the ARTistry of ARThistory occasionally done ARTfully

Rubrication and Textual Authority

Posted by gninja on June 8, 2006

Recently I mentioned rubrucation as an organizational device in manuscripts, and while it is a simple enough tool in its description, it has a semiotic function that requires a more thorough explanation.

In brief: rubrication was the application of colored ink (usually red; from the Latin rubrico, “to color red”) to certain parts of a text. Notably, red letters were used to indicate direct quotes from Christ.

As an aside, I found this as Wiki’s entry for Red Letter Edition. Uh… “invented” in the 19th century? Sorry, but illuminators have been rubricating Christ’s words for at least a thousand years now. Grr.

In any case, rubrication was also used for titles, chapter headings, and chapter endings. So, for example, the begnning of a chapter would have such words in red as “Incipit liber 2…” as in the case of this 9th century manuscript, a collection of episcopal epistles and laws (or so I gathered from the very little Latin I could cull).


Another example would be this manuscript, a 13th century collection of works by Boethius and Aristotle.

In this case, an authoritative text has not only been given the honor of a floriated, rubricated title, but it has also received the marginal comments of numerous readers refusing to allow their philosophical heroes to rest in peace. Although a topic for another time, I do love this image because it is an illustration of just how interactive medieval manuscripts were– if you spent as many ducats as they did on a book, you were sure to bequeath it in yourwill, thereby ensuring that later generations would profit from the manscript… and that they’d eviscerate your marginal comments long after you were gone. But I’ve digressed.

So, the extra effort put into including painted chapter headings, section divisions, etc was reserved mostly for authoritative texts, often ones with complicated theoretical or philosophicl arguments that benefited from any number of visual forms of organization.

Eventually, as one might expect, what began as a visual tool to enhance facility of reading became a conceptual device to highlight the authoritative nature of the text. People automatically came to associate rubrication and textual division (divisio) with works of a lofty quality or elevated content.

Interestingly, I’ve seen evidence (though I cannot be certain that others would agree with me) in late medieval manuscripts of a conscious effort to usurp this marker of importance. More specifically, I’ve had the opportunity to study vernacular manuscripts containing what would have been considered frivolous or unimportant material employing the devices of authority to proclaim their own importance. This, however, will be left alone for now and discussed in my next post.

One Response to “Rubrication and Textual Authority”

  1. Gabriel said

    That’s fun! I’ve looked through a lot of manuscripts through these websites as a photo researcher, and always wanted to know “why the red ink?” I wasn’t sure if it was an sanguine, abuse, reactionary thing- or just a rad color to use.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: