A Sensory Experience: A Touch/Hear/Smell Approach to Exhibiting Medieval Manuscripts

This weekend just gone, I attended the Hidden Hart Colloquium at Senate House in London. This was a day of celebration and exploration of the medieval manuscript and incunabula collection of R.E. Hart, which was bequeathed to Blackburn Museum in 1946 and is, frankly, amazing. The colloquium was a fantastic day in many ways. You can learn more about the project here, as it deserves much more than a passing mention.

Personification of Death at the beginning of the Office of the Dead, from an Italian Book of Hours, c. 1470-1480, Hart 20966, f. 106v

Personification of Death at the beginning of the Office of the Dead, from an Italian Book of Hours, c. 1470-1480, Blackburn, Hart 20966, f. 106v

     One of the most memorable moments of the day, for me, was listening to the artist Olivia Keith give a talk entitled ‘Illuminating Aspic: A Multi Sensory Approach to Exploring Collections With Communities’. One point, in particular, caused me to sit up and listen with ever-increasing alertness. Excuse me for paraphrasing Olivia, as my note-taking was deficient here, but she asked whether communities do engage with medieval manuscripts associated with their local area? Do we really feel that we ‘own’ them? The discussions that ensued later in the colloquium suggested that – as it stands – the answer is often no. Traditional displays of books in museums do not have the same wide-ranging allure as Egyptian mummies.

Is it any wonder?

     Affinity with a book has to arrive through understanding, through experience, association, and memory. The first book you remember picking out at the library. The book that you spilled coffee on as an undergradute. The one you dropped in the bath and made its pages all wrinkly (or is that just me?). In contrast, walking into a museum gallery, you are confronted with a dumb-show. A book sits silently in a case, open and exposed, with just a single-page glimpse of its text on show. Little response. Little interest. No quickening of the pulse

      Even if it’s a sumptuously-illuminated manuscript, it is not likely to stimulates more than an “ooh” or “ahh”. As someone at the colloquium pointed out, a medieval book was meant to be experienced. The leaves were part of someone’s daily life. Even if the book was a prestige item, treasured and pored over but not really read, its value gave it gravitas. In the house of a medieval nobleman, the book’s guilding and colourful illuminations might have played with the rich tapestries that adorned the walls. The vellum would have absorbed the scents that floated around it. Some books that belonged to monasteries still seem to smell of incense – or am I imagining it?  Others smell awful, musty, and damp. Closed, the book’s leather binding might have been held shut with metal clasps, conspicuous signs of its wealth. It may have been the only book that the owner possessed, peerless and invaluable. The owner may have lent it to his friend, bequeathed it to his daughter, had it confiscated or stolen. The book may have gone with him, packed away in his traveling chest, on journeys around his estates.

     In a museum, it sits there, in the dark, packed with unspoken secrets. We, viewing its mute pages, know little of what it once meant to someone. Thus it means little to us. Unlike a sword or a beautiful pair of Georgian shoes, we find it difficult to imagine it in action.

     Someone at the colloquium pointed out that we have a different relationship with books today from readers of the medieval past. We order them from Amazon and they thud through our letterbox in a couple of days. We go to a second-hand bookshop and pick up a book for a few pounds. So, we might find it difficult to comprehend the artisanship and human effort that went into making a medieval book. Equally, we revere books in a different way. We pour over them silently, indulging in them, keeping them to ourselves. We hide behind them on commuter trains, daring, just daring anyone to try to interrupt our reading. We see the book as ‘complete’, and treat their leaves as sacred objects. Who else, as a child, was told off for folding over the corner of a book or – heaven forbid – writing in one in pen? We might find it hard to relate to the flexibility of reading in the Middle Ages. Some books were read out loud, others beheld in private. Some were treasured, others were scribbled in, pulled apart and re-bound. Some books were revered, others were  annotated with shopping lists and doodles of funny faces. If a medieval person lent a book to their friend, they might get it back with his name written all over it in the margins. Who would do that to a book today? A book, in a glass case, open, exposed, and alone, does not convey any of this context.

     Even if a book is surrounded by vast swathes of interpretive text, explaining its provenance and contents, it is likely to sit unattended to. The value of rich interpretive signage should not be denied. Undoubtedly, exhibition-goers do not wish to be patronised and do want to know what there is to know. However, I think that books offer even more potential for museums.

     Following the colloquium, I began to have thoughts about how I might transform my inspiration into some action. As the day focused on regional collections and small museums and archives, I wondered whether I could bring a multi-sensory experience to my beloved home town in the Black Country. The West Midlands was a thriving location for the production and ownership of books in the Middle Ages, and I felt like I wanted to explore medieval history with its people. Coincidentally, I was then told about a project organised by Wendy Scase at the University of Birmingham, in conjunction with the Black Country poet, Brendan Hawthorne. As part of this project, Brendan read out sections of the Vernon Manuscript to the university audience:

This, I thought, was amazing. The Vernon Manuscript was written in a West Midlands dialect and, here it was, being heard by the academic community in a Black Country voice. It’s very simple, but also revolutionary. By giving it an accent that is seldom heard in an academic context, Brendan and Wendy re-injected the book with its West Midlands aural character. By hearing a precious medieval text read out by someone from Dudley, the people of the Black Country are reminded that this bit of British culture was made by ‘Black Country mon’. Bostin’! I hope more manuscripts will find their voices.

     I’d like to explore some more potential sensory experiences  with manuscript books. One of my favourite Black Country experiences is the Black Country Museum. What Dudley girl can ever forget the experience of drifting through its Victorian cottages, absorbing the smell of the roaring coal fires, the grease of the tram wheels, the lingering dampness of the underground canal tunnels? With manuscripts, how about we have leather to smell, animal skins to touch, ink to blot our fingers in, quills to sharpen and dip? Aside from appealing to the senses of hearing, smell and touch, we might reach out to our primary sense – vision – in a more imaginative way. At the colloquium, Olivia Keith showed how she has used her artistic talent to recreate the scenes of harvest that she saw in a psalter’s calendars. To enmesh the autumns of past and present, she took photographs that related to the calendar’s illuminations for October. She showed us the manuscript’s illustrations of pigs next to her own photographs of hogs grazing in the New Forest. A simple, but effective connection. She showed the medieval artist’s interpretations of the waning summer, compared with her own art installations featuring hollowed-out pumpkins, stuffed to the brim with multitudinous seeds. All of this enhanced the impact of the medieval image, by relating it to modern human experience. It is these kind of distinctive experiences that push through the barriers of the short-term memory, into the almost forever.

     I’d like to bring these kinds of medieval sensory experiences to a region that I love, and have put it somewhere near the top of my list of things to do.

     I’ll finish with one of Olivia Keith’s beautiful works of art. I love how the cattle mingle and overlap, and the burnt orangey-browns play with the dusky charcoals (which, Olivia revealed, she burns in her own stove).



  1. dennis white · · Reply

    Feeling – provoking article which very much wanted me to metaphorically and literally speaking ‘take the glass lid off’ . It was as if you were, in the way you wrote, wishing to very much resurrect not only the book’s essence/message/meaning but its effects/resonances/evocations on all who gazed/browsed/touched or handled it during its existence through time. This has the effect of making this ‘exiistance’ a dynamic and active process rather than its more passive and silent opposite. Thought provoking too………

    1. Thanks Dennis, it is very satisfying to know that my post had an effect like that. I have become very passionate about this idea of, indeed, ‘taking the glass lid off’ since I heard Olivia talk at the colloquium. It’s good to read that others feel the same.

  2. Jeanne de Montbaston · · Reply

    This is such a fascinating post. I would have loved to make it to the conference.

    I’ve been thinking about geography and manuscripts a lot just now – the village I grew up in has a modern (200 year old) church amongst medieval churches and I always felt as if it didn’t ‘have’ much history. I’m not especially sentimental about it, but it surprised me how excited I was when I started researching a group of manuscripts and the name of my village kept coming up. And I do think it made me see the manuscripts in a different way.

    Plus, it absolutely cracks me up reading other academics writing about these texts and explaining exactly where in the godforsaken, featureless wasteland of tiny hamlets you might expect to find ‘Nether Broughton’ or ‘Owthorpe’. To me these are just the places I grew up in! 😀

    I don’t think in the East Mids we have anything as spectacular as the Vernon MS (who does?!) but I’m going to try to take on board what you’re saying here while I’m working.

    1. I think it’s crucial to associate the medieval relics that we see in these, ahem, ‘backwaters’ (‘that’s where I grew up, thank you very much!’) with the books and other artifacts that have ended up in national depositories. Thanks for your comment, it means a lot that my post provoked people to also think of the places that they grew up in.

  3. Jeanne de Montbaston · · Reply

    YY, exactly! And I think it also helps maybe remind people that what seem like ‘backwaters’ now weren’t always so. If I had a quid for every time someone calls Ashmole 61 ‘provincial’ (because it’s from near Leicester! Where they talk all funny and probably don’t wash!), I would be very, very rich. But all ‘provincial’ seems to mean is ‘why isn’t this the Ellesmere Chaucer?’ There are loads of equally Latinate, interesting miscellanies made in London if you go looking.

    (Btw, it’s Lucy Allen here, just realized the last comment comes up under my wordpress. Sure you figured that one out, but in case!)

  4. […] manuscript. A friend of mine has recently written about how important it is to her to think about medieval manuscripts in this geographic context, in the place where they were made and where she grew […]

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