Experimenting with the Touch of Medieval Books. Part 2: The Practicalities

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.[1] 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.

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Experimenting with the Touch of Medieval Books. Part 1.

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?

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Medieval Latin Song from c. 800 to c. 1200 AD

Saturday 2 July, Pembroke College, Old Library

A one-day interdisciplinary conference dedicated to Latin song that was not routinely performed in the liturgy from the Carolingian era through to the New Song repertories recorded from c. 1100 onwards. The opening address is given by Professor C. Stephen Jaeger and the concluding paper by Professor David Ganz. Invited papers will be given by scholars of medieval music based at the Universities of Cambridge and Würzburg, including Professor Susan Rankin and Dr Sam Barrett.  Particular attention will be paid to the earliest manuscripts transmitting medieval Latin song, both notated and unnotated, the place of music in early medieval education, the song culture at Sankt Gallen in the Carolingian era as seen through the lens of its surviving manuscripts, and reassessment of Aquitanian sources for new virtuosic song repertories. For the full programme and registration, see:


In the evening from 7:30pm, a concert of recently reconstructed songs from Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy will be given by Sequentia, directed by Benjamin Bagby, with Hanna Marti and Norbert Rodenkirchen. A pre-concert talk on the processes of reconstruction will by given by Sam Barrett at 7pm.  Those registered for the conference may purchase tickets at the concessionary rate.  To book tickets, go to: