Julia Perratore is a recent graduate of Penn’s doctoral program in the History of Art and a lecturer in Penn’s Critical Writing Program. This summer she taught an introductory course on medieval art, and she describes here how she incorporated manuscripts into her curriculum.
In my view, it is essential for those coming to the study of medieval art history for the first time to experience medieval art objects first-hand. In an effort to bring my small group of students into contact with primary materials, I had them visit the Special Collections Center on two separate occasions. First, I sent them on their own to view the Legacy Inscribed exhibition of manuscripts from the collection of Lawrence Schoenberg. I assigned each student a different manuscript to study closely, and their observations formed the basis of their first written assignment, a formal analysis focused on illuminated initials and their part in the overall mise-en-page. I also had them do a small amount of research on their assigned manuscript to learn more about its background. There is no substitute for having the entire manuscript, offering the entire page layout, available to you – issues of scale and proportion that are otherwise meaningless really come to the fore when you have the actual object before you.
This independent exploration was followed by a group visit to the Special Collections Center during one of our class sessions, when Lynn Ransom treated us to a tour of books of hours in the always-impressive Lea Library. My students were thrilled to get a sense, not only of how these books are decorated, but how they were organized and used. They confided to me that it was much easier to understand how such books could structure and impact a person’s entire life when they had the chance to go through the pages themselves. They were also particularly thrilled to touch the parchment of one manuscript, and they were soon keen to determine when a given text was written on the “hair side” or “flesh side” of the parchment – something they would never have observed, and perhaps never have even comprehended, if they had only read about it. One student was so enthusiastic about his encounter with books of hours that he looked into buying one for himself! He went straight to the internet to investigate specimens currently on auction. Alas, everything was far too expensive, but it seems a new generation of enthusiasts – and perhaps even collectors – is born with every visit to Special Collections.