Secret messages encoded in medieval manuscripts by mysterious authors is such a Nancy Drew, Secret Seven, lemon-juice-to-create-invisible-ink concept that I defy any bibliophile not to snatch up The Gilded Page by Mary Wellesley.
A carefully curated tour of the written word in medieval manuscripts. The Gilded Page touches on everything from Henry VIII scribbling his god complex into the margins of an ornate Psalter to medieval poets writing odes to genitalia. Wellesley clearly has an eye for the intriguing oddities of her chosen period, and she manages to include enough detail for an academic reader, with enough exposition and scandal to keep the casual reader hooked.
Rather than follow a linear timeline, The Gilded Page is instead composed of a series of the themed chapters. This helps keep the pace moving and each chapter builds nicely on the next. The Near Disasters chapter is particularly fascinating, featuring daring tales of librarians hurling smoking books from the windows of fire-struck libraries. And of course I had my squeezy lemon to hand for the Authors Hidden chapter.
While Wellesley provides more than enough intrigue, there were moments when the intricacies of medieval prose sailed straight over my head. Overall, however, The Gilded Page is a delightful scamper through a period that can be mischaracterized as a bit dull and dreary.
The Gilded Page The Secret Lives of Medieval Manuscripts is published by Basic Books on 21st October 2021. Preorder here from the publisher.