Posts Tagged ‘conferences’

At the beginning of the day we were asked to pick one of the three dozen or so manuscript fragments on the table and do our best to describe them (date, region, script, etc.).  I didn’t do too badly, given that I happened to pick the only work in Dutch (I posited 15th century, German or Dutch, from a Book of Hours, possibly part of the penitential psalms), and was happy to see that I was correct in the main (it is catalogued as from a Dutch Book of Hours, 1475, Use of Utrecht, though that is not certain).  We discussed using ultraviolet light to detect erased text—and, paraphrasing de Hamel, it is only useful 25% of the time, but of those times one often makes SPECTACULAR discoveries.

There followed a more formal introduction by de Hamel to medieval catalogues (essentially inventories of libraries), and the standard practice (developed at the Sorbonne in the late 13th century) of citing a manuscript by using the first words (incipit) of its second leaf AND its penultimate leaf.  Late medieval catalogues also include printed books (which often constitute as much as 50% of the inventory), despite an often-made assumption that all of them are in manuscript.  The late morning session was a powerpoint presention on the provenancing of a leaf from a manuscript containing the writings Thomas Aquinas—in the course of which we discussed the “pecia” system of production that was employed from the 13th century onward, whereby an approved exemplar manuscript was divided into sections and hired out to stationers to copy, both to increase production and to limit error rates.  At 6:00pm deHamel lectured at the Columbia Museum of Art to about 60 people, on the medieval Book of Hours as art, and his brilliant presentation received the warm approbation it deserved.


Day 1

 Born in London, Christopher de Hamel actually grew up in New Zealand, and early on (at 12 or 13) encountered and became fascinated with medieval manuscripts.  Educated at Oxford, he ended up (by accident he says, but such paths are often so), at Sotheby’s, and for 25 years (according to professor Scott Gwara’s intro) he fully described some 10,000 medieval manuscripts, and is estimated to have handled some 80,000.  His authority is apparent at every turn, but he is a charming speaker, and wears his knowledge with grace and humor.  A self-described antiquarian, de Hamel is unapologetically enthusiastic about manuscripts, and about how much fun he has working with them–it’s quite contagious.  

In the first session he stressed the major differences between medieval manuscripts and early printed books, including the obvious:  the former are produced one at a time, hand-written and multi-colored; the latter are produced in numbers, mechanically, in black and white; printed books were largely done on paper, and manuscripts on vellum or parchment (the two terms mean the same thing, i.e., any animal skin stretched and scraped clean).  According to one scholar, parchment is sheep or goat, and vellum is calf, but most curators, collectors, and dealers are generally not expert enough in mammalian dermatology to tell the difference.  Not much vellum was purchased before 1150, when only monasteries produced books, but was rather a by-product of eating meat, and plentiful in terms of demand.  The first recorded sale in England of vellum is by a vegetarian monastery in 1180, and with the rise of the universities (and thus, demand), purchasing vellum became necessary.  Oxford was buying vellum by 1200. 

The basic component of manuscript production is the quire / signature / clutch of parchment–i.e., one skin, folded one or more times to form a gathering, sewn together initially by a tacketing stitch in the upper left hand corner.  Quires are written one at a time, and then illuminated in the same fashion (always written first).  The illuminator does a rough sketch, draws over the sketch in ink, and then paints over the ink in whatever colors he choses.  He works in gold first, and then in the other colors: red (vermillion), blue (lapis lazuli, or azurite), green (verdigris), and yellow (saffron).  In terms of ink, most manuscripts are written in iron gall ink, despite many medieval recipes for carbon ink (which was used in printing).  Paraphrasing de Hamel, one must be careful in beliving medieval “how-to” guides, in that they tended to describe how things ought to be done, not necessarily how they were done.

De Hamel than gave a necessarily oversimplified overview of scripts in the West, which began with the Roman alphabet in square Capitals (suited to stone inscriptions) and Rustic Capitals (more useful in writing), to Uncial (the script of Christianity), which evolved into Half-Uncial and only survived as an Irish or insular script.  On the continent, Roman cursive (a minuscule script), which was the script of administration and bureaucratic communication, morphed over time into the Merovingian Cursive hands (France), Anglo-Saxon Minuscule (England), Visigothic Minuscule (in Spain, to the 11th Century), and Benaventine Minuscule (southern Italy).  Humanistic Minuscule, French andEnglish Cursive, Bastard Secretary & Black Letter Cursive were used for various kinds of texts through the end of the seventeenth century.  The point to remember that scripts were always merging and diverging, evolving and changing.  For a more precise and detailed (but brief, given the subject) account, see Michelle P. Brown’s British Library Guide to Writing and Scripts (U. of Toronto, 1998).

There followed a discussion of mistakes in manuscripts (wrong words, spelling errors, omissions, and additions) and forgeries (mostly a case of an early script with a later illumination–sometimes 20th century!).

The last session of the seminar on this day was a more formal presentation on how to identify and date a manuscript (or a fragment), using the knowledge so far presented, and using sources such as the Patrologia Latina, and websites like CHD Book of Hours (  We all took a short break, and then attended a public talk (ca. 200 people) by Dr. de Hamel on medieval Bibles.



Understanding the Medieval Book (1)

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For the next two days I’ll be blogging from Columbia, South Carolina, on the beautiful USC campus, attending a two-day seminar on “Understanding the Medieval Book.” Thirty (30) attendees from 12 states have come together for four workshops and two evening lectures given by Christopher de Hamel, a world authority on medieval (especially illuminated) manuscripts. Each workshop will focus on one genre of medieval book: the Bible, the Book of Hours (horae), the Breviary, and the Missal.

The Bible

As de Hamel notes in his The Book. A History of the Bible (2001), “probably more has been written about the Bible, over a longer period, than about any other subject. More manuscripts of the Bible, or parts of the Bible, survive from the Middle Ages than any other tangible artefacts.”

Books of Hours

“A Book of Hours is a compendium of different devotional texts which the owner could read in private … the core of the manuscript (usually about a third of the way through the volume) comprises the Hours of the Virgin: a standard series of prayers and psalms intended to be used in honor of the Virgin Mary at each of the canonical hours of the day. These are Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline.” (de Hamel, A History of Illuminated Manuscripts (1986, rev. 1994)–same for next two).

The Missal

A “fundamental distinction in the services of the late medieval Church is between the Mass and the daily offices. These were completely different in function and in form. The Mass is the communion service or Eucharist, one of the most solemn and important Sacraments of the Church, instituted by Christ at the Last Supper and consisting of consecrating and partaking of the bread and wine which represent the body and blood of Christ. It was celebrated at the altar, and its service-book was the Missal.”

The Breviary

“The Mass is not to be confused with the daily services performed in the choir: Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. We discussed the shortened version of these offices in the chapter on Books of Hours. They are not sacramental services, but are basically prayers and anthems in honor and praise of Christ and the saints. Their service book was the Breviary. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, antiquarians used to call any medieval liturgical manuscript a ‘Missal’ (be cautious therefore of titles added on the spines of manuscripts), and even now cataloguers confuse Breviaries and Missals. To the medieval mind, this would be unthinkable.”

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CBAA day 3

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This morning I attended the publications/editorial committee, where we discussed the new peer-reviewed journal that the CBAA plans to publish (titled Openings: studies in book art). The first issue is planned for November, and we discussed various ways to generate submissions and to attract peer reviewers.

After that I attended a session of three presenters: Michele Burgess (San Diego State U.), Martha Carothers (U. of Delaware), and Kitty Marryat (Scripps College). All of them presented work done by their book arts students, and even though their courses and programs vary in many ways, several issues were brought into focus for me as I plan a small program at Trinity. First and most important: if I wish to encourage and facilitate student work in the book arts, it will require a detailed plan, with specific deadlines and a structure of oversight and advising built into it, as well as a period of brainstorming, to move the project from the head into the hands. This seems obvious, but it must be emphasized at every turn. I simply do not have the time to do what these people do (since my main function is not as a facutly member), but Kitty made the valuable observation that one can customize this work–from a 3-hour project to that of an entire semester. One other necessity is to make sure that all major work is accompanied by a process journal, written by the student.

The next session I attended featured Matthew Aron and Shawn Simmons (book artists and designers), Cynthia Thompson (Memphis College of Art), and Laura Capp (a recent recipient of a PhD in English literature from the University of Iowa). Aron and Simmons gave a theoretical talk on “authorship in graphic design and artists’ books,” which was not particularly useful to me. Thompson’s talk focused on keeping the book arts in the curriculum by incorporating traditional type and book design into the larger design arts (this is, of course, more useful to folks who have design programs, like the Hartford Art School). Laura Capp’s presentation, “On my way to becoming a scholar, I cried and learned calligraphy,” was about how her experience in learning calligraphy in many courses taken at the Iowa Center for the Book provided first a creative escape from, and later a valuable perspective on, her dissertation research. Specifically, Capp described how the act of painstakingly writing out some of the poetry she was studying slowed her down enough to perform a much closer reading of the work than she would have done otherwise. I found this a valuable confirmation of what I already believe–which is that once one educates the hands in the act of producing texts, the head understands and appreciates far more deeply the thousands of original works in special collections. More importantly, that deeper understanding can often lead to more grounded and thorough interpretations.

The last session I attended was on “Librarians and Pedagogy,” and featured Laurie Whitehill-Chong (curator at the Rhode Island School of Design), Ruth Rogers (curator at Wellesley College), and Tony White (Director of the Fine Arts Library at IU). All of them spoke about artist’s books being useful in discussing book structure, and I heard for the first time the concept of “hybrid” as applied to books and media. Most interesting to me was Rogers’ acquisition criteria for artist’s books: relevance to the collection, relevance to the curriculum, the extent to which the book documents contemporary issues, the level of craft present in the book, and that it is a book which has in it “more than one reading,” (i.e., does one wan to read it more than once–a subjective but valuable criteria).

I will not go into the other events (tours and receptions) at the conference for obvious reasons, but I came away with a great deal to think about, and many excellent new colleagues.