In the Reading Room with the Manuscripts of the Online Exhibit “A Liberal Arts Education for the (Middle) Ages: Texts, Translations, and Study.”

by Christine E. Bachman

LJS 101, folio 1v-2r.

As the 2019-2020 SIMS Graduate Student Research Fellow, I have spent the past several months sifting through the collections of the University of Pennsylvania Libraries, searching for evidence of how the liberal arts were studied in the middle ages. The result of this search is the new online exhibit “A Liberal Arts Education for the (Middle) Ages: Texts, Translations, and Study” The exhibit explores the study of the liberal arts, the texts of Boethius, and the intellectual life of early medieval monasteries through a selection of manuscripts from the collections of the University of Pennsylvania Libraries. Here I would like to share my experience working in the reading room with some of the manuscripts that are featured in the exhibit. Looking closely at the original manuscripts has allowed me to observe the physical traces of the individuals who made, read, and studied them, and from this to better understand the human dimension of their production and use.

My search began with LJS 101, a Carolingian copy of Boethius’s translation of and commentary on Aristotle’s logical text, De Interpretatione. Examining the original manuscript, I was able to see its structure and how the pages were folded and arranged before being sewn together.  I was able to confirm that the collation of the first seven quires corresponded with that outlined by Jesse McDowell: I also verified the reordering of the last two quires suggested by Dot Porter: I was able to study the pricking and ruling and observe how changes in the layout of the pages corresponded with changes in the writing and collation. For example, there is a notable change of scribes between fols. 36v and 37r. Not only does this change occur at a quire break, but I was also able to see that the page layout changes at the same point in the manuscript. The margins become smaller and an extra line of text is included in the ruling. Working with the physical manuscript provided these important clues to how LJS 101 was made and used by many individuals as part of a monastic community and as an educational textbook.

MS Codex 1058, folio 1v-2r.

It is within the same type of Carolingian monastic community that MS Codex 1058, a glossed Psalter dated to ca. 1100, was made. Upon first being presented with MS Codex 1058, I was immediately struck by its size. Its spine is thick, but the book fits easily in my hands. You can get a sense of the size of MS Codex 1058 in this video orientation: Physically experiencing this makes it easy to imagine a medieval owner carrying the book and using it for meticulous, personal reading. The small text of the gloss makes it necessary to hold the book close to be able to decipher it. This is made easier by the small size of the manuscript. Handling MS Codex 1058 reinforced my understanding of how someone would use this manuscript for private reading, study, and prayer, the function of many early medieval Psalters.

MS Codex 1629, folio 1-r.

A similarly close engagement with the text is apparent through different physical indications in MS Codex 1629, a fourteenth-century commentary on the Commentaria ad Herrenium, the foundational ancient text for the study of Latin rhetoric. It is simply decorated with a red, flourished initial at the beginning of the text. It has been heavily used and contains numerous notes throughout. When looking at the manuscript in the reading room, I was able to see on several pages traces of erased writing faintly visible under the fourteenth-century text. These have been identified as legal documents. Being able to see this reuse of the parchment in MS Codex 1629 made the connection between the law and rhetoric that had existed since antiquity uniquely tangible for me.

LJS 57, pages 112-113.

In LJS 57, a Hebrew astronomical anthology of ca. 1361, it is evident that readers were not only engaging with the text, but also with the images. Within the pages of LJS 57 are magnificent illustrations of the constellations and diagrams of the celestial sphere. You can view these images using the digital facsimile of the manuscript: When looking at these images in person it is clear that readers have been constantly drawn to them during the course of the manuscript’s existence. The manuscript naturally falls open at the diagrams of the celestial sphere on pgs. 112-113 and those pages are visibly darkened compared to the other pages because they have been more frequently handled. These are the physical marks of the attention lavished on LJS 57 by its many readers.

At a time when we have been driven to increasingly experience objects virtually, including these manuscripts through the online exhibit, these reflections can serve as a reminder that these manuscripts are physical objects, designed to be handled, studied, and read. In the same way that I interact with the book by turning the pages, feeling the quality of the parchment, leaning closer to read the text, and sensing the weight of the book in my hands, so have countless others. These type of physical interactions between the book and the individuals making and using it are an essential component of how the books were designed and how they must be understood.

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