An illuminated manuscript is a formally prepared document where the text is often supplemented with flourishes such as borders and miniature illustrations. Often used in the Roman Catholic Church for prayers, liturgical services and psalms, the practice continued into secular texts from the 13th century onward and typically include proclamations, enrolled bills, laws, charters, inventories and deeds.
While Islamic manuscripts can also be called illuminated, and use essentially the same techniques, comparable Far Eastern and Mesoamerican works are described as painted.
The earliest illuminated manuscripts in existence come from the Kingdom of the Ostrogoths and the Eastern Roman Empire and date from between 400 and 600 CE. Examples include the Codex Argenteus and the Rossano Gospels, both of which are from the 6th century. The majority of extant manuscripts are from the Middle Ages, although many survive from the Renaissance, along with a very limited number from Late Antiquity.
Most medieval manuscripts, illuminated or not, were written on parchment or vellum. These pages were then bound into books, called codices (singular: codex). A very few illuminated fragments also survive on papyrus. Books ranged in size from ones smaller than a modern paperback, such as the pocket gospel, to very large ones such as choirbooks for choirs to sing from, and "Atlantic" bibles, requiring more than one person to lift them.
Paper manuscripts appeared during the Late Middle Ages. Very early printed books left spaces for red text, known as rubrics, miniature illustrations and illuminated initials, all of which would have been added later by hand. Drawings in the margins (known as marginalia) would also allow scribes to add their own notes, diagrams, translations, and even comic flourishes.
The introduction of printing rapidly led to the decline of illumination. Illuminated manuscripts continued to be produced in the early 16th century but in much smaller numbers, mostly for the very wealthy. They are among the most common items to survive from the Middle Ages; many thousands survive. They are also the best surviving specimens of medieval painting, and the best preserved. Indeed, for many areas and time periods, they are the only surviving examples of painting.