Meeting a medieval manuscript

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- by Jo Nguyen and David Gulliver


Be they tomes on philosophy or texts full of formulas, books are ubiquitous for college students. 800-year-old manuscripts? That’s a bit less common. 
So New College students had a rare opportunity this fall, as Dr. Carrie Beneš arranged for 10 medieval manuscripts to travel on loan from Paris to Sarasota for a class and series of open sessions on campus. 

Beneš, professor of medieval and renaissance history, worked with the Manuscripts in the Curriculum program, offered by manuscript dealer Les Enluminures. The firm shipped the manuscripts to New College in late summer.  The program’s costs were supported by the Kathleen S. Brooks Family Foundation.

“They arrived in a giant box – hard sided plastic, foam, lots of wrapping… it was kind of like Christmas when I was a kid, unwrapping them all,” Beneš said.

There are no titles or authors you know; most are in Latin, a few in French and most were liturgical — simply the numbers game of the period, when every church, chapel and monastery had to have its own set of religious books. 

So the course — aptly titled “Medieval Manuscripts” — was not about the content of the works. “It was more about how the books were used, and what the physical characteristics tell you about when and where it was made,” Beneš said. 

It provided a unique opportunity for undergraduates, she said, who rarely if ever get to work hands-on with original manuscripts. Several of the students in the class were first-years, and came from a wide variety of AOCs.

Beneš also opened up the manuscripts to the entire New College community with three “Meet a Manuscript” programs, where people could view the works close-up, and then make their own manuscripts with parchment paper, rulers and calligraphy pens.  

Emily Lovett, a history fourth-year who took the class, did just that, and helped host one of the events. She praised the opportunity to work closely with the manuscripts. 

“It’s one thing to see pictures and digital copies of them, but to actually touch them and look at the binding and the quiring, it just adds a completely different depth to the study of them,” she said.  “It’s been a really great experience having these manuscripts here and being able to have these events and this exhibit for people to explore.”

That’s just as Beneš would have hoped.

“As a historian, I tend to take an encompassing perspective: I see manuscripts as art objects and containers for text, but I’m almost more interested in their broader social context, as witnesses to the circumstances in which they were created,” Beneš said.

Interpreting manuscripts hands-on provides a chance to look at what resources were used in the past to create them, figure out how and why their creators decided to transcribe poems, hymns, or other texts, and analyze the social dynamics of the time period.

That was clear in the students’ final project, a research poster based on work with the manuscripts. One poster, rich with images of the original manuscript, discusses its particular style of “protogothic” writing—a transitional script between early medieval Carolingian and late medieval Gothic—and what it can tell researchers about the time and place where it was made.

Other poster topics included:

  • “Property Management in the 16th Century,” from a manuscript recording the feudal holdings of a French abbey;
  • “Musical Notation in the Middle Ages,” explaining how modern notation developed out of what look mainly like dots and squiggles,
  • “Medieval Bookbinding,” which used several loan manuscripts still in their original bindings to explore how medieval people bound books, and
  • “Two Books in Different Mediums,” which compared two very similar sixteenth-century prayer books, one handwritten manuscript and one early printed book.

Each in its way captures an element of people’s lives, nearly a millennium ago, and provides an experience of being present with the past. “It’s a snapshot of a particular moment in history,” Beneš said.

While the poster exhibit closed in December, the public will have another chance to see it at the biennial New College Conference on Medieval and Renaissance Studies in March.

— Jo Nguyen is an intern in the Office of Communications and Marketing at New College of Florida. David Gulliver is interim associate director of the Office of Communications and Marketing.