Rylands MS French 5 is a small, squarish volume containing a series of full-page miniatures whose subjects are primarily drawn from the biblical books of Genesis and Exodus. The manuscript presently consists of forty-eight vellum folios (foliated in pencil by a modern hand) interspersed with thirty-seven sheets of laid paper. Lavish and expensive, it was heavily gilded and painted with pigments.
This thirteenth-century book was the subject of a monograph by Robert Fawtier in 1923. Fawtier, whose discussion provides a solid foundation for our understanding of this manuscript, identified MS French 5 as an example of a Bible picture book, a relatively rare type of medieval manuscript in which scriptural and hagiographical stories are relayed primarily by means of pictures rather than by text.
The pictorial cycle in MS French 5 begins with the Creation story from the opening chapters of Genesis and continues up to the marriage of Moses to the daughter of the priest of Madian (Exodus 11:21). The scriptural events are told through a series of full-page, single-subject miniatures executed by an artist working in a late version of the 'Channel Style', a style of illumination which comes to the fore in the years around 1200 and which is found in numerous manuscripts from various regions in northern Europe. The illuminator painted only on one side of each folio, creating a series of diptychs alternating with two blank pages of vellum.
Of the early history of MS French 5, we know little beyond its likely execution by illuminators from north-eastern France and the fact that its inscriptions were added by two different scribes at some date(s) after the completion of the miniatures. It must have been an expensive book to produce, suggesting that it was intended as the possession of a wealthy aristocrat or similarly privileged individual.
Its sumptuous decoration allows the possibility that conspicuous display was perhaps its most important - or even its only - intended function, though the vast differences in quality - the preparation of the vellum, the materials used, the richness of the decoration - between the surviving Bible picture books does not allow such a conclusion to be drawn solely on the basis of lavish decoration.
If the illumination of this manuscript is indeed French, and the hand, as seems likely, is Italian, the possibility that the book was alienated from its original patron (a Frenchman) and removed to a new (Italian) context emerges. The most likely form that this alienation would have taken is that of a gift: a gift from one member of the aristocracy to another of a sumptuously illuminated picture book.
The text, which appears along the top and, if necessary, the bottom edges of each miniature, takes the form of short legends which most often simply describe the scene depicted in a given miniature; several miniatures, however, possess legends which also fill in episodes missing from the miniature cycle or include brief allegorical or moralizing passages.
The vast majority of these legends are only a line or two in length and there is no indication that any preparation for the addition of the texts was made prior to the completion of the images. Both of the scribes write in French - apparently a Picard dialect - and make use of a formal Gothic bookhand. Most of the legends are executed in a hand which is early thirteenth century in date; the hand in which are written the remaining legends - no more than seven in total - is likely to be later, but perhaps only slightly, than the first.
The gatherings were originally made up of groups of four bifolia, though losses have resulted in several gatherings of fewer than eight leaves. An inscription on the verso of the final folio reads 'xxviii doupples de histoire . . .', a figure which, if taken as the number of pairs of miniatures in the book at the time the inscription was written, agrees with those missing according to the present arrangement of the gatherings. The book was rebound, probably in the seventeenth century, at which time the above inscription was added; vellum scraps from another medieval book were used as binding tabs.
The text is an extract from Caroline S. Hull's article "RYLANDS MS FRENCH 5: THE FORM AND FUNCTION OF A MEDIEVAL BIBLE PICTURE BOOK".