The ‘Macclesfield Alphabet Book’

The British Library has acquired the Macclesfield Alphabet Book, a rare medieval English ‘model’ or ‘pattern’ book dating from c.1500, with support from the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF), independent charity The Art Fund, Friends of the British Library and National Libraries and other individual donors. The manuscript had been in the library of the Earl of Macclesfield since around 1750, and until recently its existence was completely unknown. Since 30 July 2009 it is on free public display in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library.

The manuscript contains 14 different types of decorative alphabets. These include an alphabet of decorative initials with faces; foliate alphabets; a zoomorphic alphabet of initials, and alphabets in Gothic script. In addition there are large coloured anthropomorphic initials modelled after fifteenth-century woodcuts or engravings, as well as two sets of different types of borders, some of which are fully illuminated in colours and gold. The manuscript may have been used as a pattern book for an artist’s workshop for the transmission of ideas to assistants, or as a ‘sample’ book to show to potential customers.

Only a handful of these books survive and as a result, the discovery of the Macclesfield Alphabet Book, filled with designs for different types of script, letters, initials, and borders is of outstanding significance and will contribute to a greater understanding of how these books were produced and used in the Middle Ages, as well as aid the study of material culture and art history.

For more information please contact Julie Yau, Arts Press Officer, British Library.

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