The Macclesfield Alphabet Book, the Most Complete Pattern Book from Medieval Britain

Circa 1490
The Macclesfield Alphabet Book. British Library Add MS 88887. 

The Macclesfield Alphabet Book. British Library Add MS 88887. 

The Macclesfield Alphabet Book (British Library Add MS 88887), a medieval alphabetic pattern book in the library of the Earls of Macclesfield since about 1750, is the most complete set of pattern designs for manuscript decoration that survived from medieval Britain. It 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.

"This manuscript is thought to 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.

"The Macclesfield Alphabet Book sheds light on how such tomes were produced. They did not always rely on the creative expertise of the artist, since alphabets and illustrations similar to some of the Macclesfield examples have been found in earlier books and woodcuts"(, accessed 08-03-2009).

In July 2009 acquisition of the manuscript was completed by the British Library at a cost of £600,000, against an offer from the J. Paul Getty Museum for the same amount.

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