What can we learn from practice-led approaches to medieval codicology? Before pursuing my graduate studies in medieval literature, I trained as an illuminator. Over the course of a year, I took practical courses in gilding, pigment-making, and Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, and later medieval styles of illumination at the Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts in London. I now work primarily with gold on vellum, coupled with traditional pigments and foraged inks, to create both reproductions of medieval designs and original pieces. My undergraduate studies had already inspired a keen interest in the medieval material text, and it was always the illuminated manuscripts that would catch my eye, with their ability to capture and manipulate the subtle interactions between light, metal, and parchment. It therefore seemed a natural step to learn more about the practical side of the production and decoration of medieval books. I am now academically trained as a medievalist; working with manuscripts on a regular basis, I thus bridge two seemingly overlapping but still quite distinct fields.
Experiential and artistic knowledge of the processes and materials of illumination is very rarely applied to formal academic study. There have been two wonderful collaborations that use the practices of modern working scribes as tools for historical research: that of Patricia Lovett and Michelle Brown, and of Patrick Conner and Cheryl Jacobsen, both of which focus primarily on palaeography and script. I was recently able to take part in a similar collaboration with postdoctoral researcher, Henry Ravenhall, but in our case, with a focus on gold, ink, and pigment in manuscript miniatures. Henry’s work explores the evidence of tactile interactions between readers and their books, and, in particular, instances in which images have been visibly (and often forcibly) erased. Faced with the obvious problem of not being able to test Henry’s hypotheses on actual medieval manuscripts, we decided to put my illumination training to experimental and destructive use, and create a mock-up miniature to rub out.
How different would studying medieval manuscripts be if we could interact with these books like their earliest readers did? Anxieties about how the digital realm structures relations between people and things, both in medieval studies and beyond, give an urgency to this thought experiment. Books, of course, weren’t (and aren’t) just read: they are experienced through the senses, they are made to occupy certain spaces, they exchange hands, they invite interventions that promise to speak to future readers. Their ‘thing power’ is predicated on a tangibility and mobility that threaten to make way in the two dimensions of the digital image. Medievalists often emphasise the acoustic, tactile, and even olfactory qualities of handling parchment. These are sensations that can be approximated, though not fully replicated, in the reading room. There is, however, a set of more corporeal, even ‘dirty’, reading practices that can only be imagined in relation to these heritage objects. A twenty-first-century reader rubbing, scratching, stroking, or kissing a manuscript illumination doesn’t bear thinking about!
Or does it? Kathryn M. Rudy’s ground-breaking research on the traces of tactile interaction left on medieval books has shown, firstly, how pervasive such practices were, and secondly, how they point to a reader’s, or community of readers’, affectively-charged attachment to a text or image and what it represents or embodies. My postdoctoral project, funded by the British Academy and hosted by the MMLL Faculty in Cambridge, considers the stakes of these haptic practices for manuscripts written in medieval French. How do we read these signs of touch? How do we read with these signs of touch?
MS Kk.1.7 contains The Pilgrimage of the Soul – the Middle English adaptation of Guillaume de Deguilleville’s fourteenth-century poem Le Pèlerinage de l’Âme. All of the extant manuscript copies of the Soul reserve space for illustration, indicating that miniatures played an integral role in the manuscript tradition of the Soul. Close comparison of the scenes chosen for illustration reveals an archetypal programme of illustration. Most copies show preparation or completion of twenty-six scenes, and these scenes show a high degree of consistency in subject and, often, iconography.[i] In Kk.1.7, a total of seventeen scenes are illustrated, and possibly one or two others are missing due to loss. The illustrator made critical decisions not only about which moments of the narrative would receive greater emphasis, but also about the iconography of these scenes, thereby deciding how they were presented and constructing reader responses.
MS Ee.4.32 is datable to s. s.xv2 and contains two texts: The Three Kings of Cologne and the English Prose Brut Chronicle. Renown Brut scholar Lister Matheson asserts that: ‘The Middle English prose Brut survives in more manuscripts than any other Middle English work except the two Wycliffite translations of the Bible’. Matheson’s compiled catalogue of the Brut lists nineteen extant versions of the Latin Brut, forty-nine versions of the Anglo-Norman Brut, and over one-hundred-seventy versions of the Middle English Brut. For a complete list and location of these manuscripts, please see Matheson’s monograph The Prose Brut: The Development of a Middle English Chronicle.
Fig 1: Cambridge University Library, Ff.6.33, fols 70v-71r
Turning to the central folios (70v-71r) of Cambridge, University Library, Ff.6.33, we find a reddish-brown discolouration, rectangular in size, which seems to have bled through the material, faded but still visible on one bifolium (see Fig 1). The mark resists immediate classification as a spillage or other such accidental damage and thus raises the question of how we might interpret such markings. Has the manuscript been used to store an item flat? Is it a mark left by a historical binding? Continue reading →
Cambridge, University Library, MS Ff. 5. 35 contains The Travels of Sir John Mandeville and Piers Plowman. Both works were copied by a single scribe, and are relatively uniform in terms of layout, decoration, abbreviation, and use of catchwords. These two texts are also found in close proximity in several other manuscripts (Cambridge University Library Dd. 1. 17 and San Marino, Calif., Huntington Library MS HM 114), suggesting that despite differences in genre, form and style, the combination was a somewhat popular and apparently logical one for medieval audiences.
This manuscript features two separate sets of quire markings: a series of quire numbers, likely made by a later binder, loosely resembling Roman numerals; and a series of leaf signatures, apparently scribal, visible on the bottom outer corner of the recto of the first folios of many quires, consisting of a letter marking the quire number and a Roman numeral indicating the number of the folio within that quire. Continue reading →
Cambridge University Library, MS Ee. 4. 30 is a copy of Walter Hilton’s contemplative treatise The Scale of Perfection. Dating from the late fifteenth century, the manuscript is a good quality production by a single scribe, with some careful decorations. It was produced in the London Charterhouse, a major centre of book production and circulation.
Cambridge University Library, MS Ee. 4.30, fol. 4r. Copyright Cambridge University Library
Indeed, the presence of an ex libris inscription in the manuscript indicates its provenance, one which follows the standard Latin phrasing from this house: ‘Liber domus salutacionis Matris Dei ordinis cartusiensis prope London’ (‘a book of the house of the Salutation of the Mother of God, of the Carthusian Order, near London’). This formulation appears in several other volumes from the Charterhouse, including at the very end of Cambridge University Library, MS Ff. 1. 19 (fol. 134v), where it is heavily abbreviated. However, in MS Ee. 4. 30 the formulation appears in an unusual and, as far as I have been able to determine, unique format. The inscription appears one letter at a time in the central lower margins of each recto in Part One of the Scale text (fols. 4r – 62r), meaning that the reader has to decipher the text gradually. Continue reading →
I’m currently working on a doctoral thesis on an analysis and editing of a 15th century dictionary written by the school-master, chronicler and theologist Dietrich Engelhus (ca. 1362-1434). The dictionary contains lemmata in both Latin and Greek (using the Latin alphabet), followed by a multitude of explanations such as definitions, translations into Middle Low German, examples of use, derivations and grammatical information.
CUL, MS Ee.2.15, fol. 20r. Paper stock: crown. Copyright Cambridge University Library
The ‘Mapping Medieval Paper in England’ Project was funded by a Cambridge Humanities Research Grants Scheme 2014/15 with the aim of preparing a new dataset of Medieval Paper Manuscripts written in England between 1300 to about 1500 to consolidate the data that Dr Da Rold has collected to date.