One of the most distinctive visual features of medieval manuscripts is the arabesque decoration surrounding the text on the page. It is also one of the most enduring legacies of medieval bookmaking. In fact, the arabesque, or foliage decoration, became a stock mark of the medieval page towards the end of the Middle Ages and represented an important step towards the standardisation of the book. The arabesque was so baked into the page layout that for a long time after the invention of print in the West, it was still being used as a basic element of decoration. For many books printed today, it still is – make-up applied to the page, a beautification trick.
But arabesque decoration is no mere eye candy. The entanglement of leaves, the dance of the interlace, the pirouettes of passionate geometries are there to remind us that reading is not an easy business. That the secrets captured by the once-ferocious, now-gentle letters are arabesques in themselves, entanglements for the mind, adventures from which nobody walks away untransformed, unchallenged – or at least they shouldn’t.
They are also a form of protection against an all-too-often impulse to pass over the page, to flip over carelessly, to miss out. The arabesque invites the reader’s eye into the undergrowth of letters, trapping the eye on the page, letting the reader wander through the forest of words, in search of meaning, truth and beauty. And once we’ve found them, we can turn over a new leaf.