Medieval Manuscripts and Their Production

In class, February 6, 2017 in between the hours of 1400-1700 in the afternoon, we began class like any normally excellent day by going over today’s agenda, which our Professor was ever so kind in to read the agenda like he did last week, through memory, and oral dictation, not through writing it on the board, even though this time, we had markers for the board. Will he continue this streak of oral dictation? Or will he revert back to the ways of writing, we don’t know yet. I myself remain in suspense.

He continued to review last week, and reminded us that it is more than necessary since we only meet on one day of the week, and that is on Mondays. And this all happened before going onto the next lesson, which was writing as a tool. Many people love writing, others deplore it, and he used the words for these two distinct perceptions of writing as: Fetishizing, and distrust. The distrust of writing came from the idea that stories and poems should be passed on through oral tradition. There was also a fear among people through the forces of oppression, whereas if the elite could read, and write, whereas the general population could not, they could be easily perceived, especially through religious doctrine.

Then we switched gears to talk more about the medieval era which ranged from 500 all the way to 1500, or 1450 if one wants to associated technology with the change of ages. Then he went with a fascinating list of dates which I myself found interesting, can’t speak for the rest of my class though.

The first date was 476, which was the fall of the Roman empire and the arrival of the codex, and the transition from scrolls to bindings. The second date if memory serves was the introduction to monasticism, with the date that St. Benedict lived, 480-547. Then he spoke about the rise of Christianity, and their primary language was Latin, which is considered the sacred language, and then missionaries are sent to places like England which resulted in the rise of the vernacular languages The 7th century was the rise of Islam, and the rise of the Arabic culture in Spain. Between 1000-1300 was the rise of urbanization, population, trade, and sophistication.

The first universities as he mentioned were Oxford, Bologna, and Paris at 1180. The roles of these universities was commentary on authoritative texts, and the medieval law books.

Then class turned another direction and the professor showed us an astounding collection of books, and their respective texts through the slideshow, which was fascinating while he spoke on what the books were made out of. Papyrus and Parchment for rolls, and the parchment and papers were used for the Codex. To exclude our journey on the book, we watched a six minute video on the making of medieval books, which was fascinating with all of the different moving parts associated it with the skin, scraping off the fat, and the processes that went into making it ready to be written upon.

After the video, he spoke about the book of Exeter, the book of riddles and one of those riddles described the making of the book. And to keep in context with ancient books, and how they were made, our professor made the statement that there are books in Houghton library which are made or bound in human flesh. Does this make anyone excited or is it just me?

Finally, we transitioned into the workshop, to illuminate a poem, which was a process that had us pick a poem, and draw illustrations on the poem we picked. The whole class did so, and as we finished our illumining of the poem we passed our work to others who would make connections, suggestions, and edits to our own work before. We concluded with discussing the reading of Philobiblon.



6 thoughts on “Medieval Manuscripts and Their Production

  1. Hands down the worst part of class for me was being told there are books made of human flesh which I could have happily gone the rest of my life without knowing but Alex quickly made up for it by letting us color, which was my favorite part of class and almost made me forget about the creepy skin books. It does not take much to distract or placate me.
    One of the interesting things you bring up in this post is the distrust vs fetishizing of writing/books. This class is really opening my eyes to the different perceptions of writing and reading that existed through the ages. The opinions on the written word were so different from how I (as an English major and book lover) view them today. To know they were often a tool of oppression alters my whole perception that books are a sort of key to equality and the sharing of knowledge. It’s important to remember not everyone has (or had) the opportunity to access, read, or write books.

  2. I really like how you highlighted our discussion about either fetishizing or distrusting books. I, too, find this topic very interesting in that the elite, even (and especially) now a days, are seen as distrustful! We’re not supposed to trust politicians, we’re not supposed to trust everything that doctor’s say (“did you get a second opinion?”), we’re not supposed to trust lawyers (“they’re all ambulance chasers looking for a chance to sue”), we’re not supposed to trust people that are supposed to be looked at as trustworthy (am I turning heads yet?). And I find this incredibly ironic and in some respects, humorous. With that being said, I think that it was intelligent of the middle and lower class citizens to not trust what the elite were writing. Yes, they were the majority of people who knew how to read/write but who’s to say that they weren’t changing the translation of writings to meet their criteria and needs/desires? Perhaps this 2017 world has already gotten the best of me and I’m viewing everything now as alternative facts (que Orwell) but I, too, would have appeared skeptical of these writings. It is often discussed that we may not even be able to trust translations of writing because perhaps the translators translation wasn’t 100% to original. Hmmmm. This connects to the comment Zach made on Twitter where he mentioned how he found it interesting that men were given the opportunity to write but not women and that had me immediately thinking “yeah because (certain) men view women as manipulators so they probably didn’t pass us the men in fear that women would join the elite in manipulating these texts”. Of course, that it up for debate however, I think it just ties into this conversation about distrusting texts and the different contexts/times we distrust texts in.

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