Notes from The Story of the Book, by Agnes Allen:
By this time, the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, books were not used only in monasteries and churches. Wealthy people liked to possess beautiful illuminated books, or to give them as presents to other people – but they had to order the book they wanted, and then wait a very long time while the scribe wrote it out, and the illuminator painted the pictures and the binders bound it, and such books were very expensive.
During the thirteenth and early part of the fourteenth centuries one of the most popular books was the Apocalypse. That is the name which is sometimes given to the Book of Revelation… It gave the artists a fine chance to use their imaginations, and they produced some wonderful books full of lovely pictures.
Another kind of book that was very popular about this time was called a Bestiary, and it was a very odd sort of book indeed. It was a kind of natural history and book of morals combined. But the natural history was not like anything we learn today. In the Middle Ages very few people had been far from their homes, so they were ready to believe that absolutely anything was possible in far-away lands. They had no difficulty in accepting dragons that breathed out flame and smoke, centaurs that were half men and half horses, salamanders that could live in fire, ant-lions that had the forepart of a lion and the hind-part of an ant – and other surprising creatures.
In the Bestiaries the strange ways (sometimes true but often quite imaginary) of real animals, and of these other fantastic creatures, were described, and a moral lesson of some kind was drawn from them. For instance, the reader is told that an elephant which has a load on its back cannot rise without help; and that in the same way man, who carries a load of sin, cannot rise without Christ. And he is told that the salamander can live in fire, just as the Christian can resist the fire of temptation.
The artists who illuminated the Bestiaries had plenty of opportunity to use their imaginations, and they created some really extraordinary and fearsome creatures, with the strangest habits.
By the end of the thirteenth century another kind of book had become very popular. It was the Psalter, or book of Psalms. Psalters had been written from the earliest days of Christianity… for in the church services of the Middle Ages the whole of the psalms were said, or sung, every week. But the Psalters of the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries contained more than just the psalms, and they were the most generously and elaborately decorated of all the books made during the Middle Ages. The first part of the book was a calendar of the Church’s year, showing the saints’ days and the festivals of the Church…
Next, very often, came several pages of pictures, sometimes of scenes from the life of Christ. Then came the beginning of the psalms, and the page on which the most care and labour was lavished. It is called the Beatus page, because the first words are ‘Beatus sit’ (Blessed be the man). The psalms are divided into sections for each day’s worship, and there is usually a richly ornamented page at the beginning of each section. Next come the canticles, or sacred songs of the Church, which also formed part of the daily services, and sometimes a number of litanies and prayers.