Manuscripts on Display: Student Engagement with the Physical Book

When our class discussed creating an exhibition for Carleton’s “lost” manuscript fragments, we were confronted by the question of audience. Who would be interested in visiting our display? What knowledge do they bring with them and what knowledge do we want them to take away?
As university students who are enthusiastic about the medieval past, our aim was to delight but we hoped to entice visitors to learn more. Thus, the exhibition team set about choosing the most beautifully decorated, shimmering and detailed fragments, those with illuminations that would excite— from exceptionally brilliant flora and fauna to the most haunting portraits of executions and angels.

Early in this process, I had the opportunity to put our fragments and manuscript books on display for the students of a second year course on Medieval Europe. This was to be a one-time exhibit and students were tasked with providing post-workshop feedback. This was a unique opportunity to understand what students take away from engaging with physical codices and fragments.

Of course, as the coordinator I had preconceptions about student’s expectations and knowledge of the Middle Ages. In fact, we had spent multiple sessions together discussing medievalisms: popular beliefs about the middle ages, with the likes of Robin Hood, King Arthur, and the notorious Black Death appearing as distinctive features of the period. Moreover, most of the student’s assignments required the examination and analysis of source documents. These were often transcriptions and translations (often translations of translations) into modern English. With many steps removing the student from the physical document, it is beneficial for them to engage with these documents as physical items— What better way to understand the physicality of these documents then through not only seeing them through glass but engaging with them!

In consultation with Marc Saurette (Department of History; Medieval and Early Modern Studies) and Llyod Keane (Archives and Rare Book Coordinator) I began pulling sources from the shelves, keeping in mind to demonstrate both the beauty and the dynamic culture of the medieval past. Beginning with medievalisms, we pulled from the shelves of Carleton’s Archives and Research Collections (ARC) an early modern version of Caxton’s edition of Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur which features the original Middle English spelling. I included Gerard’s Herball (a herbology handbook originally published 1597) so that students could amuse themselves reading this vernacular text. This was a particular hit among the class, not only because they could read and sound out the early English, but because this allowed them to find both extinct and fantastical plants. One astute student mentioned they were intrigued to find post-columbian exchange items (such as potatoes) in the book.

Throughout the course we discussed the rise of notaries and universities during the Middle Ages. To provide a sense of what these documents may have looked like, I included both charters held in ARC (letters on the topic of the King’s rents) and a student copy of the Commentary on Pope Gregory IX’s Decretals. One charter is a chirograph, a document written in duplicate on a single parchment with the words “chirographum” in the center and then cut through to later establish the authenticity, the other a common deed accompanied by a broken red wax seal. A student who plans to study law spent a good portion of time with the chirograph; another student found the notes on Decretals compellingly relatable to our modern methods of learning through notetaking.

However, it seemed the majority of students were less concerned with the content of the documents themselves and far more interested by their physical aspects. The amount of time and labour taken to create a manuscript book, the use of animal skins for parchment, and even the process by which monks would learn to become scribes fascinated them above all. To be able to touch the rough and wrinkled vellum, see the gold leaf illuminations in person, and to smell the scent of an old tome whirling up as you turn the massive pages were recurring mentions among the student’s responses. They connected these physical objects to the historical work they had been doing throughout the year, writing that this experience was invaluable to them for the opportunity to have a glimpse into the past. For some, it provided an understanding of the immense reverence that medieval people could give to manuscripts books.

I would say that from what I found, students were indeed drawn to medievalisms but were very interested in the physicality of the medieval book. Not only were they drawn to the beautifully illuminated works, they found charm in the rough and crinkly parchment of these well-worn codices. I hope this brief exhibition as well as the exhibition in Carleton’s History Department, Carleton’s Lost Manuscripts, inspires future codicological pursuits!

Thanks for reading!