From Sound to Image, From Language to Culture; A Review of Medieval Academy of America Conference 2014

By Julie Somers

Last week the annual meeting of the Medieval Academy of America was held at UCLA in California. Every year this conference brings together scholars from all over the world to discuss and share experiences related to their work on the Middle Ages. At the opening session of the conference we were treated to live musical excerpts* as part of the presentation by Susan Boynton (Columbia University) on ‘Music as Text and Music as Image.’ Boynton’s paper explored the way image is connected to sounds in the text. We are reminded that the pages can be loud. Images of choirs of angels, birds that fill the margins, or groups of monks performing daily chant present a lively reflection of the musical nature of the book. The addition of a live performance really brought Boynton’s examples to life and was a wonderful way to begin the three day conference, hosted by UCLA Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

Susan Boynton (Columbia University)

Susan Boynton (Columbia University)

A busy conference with multiple sessions available, there was something for everyone. Topics on Thursday covered Scandanavia to Sicily, with an underlying theme of language and cultural encounters. In the session, ‘Queens and Empresses: Beyond the Agency Question,’ the speakers, Kriszta Kotsis (University of Puget Sound), Theresa Earenfight (Seattle University) and Gillian Gower (UCLA) addressed the concerns of women in royal settings, including beauty, fertility and proper behavior. Gower, similar to the opening presentation by Boynton, demonstrated how music can act as an image, ‘it sounds as it should look.’ The motet composed for the wedding of Catherine de Valois to King Henry V, En Katerine solennia/Virginalis contio/Sponsus amat sponsum depicts the story of the virgin martyr St. Catherine, who was tortured on a spiked wheel for her refusal to marry. Gower argues that the music presented on the page mimics elements of the legend of St. Catherine – the notes look as if they are bleeding, the accidentals (in the form of a sharp) represent the spikes and the music itself follows a circular style that reminds us of the wheel in the legend. The music acts as an historiated initial thus reinforcing the connection between the legend of St. Catherine and her namesake, Queen Catherine de Valois.

Friday continued with the theme of languages and cultural encounters. During the morning session, Christopher Cannon (New York University), Kathryn Kerby-Fulton (University of Notre Dame) and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne (Fordham University) each gave powerful papers under the heading; ‘Competing Archives, Competing Histories: French and its Cultural Location in Late Medieval England.’ Each presentation addressed aspects of medieval vernacular research. Cannon began by questioning how we define the vernacular, arguing that Latin, being a primary language of medieval England should also be treated as a vernacular language. In a similar line, Wogan-Browne pointed to the fluid boundaries of language, stating that instead of ‘mother tongue versus language of culture,’ we should think ‘mother tongue and the language of culture.’ An informative paper, she kindly summed up her main points in this slide.

Jocelyn Wogan-Browne (Fordham University)

Jocelyn Wogan-Browne (Fordham University)

As with all types of large conferences, deciding on which sessions to attend is always difficult. I was happy I chose to listen to the papers given in the afternoon on ‘Museums and the Presentation of the Middle Ages.’ Two curators from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Peter Barnet and Helen C. Evans) and a curator from The Walters Art Museum (Martina Bagnoli) showed us images on the changing dynamics of presenting medieval art in a museum setting. Taking us through the different ‘fashion’ of the times, we saw the development of the galleries and the struggles each museum faced in regards to conservation, construction and presentation of the buildings and the objects they hold.

This was a perfect segue into the evening exhibition and reception at the UCLA Library Special Collections, Young Research Library. Illuminated manuscripts and early printed books from the library’s collection were on display for us to admire with a special welcome from Professor Emeritus Dr. Richard Rouse (UCLA). Needless to say, from sound to image, language to culture, I found the conference very inspiring and look forward to attending in the future.

*Music Ensemble: G. Edward Bruner, Chriten Herman, Chris Green, George Sterne, Christopher Walker, directed by Martha Cowan.



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“There’s a map for that!” Visualizing the Medieval World

By Jenneka Janzen

Generally, a map is a visual illustration of an area, a means to symbolically represent spatial relationships between objects, regions, and even ideas. I bet for many of us we most commonly use maps to find the quickest bike path to the train station or the easiest route to drive to Ikea. Looked at less practically, however, maps can reveal much about how we view the world around us.

While we tend to use maps to show distance, medieval maps are more focused on relationships. Probably the most common type of medieval mappa mundi, or world map, was the O-T map (so called because it looks like an O with a T in it) which clearly depicted the continents as the settling places of Noah’s sons Shem (Asia), Japeth (Europe) and Cham (Africa). It was based on Isidore of Seville’s seventh-century description of the physical world.

British Library, Royal 12 F. IV, f.135v. 12th century.

British Library, Royal 12 F. IV, f. 135v. 12th century.

Orbis a rotunditate circuli dictus, quia sicut rota est [...] Undique enim Oceanus circumfluens eius in circulo ambit fines. Divisus est autem trifarie: e quibus una pars Asia, altera Europa, tertia Africa nuncupatur.

The world is said [to be] round like a circle, because it resembles a wheel [...] Indeed the Ocean, flowing around it on all sides, encompasses its furthest reaches in a circle. It is divided in three parts: one of which is called Asia, the second Europe, the third Africa. (Etymologiae, 14)

Copies of Beatus of Liébana’s Commentary on the Apocalypse, often known for their incredible illustrations, use a variation of the OT map to illustrate the exodus of the Apostles.

Las Huelgas Beatus, Pierpont Morgan Library, M. 429, f. 31v-32r. September 1220. Zoom in closer here.

Las Huelgas Beatus, Pierpont Morgan Library, M. 429, f. 31v-32r. September 1220. Zoom in closer here.

Want more Beatus maps? Go here!

Want more Beatus maps? Go here!

While most surviving maps are found in books, they were also created to stand alone, such as the Hereford Mappa Mundi, created c. 1300 and now hanging in Hereford Cathedral. As the largest surviving medieval map, it stands on a single piece of vellum at 158 cm by 133 cm (62” by 52”). It illustrates at least 420 towns, 33 plants and animals, 32 people, 15 Biblical events, and 5 scenes drawn from classical mythology. (Note an unsurprising theme in these maps: the Bible is a central iconographical topic, and Jerusalem is often depicted right at the centre.)

The Hereford Mappa Mundi. Explore it on the official website!

The Hereford Mappa Mundi. Explore it on the official website.

There are also strange people depicted, such as the ‘sciapods’ shown in what would be present day India, at the extreme south of the (incompletely) known world. (You can also see a sciapod on the left in the Osma Beatus above.)

Sciapods were a people with one giant foot. As seen here on the Hereford Mappa Mundi, they used this giant foot like an umbrella to shield them from the elements.

Sciapods were a people with one giant foot. As seen here on the Hereford Mappa Mundi, they used this giant foot like an umbrella to shield them from the elements.

As suggested, besides just known lands, mappa mundi sometimes depict the unknown or legendary. They’re not navigational tools to be carted along on your journey, but display items intended to tell stories and teach lessons about the outside world. The largest known medieval map, the Ebstorf Mappa Mundi, was made sometime during the 13th century out of 30 goatskins, measuring 3.6 m by 3.6 m (12’ by 12’). While it was very shamefully destroyed in the bombing of Hanover in 1943, several good facsimiles and photographs were made before its demise.

Facsimile of the now-lost Ebstorf Mappa Mundi.

Facsimile of the now-lost Ebstorf Mappa Mundi.

Around the outer reaches of the map, which rests on the body of Christ, are a variety of strange beings.

This detail of the Ebstorf Mappa Mundi shows the supposed people of Africa. (There are 24 monstrous races on the Ebstorf map, and 20 on Hereford's.)

This detail of the Ebstorf Mappa Mundi shows the supposed people of Africa. (There are 24 monstrous races on the Ebstorf map, and 20 on Hereford’s.)

Some of the most interesting figures (and yet, probably the most disturbing) are Gog and Magog, found on the eastern edge of the world. Gog and Magog (in Revelation 20:7-8; or Gog from Magog in Ezekiel 38-39) were prevalent in both biblical commentary and popular imagination through to the Early Modern period. There are many stories, but essentially, at the apocalypse, Gog and Magog would be released from their prison (some said they were put there by Alexander the Great) to wreak havoc on the world. Here they are munching on some poor sinner’s hands and feet (naturally).


“No thanks! I already ate.”

There are so many fantastic medieval maps – from the west and the east, of the whole world, regions, and towns – that I could only dream of sharing them here. If you’re interested in medieval maps, start with the great Cartographic Images site, or Early Medieval Maps. But be prepared to spend some time – medieval maps will lead you right into the path of an internet vortex!

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CSI: Manuscript Edition

By Ramona Venema

Ramona Venema works as a research assistant in the Turning Over a New Leaf project. She maintains her own cookery blog.

When I was a small Ramona, I wanted to be an archeologist. I love how history becomes tangible through objects, for example through finding a brooch worn by a Viking or discovering a mug used by a Roman soldier. It reminds us that our ancestors were often not that different from us today. Working with medieval manuscripts often feels like being an archeologist of the book. We might not have to dig for them (usually), but that doesn’t make discoveries any less exciting. In fact, the thought of clean hands at the end of my day makes me feel pretty excited. A medieval book or document sometimes holds clues to those who made and used it, and more specifically “biological” clues. If there had been a DNA or fingerprint database back in the day, that would have made identifying book producers and readers a lot easier.

The Case of the Dirty Finger

Leeuwarden, Tresoar, Ms. 683, f. 136v

Leeuwarden, Tresoar, Ms. 683, f. 136v

Fingerprints are often used to uncover the identity of a thief, murderer and other criminals. Here, they’re used to prove that readers of medieval books didn’t always wash their hands properly. Or was it a scribe who checked if the ink was dry without wiping his fingers first? I reckon handling a medieval pen must have been a pretty messy affair, although I might be drawing conclusions from my own lack of keeping-ink-on-the-paper-not-the-fingers skills. For another fingerprint, see Erik Kwakkel’s Tumblr post on fingerprints.

Tragedy in a Drop of Blood

Source: 1; archival piece kept in the Stadhouderlijk Archief, Leeuwarden, Tresoar

Archival piece kept in the Stadhouderlijk Archief, Leeuwarden, Tresoar Collection.

For the record: this is not a medieval document, but you had probably already guessed that. Be that as it may, this archival document kept in Tresoar (Leeuwarden) is very interesting, as we actually know whose blood is on the page. The writer of this document and shedder of this blood is Frisian stadtholder Willem Frederik. While he was cleaning his pistol on the 24th of October 1664, he accidentally shot himself in the head. However serious this injury, he didn’t die from his wounds immediately. Unable to speak or eat, he scribbled down his last wishes. This is one of the notes that he left, stipulating that his “hofmeester” (magister curiae) was to stay with his wife and children. As he jotted this down, blood must have dripped from his wound onto the paper, leaving us with DNA evidence of the tragedy that had befallen him.

Kiss my…Page?

Haarlem, Stadsbibliotheek, Ms. 184 C 2 1, f. 149v

Haarlem, Stadsbibliotheek, Ms. 184 C 2 1, f. 149v

In hunting for DNA samples, I could not overlook Kathryn Rudy’s work on reader traces of the bodily kind. Armed with a densitometer, she measured how dirty certain medieval books actually are. In one of her articles, Rudy mentions the kissing and touching of missals, in particular the canon page (one of which is shown in the image above).¹ A priest would kiss the page repeatedly, making it the “motel bed” of books. This repeated kissing naturally worried illuminators as their hard work would steadily be kissed away. Therefore, the manufacturers of the missal in the picture above inserted an “osculation plaque” which priests could plant their lips on instead. But as you can see from the worn colors, they often wandered upwards.

These examples really show how close we actually are to history sometimes. From a fingerprint to a bloodstain to other bodily fluids, books can show how personal an item they actually were, and provide a glimpse of the readers who used them. Next time you’re handling a medieval book, do a little “digging” of your own!


  1. Rudy, Kathryn M. “Dirty Books: Quantifying Patterns of Use in Medieval Manuscripts Using a Densitometer.” JHNA 2.1-2 (2010): n. pag. Web. <;.



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Historiated Initials: Letters with a Story to Tell!

By Jenny Weston

Medieval initials come in all shapes and sizes. They also come with different kinds of decoration. While some feature twisty vines, flowers, and other abstract designs, others present more detailed and distinctive figures and scenes.

Harley 2803, f.176

Isaiah standing in an historiated Initial ‘V’ for Visio: Harley 2803, f.176

Known as ‘historiated initials’, these portray figures or scenes that are clearly identifiable — they tell a story. In the initial ‘V’ above, we see the figure of Isaiah holding a scroll containing the opening words of the Old Testament book of Isaiah.

Some initials are more easily understood than others (at first glance). The following initial, for example, depicts Moses receiving the Ten Commandments from heaven. The identity of Moses is revealed via the context of the scene (God emerging from the clouds to deliver the tablets), as well as from the two little horns poking out of his head.

Royal 3 E I   f. 112

Historiated Initial ‘H’ for Hec: Royal 3 E I f. 112

While this depiction of Moses with horns may seem unusual, to most medieval readers this would have been a familiar portrayal of the biblical figure. It is widely believed that Jerome made a simple translation error when creating the Latin Vulgate, which resulted in Moses being described as having ‘horns on his face’, as opposed to ‘light on his face’.

The figures presented in medieval historiated initials were not always biblical. Kings, queens, bishops, abbots, and even some popular authors also made appearances within the walls of the manuscript letter. In some (rather fun) cases, the author of a text is depicted in the initial, working on the very text in which he sits (like a mirror of a mirror…). In a copy of Peter Lombard’s Sententiae, for example, we see Lombard himself depicted in a large  initial, happily working on the Sententiae. Such author portrayals could be compared to modern book-jackets that feature the author on the back cover!

Yates Thompson 17   f. 42v

Peter Lombard in the historiated Initial ‘Q’ for Que: Yates Thompson 17 f. 42v

Historiated initials might also contain a recognizable scene. In some cases, the artist used the initial to explain ideas or concepts discussed in the adjacent text. In a massive 14th-century encyclopedia known as the Omne Bonum (written by James Le Palmer), there are over 1100 folia and 650 illustrations that help the reader to conceptualize the terms presented in the text.

The following image, for instance, depicts the initial ‘G’ for Gula (or Gluttony). Here the artist does not simply showcase the individual eating or drinking too much, but instead visually warns of the adverse consequences of such actions.

Royal 6 E VII   f. 195

Historiated Initial ‘G’ for Gula: Royal 6 E VII f. 195

Other examples appear to be designed to evoke an emotional response from the reader, perhaps spurring them prayer. One manuscript with a wide assortment of detailed (and somewhat gory) historiated initials is a collection of Saints’ Lives (Royal 20 D VI), currently held at the British Library. In this volume there are many colourful examples that depict the rather gruesome martyrdoms of various saints.

Royal 20 D VI   f. 51

The martyrdom of Vincent: Royal 20 D VI f. 51

Royal 20 D VI   f. 86v

The martyrdom of Hippolytus, Historiated Initial ‘V’ for VosRoyal 20 D VI f. 86v

In addition to conjuring up emotional responses, these initials could also serve as a useful textual place-marker, helping the reader to find a specific part of the story without having to read through the text. If a reader wished to find a specific passage in William of Tyre’s Histoire d’Outremer (History of the Crusades), for example, he could simply search through the illustrative scenes at the opening of each new text. Here we see the Siege of Jerusalem (note the little man entering the hole in the wall):

Yates Thompson 12   f. 40v

Historiated initial ‘V’ for Verite: Yates Thompson 12 f. 40v

While historiated initials serve a variety of purposes (textual clarification, elaboration, and place-markers), they are also a testament to the artist’s talent. Manuscript initials provided a unique canvas for artists to show off their skills, which were often incredibly impressive and detailed. To end this brief foray into the world of the historiated initial, I would like to leave you with this wonderful example of Paul the Hermit reading alone in a shrub: 
Royal 20 D VI   f. 195v

Historiated Initial ‘A’ for Asserz: Royal 20 D VI f. 195v (British Library)

Posted in Jenny Weston, Project News | Tagged , ,

Talk to the Hand: Finger Counting and Hand Diagrams in the Middle Ages

By Irene O’Daly

In the absence of computers and calculators, a highly elaborate system of finger-counting and gestural sign-language developed in the Middle Ages for representing numbers and facilitating conceptual reasoning. These are often represented graphically in medieval manuscripts and provide an insight into teaching and learning practices in this period. One of the most significant figures in the development of this tradition was the Northumbrian monk Bede (673/74-735) who wrote an important text on the calculation of time entitled De Temporum Ratione (725). Along with a series of calendar tables traditionally appended to it, the text often included a representation of Bede’s system of finger calculation, an elaborate version of learning to count from one to ten using one’s fingers. In this fourteenth-century version from Italy, the hand gestures are demonstrated by a series of figures, each labelled with a number. Note that the final figure in the middle row switches to using his right hand to represent the number 100 (Roman numeral C) – numbers from 1-99 were indicated by the left hand, from 100 up the right hand was used and the hands could be used to demonstrate numbers up to 9,999. There was even an indication for 1 million – the hands were clasped together with the fingers interlaced.

Paris BN, MS Lat. 7418, f. 3v

Paris BN, MS Lat. 7418, f. 3v

These representations of numbers depended on moving your hand in a certain way. Another version of hand-counting for the purposes of calculation was also inspired by Bede, and was less dependent on the specific placement of the fingers. The hands depicted in these illustrations helped calculations based on the nineteen-year lunar cycle. Each finger joint was assigned one year; Bede included the tips of the fingers as ‘joints’, which is why the thumb is divided into three, and each finger into four. As important liturgical feasts, such as Easter, changed date from year-to-year depending on the lunar cycles, it was useful to have a counting system literally ‘to hand’.

St John's College, Oxford, MS 17, f. 98v

St John’s College, Oxford, MS 17, f. 98v

Another prominent use of hand diagrams in the Middle Ages is for the study of music. In the early tenth century, a monk called Guido of Arezzo derived the solfège method to aid monks to learn how to sight-sing with ease, assigning each note of a six-note scale a syllable (in Guido’s case, ut, re, mi, fa, sol, and la). The ‘Guidonian hand’ elaborated this system by assigning a note to each part of the hand. This allowed singers to understand how notes related to each other.

Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, MS D.75 inf, f. 6r. Image reproduced in J. Murdoch, The Album of Science, Vol. 1 (New York, 1984) p. 81

Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, MS D.75 inf, f. 6r. Image reproduced in J. Murdoch, The Album of Science, Vol. 1 (New York, 1984) p. 81

As in the case of the computus manualis, 19 locations for notes on the hand were placed on the different joints of the fingers, but as the hand was used to depict a twenty-note scale, one additional location was required, which was assigned to the reverse of the third joint of the middle finger. This is usually represented in the diagrams as an additional location hovering over the middle finger, as can be seen in this depiction.

University of Pennsylvania, MS Codex 1248, f. 122r

University of Pennsylvania, MS Codex 1248, f. 122r

What all these hand diagrams have in common is that they served as a physical way to represent abstract concepts. In so doing, they became valuable mnemonic devices. The versatility of the hand, with its nineteen ‘common locations’ meant that it could be used to represent a number of different things – dates, music, and even as this fourteenth-century diagram demonstrates, to facilitate prayer, with each location on the hand given a different contemplative value for ‘meditatio nocturna per manum’.

British Library, MS Harley 273, f. 111r

British Library, MS Harley 273, f. 111r

The hand, the most portable device of all, was a powerful tool for symbolic representation, calculation, and mental processing in the Middle Ages, and indicates the presence of a comprehensive, but elusive, gestural vocabulary, the full meaning of which we can only guess.

For further reading on this subject see:
J. Roberts, ‘Introduction’, The Oxford Handbook of the Reception History of the Bible (ed. M. Lieb, J. Roberts, E. Mason, Oxford, 2013)
S. G. Bruce, Silence and Sign Language in Medieval Monasticism: The Cluniac Tradition c. 900-1200,  (Cambridge, 2009)
J. Murdoch, Album of Science: Volume 1: Antiquity and the Middle Ages (New York, 1984)

Posted in Irene O'Daly

My Week of Lecturing in Oxford

By Erik Kwakkel (@erik_kwakkel)

It is the evening of Thursday 27 February, 2014, and at the moment I am sitting in The White Horse being stared at by Inspector Morse, who frequented this pub back in the day – and who seems to have left a portrait behind every time he did. When I look out the window I can see the Bodleian Library, that treasure trove of medieval books. For the past week this is where I have been: Oxford, more precisely Corpus Christi College. Invited to be the 2014 E.A. Lowe Lecturer in Palaeography, I came to the college for a week to give lectures on medieval script. I learned a lot over the past week, both from the audience’s responses and through discussions with colleagues, both inside and outside Corpus Christi College – a most welcoming and hospitable community. This blog has everything to do with medieval manuscripts, but it is more personal than usual, if you forgive me: I thought I’d give a sense of what it entails, doing lectures in a historical place like this. So here is my week of being part of a stimulating academic world.

Corpus Christi College, Oxford (pic: my own)

Corpus Christi College, Oxford (pic: my own)

I arrived in Oxford last Thursday afternoon, just in time to hear @WillNoel do the annual McKenzie Lecture in bibliography in St Cross College, titled “Bibliography in Bits”. Will, Twitter celebrity par excellence, is a well-known proponent of Open Access and making digital data available for all to download and use. (“For free!” he would add to that in a loud voice.) He talked about digital surrogates of medieval books: how a manuscript’s digital representation is its own entity, how it exists – is – in its own right. He showed how a digital manuscript is a resource that teaches us things the material object itself may not reveal. His lecture (and the dinner that followed) formed a great start of my week here. It would also be the last thing I would do – until now, sitting in this pub – without a certain amount of pressure.

That pressure was not just generated by the venue, but also by the fact that the data at the heart of my lectures had just been harvested – with the indispensable help of my Research Assistant, RV. The paint of my lectures still wet, much of my free time was filled with going through my data and deducing how to expand the scope of my papers with their help. My three lectures aimed to show how the major book script of the Early Middle Ages (Caroline Minuscule, in use from c. 800 to c. 1100) morphed into the major book script of the Later Middle Ages (Littera Textualis, or Gothic script, used from c. 1200 to c. 1600). It’s a great topic because the century in between the two is filled with experimentation by scribes, of mixing older and newer features, and of fights for dominance between opposing letter shapes. My approach was threefold. First, finding a way to describe in objective terms what the actual difference is between the letter shapes in the two scripts. Second, registering in a database whether scribes in different ages and geographical areas preferred the Caroline or Gothic presentation of a letter. Third, translating this data into graphs that provide insight into the transformation from the one script into the other. Each step of my research came with challenges and limitations, but also with opportunities to advance our knowledge.

Title slide of my first lecture

Title slide of my first lecture

So, here we are, on the Friday: my first lecture. It focuses on how the transitional script from the Long Twelfth Century evolved over time. The theater is filling up nicely (about 75 people have come) and I start to do my thing. I discuss the method for about twenty minutes and then dive into the paleographical depths of the complex hybrid script. Highlighting differences between letter shapes I begin to carve out an objectified description of the road between Caroline and Gothic, focusing not on the overall impression but on hard, measurable features. I challenge the traditional temporal boundaries of the two scripts and feel brave enough to query, at the end of the lecture, whether we ought to perhaps abolish our notion of Caroline and Gothic being different scripts. Would it not be better to regard them as different expressions of the same writing system? My data certainly backed up this provocative idea. After the lecture a dinner was organized in the founder’s room of Corpus Christi Corpus: a great end of my first performance.

Then came the weekend, which I spent with family just outside Oxford – walks, pubs, and a newspaper on Sunday. On Monday I did an extra-curricular masterclass for the Centre for the Study of the Book, which runs under auspices of The Bodleian Libraries (here). It had been arranged only a few weeks earlier, within half an hour, and entirely through Twitter messages between me and @DanielWakelin1 – medieval books are so modern! In a seminar room filled with graduate students, faculty and nine medieval manuscripts I talked about two unusual book types: the elegantly tall and narrow holsterbook, and the off-cut manuscript, which is made from recycled strips of parchment. The students had picked out a selection of specimens from the Bodleian Library, adding to the class’s hands-on character. In the afternoon the Fellow Librarian of Merton College gave me a private tour through their medieval library, which is Britain’s oldest surviving library designed for use by scholars (I blogged about it here).

Medieval Library at Merton College (pic: my own)

Medieval Library at Merton College (pic: my own)

Then came Tuesday and my second Lowe Lecture. Having done temporal development last Friday, it made sense to focus on the enormous regional variation in the transformation from Caroline to Gothic. When you place a manuscript from Germany next to one from France you can sense that they are not equally advanced, but with a new tool I developed I could support such intuitive verdicts with a number. I introduced the notion of Gothic Weight, which measures the “Gothicness” of a script written between 1075 and 1225. It gives a value to each of the thirty or so features I track in my database: 2 points for Gothic, 0 points for Caroline and 1 point if the script trait in question is presented in a mixed form – meaning that the scribe uses both Caroline and Gothic on the same page. When the points are added up, you end up with one number representing how advanced or behind an individual scribe was with respect to his handwriting. It means you can compare a German and a French manuscript objectively, as well as comparing Germany and France as a whole (by taking the average Gothic Weight), or even map the increase of Gothiness over time within European regions.

Sculpture of a scholar, Bodleian Library (Pic: my own)

Sculpture of a scholar, Bodleian Library (Pic: my own)

Wednesday and Thursday were filled with working hard on the third paper, in which I aimed to show how Gothic script evolved not over time or in different regions, but as a novelty that was passed on to new generations of scribes. How did idiosyncrasy turn into new norm? My database did not provide an answer to this question, but using my data in combination with broader questions I could explore the very difficult question of a script’s dissemination – albeit without providing a definitive answer. The paper mainly focused on training, as I figured this was the moment when a new script feature had the chance to jump to a new user – a novice in a monastery being trained to write for the first time. In fact, such transmission would depend on the person in charge of training novices: if he was modern and advanced, then likely so would his pupils be. The main part of the paper therefore examined two cases where teacher and pupil were found on the same page: the first prompting the latter, monitoring progress, and correcting mistakes. It is exciting research given that you study, in a sense, the “homework” of a medieval scribe.

After the lecture I was invited for dinner in St Edmunds Hall and after that I retreated to the White Horse, where I am currently writing this blog. The bell for the last round has just rung, so I must be off – away from this pub and, tomorrow, from Oxford. One last time I will open the medieval gate of Corpus Christi College with my electronic key chain – a contrast that strikes me as a suitable parallel for my week of studying digitally the handwriting of medieval scribes.

More information – The full abstracts of my Lowe Lectures are found here. More about my approach to medieval script in this blog about kissing letters. Download this free book if you want to read an article I wrote on mapping script objectively.

Posted in Erik Kwakkel | Tagged , , , , , ,

When is a Book not a Book? The Medieval Book Shrine.

By Julie Somers

While browsing images of medieval treasure bindings, I noticed that one example I was looking at was not actually a book at all.  In fact, it was an ornamented wooden case made to closely resemble a book. Produced in Germany, it was created to hold various sacred objects, including leaves from actual books, in this case the Gospels, along with other corporeal relics.

Book Shaped Reliquary c.1000 (Germany)

Book Shaped Reliquary c.1000 (Germany) Cleveland Museum of Art

This type of reliquary is often known as a cumdach, or book shrine.  An elaborate ornamented box or case used to hold relics or, more often, manuscript fragments that were considered sacred in some manner. Usually quite small, they served as a portable vessel meant for the preservation of a sacred text that represented a direct connection or association to a saint. They were often decorated in metalwork or ivory carvings, with precious stones to symbolize the valuable nature of the object inside, imitating a treasure binding. These ornamented boxes would be used for the swearing of oaths, protection or even healing purposes. The cumdach of the Book of Durrow (c. 877) is the earliest recorded book-shrine, however it has been lost. Several examples exist from Ireland in the 11th century.

Believed to contain a copy of the Gospels that belonged to Molaise of Laserian, a contemporary of Columba, the cumdach of Molaise was produced in the early 11th century.

Book-Shrine or cumdach of Molaise, c.1001-25 (National Museum of Ireland, Dublin)

Book-Shrine or cumdach of Molaise, c.1001-25 (National Museum of Ireland, Dublin)

The cumdach of Columba’s Psalter, a copper and silver plated book-shrine was made between 1062 and 1098 to hold the Psalter of St. Columba, a manuscript produced in Ireland which dates to the late 6th or early 7th century. The manuscript it held became known as the ‘Cathach’ or ‘Battler’, and the case protected the manuscript as it became a talisman carried into battles.

Cumdach of Columba’s Psalter (National Museum of Ireland, Dublin) 

Another example, known as the Domnach Airgid or “Silver Church” holds a fragmentary gospel manuscript from the 8th or 9th century, and acts as a reliquary with a connection to St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. Produced over several centuries, estimated from as early as the 6th century and still being reworked and ornamented in the 14th century, this reliquary was most likely intended to hold bodily relics, while the manuscript was placed inside at a later time.


Shrine of Saint Patrick's Gospels. early 20th century (original dated 1080–1100) The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Shrine of Saint Patrick’s Gospels. early 20th century (original dated 1080–1100) The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The cumdach of Dimma’s Book was produced in the twelfth century to encase the 8th century Gospel Book copied by the scribe Dimma (Dublin, Trinity College, MS.A.IV.23). A reproduction of the case was created by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and can be viewed online.


"Book of Dimma" Shrine early 20th century (original dated 11th century) The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Book of Dimma” Shrine early 20th century (original dated 11th century) The Metropolitan Museum of Art

One last example of a book-shrine, the cumdach of the Stowe Missal, produced in the 11th century, now at the Museum of the Royal Irish Academy.

Book or Shrine, Cumdach of the Stowe Missal. early 20th century (original dated 1025–52) The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Book or Shrine, Cumdach of the Stowe Missal. early 20th century (original dated 1025–52) The Metropolitan Museum of Art

It is evident from these examples that these cases were meant to directly resemble a book, symbolizing the important manuscripts found inside. Even today, we place important mementos or documents such as love letters or birth announcements within the pages of a family Bible or book of poetry, or even personal items within a faux dictionary safe placed on a bookshelf. This tradition of encasing our precious items has endured.

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