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!
Kate

Avoiding the Tower of Babel: Week 19 Discussion Reflection

The author of Genesis chapter 11 lays out the story of the tower of Babel: Mankind, in their pride, built a great tower reaching the heavens. God was not pleased with their actions and so He   “confused their language so they would not understand each other”. As a result the tower never got completed since there was no common language anymore. An interesting story about pride and an explanation for the development of language. But imagine if there was a universal language, a standardized form with the potential for adaptability,  think about what we could accomplish.

The potential universality of Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) and its contribution to preventing a scholarship that cannot be collaborative due to the hindrance of language or formatting is an impressive ideal to seek after. The TEI enables greater accessibility and greater movability through the use of tools such as schemas(TEI lingo) or the development of new a schema especially when the source material is unique, since not every source can be standardized. TEI allows and encourages building off existing tool sets and relying on other scholarship rather than reinventing the wheel and doing redundant work. Furthermore, it attempts not to compromise what the text is and or what it will become in the future.

During our in class discussion around TEI in week 14, I asked the question “to what extent can TEI accurately represent a source in a digitized form- what is lost through digitization”? Now, this might be an old and antiquated question but is important to consider and Professor Saurette offered an answer. To summarize his words, the TEI’s purpose is not to create an all immersive experience to replicate, or replace, the physicality and materiality of a source but rather the TEI is focused on creating an online version of the key components of the source. Digitization is not used as a replacement but rather a supplement to the real deal, and even with all the immersive technology, all the sound scaping and the appeal to the senses, there is no way to do away with tangibility. When I was younger I went into Action Packed Comics in Kingston looking for MTG card singles  and I heard a gentleman ask the owner if he thought online comic books would put him out of business. A legitimate question and one that intrigued me. The answer replied with confidence: “It’ll never happen. People love the feeling, the smell and physically owning a comic book and nothing can replace that- the nostalgia is what people pay for more than the stories”. A sentiment that can be applied to DH but I digress and realize this blog post is a buck shot as opposed to a slug.

The point I am making is that the TEI is a great initiative and opens up the possibility of greater accessibility and collaboration between scholars. Professor Shawn Hawkins stated that if he attempted to Encode all of the Roman poet Catullus’ poems and the accompanying commentary, that awkwardly occupies the margins caging the poems, it would take him a lifetime of work but through collaboration he can focus on the finer points of interest. It’s incredible to think about the completion of our final project and how collaborative the journey has been- anyone of us would be hard-pressed to do the work we’ve done all on our own. But as a community of scholars, a class, we began building on the foundation of skills, laid by Professor Saurette, that we developed in first semester and now, in second semester, we’ve built a tower, a mighty Digital Tower… let’s hope we didn’t offend any jealous gods along the way.

 

The Visage of Vellum

Oral interviews and pursuing an individual’s story through the mode of videography has become a passion of mine during my undergraduate degree. In my third year I had opportunity to work with Professor John Walsh in a historical practicum course during which myself, and another student, performed oral interviews with long-time members of the Alpine Club of Canada. Being able to engage with people on a personal level, with all the emotional navigation that accompanies it, allowed me to encounter a history that was not merely held in books or journals but in people’s lived experiences, in their visages. Seeing a person’s face change and hearing their vocal inflections when they are leading their mind through the memory palace of their experiences is truly something to behold and makes history much more alive than, dare I say it, a book. For the final project in HIST 4006 A I had the opportunity to yet again sit down with individuals, this time peers of mine, and flush out their experiences handling Medieval manuscripts.

Lyn Abrams notes that oral history is more than just asking a question and getting an answer but that the interview is, “a give and take, collaborative and often cooperative, involving information-sharing and autobiographical reminiscence, facts and feeling.” (1) Abrams principle of fluid dialogue and a built relationship between the interviewee and interviewer was something that I applied to each interview I conducted for this project. Before the interview would begin I reminded the interviewee that it would be very informal and not to worry about answering all the questions I had; I wanted the interviews to be as organic as possible and not push an agenda filled with assumptions. As I interviewed my peers a golden thread slowly began to emerge from the great tapestry of interwoven encounters: the experience of physically handling the manuscripts. Each one expressed their surprise of being allowed to handle a 500 year old, in some cases older, manuscript. They talked about being able to feel the parchment, the gesso from the illuminations, and utilizing new skills to determine provenance and genre. The more the interviews carried the more my peers noted the uniqueness of their experiences within Digitizing Medieval Manuscripts.

Part of the reason I thought it would be a wonderful idea that the project website host videos was to not only showcase the work done by students, but also to allow the students to curate their own experiences and by doing so put a face to these manuscripts, a face filled with experiences of its own. These interviews were also a great time of self-reflection to wrestle with the reality that we were not only enabling greater accessibility to these manuscripts through curating an exhibition, online and analogue, but also that we had become “producers of knowledge” (To borrow Professor Saurette’s words). It is my hope, and that of my peers, that our scholarship throughout this project will enable other Carleton students to grasp the potential available to them while studying in University and hopefully spur them onto to become contributors and collaborators of these manuscripts in future projects. That they will weave their experiences into the tapestry of academia and stand back and marvel at their accomplishments, just as we have ours, and say “There is more to be done”.

 

  • Abrams, Lyn. Oral History Theory. 2nd ed, New York: Routledge, 2016, p. 21.

 

Post Exhibit Reflection

The final week (half week?) of school has arrived – my absolute final week of undergraduate studies is almost over and to be honest, time really does fly by. It definitely does not feel like four years have flown by.
Last week, we launched our medieval manuscript exhibit that our entire class has been working on the whole semester. It was such a success! The exhibit team did such an amazing job at creating everything, it honestly looks like a professional exhibit. The team leader of the exhibit team, Veronica, put her heart and soul into this exhibit and it really showed – it really is a fantastic exhibit. The exhibit is currently on display on the 4th floor of Paterson Hall at Carleton University, so if you’re by chance reading this or in Ottawa, go see it! If not, go check out our website Medieval Ottawa! The website team did an exemplary job adding in all the information on the medieval manuscripts that were chosen for the exhibit. On each manuscript there is even a sound clip that allows the viewer to hear what the manuscript sounds like in medieval Latin!
My job for the exhibit was the social media team (or the publicity team), along with my fellow team member, Paige. Our job was to basically give publicity for the exhibit by creating an Instagram where we posted “sneak peaks” of the medieval manuscripts we had chosen. We also created flyers and posters for the exhibit, which were placed around campus. Even though the project is technically over, I would like to keep up with the Instagram until our professor decides he wants to take it over or give it to his next class.
This exhibit process was an amazing experience; it was almost like receiving a behind-the-scenes look at how exhibits in museums are actually created. A lot of thought and editing goes into those tiny blurbs you see in museums! It was also a cool experience to deal with the social media aspect of it as well; for such a new account we quickly escalated to 168 followers and were receiving interactions from cities such as Paris, Rome, and New York! Our latest photo gathered as many 800 interactions, meaning around 800 people viewed the photo (now if only everything single one of those people had liked the photo!).
Nothing could have been as organized if it had not been kept in line by our project manager Trina – she did an amazing job as well! She has a knack for organization and she was luckily there to remind everyone of their duties – and to update our project board on Trello, to which I hope she has forgiven me for taking forever to update it.
This was a fantastic semester and I am sad that it is ending, but I feel so accomplished with everything that we have done as class. Everyone did such a great job!

Who Knew Manuscripts Would be a Social Media Hit?

Being on the social media team meant I spent a lot of time on social media, scoping out similar accounts and related content to try and grow our online presence with people who would appreciate our content instead of bots and it is a whole different world out there. Academic Twitter or Medieval Twitter is an already established community where academics can collaborate and ask questions, or make funny jokes and it is a great space to be apart of. Instagram  (@medieval_book) is less of an academic space since most of your media is consumed through photographs and many people neglect to read the captions because of mindless scrolling. I was pleasantly surprised at how many medieval accounts are on Instagram and the mini community they have. Most of it is looking at interesting marginalia, or looking at beautiful manuscripts but one thing I found is that everyone in that community follows one another help try and grow the community. It kind of overlaps with the calligraphy community and the meme genre since you can make some great memes from marginalia or manuscripts.

I also found a lot of sellers form auction houses selling manuscripts on Instagram which I thought was an interesting thing to do on this platform, but it kind of made sense since it is such a photo based social media platform. By the time of our exhibit launch, our Instagram account grew to 168 followers and an average of 50 likes per post which is incredible engagement for such a niche community. The account is also only two months old so that is incredible growth. I wish we could keep the account running, and continue to post more to it in hopes we can gain more engagement and attract more people to medieval studies, and history in general because I do not want this field to die out.  I love history and hope our online presence continues to go and take over the world 😉