Designer Charlotte Tate on Malmesbury’s manuscripts
Our aim with every Folio title is to create an edition in which the production, as well as editorial, values reflect – and heighten – those of the original text. With a book such as William of Malmesbury’s Deeds of the English Kings, rooted as it is in a particular aesthetic tradition, this presents a particular challenge.
The inspiration behind the design of The Deeds of the English Kings began with a trip to Lambeth Palace Library to view MS 224, one of five extant manuscripts believed to be written in Malmesbury’s own hand. (It contains Malmesbury’s signature, which we incorporated into our title-page design.) Although the wonder of digital technology means that some illuminated manuscripts are now available to view online, this is no substitute for handling the real thing. It is only by seeing the vibrant colours and variable lettering of the originals, and feeling the texture of the paper, that you gain a real insight into the skill involved in creating these incredible manuscripts.
In developing our design, it was important that our edition didn’t become a pastiche; we wanted to give the reader a flavour of the original illuminated manuscripts while creating something that was accessible and easy to read. Malmesbury’s manuscript follows the two-column grid common to texts of his age, but our edition employs the single-text area that present-day readers are accustomed too. The margins, however, are influenced by the distinct proportions of medieval manuscripts, which followed the golden ratio, in which the top and inside margins are narrower than the bottom and outer ones.
Along with MS 224, we used MS Arch. Selden B. 16, a collection of Latin texts compiled and designed by Malmesbury and held at the Bodleian Library, Oxford University, as our main reference source. A striking characteristic of the Bodleian manuscript is the numerous coloured initial letters used to decorate the pages throughout – a feature we were keen to carry through to our edition. We commissioned artist Charlotte Orr to redraw a selection of initial letters from MS. Arch. Selden. B. 6 – concentrating on the letter S rather than the frequently illuminated letter Q in the Latin original. Because several scribes would often work on the same illuminated text there is a remarkable amount of variability within a single manuscript. In our edition, each duplicate letter has at least five variations to reflect the inherent inconsistency of the original. The two-colour printing of our edition also echoes the design of the original manuscript. It aids the reader’s navigation through the text, as well as contributing to a visually interesting design.
As a book designer, I spend a lot of time choosing a typeface, carefully selecting a face that is both appropriate to the text and comfortable to read; with this title, it was critical to get the balance right. For the main text, I opted for Minion, which, although it is a twentieth-century face, is elegant, with readable letterforms that complement the initial decorated letters and the display typefaces. Extracts are set in Givry, to reflect the delicate, stylistic bâtarde flamande writing in the original manuscripts. Chapter numbers are printed in red and set in Clairvaux. The simplistic and angular appearance of the numerals are easy to distinguish from the main text, and its irregular letterforms complement the hand-drawn initial letters.
I hope you’ll agree that with The Deeds of the English Kings we have achieved something quite special: a book designed for the modern reader, but one that draws on and pays homage to the heritage and traditions of the original illuminated manuscripts.
Discover the new Folio edition of The Deeds of the English Kings here.