Trendy Scholarship: Medieval Manuscripts and the Public Imagination

What do The Guardian newspaper, the Discovery Channel and the web-humour site Neatorama have in common? Well, in April 2013, they each featured this bit of medieval news that had us hovering over the ‘share’ button gleefully :

A cat's mark on a fifteenth century archival document photographed by Emir O. Filipović.

A cat’s mark on a fifteenth century archival document photographed by Emir O. Filipović.

Yes, a cat’s dirty and strikingly three-dimensional paw prints had been discovered all over this medieval text from the Dubrovnik archives. A quick look at the Academia.edu page of the man who brought this to light, Emir O. Filipović, reveals that he’s a scholar whose Ph.D. was on the Bosnian Kingdom and the Ottoman Empire from 1386-1483. However, he was also responsible for quite a commotion with this image, which got 79 retweets (and countless re-re-tweets, I’m sure) when it was originally posted on Filipović’s behalf by the codicologist Erik Kwakkel. Why do we love it so much? As Filipović himself speculates, it may be because cats and manuscripts simply make a stonking good combination. He gives a link to Book Riot’s ‘Pictures of Books and Cats’ page as an example. In fact, the image first hit our Twitter feeds because Filipović had seen Kwakkel’s tweet of an angry cat and decided to respond with his own feline imagery. So, with the insouciance typical of their species, cats pad across our manuscript books, our computer keyboards, and our social media feeds.

       Filipović writes more generally about what entertains researchers like him and me in the archives. He points to the little moments that cause such excitement to manuscript scholars, whose hours can often be consumed by eye-straining, sedentary, work. He enthuses about finding little scribbles and doodles of cartoon-like faces, made by bored medieval scribes. These ‘personalized marks’, he says, make us feel somehow connected with the person who wrote the document before our eyes:

They are rare and curious and it is refreshing when you come across something like them while conducting research. These things are noteworthy because they offer a stark contrast to the rest of the archival register, which can sometimes contain monotonous and unexciting texts, like the record of debts or division of land.

I can certainly relate to this feeling. I remember once finding a fingerprint in a medieval book and wondering if it belonged to a scribe with grubby fingers. Somehow, it seemed so much more human than the words upon the page, even though I knew that those pen strokes had been made by a human body too. Similarly, Chris Webb, from the Borthwick Institute at York recently showed me a leaf of a book with a stain upon it. He pointed out that it might be a spill of alcohol, dropped by the man who was writing 500 years ago. My hands trembled with excitement. Such ponderings remind us scholars of how precious our source material really is.

         But how does a researcher’s gape-mouthed fascination make the transition into the LOLHistory section of Gawker? Well, of course humour helps. The word ‘scribe’, for many, typically invokes images of po-faced medieval monks sitting uncomfortably and silently, creating beautiful books. The kind of books one might see in the British Library’s permanent exhibitions, for example. We do not typically envisage a writer ‘shooing the cat in a panicky fashion while trying to remove it from his desk’, as Filipović puts it. It’s funny, too, because it not only connects the researcher to the medieval scribe, but it also connects the rest of us to the scribe. For who hasn’t had a cat interfere with their plans to read a book, send an email, or have a conversation un-walked upon? Some of us hate cats, but cats do not care – and now we know for sure that medieval cats did not care either.

         Thus, the most successful medieval social media posts usually appeal to our sense of humour, and often to our fascination – near obsession –  with animals. I believe that the most popular and enduring manuscript images, which appeal to the widest possible audiences, are those that remind us that things have changed, but things also haven’t changed. One of the most popular images that I’ve shared online, in terms of interaction from my friends, was the following image of hedgehogs from a medieval bestiary or ‘book of beasts’:

Royal MS 12 F.xiii Hedgehogs gathering food

Royal MS 12 F.xiii Hedgehogs gathering food

       As Nicole Eddy points out in the British Library’s blog, the manner in which these familiar little creatures were described in the bestiary served as an allegory. It was meant to represent a feature of good or bad behaviour. Thus, the hedgehogs were depicted creeping into vineyards and rolling around all over the ripe grapes. Once the fruits had been impaled on their spikes, they carried them home to their burrows. The cute image that you see above is actually symbolic, warning the book’s readers that the devil will use tricks to steal man’s spiritual ‘fruits’. The religious message behind the illustration is strange and perhaps irrelevant to many of us today. However, the image itself is endearing, and – despite its serious undertones – lighthearted. It may have been so for medieval people too, whose sense of fun often held hands with their religious piety. See for example this fourteenth century Flemish Book of Hours, a devotional book that told people what prayers to say and psalms to read at each time of the day. Yet this book includes a strange half-man-half-beast poking himself in the eye with his own tail:

Baltimore, The Walters Art Museum, Walters Manuscript W.88,fol. 18v

Baltimore, The Walters Art Museum, Walters Manuscript W.88,fol. 18v

           The significance of these irreverent images has been debated by scholars ever since Michael Camille’s seminal book Image on the Edge. However, whatever meaning they held for the medieval people who first set eyes upon them, they charm modern internet users, leaving us amused and somewhat aghast. An increased emphasis by libraries and archives on making images available in the public demain is making these images easier and easier to share online. Somewhat unfortunately, the culture of sharing – on Tumblr and Pinterest especially – has a tendency to divorce these vivid images from their original context. However, a return to my search for ‘medieval hedgehog’ on Twitter shows how medieval material is appearing on our screens in unprecedented ways. New and exciting ways of presenting medieval material to both public and academic audiences are illustrating how the internet can weave the cute and strange with an inspiring educational message seamlessly. This beautifully-made video was put together through a collaboration between the artist Obrazki nunu and the brilliant Tumblr page, Discarding Images:

       Similarly, this video made by Sebastian Sobecki’s students demonstrates how medieval scholarship and student coursework can capture the imagination of a wide audience. Sobecki’s students were inspired to create and upload a recording of John Skelton’s poem ‘Speke Parrot’ that mingled medieval imagery with the strange, rhythmic, but familiar language of Middle English. The synergy between the medieval and the modern was sealed as Sobecki described the subjects of the satire as the ‘hipsters of their day’. Reddit loved it. The BBC picked it up. The result was a web sensation that not only interested a public audience, but can also be used as a resource for teaching medieval literature at university level.

Medieval imagery has almost limitless potential to entertain and educate. However, I believe that the best ‘trendy scholarship’ is that which makes us laugh and recognise ourselves, whilst inspiring us to grapple with the complexities of medieval culture. It’s exciting to see how open access to images, increasing technological capabilities, and an emphasis on public engagement by funding bodies is promoting a growth of medieval culture across the internet. Long may it continue to grow!

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One comment

  1. […] As patron saint of animals, St Francis of Assisi presumably liked both hedgehogs and lions, but it is his devotion to the ideal of poverty that forms the subject of Julia McClure’s post on St Francis – The First Hipster. Published by History Matters, the University of Sheffield’s excellent blog on ‘the history behind the headlines’, the post draws interesting points of comparison between the medieval and the modern. Debs Thorpe of The Scribe Unbound has also been pondering the relationship between past and present in a thought-provoking post on Trendy Scholarship: Medieval Manuscripts and the Public Imagination. […]

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