The Gilded Page: The Secret Lives of Medieval Manuscripts by Mary Wellesley

The Gilded Page


Goodreads: The Gilded Page
Series: None
Age Category: Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Official Summary

Medieval manuscripts can tell us much about power and art, knowledge and beauty. Many have survived because of an author’s status—part of the reason we have so much of Chaucer’s writing, for example, is because he was a London-based government official first and a poet second. Other works by the less influential have narrowly avoided ruin, like the book of illiterate Margery Kempe, found in a country house closet, the cover nibbled on by mice. Scholar Mary Wellesley recounts the amazing origins of these remarkable manuscripts, surfacing the important roles played by women and ordinary people—the grinders, binders, and scribes—in their creation and survival.  

The Gilded Page is the story of the written word in the manuscript age. Rich and surprising, The Gilded Page shows how the most exquisite objects ever made by human hands came from unexpected places.

Star Divider


The Gilded Page is a loosely organized love letter to the medieval manuscript, covering topics ranging from the physical production of parchment to patrons of manuscripts to the scribes who wrote them. Along the way, Mary Wellesley dives into the biographies of various authors, artists, scribes, and patrons, and touches on aspects of medieval life, such as what being an anchoress entailed. While the book can often feel rather random, it does provide many fascinating insights into manuscripts, their reception, and their changing place in history–a rare treat for those interested in the medieval time period.

Because the organization feels so random, readers will likely find themselves pulled more strongly to different parts of the text. For me, reading about some of the women involved in patronizing and even producing manuscripts proved fascinating–I had no idea that women acted as scribes! I also enjoyed learning more about female authors who have been overlooked throughout history, and ended up putting a library hold on a book with poems by the (sometimes bawdy) Welsh poet Gwerful Mechain.

Also fascinating is the concept of the manuscript as an artifact worthy of study in its own right. Wellesley notes that historians and literary critics have often prioritized the vision of the author, and so they spend much time trying to uncover the “original form” of the text. Scribes, however, played a role in shaping texts, adding, excising, and rearranging; their decisions give us insight into how a text might have been understood during a particular time.

On the whole, I enjoyed journeying with Wellesley through the beautiful, weird, and fragile history of the manuscript. One of the great tragedies of history is that so many manuscripts have been lost, due to time, negligence, war, fire, and religious zeal. Some of the most famous texts we have now only barely survived, leading one to wonder just how many other wonderful texts have disappeared forever. The Gilded Page is just a glimpse of the thoughts, dreams, hopes, and fears that the makers of manuscripts left behind.

3 Stars

10 thoughts on “The Gilded Page: The Secret Lives of Medieval Manuscripts by Mary Wellesley

  1. Kim @ Traveling in Books says:

    I saw this on NetGalley and thought about requesting it, and then I realized that I already had a bunch of ARCs to read in November, and that I didn’t need to add another book to that list. So I passed it by. But I’m still interested, and it’s good to now that it’s more of a collection of stories about Medieval manuscripts, rather than having a single thru-narrative.


    • Krysta says:

      It is hard to balance the number of books you have when you love books! I have at least ten checked out from the library right now…. But I think you would enjoy this one if you find time later!


  2. Michael J. Miller says:

    Just last week I had a conversation with another teacher friend of mine. We were lamenting the reality that being a teacher dramatically cuts down on our own personal reading and learning. Before I began teaching, I read all the time! I still do but the overwhelming majority of my nonfiction reading ends up being structured around what I have to teach and I feel my own general knowledge base has decreased (or at least become rusty) as a result. This comes to mind now because this is exactly the type of book I’d’ve run out to buy this afternoon and begin reading this evening ten years ago! Now, sadly, it will probably just sit in my Barnes & Noble cart as I look at it longingly for a few years…


    • Krysta says:

      Yes! I think just being an adult cuts down on reading time! And then, of course, teachers are working all the time. Grading and prepping and going to extracurriculars often after or before school hours. It’s tough and even tougher in the middle of a pandemic! I hope you find some restful reading time soon!


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