas, and Africa in the late fifteenth century (it should be acknowledged that the latter view still largely centers on Europe—as indicated below and in the volume, peoples of northeastern China and Siberia had contacts with First Nation peoples, including those who inhabited the Aleutian Islands).
Some scholars select a hemispheric focus—referring to a hemispheric Middle Ages—that concentrates on Africa, Europe, and Asia on the one hand, and the Americas on the other. With this approach, we can still find connections through comparisons if we look to astronomy or astrology, for example, as I discuss in Toward a Global Middle Ages and have outlined briefly before we might also consider global climate change (evidenced through ice cores and testimony from manuscripts or oral traditions) and the spread of diseases or the relationship between botany and linguistic development of words for popular trade goods, such as sweet potato or tea. Whichever methodology seems most applicable to the scope of a given study, one recommendation is to continually resist Eurocentrism and to cross boundaries—of periodization, discipline or specialization, historical or present-day geography, language (of documents and of academic training), and so forth.
It takes time to redirect the writing of history. The authors of this book therefore describe what we do as working toward a global Middle Ages.
Paper, Parchment, and Palm Leaves
Books were key modes of cultural expression and exchange throughout the Middle Ages. Manuscript means “handwritten,” from the Latin words manus (“hand”) and scriptus (“written”). Lavish examples were often embellished with metallic leaf or paint that shimmered in the light, which gives us the term “illuminated.” Print technology allowed images and texts to be replicated, and some global traditions combined manuscript and print.
Across Afro-Eurasia, the Americas, and Austronesia during the medieval period, bookmakers used a variety of supports and structures, including paper, parchment, and palm leaves. Each of these could be gathered together in various ways: bound as a codex, rolled as a scroll, or folded as an album. In some instances, we have to look at other types of artworks for glimpses of book or writing traditions (as with the Maya, whose long history of codex creation was decimated by the Spanish conquest yet ceramic vessels provide evidence for early manuscript production in Mesoamerica). The examples shown in this post hint at the diversity of book types and formats.
Two images on different supports depicting scribes at work, illustrating the collaborative undertaking of book-making. Gospel book, 1386, made in Lake Van, historic Armenian kingdom. Black ink and watercolor on paper, 9 7/16 × 6 1/2 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig II 6 (83.MB.70), fol. 13v. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program
Codex-Style Cylinder Vessel with Scribes, 650–800, Guatemala or Mexico, Northern Petén or Southern Campeche, Maya. Ceramic. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, M.2010.115.562. Image: www.lacma.org
Manuscript and books operated alongside other forms of literacy and visual storytelling throughout the Middle Ages. These include glyphic and graphic examples—characters or symbols carved or painted onto a surface, such as stone, ceramic, or the body—as well as oral traditions and memory aids. Such varied objects shed light on the many ways in which the book, broadly defined, functioned in multiple contexts in the past, and on the relationship between the visual arts and language, storytelling, and the commemoration of the past.
A World Without a Center
Across the medieval globe, people depicted the world as they knew it, including maps, luxury goods from local and distant lands, legendary peoples, “new worlds,” the “known world,” or even of the universe. World map from the Book of Curiosities of the Sciences and Marvels for the Eyes, Egypt, 1020–50 CE / 410–41 AH. Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ms. Arab c.90
Codex Mendoza, 1542, possibly Francisco Gualpuyogualcal and Juan Gonzalez (artists), Nahua and Spanish culture, made in Mexico City. Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ms. Arch. Selden A.1
Bestiary, 1277 or after, made in Thérouanne (Flanders), present-day France. Tempera colors, pen and ink, gold leaf, and gold paint on parchment, 9 3/16 × 6 7/16 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig XV 4 (83.MR.174), fol. 120. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program
Maps are another focus of the new publication. Like manuscripts, maps present world views, including views of self and others they also change frequently and are often political.
Fascinating parallels emerge when looking at maps across cultures. The 11th-century “Book of Curiosities” from Egypt, for example, describes legendary peoples and creatures that also appear in a 13th-century European compendium of Latin texts. The Ottoman admiral-mapmaker Piri Reis and the Korean scholar Kwon Kun created maps that include portions of the Americas (Brazil and the Aleutian Islands of present-day Alaska, respectively).
Mapping can also take many forms. On the Shoshone-Bannock Map Rock in Idaho, for example, Indigenous mapmakers charted astrological and geographic information onto the surface of rocks. The 1542 Codex Mendoza features a Nahua map of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan and visualizes the tribute from the provinces as luxury items of jade and feathers.
Piri Reis world map (detail), Isbantul 1513 CE / AH 919. Istanbul, Topkapi Sarayi Museum, No. H 1824
Kangnido Map, 1402, copy from the late 15th century. Honkoo-ji Tokiwa Museum of Historcal Materials, Shimabara, Nagasaki prefecture, Japan
Map Rock Petroglyph, Shoshone-Bannock People, Givens Hot Springs, Canyon County, southwestern Idaho, 1054 or later. Photo: Rosemarie Ann and Kenneth D. Keene
Through these and many other examples of maps, manuscripts, and related book arts, Toward a Global Middle Ages demonstrates that geographic and cultural boundaries were and are porous, fluid, and permeable.
My co-authors and I hope this new book contributes to the vibrant conversations about a global Middle Ages, and to the role of manuscripts and visual culture in these conversations. I welcome comments and questions about the book and its themes, and particularly hope it can be of use to instructors and students—see the resource list below, prepared with research and classroom use in mind.
To Explore More
Download a resource list for Toward a Global Middle Ages, including the table of contents, related Getty online resources, and a list of manuscripts and books discussed in the book.
Art historians classify illuminated manuscripts into their historic periods and types, including (but not limited to) Late Antique, Insular, Carolingian manuscripts, Ottonian manuscripts, Romanesque manuscripts, Gothic manuscripts, and Renaissance manuscripts. There are a few examples from later periods. The type of book most often heavily and richly illuminated, sometimes known as a "display book", varied between periods. In the first millennium, these were most likely to be Gospel Books, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells. The Romanesque period saw the creation of many large illuminated complete Bibles – one in Sweden requires three librarians to lift it. Many Psalters were also heavily illuminated in both this and the Gothic period. Single cards or posters of vellum, leather or paper were in wider circulation with short stories or legends on them about the lives of saints, chivalry knights or other mythological figures, even criminal, social or miraculous occurrences popular events much freely used by story tellers and itinerant actors to support their plays. Finally, the Book of Hours, very commonly the personal devotional book of a wealthy layperson, was often richly illuminated in the Gothic period. Many were illuminated with miniatures, decorated initials and floral borders. Paper was rare and most Books of Hours were composed of sheets of parchment made from skins of animals, usually sheep or goats. Other books, both liturgical and not, continued to be illuminated at all periods.
The Byzantine world produced manuscripts in its own style, versions of which spread to other Orthodox and Eastern Christian areas. The Muslim World and in particular the Iberian Peninsula, with their traditions of literacy uninterrupted by the Middle Ages, were instrumental in delivering ancient classic works to the growing intellectual circles and universities of Western Europe all through the 12th century, as books were produced there in large numbers and on paper for the first time in Europe, and with them full treatises on the sciences, especially astrology and medicine where illumination was required to have profuse and accurate representations with the text.
The Gothic period, which generally saw an increase in the production of these artifacts, also saw more secular works such as chronicles and works of literature illuminated. Wealthy people began to build up personal libraries Philip the Bold probably had the largest personal library of his time in the mid-15th century, is estimated to have had about 600 illuminated manuscripts, whilst a number of his friends and relations had several dozen.
Up to the 12th century, most manuscripts were produced in monasteries in order to add to the library or after receiving a commission from a wealthy patron. Larger monasteries often contained separate areas for the monks who specialized in the production of manuscripts called a scriptorium. Within the walls of a scriptorium were individualized areas where a monk could sit and work on a manuscript without being disturbed by his fellow brethren. If no scriptorium was available, then "separate little rooms were assigned to book copying they were situated in such a way that each scribe had to himself a window open to the cloister walk". 
By the 14th century, the cloisters of monks writing in the scriptorium had almost fully given way to commercial urban scriptoria, especially in Paris, Rome and the Netherlands.  While the process of creating an illuminated manuscript did not change, the move from monasteries to commercial settings was a radical step. Demand for manuscripts grew to an extent that Monastic libraries began to employ secular scribes and illuminators.  These individuals often lived close to the monastery and, in instances, dressed as monks whenever they entered the monastery, but were allowed to leave at the end of the day. In reality, illuminators were often well known and acclaimed and many of their identities have survived. 
First, the manuscript was "sent to the rubricator, who added (in red or other colors) the titles, headlines, the initials of chapters and sections, the notes and so on and then – if the book was to be illustrated – it was sent to the illuminator".  In the case of manuscripts that were sold commercially, the writing would "undoubtedly have been discussed initially between the patron and the scribe (or the scribe’s agent,) but by the time that the written gathering were sent off to the illuminator there was no longer any scope for innovation". 
Illumination was a complex and frequently costly process. It was usually reserved for special books: an altar Bible, for example. Wealthy people often had richly illuminated "books of hours" made, which set down prayers appropriate for various times in the liturgical day.
In the early Middle Ages, most books were produced in monasteries, whether for their own use, for presentation, or for a commission. However, commercial scriptoria grew up in large cities, especially Paris, and in Italy and the Netherlands, and by the late 14th century there was a significant industry producing manuscripts, including agents who would take long-distance commissions, with details of the heraldry of the buyer and the saints of personal interest to him (for the calendar of a Book of hours). By the end of the period, many of the painters were women, perhaps especially in Paris.
The text was usually written before the manuscripts were illuminated. Sheets of parchment or vellum were cut down to the appropriate size. These sizes ranged from 'Atlantic' Bibles large stationary works to small hand held works.  After the general layout of the page was planned (including the initial capitals and borders), the page was lightly ruled with a pointed stick, and the scribe went to work with ink-pot and either sharpened quill feather or reed pen. The script depended on local customs and tastes. The sturdy Roman letters of the early Middle Ages gradually gave way to scripts such as Uncial and half-Uncial, especially in the British Isles, where distinctive scripts such as insular majuscule and insular minuscule developed. Stocky, richly textured blackletter was first seen around the 13th century and was particularly popular in the later Middle Ages.
Prior to the days of such careful planning, "A typical black-letter page of these Gothic years would show a page in which the lettering was cramped and crowded into a format dominated by huge ornamented capitals that descended from uncial forms or by illustrations".  To prevent such poorly made manuscripts and illuminations from occurring a script was typically supplied first, "and blank spaces were left for the decoration. This pre-supposes very careful planning by the scribe even before he put pen to parchment". If the scribe and the illuminator were separate labors the planning period allowed for adequate space to be given to each individual.
The process of illumination Edit
The following steps outline the detailed labor involved to create the illuminations of one page of a manuscript:
- drawing of the design were executed
- Burnished gold dots applied
- The application of modulating colors
- Continuation of the previous three steps in addition to the outlining of marginal figures
- The penning of a rinceau appearing in the border of a page
- The final step, the marginal figures are painted 
The illumination and decoration was normally planned at the inception of the work, and space reserved for it. However, the text was usually written before illumination began. In the Early Medieval period the text and illumination were often done by the same people, normally monks, but by the High Middle Ages the roles were typically separated, except for routine initials and flourishes, and by at least the 14th century there were secular workshops producing manuscripts, and by the beginning of the 15th century these were producing most of the best work, and were commissioned even by monasteries. When the text was complete, the illustrator set to work. Complex designs were planned out beforehand, probably on wax tablets, the sketch pad of the era. The design was then traced or drawn onto the vellum (possibly with the aid of pinpricks or other markings, as in the case of the Lindisfarne Gospels). Many incomplete manuscripts survive from most periods, giving us a good idea of working methods.
At all times, most manuscripts did not have images in them. In the early Middle Ages, manuscripts tend to either be display books with very full illumination, or manuscripts for study with at most a few decorated initials and flourishes. By the Romanesque period many more manuscripts had decorated or historiated initials, and manuscripts essentially for study often contained some images, often not in color. This trend intensified in the Gothic period, when most manuscripts had at least decorative flourishes in places, and a much larger proportion had images of some sort. Display books of the Gothic period in particular had very elaborate decorated borders of foliate patterns, often with small drolleries. A Gothic page might contain several areas and types of decoration: a miniature in a frame, a historiated initial beginning a passage of text, and a border with drolleries. Often different artists worked on the different parts of the decoration.
While the use of gold is by far one of the most captivating features of illuminated manuscripts, the bold use of varying colors provided multiple layers of dimension to the illumination. From a religious perspective, "the diverse colors wherewith the book is illustrated, not unworthily represent the multiple grace of heavenly wisdom." 
The medieval artist's palette was broad a partial list of pigments is given below. In addition, unlikely-sounding substances such as urine and earwax were used to prepare pigments. 
- , also known as cochineal, where carminic acid from the Dactylopius coccus insect is mixed with an aluminum salt to produce the dye , also known as kermes, extracted from the insect Kermes vermilio and , a scarlet resinous secretion of a number of species of insects.
Chemical- and mineral-based colors, including:
- , chemically lead tetroxide, Pb3O4, found in nature as the mineral minium, or made by heating white lead , chemically mercury sulfide, HgS, and found in nature as the mineral cinnabar , chemically hydrated ferric oxide, Fe2O3·n H2O, or iron oxide-rich earth compounds.
- , processed from the Reseda luteola plant , from the Curcuma longa plant and , rarely due to cost, from the Crocus sativus.
Mineral-based colors, including:
- , an earth pigment that occurs as the mineral limonite and , chemically arsenic trisulfide, As2S3.
- , chemically cupric acetate, Cu(OAc)2·(H2O)2, made historically by boiling copper plates in vinegar , a mineral found in nature, chemically basic copper carbonate, Cu2CO3·(OH)2 and
- China green, a plant-based pigment extracted from buckthorn (Rhamnus tinctoria, R. utilis) berries.
- , produced from the leaves of the plant Isatis tinctoria , derived from the plant Indigofera tinctoria and , also known as folium, a dyestuff prepared from the plant Crozophora tinctoria.
Chemical- and mineral-based colors, including:
- , made from the minerals lapis lazuli or azurite and , now known as cobalt blue.
- , chemically basic lead carbonate, 2PbCO3·Pb(OH)2, and historically made by corroding sheets of lead with vinegar, and covering that with decaying matter, such as dung, to provide the necessary carbon dioxide for the chemical reaction and , chemically calcium carbonate, CaCO3.
- , from sources such as lampblack, charcoal, or burnt bones or ivory , from the ink produced by the cuttlefish, usually for an escape mechanism and , where in medieval times iron nails would be boiled in vinegar the resulting compound would then be mixed with an extract of oak apple (oakgalls).
- , gold hammered extremely thin, or gold powder, bound in gum arabic or egg the latter is called shell gold.
- , either silver leaf or powdered, as with gold and leaf, also as with gold.
On the strictest definition, a manuscript is not considered "illuminated" unless one or many illuminations contained metal, normally gold leaf or shell gold paint, or at least was brushed with gold specks. Gold leaf was from the 12th century usually polished, a process known as burnishing. The inclusion of gold alludes to many different possibilities for the text. If the text is of religious nature lettering in gold is a sign of exalting the text. In the early centuries of Christianity, “Gospel manuscripts were sometimes written entirely in gold".  The gold ground style, with all or most of the background in gold, was taken from Byzantine mosaics and icons. Aside from adding rich decoration to the text, scribes during the time considered themselves to be praising God with their use of gold. Furthermore, gold was used if a patron who had commissioned a book to be written wished to display the vastness of his riches. Eventually, the addition of gold to manuscripts became so frequent, "that its value as a barometer of status with the manuscript was degraded".  During this time period the price of gold had become so cheap that its inclusion in an illuminated manuscript accounted for only a tenth of the cost of production.  By adding richness and depth to the manuscript, the use of gold in illuminations created pieces of art that are still valued today.
The application of gold leaf or dust to an illumination is a very detailed process that only the most skilled illuminators can undertake and successfully achieve. The first detail an illuminator considered when dealing with gold was whether to use gold leaf or specks of gold that could be applied with a brush. When working with gold leaf the pieces would be hammered and thinned until they were "thinner than the thinnest paper".  The use of this type of leaf allowed for numerous areas of the text to be outlined in gold. There were several ways of applying gold to an illumination one of the most popular included mixing the gold with stag's glue and then "pour it into water and dissolve it with your finger".  Once the gold was soft and malleable in the water it was ready to be applied to the page. Illuminators had to be very careful when applying gold leaf to the manuscript. Gold leaf is able to "adhere to any pigment which had already been laid, ruining the design, and secondly the action of burnishing it is vigorous and runs the risk of smudging any painting already around it."
Monasteries produced manuscripts for their own use heavily illuminated ones tended to be reserved for liturgical use in the early period, while the monastery library held plainer texts. In the early period manuscripts were often commissioned by rulers for their own personal use or as diplomatic gifts, and many old manuscripts continued to be given in this way, even into the Early Modern period. Especially after the book of hours became popular, wealthy individuals commissioned works as a sign of status within the community, sometimes including donor portraits or heraldry: "In a scene from the New Testament, Christ would be shown larger than an apostle, who would be bigger than a mere bystander in the picture, while the humble donor of the painting or the artist himself might appear as a tiny figure in the corner."   The calendar was also personalized, recording the feast days of local or family saints. By the end of the Middle Ages many manuscripts were produced for distribution through a network of agents, and blank spaces might be reserved for the appropriate heraldry to be added locally by the buyer.
Displaying the amazing detail and richness of a text, the addition of illumination was never an afterthought. The inclusion of illumination is twofold, it added value to the work, but more importantly it provides pictures for the illiterate members of society to "make the reading seem more vivid and perhaps more credible". 
Classroom Activity : Illuminated Manuscripts in the Middle Ages - History
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Illuminated manuscript, handwritten book that has been decorated with gold or silver, brilliant colours, or elaborate designs or miniature pictures. Though various Islamic societies also practiced this art, Europe had one of the longest and most cultivated traditions of illuminating manuscripts.
The term illumination originally denoted the embellishment of the text of handwritten books with gold or, more rarely, silver, giving the impression that the page had been literally illuminated. In medieval times, when the art was at its height, specialization within scriptoria or workshops called for differentiation between those who “historiated” (i.e., illustrated texts by relevant paintings) and those who “illuminated” (i.e., supplied the decorative work that embellished initial capital letters and often spilled into margins and borders and that almost invariably introduced gold in either leaf or powdered form). The two functions sometimes overlapped, particularly when drolleries and other irrelevancies began to populate initials and borders, and even in medieval times the distinction was often blurred. In modern times the term illumination denotes the illustration and decoration of early manuscripts in general, whether or not with gold.
In the great era of the illuminated manuscript, the art of the illuminator often played an important role in the development of art. The portability of the manuscript made it a simple means for the transmission of ideas from one region to another, and even from one period to another. On the whole, the development of painting in manuscripts paralleled the development of monumental painting. After the development of printing in Europe in the second half of the 15th century, illumination was superseded by printed illustrations. See also scriptorium.
The Middle Ages
A representation of King David playing the organ, accompanied by youths with bellows and hurdy gurdy before Psalm 97, from the Rutland Psalter (Add MS 62925, f. 97v)
Art, music and literature blossomed in the Middle Ages, producing some of the most important works of Western civilisation.
Compared to today, few people were able to read and write. Those who could were mainly church men (and, to a lesser extent, women), who read and composed works (mostly in Latin) ranging from commentaries on the Bible, philosophy, history, and the saints, to romances, ghost stories, and bawdy tales of misadventure.
However, as an ever-more wealthy, literate and largely urban population developed in the high and later Middle Ages, so too did the audience for sophisticated writings. People read (or listened) for entertainment as well as education. A growing number of rich and aristocratic patrons had an appetite for many kinds of writing: books told of the exotic adventures of noblemen and women of ancient battles and love stories of the crimes of sinners and villains, and of the deeds of saints and heroes. This growing interest in literature is also reflected in the emergence of vernacular texts - texts written in Italian, French, English and so on - especially from the 1100s onwards. Whereas Latin writing was produced by and for a largely clerical audience, this new literature was accessible to a broader public.
Illustrated volume of Dante's Divine Comedy
Virgil and Dante encounter the three-headed Cerberus in Hell, in an illustration from a 14th-century copy of Dante's Divine Comedy (Egerton MS 943, f. 12r)
Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.
Celebrated writers like Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio wrote their major works not in Latin but in their native Italian Marie de France, Guillaume de Machaut and Eustache Deschamps wrote in French and William Langland, Geoffrey Chaucer, and the anonymous Gawain poet composed pioneering works in English. Meanwhile, many anonymous works in European languages also circulated.
Petrarch, Opuscula varia
An historiated initial P, containing a portrait of Petrarch seated in a garden reading a book, from a copy of his Opuscula Varia (Harley MS 3454, f. 1r)
Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy
An historiated initial N, containing a representation of Dante and Virgil in a dark wood, from an illustrated copy of Dante's Divine Comedy (Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 1r)
Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.
Thomas Hoccleve, The Regiment of Princes
A portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer, from Thomas Hoccleve's Regiment of Princes (Harley MS 4866, f. 88r)
Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.
Medieval literary culture was as much about listening as it was about reading. Many English works begin by instructing the audience to listen, showing that the writer assumed that the text would be read aloud. In the popular romance Guy of Warwick, the audience is told to &lsquoherken to mi romaunce rede.&rsquo Illuminations in many manuscripts show groups of people &ndash often noble in status and in a courtly setting &ndash listening to (or sometimes ignoring) a reader.
Music was a major part of secular and spiritual culture in the Middle Ages. The development of music and its notation &ndash that is, the way it was written down &ndash can be seen in many manuscript sources.
The most famous example of medieval song in English is the rota, or round, &lsquoSumer is icumen in&rsquo, illustrated in the manuscript below. This composition is from a volume of mid-13th century manuscripts, which probably originated from Reading Abbey. The piece requires four singers to sing the same melody, one after the other, starting when the previous singer reaches the red cross on the first line. While this is happening, two lower voices repeat the words &lsquoSing cuccu&rsquo. Instructions on how to perform the song are given in the bottom right hand corner of the page.
'Sumer is icumen in'
A medieval English song, 'Sumer is icumen in', accompanied by musical notation (Harley MS 978, f. 11v)
Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.
Manuscripts also contain many images of music being performed, showing not only musicians and musical instruments, but also the range of settings in which music was performed, including religious observances such as the Divine Office (the daily cycle of prayers performed by monks), funerals, and also secular settings such as banquets, balls, tournaments and fairs.
Hours of René of Anjou
An illustration of the Office of the Dead, from the Hours of René of Anjou (Egerton MS 1070, f. 54v)
Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.
A representation of feasting and dancing, from a 16th-century Book of Hours known as the 'Golf Book' (Add MS 24098, f. 19v)
Common medieval instruments included the harp, the lute, the bagpipe, the hurdy-gurdy, the psaltery and the lyre.
A representation of King David playing the organ, accompanied by youths with bellows and hurdy gurdy before Psalm 97, from the Rutland Psalter (Add MS 62925, f. 97v)
Albumazar, Treatise on astrology
Instruments including a harp, a viola, a lute, and a hurdy gurdy, represented in an illustrated copy of Albumazar'sTreatise on astrology (Sloane MS 3983, f. 13r)
Minstrels, who sang songs telling of romantic characters and faraway places, were commonly found entertaining wealthy aristocratic households but also performed in the streets of some prosperous towns. Their songs were often accompanied by acrobatic skills, tricks or jesting. Medical practitioners believed that music had powerful restorative qualities: it was believed to alleviate melancholy, aid the healing of wounds, and even to heal paralysis.
French Book of Hours
Representation of King David in prayer, from a 15th-century Book of Hours, made in Paris (Harley MS 2917, f. 93r)
Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.
Some images show evidence of negative attitudes to secular music, such as a tiny satirical marginal image in a Book of Hours showing a friar holding a pair of bellows like a fiddle and scraping out a tune with a distaff while a barefooted nun, who has hitched up her habit and flung her arms in the air, does a rude dance.
A marginal illustration of a friar with a musical instrument and a woman dancing, from the Maastricht Hours (Stowe MS 17, f. 38r)
Illuminated manuscripts are a precious source for learning about medieval visual culture, especially since they tend to be much better preserved than, for example, paintings on panels or walls. In the early Middle Ages, most illuminated manuscripts were produced in monasteries and had a religious theme: angels or saints, for example.
A line-drawing of St Pachomius receiving Easter Tables from an angel, from the Eadui Psalter (Arundel MS 155, f. 9v)
By the 13th century, this had begun to change: professional illuminators, often located in towns and cities, began to take over. One such illuminator was William de Brailes, who included an image of himself in the Book of Hours below painted c. 1240. These professional book producers were able to respond to a growing demand for books by people outside of religious contexts, including students and lay people.
De Brailes Hours
An historiated initial C, containing a representation of the illuminator William de Brailes as a tonsured man at prayer, from the De Brailes Hours (Add MS 49999, f. 43r)
Images in manuscripts relate to their written texts in a number of ways: sometimes, they represent the author, owner, donor or patron in other instances, they are used to articulate the text, making it easier for readers to find their way around the book and often the images comment on the text in some way, sometimes acting as a visual commentary on its content or on the circumstances in which it was produced, or in which it might be used. Images are not necessarily less important than the text in medieval manuscripts: sometimes they take priority over word, or stand alone without text, as for example, a focus for prayer and meditation. In many instances, especially in the later Middle Ages, marginal images were often humorous or even rude, perhaps intended to distract readers from the text with playful imagery.
- Written by Alixe Bovey
- Alixe Bovey is a medievalist whose research focuses on illuminated manuscripts, pictorial narrative, and the relationship between myth and material culture across historical periods and geographical boundaries. Her career began at the British Library, where she was a curator of manuscripts for four years she then moved to the School of History at the University of Kent. She is now Head of Research at The Courtauld Institute of Art.
The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.
Classroom Activity : Illuminated Manuscripts in the Middle Ages - History
An exhibition for kids and families!
This exhibition focuses on the working method of artists in the Middle Ages (about A.D. 500), when books were written and copied by hand. Visitors can explore medieval books from the Museum's collection and enjoy hands-on copying activities at a scriptorium table.
What Is a Scriptorium?
Scriptorium is a Latin word that means "place for writing." It was a place where books were copied and illuminated (painted).
A scribe wrote the text for a book, and an artist, called an illuminator, painted the pictures and decoration. Scribes and illuminators made each book by hand. Manuscripts (handmade books) were often written and illuminated by monks in monasteries.
Books were written on parchment made from the skin of sheep or goats. The animal skins were stretched and scraped so that they were smooth enough to write on. Precious materials, such as gold leaf and ground gemstones, were used to decorate the pages of manuscripts.
|Diagram of a manuscript page |
Parts of a Manuscript Page
A page in an illuminated manuscript has three parts:
a picture (called a miniature)
The picture and the words tell the story. The border is usually decorative.
|The French navy sets sail for battle on a page from the Chronicles, a history book made in the 1400s |
Pictures in manuscripts are called miniatures, but not because they are small. The word "miniature" comes from minium, the Latin word for the red paint used in almost every picture. Miniatures illustrated stories and made manuscripts more beautiful.
The miniature on this page illustrates an episode in a history book that tells stories of the wars between England and France in the 1300s. Here the French navy sets sail for Castille, in Spain, to fight the English.
|A page with two decorated letters from a church service book made in the 1420s |
To create the text of a manuscript, scribes copied each word by hand from an existing book, and artists decorated important letters. The pages of a manuscript were ruled to help the scribes write straight lines.
A scribe used black and red ink to copy this page from a prayer book written in Latin, which was used by monks in church services.
The large decorated initials—a B at the top and a C below—mark the beginnings of new sections in the text.
|Border decoration on a page from the Arenberg Hours, a prayer book made in the 1460s |
Artists often adorned the borders of manuscript pages. Borders were mostly ornamental, and artists were free to be inventive when they decorated these spaces. Artists often illuminated borders with images of flowers, vines, insects, and other creatures.
Even though the Virgin and Christ child are the main subjects of this page, the artist dedicated almost as much space and attention to the border decoration as he did to the miniature.
Tradition was important for scribes and illuminators. For medieval artists, it was more important for a picture to be easily understood than to be original. However, medieval artists were creative in the ways they used pictures to tell a story.
|A page from The History of Charles Martel, a history book made in the 1400s about the Frankish king who lived in the 700s |
Artists sometimes depicted the same people more than once in a single picture. This helped them tell different parts of a story in a single painting.
This page is from a history book about famous French kings. A court scribe dedicated the page to the story of future leader Charles Martel's voyage to Constantinople (present-day Istanbul).
The artist had only one small space to illustrate the journey, as well as Martel's welcome by the Byzantine emperor (shown wearing a blue cape and crown). The emperor is depicted twice: first leaving his palace, and later greeting Martel.
|A page from The Flower of Battle, a how-to book about fencing made in the 1400s |
This page comes from a manual on hand-to-hand combat written by a famous fencing master. It was probably made for the Duke of Ferrara, one of the most powerful rulers in Italy.
This page explains different moves to use in combat with a dagger and a staff. The facing page shows aiming points on the body.
Throughout the book, the artist added a gold band to the leg of one of the two fighters to show the reader which fighter is demonstrating the action described in the text.
Workshops around the World
In the Middle Ages, manuscripts were illuminated throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia.
Though written in different languages, stories were illustrated using the universal language of pictures. Artists from different countries often used the same characters, symbols, and compositions.
Islamic and Christian artists had different traditions when it came to decorating their holy books.
For example, Christian artists often illustrated their stories with pictures, while Islamic artists focused on embellishing the words themselves. But, as shown in the pages below, both cultures used gold to highlight the importance of the religious messages.
The Getty Museum at the J. Paul Getty Trust
The lives of women in the Middle Ages were nuanced and varied, reflecting diverse geographic, financial, and religious circumstances. The pages of illuminated manuscripts reveal the many facets of and attitudes toward medieval womanhood.
Drawn primarily from the Museum’s collection, this exhibition presents the biblical heroines, female saints, and pious nuns who embodied ideals of proper behavior, as well as figures who strayed from the path of righteousness. Beyond being subjects, women were also involved in the creation of manuscripts they commissioned books and sometimes illuminated them.
Power in Patronage: When Medieval Women Made Books
In the Middle Ages, women of great wealth and social status often exercised their power and influence through the objects they commissioned, especially books. Christine Sciacca, associate curator at The Walters Art Museum, introduces several women book patrons—a duchess, a middle-class woman, and a community of nuns who commissioned manuscripts for their personal use—who shaped the history of medieval book production as we know it today.
Sunday, July 23, 3:00 p.m.
Getty Center, Museum Lecture Hall
Drinking in the Past: Medieval Microbrews
From sunrise to sunset, throughout the year, families in medieval Europe made and drank fermented beverages for health, pleasure, and profit. Join curator Bryan C. Keene and certified beer expert Mark Mark Keene in savoring the history of beer, ale, and mead in this tasting program, that pairs art with medieval and (more delicious) modern brews. Beer tasting enjoyed on the outdoor terrace following the talk. Tickets $65 (includes appetizers) ages 21 and over. Complimentary parking.List of site sources >>>