Word Clouds & Illuminated Manuscripts

A few years back, my father and I went to see the exhibition “Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination” at the British Library. The books on display were those collected by English monarchs during the Middle Ages and the idea was that they were of both historical and artistic value. An illuminated manuscript is one where little illustrations were added to the text, often using gold leaf. The great expense of doing this, as well as the time required, meant that these books were precious artefacts even in their own time and owning them became symbolic of power and authority. No wonder kings and queens were keen to acquire them!   The exhibition was one of the most memorable I have ever seen as the intricate detailing of the lettering was truly breath-taking. The contrast between the dark room in which the books were being displayed and the shining gold of the illustrations was really striking. Most of the works in the collection were religious texts, being missals, psalters or edition of the gospels. This was obviously indicative of the centrality of Christianity to life in medieval England and most of the books were intended for practical use. The themes of the images can also tell us something about the priorities of the time.

Paying what would have been huge amounts of money for the time to have one of these books produced was a show of piety on the part of the owner as well as power. Even so, it was not conventional to commission the artists to portray oneself in the illustrations. However, one book owned by Henry VIII did just that and I remember the label on the cabinet explain that it would have been the usual thing for the Biblical King David to be depicted at that point of the text (I think it was one of the books of the Old Testament). This was a typical display of egotism by Henry and tells us a lot about how he wanted himself to be perceived by others.

In contemporary society, we can use word visualisation tools such as word clouds to see which terms occur most frequently in a body of text. They are particularly widely used to look at metadata on the web and one of the main advantages is that popular services such as Tagxedo update in real time to reflect the way the sites’ content is changing constantly. Like illuminated manuscripts, they are intended to be aesthetically appealing as well as useful. I might be extrapolating slightly but I do think there are some similarities! There are plenty of options to play around with colours and fonts here! Let’s go back to the exhibition I was talking about originally.  I am going to use the Wordle application to create a word cloud to input some text from the British Library’s medieval manuscripts blog about “Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination”. By seeing which words are most commonly used, we can see what the priorities of the exhibition may have been.


We can see that the words “royal”, “manuscripts”, “collection” and “English” occur most. This does give us an accurate impression of what the exhibition had to offer, even though this particular word cloud doesn’t really offer us any surprises. Perhaps applications such as Wordle would be better suited to much larger bodies of texts where the most commonly used terms would be less obvious. Are there really many similarities with the illuminated manuscripts I discussed earlier? Well, not really. It is difficult to compare a 21st century web application with a hand-painted book from the Middle Ages, even though they are both trying to draw our eyes to words and letters in a body of text. Beyond them being nice to look at!



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