The National Library’s Medieval Manuscripts day was something I was looking forward to and it didn’t disappoint. Our guide for the day was Professor Emerita Michelle Brown and she was both very engaging and extremely knowledgeable.
We were led through 1500 years of manuscripts, looking at materials, construction, images and text. There was so much ground covered that I was grateful to have studied, albeit in my deep past, Roman civilisation, Byzantine and Medieval European history, which gave me something to hang onto as we careened through various historical epochs. The morning was spent looking at the development of tablets, scrolls and book forms, reed and quill pens not to mention the difference between parchment – made from sheep and goat skins and vellum – made from calf skins. Thankfully we were supported mid morning by yummy pastries and copious quantities of tea and coffee.
We were diverted by interesting anecdotes such as the martyrdom of Saint Boniface, who held a book over his head in an unsuccessful attempt to save himself from the swords of the Frisians who killed him in 754. Indeed the very book he was purported to have held to protect himself, the Ragyndrudis Codex (Codex Bonifatianus II) still exists and is located in Fulda in Germany.
One of the earliest images of Saint Boniface using a book as protection. Detail from Fuldaes Sakramentar, ca. 975. Image source
But I’m getting sidetracked. By lunchtime my head was just about exploding with information. So I took myself outside the library for a breath of fresh air and a Modernist detour with the help of Henry Moore’s sculpture, Two Piece Reclining Figure, No. 9, (1969)
Henry Moore, 1969, Two piece reclining figure, no. 9, outside the National Library of Australia, pen and ink, 19 June 2015
The afternoon session held the pleasure of getting very up close and personal to some of the volumes and fragments that form part of the Library’s medieval collection.
There were little faces included in capital letters – the faces below are about 1 cm in height.
Looking out of the past, the spots are the pores in skin that was used to make the parchment. Fragment from the Nan Kivell Collection, National Library of Australia
Who is that?, Fragment from the Nan Kivell Collection, National Library of Australia
And we were given an insight into the manufacture of these books when looked at manuscripts with unfinished artwork in them. This is an unfinished ornamental capital in an Italian book from the 15th century.
An unfinished ornamental capital, Mantua, 15th cent.
Obviously this didn’t stop the book from being used and someone even thought they should have a go at completing the book themselves.
The man in the moon, addition to a capital letter, Mantua 15th cent.
But this was a minor indignity compared to what some old manuscripts have suffered. As printed books became more readily available and affordable, the parchment and vellum pages lost their value and were used by bookbinders as covers …
Manuscript re-used as a part of a book binding.
and fragments were used to stiffen book spines and some pages were even used as pasting surfaces!
Re-use manuscript to strengthen a book spine
The last part of the afternoon we spent looking at magnificent volumes such as the Luttrell Psalter (only images on the screen) and comparing the use of page layouts with contemporary web designs. Wow what a ride! I’m still trying to consolidate what I heard on the day and follow up all sorts of interesting images.
Thanks to the team at the National Library and Professor Brown for such an amazing day.
PS if you would like to look at the Luttrell Psalter, The British Library has a version that you can turn the pages of, click here. I particularly like the designs that act as ‘line fillers’ on each page.