“Book of Colours” Brings Medieval Illuminations-and Their Makers-to Light

Guest post by Robyn Cadwallader

BOC2London, 1321: In a small London shop, three people are drawn together around the creation of a magnificent illuminated prayer book. Even though the commission seems to answer the aspirations of each one of them, their secrets, desires and ambitions threaten its completion. As each struggles to see the book come into being, it will change everything they have understood about their place in the world.

In the centre of the page are Latin prayers copied by hand in neat rows of black ink, and beneath, a beautiful illumination of Christ enthroned, gilded and painted in colour. Around the edges, a rabbit raises its axe over the head of a cowering bishop; a fantastical beast, hybrid of cow, dragon, fish and man, bellows from one corner; a knight on horseback charges at a giant snail; and a monk and nun have sex on a grassy hillock.

It was images like these in the margins of illuminated medieval prayer books that first sparked my thoughts of writing a novel about the people who drew them. And why. For all the apparent inappropriateness of their images, these weren’t under-the-counter type books, but sumptuous productions made on commission for women of the nobility.

Although weird and wonderful to us, they were clearly considered suitable devotional fare in the Middle Ages. Just as the margins interrupted the ordered and holy centre of the page, it seemed to me that here was a fault line, a crack in the standard view of the medieval world as either uniformly devout or decadent and ignorant. The borders disturb that simple dichotomy, and that, for me, was fertile ground for a story.

I imagined the small atelier, probably only ten feet by twelve, lit only by lamps and thin daylight, where a few men (and a woman?) would grind and mix their colours, sketch and paint, gild and burnish, create light and shadow. Outside the door was Paternoster Row, centre of the fourteenth-century book trade, and steps away, St Paul’s Cathedral, the meat works of the Shambles, laundresses, brothels, goldsmiths and poultry markets —the life of London’s poor and wealthy crawling and bumping up against each other. London: a living and breathing book of hours.

My illuminators, commissioned to decorate a book of hours for a woman of the aspiring gentry, are dedicated to their craft. Each one of the pictures they paint tells a story, and as we all know, stories can affect us and our lives in ways we don’t always expect. As the book of hours takes shape, my characters discover that the pictures go far beyond being simply conventional reminders of dogma or morality, and instead become stories that shift and change, meeting them where they are.

For the limners who paint the pictures, and for the woman who has commissioned the book, they evoke memories, speak to their hopes and worries, offer consolation and understanding, or even possibilities for the future.

You can order Book of Colours at Booktopia, Angus and Robertson Bookworld, Amazon, and Kobo.

Robyn-7 copyRobyn Cadwallader lives among vineyards in the country outside Canberra. She has published poems, prize-winning short stories and reviews, a poetry collection, i painted unafraid (Wakefield, 2010) and a non-fiction book based on her PhD thesis about virginity and female agency in the Middle Ages. In response the government’s punitive treatment of asylum seekers, she edited collection of essays on asylum seeker policy, We Are Better Than This (ATF, 2015). Her first novel, The Anchoress, was published in 2015 in Australia (HarperCollins), the UK (Faber), the US (Farrer, Straus & Giroux) and France (Gallimard). Her second novel, Book of Colours, was published in April, 2018 (HarperCollins). Robyn is the reviews editor for the online literary journal, Verity La.


If you like medieval historical fiction, check out my new novel The Greenest Branch, based on the life of Hildegard of Bingen, Germany’s first female physician. It is out now in ebook and paperback on Amazon US, Amazon UK, and several other Amazon marketplaces.

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