14th C manuscript, Royal Library of the Monastery of San Lorenzo del Escorial, Madrid, Spain
Course: Deciphering Secrets: The Illuminated Manuscripts of Medieval Europe
Length: 7 weeks
School/platform: University of Colorado and Universidad Complutense Madrid; Coursera
Instructors: Dr. Roger Louis Martínez-Dávila, Dr. Ana B. Sanchez-Prieto
Perhaps no other relic of the European Middle Ages captures our imagination more than illuminated medieval manuscripts, or those documents decorated with images and colored pigments. Serving as windows unto a lost world of kings, ladies, faith, war, and culture, they communicate complex visual and textual narratives of Europe’s collective cultural heritage and patrimony. In this fashion, illuminated manuscripts are dynamic messages from our communal past that are still relevant today in fields like graphic design and typography.
In this seven-week course, students will explore the material creation, content, and historical context of illuminated medieval European manuscripts. Students will acquire an introductory knowledge of their distinguishing characteristics, their cataloguing and periodization (when they were created), the methods utilized to produce them, and their historical context and value.
A couple of years ago, I took Stanford’s manuscript course, “Digging Deeper,” as a recreational mooc: no notes, just watched the videos and poked at the assignments. I still got something out of it, and hoped I’d get the chance to do more someday. Guess what: Someday came.
I had a few complaints about this course, but about halfway through, the fun overtook the complaints and I ended up having a great time. There was nothing recreational about my approach this time around: I went all in, doing everything there was to do (plus some additional explorations), which meant twice as much as was required for a certificate I had no use for, let alone for the audit course.
If that sounds confusing – well, yes, it is, and that’s one of my complaints. The basic path through the course is confusing, with multiple options. I think they’re trying to be accommodating to different interests and needs, which is admirable, but to me, the course didn’t always feel integrated. Once I stopped reading instructions and just did stuff, I was a lot happier.
The first six of the seven weeks had both history and manuscript studies sections. Each week of the history section included a brief introductory video and four to seven readings. The weeks proceeded chronologically, if very briefly, from the fall of the Roman empire to the Spanish Reconquest before giving a nod to paleography – except… well, we never looked at actual writing, just translated content, so maybe I’m misunderstanding the use of the term. Then came the Global Middle Ages project, a cross-disciplinary, multiuniversity exploration of various aspects of medieval life. They’re extremely proud of this, and I feel bad because I missed the point; it just seems like a website to me. A website with a lot of interesting sections, but why it’s such a big deal, and what game-developers had to do with Virtual Plascenia, went by me. Still, it was interesting to discover that DNA evidence indicates a Native American woman must’ve travelled to Iceland sometime around the year 1000 CE, and her descendents still live there.
The Manuscript Studies portion made a lot more sense to me. Each week included about an hour of video lecture divided into sections, and progressed along a more familiar functional path: writing substrates, inks, page layout and preparation, scripts and hands, decoration, bindings. Both sections offered weekly quizzes, but only one was required. The presentation was a little flat, but that happens sometimes. I’ll never understand how people who so obviously love their field and very much want to share it with as many others as possible stick to a “stand in front of a camera and read a lecture” approach, which so often sucks the oxygen out of the room. Plenty of optional further written resources were provided. Some are available online, and I checked one of the recommended books out from my local library.
The Manuscript section included two options for peer-assessed projects that ran the length of the course, and again, only one was required. I did both, because how am I supposed to know before I do it what will be more beneficial? As it turns out, both of the peer-assessed projects were extremely beneficial, though in very different ways; I’m very glad I did them both.
The first option was a “pinboard” project: for every week, find five examples (photos, usually) of the concepts discussed in the lectures. For example, in Week 2, the idea was to find and present examples of such things as various writing substrates and tools of manufacture, parchment defects/repairs, contrasts between the two sides of parchment, and the like. Every week, five more pins would be added, along with five pins pertaining to prior weeks’ topics. I started out thinking this was kind of dumb, but by the end of the course, I’d collected some more general articles that covered wider topic ranges, and discovered some wonderful manuscript lore and resources. If you’re curious, my board is here, but it’s the process, not the result, that was productive.
The other project option was to make a reasonable approximation of a medieval manuscript, within practical limits of budget, material availability, time, and skill. In other words, we weren’t expected to skin a cow to make parchment, nor were we expected to create beauty (a lot of my classmates did so anyway) but only to demonstrate that we understood the procedures and knew the difference between authentic techniques and our shortcuts. Again, I was quite cynical at first, since we started by staining one side of our writing support with coffee to simulate the difference between the flesh and hair side of parchment (the Middle Ages were not for the squeamish) but I ended up putting a lot of thought and work into making quires, designing page layout and prepping, writing, illustrating, and binding my manuscript. It’s pretty much refrigerator art, but it’s MY refrigerator art, and dammit, I’m proud of myself for having managed to get it done at all. In fact… I’ve started working on a second one. I know how to avoid a few pitfalls now, so I hope it will look better.
Some of my favorite discoveries:
I added to my “casual educational” material. I’ve been following the Bodleian Rare Books twitter feed from Oxford since the Stanford mooc, but they don’t really tweet pretty pictures as much as they used to. Just before taking this course, I somehow discovered Penn medievalist Emily Steiner (@PiersatPenn) and her feed just delights me every day: lovely images, often with clever captions (sometimes relating to current events). Through the course itself, I’ve discovered Erik Kwakkel (@erik_kwakkel), book historian at Leiden University (I took an anatomy mooc from them last year); he also runs several blogs, all of which provided lots of detailed information for my Pinboard project. And just in the last week, I stumbled across Damien Kempf (@DamienKempf ), medievalist from Liverpool University and another great tweeter. I’ve been trying to include more art, poetry, beauty, and joy in my twitter feed, and less political news; while that isn’t the point of the course, the more exposure I have to pertinent materials, the better. I’ve even begun to recognize some manuscripts – the Lindsfarne Gospels, the Black Hours.
Through the History material, I fell in love with The Cantigas de Santa Maria, a series of poems with musical notation celebrating Mary. Not only is the idea that these songs can be interpreted and performed from 13th century notation, but there’s one fascinating story about a guy who just wants to find a safe place to put his ring while he plays baseball, and ends up engaged to Mary so has to leave his wedding bed for a monastery. And yes, the illustration of the ball game is quite recognizable as American baseball, though nobody’s sure of the medieval rules and many depictions seem to include two balls in the air at the same time.
Through the pinboard project, I found a rather drab-looking page that turned out to be fascinating: it’s an oath sworn by a woman, a midwife, that she will return the book or die. And I thought my library was uptight about interlibrary loans. Beyond the humor, this gives a little window on medieval life: there were libraries, women borrowed books (this one is a poetic bestiary), and, for that matter, women could read. I thought only monks and church people could read at that point. And by the way, other pages in Der naturen bloeme (The Flower of Nature) include floating illustrations that are lovely and often whimsical – like the elephant carried upside down on the trunks of two of his friends.
It seems some parchment was sometimes was damaged in the curing-stretching-drying process, as it was repeatedly scraped to remove hair and flesh (not for the squeamish, this manuscript stuff). Modern repairs could be quite lovely, but sometimes the original scribes took matters into their own hands an incorporated holes into the writing of the books (images from Erik Kwakkel’s tumblr and one of his several blogs.
In spite of the few drawbacks, this course was very much worthwhile, and I’m glad I signed up. I’m going to miss it! To fill the void, I’m taking one of the sequels, in fact: Deciphering Secrets: Unlocking the Manuscripts of Medieval Burgos (oddly, it’s on edX instead of Coursera), which, as I understand it, focuses on history via manuscripts and includes more of what I thought paleography was: the reading and transcription of manuscripts for interpretation. So it’s an extension of the History portion, rather than the Manuscripts, but who knows, great stuff lurks everywhere.