Strangers at a Party

By Erik Kwakkel (@erik_kwakkel)

Talking about medieval manuscripts in front of a camera is really tough. This verdict shot through my head as I was taping podcasts in the Palaeography Room at the University of London’s School of Advanced Studies recently. The activity seems no different than demonstrating the beauty of the handwritten book to a group of students or an audience of lay people, something I can do with my eyes closed. You lift a manuscript out of the storage box and explain the significance of its features, as passionately as possible, while flipping pages. In actuality, however, the rolling camera brings unusual pressure to the event.

Not only is a continuous flow of clear and clearly projected observations needed – hesitation is deadly as it would mean having to repeat the ordeal – but while speaking one has to also identify and formulate the next thing to say. These two simultaneous mental processes are accompanied by a third, I quickly found out. Soon after I had started, an evaluative voice in my head began to ask questions: from ‘Did I say this correctly?’ and ‘Will the viewer be able to make out the detail I just pointed out?’ to the more worrisome ‘What will you say next, Erik?’ and ‘Did I just scratch my nose?’

It did not help that I had not seen the material in front of me before: the manuscripts and fragments had introduced themselves briefly to me only an hour before, while climbing out of their boxes and shaking off their envelopes in the curator’s office, relieved to be out in the open again. Yet while the items and I had had a pleasant conversation, I did not really know them. In fact, presenting them in front of a camera to a potentially very large online audience felt like introducing a complete stranger to a busy party. Who were they? Where did they come from? What made them tick? And why again had I invited them?

As is often the case with public speaking, it is exactly this intellectual challenge of thinking on your feet and not exactly knowing what you will say next or how you will tie an observation to your train of thoughts, that makes it so much fun to do. And so I pressed on and taped 5-minute podcasts on the Paris Bible (‘Written in a letter of only 2 mm high, comparable to a modern newspaper!’), a student textbook (‘Not a single unabbreviated word on this page!’), manuscript fragments (‘Behold, hidden treasure in a bookbinding…’), layout (‘This scribe really knew what he was doing.’) and the transition from Caroline minuscule to Gothic script (‘Look at these two letters biting each other.’).

What I have learned from the experience? You’ll be alright if you are able to forget the camera. You do better without judging what you say as you say it. And it helps to pick items that have pronounced features and that relate to the theme of a podcast in a clear manner. But most of all, that introducing strangers at a party can be a lot of fun.

Added 9 May, 2012:

History SPOT published a blog entry describing the filming of these movies from the perspective of the camera man.

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