Medieval Book Porn MOOC

Course: Digging Deeper (Part 1): Making Manuscripts and Digging Deeper: The Form and Function of Manuscripts
School: Stanford via Lagunita (their own OpenEdx-based platform), free
Instructors: Professor Elaine Treharne, Dr. Benjamin Albritton, Dr. Suzanne Paul, Dr. Orietta Da Rold
Quote:
 
(Part 1) You will learn major characteristics of book production, the terms and methods used by manuscript historians to describe the book, and key themes in early book history. Where were manuscripts made and who made them? What kinds of materials were used and what can those materials tell us? What kinds of texts were created and copied during these centuries? How did multilingualism matter in the medieval period? In pursuing these questions, you will study some of the most significant and beautiful books held by the university libraries of Cambridge and Stanford.
 
(Part 2) The Digging Deeper team of scholars from Stanford and Cambridge shows how to analyze the function of manuscripts, the methods by which they are conserved, and the digital means that are transforming the field of manuscript studies. We will look at the development of music, move beyond the European tradition to study non-Western manuscripts, and see how digital methods are allowing for new inquiry and posing new problems.

Rather than focusing on these as courses with a body of knowledge to be learned and/or skills to be acquired, I approached them as purely recreational MOOCs – sort of like watching Veritasium videos for whatever sticks – fitting them in wherever time permitted. The material focused on manuscripts rather than printed books, so we’re talking hand-written books from the Middle Ages, with a brief historical gloss on more ancient technologies. Book porn. For those of you who ended up here looking for porn books – sorry.

The course was in two parts of six and five weeks each. Part 1 dealt with how books were made: everything from the preparation of the substrate (vellum, parchment, paper), how it was turned into manuscript folios, scribing practices, manuscript layout design, ink production, and binding methods. Quiz questions ranged from identifying chain lines and laid lines, to scavenger hunts such as: “In Gallica, find the manuscript Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Français 1584. How many rabbits are found in the folio E recto, and who is the author of the poetry and music in the manuscript?” Answer: 3 rabbits, Guillaume de Marchaut.

Since I’m a font geek, my favorite part was the examination of various “hands” meaning how letters were formed. I also very much liked discovering the marginalia of old texts; I wish my book scribbles were as entertaining. All of it was quite wonderful. Except maybe for identifying bifolia and quires and folia, figuring out what order everything comes out in, because, counting. Not my strength. Nah, even that was a lot of fun, since in most cases, I constructed models so I could tell how the leaves were ordered when folded.

Part 2 was a magical mystery tour of various manuscripts from the Stanford and Cambridge libraries. I found this not as interesting simply because it was “so here we have this book” and several of them seemed quite ordinary, even though they were chosen for a variety of what were very significant reasons. It was still worthwhile, and I perked up considerably when we got to the Chinese scroll from the 3rd century, and the Sanskrit text written on birch bark.

I didn’t put much time into the courses, nor did I focus on “learning” anything – like I said, recreational MOOCing – though a lot of supplemental material was available for further exploration. I still found them very enjoyable, and can recommend them for anyone interested in medieval book porn. No, not medieval pornography books – I’m sure there’s a MOOC for that, or at least a website, though I haven’t run across it. Just really, really old books, how they’re made, and how we take care of them and study them.

I envy these people who play with old books all day, and spend their lives studying them. At one time, when life seemed full of choices, I wanted to be a librarian, and this is the kind of librarian I would’ve most liked to have been.

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7 responses to “Medieval Book Porn MOOC

  1. Oh . . . “At one time, when life seemed full of choices . . .” I think these are the saddest words I’ve read all week. Perhaps they’re just a little close to the bone. I remain, as always, in awe of your studies.

    • Hi Louise – One of my favorite literary scenes is Esther Greenwood’s “fig tree dream” in The Bell Jar – starving in the branches of a fig tree with fruit all around her – and now psychology has caught up with “the paradox of choice”, and even marketers are realizing there is such a thing as too many choices. I have made some very wise, beneficial choices (as well as a host of foolish ones), but librarian was not among them. But now we have the internet, which is a lovely consolation prize.

  2. Hi Karen — just to say I have enjoyed very much your MOOC reviews and have done at least one MOOC based on your recommendation (can’t remember which one, did about 10 last year). Thanks! Best regards Mary Adam

    • Hi Mary – always good to meet another MOOCer.

      That reminds me, I should put up a list of what’s upcoming. I’ve been so busy taking classes, I haven’t had much time for writing about them, but I have some breathing space in the next week or so.

  3. One of my rl friends does a 1-week class on bookbinding each year and another on creating illuminated text. Both are hands-on and (to my mind) extremely expensive. But I envy her.

    She’s a librarian…

    • Ha, yes, Christine, I understand. 😉

      When I was writing, one of my cohorts in the Zoetrope workshop made a lovely bound copy of some stories a group of us had written. She also made some tiny books of her own whimsical writing – using various labels and packagings from her kitchen pantry as covers and endpapers. Envy…in the most positive sense!

  4. Pingback: Another Medieval Manuscript MOOC | A Just Recompense

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