Some of the most charmingly beautiful books can also be the very smallest of books, and a selection of miniature books is currently on show in the British Library.

Miniature books range from small toy books made for children through to devotional texts and even entire bibles or Korans to be carried by travellers and soldiers. Despite their almost impossibly tiny size, many are finished to the same high quality as full-size rare books, with carefully set print, illustrations and bindings.

There’s a wide range of miniature books in this exhibition, ranging from a prayer book dating from around 1520 to a selection of books created just last year by children as part of a Covid related project set up by the British Library.

A miniature Qur’an was carried on a chain by Muslims fighting for the British during WW1. Each delicately printed copy was supplied in a small case with a magnifying glass so that the texts could be read.

Not all miniature books are so useful. When published in 1985, the pages of Old King Cole were so difficult to turn that Gleniffer Press would issue uncut sheets of three copies to help.

One of the treasures though has to be a handwritten miniature by Charlotte Bronte who says no copies were sold, as this was long before she gained success with Jane Eyre.

As a display, it’s both beautiful to look at and awe-inspiring as to how on earth people were able to make such tiny books.

The exhibition is in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery until 12th September. Entry is free and you don’t need to book tickets, just turn up and go in.

Incidentally, thanks to the roundabout way words change meanings, the word miniature originates from the colour red, and is nothing to do with the size of the object.

It starts with red pigment which was initially used for capital letters and decorative drawings. The Latin for the red pigment was minium, and to colour with red was miniare. Over time, the association with illustrations and the red pigment became so commonplace, that eventually all small book illustrations were called miniatura. And thus, over time, all small things are miniatures, and yet technically, all red paintings could also be called miniatures even if they are 20 feet tall.

Maybe the British Library should put on an exhibition of very big books with big red illustrations and call it an exhibition of miniatures. That’ll confuse people.


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