Historiated capital

A historiated capital or initial relates to a capital letter which has been decorated with humans, plants or animals and usually appears at the beginning of a new section of text (Fig. 1). However, this is an over simplified description of the term, owing to the actuality that technical definitions fluctuate from one to another. The proceeding discussion will examine this variance, in order to expose the most accurate description.

Fig. 1: In Sacrosancta Quatvour Jesu Christi Evangelia

Suarez and Woodhuysen offer a short explanation of the term, outlining it as a large initial which encloses within the body of the letter, a portrayal of persons and/or events (794). While useful, this definition is somewhat misrepresentative; due to its laconic nature, it seems to suggest, historiated capitals are simply decorative in their purpose. However, as Beal puts forward: ‘The term historiated derives from the French histories, meaning stories’ (187). When this is taken into account, it would appear that these initials serve a greater purpose than the aforementioned aesthetic one. Moreover, a more complete explanation of the term should demonstrate, that they additionally carryout a narrative function. Therefore, Beal’s further description is perhaps more accurate, he contends: ‘initials or capital letters can be properly described as historiated when they are decorated with images of living creatures, whether man or beast, that in some sense tell a story or relate to a narrative scene’ (187). This account is far more comprehensive, demonstrating the binary nature of historiated capitals; their objective is both a decorative and discursive one. It should be noted, that when a capital letter is decorated for aesthetic purposes only, they are more accurately described as an inhabited initial. This is an important disparity, which should be keenly observed.

It is thought that historiated capitals originated from Insular Art during the 8th century. This corresponds with Carter and Barker’s suggestion that these initials can be found in manuscripts and early books (125). It is additionally understood that historiated capitals were of common occurrence in illuminated manuscripts. It has been noted that these manuscripts were produced by monks, clerics and lay craftsmen on a commercial basis (Beal, p.192). As a result, the size and extravagance of such initials, in these manuscripts, can be highly indicative to the study of bibliography; they can communicate the wealth of those who commissioned such work and the dexterity of those who produced it. McKerrow notes the ability of such illustrative work to influence value, as he states: ‘In a manuscript, work spent on a conventional decoration and on an illustration might equally enhance the value of a single copy of the book on which the illuminator worked’ (110). Therefore, it can be assumed, manuscripts and books that were produced for wealthy owners would contain more elaborate historiated capitals than those produced for the everyday use of the less wealthy, such as friars and students.

While the importance of such capitals in the work of illuminated manuscripts has been noted, they can equally be expressive, for the bibliographer, when contained in a printed book. It has been suggested that when these capitals appear in later printed books they can be useful as evidence, to identify the printer (McKerrow, 117).

Beal, Peter. A Dictionary of English Manuscript Terminology 1450-2000. New York: Oxford University Press. 2008. Print.
Carter, John and Barker, Nicolas. ABC For Book Collectors. New Castle: Oak Knoll Press. 2004. Print.
McKerrow, Robert. An Introduction to bibliography for Literary Students. New Castle: Oak knoll Press. 1994. Print.
Suarez, Michael F and Woundhuysen, H. R (eds). The Oxford Companion to the Book. New York: Oxford University Press. 2010. Vol 2. Print.

Lucas, F. In Sacrosancta Quatvour Jesu Christi Evangelia. Antwerp: Ex Officina Plantiniana 1606. Print.

Contributed by Adam Delapp.


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