The Sound of Medieval Manuscript Studies

“Sound inhabits its own time and dissipates quickly” (Douglas Kahn)

It’s the 17th of December and I’m sitting alone in the office that I usually share with six other early career researchers. The office is always quiet. It’s as close to silent as a room can be, given the whir of computer fans and our combined musica humana – the very sounds of human existence. But today, as December pulls us ever-closer to Christmas, many Ph.D students have vanished and I’m shrouded by quiet. As I type this post, I am particularly alert to the click click of my fingers over an arrangement of keyboard buttons. As no opportunity for conversation arises, I am aware of my inner voice, the imagined sound of my own thoughts. It occurs to me that my life as an academic has a strange and often beautiful soundtrack. As I am human, and have no impairment of any of my senses, vision dominates my experience of the world. As a manuscript scholar, I work with my eyes. I note the contrast between ink and vellum. I trace the curve of the letter h with my eyes. I scan a computer screen and feed my brain with pixels to convert into meaningful information. However, sound surrounds me always. It’s sometimes more subtle than vision, but it always mingles with it, creating my daily sensorium.

       Last week, I made an impromptu dash to Worcester Cathedral to study some medieval documents. As my postdoctoral position is focused on developing digital skills, this was the first time I’d been to an archive in many months. Worcester Cathedral library is tucked away in the roof space over the south nave aisle of the cathedral. After hot-footing it through the bustling lunchtime city, I pushed into the cathedral and was plunged into tranquility. The low voice of a volunteer directed me to a corner, where I found a door. Upon the push of a buzzer with an intrepid finger, the corner of the cathedral was filled with a tinny voice. There was a click of an opening lock. Giving the door three hard shoves, I found myself in the well of a spiral staircase and the door slammed hard behind me.

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Mind the steps

       I felt my boots carrying me onwards and upwards – how far, I did not yet know. I heard my lungs struggling with a combination of nerves and exertion. As the steps leveled out, I found myself in a room, enveloped by stillness. In front of me, another locked door. I heard and felt the knock of my knuckles against wood, but still, hush. I expanded my effort and knocked harder and louder, and this time the door creaked open. The gap that the door once filled revealed a space that made me pause for a moment. In the space of this moment, my sense of vision came once again to the fore. I took in the criss-crossing wooden beams, the aged iron bolts driven into wood, the portraits of nameless men, the wooden furniture that shone almost-amber in the low lighting. But, given time and reflection, the muted sounds were amplified again. As I settled in to study a manuscript I became aware of the noise of my work.

      I picked up, and dropped again, a ‘snake weight’, and there was the noise of cloth-covered lead making contact with the wooden table. It was conspicuous in the peaceful library, but there were no other readers to disapprove. I arranged a foam book rest and was sure that I could hear the sound of my own facial contortions: my skin recoiled at the texture of the foam. The helpful librarian laid down boxes of books carefully, which thudded impudently under their own weight. As I began to look at documents, I cringed as I teased with the strips of vellum that once held a seal. The 600-year old animal skin made a rustling sound, groaning about the unkindness of passing time. As I laid a weight on a page, it made a tiny scratching noise as it met the vellum. Periodically, I shifted my weight in the chair and it squeaked in protest. Occasionally I heaved myself up and the chair’s feet negotiated with the wooden floor, loudly. I wondered how many other sounds had been made in this room over the centuries, passed unrecorded.

P1000617

       Later, I was invited to take tea with the librarian and volunteers, and was surprised by the sound of my own voice. The next day, the cathedral choir began singing in the nave below, and muffled Christmas hymns drifted up to accompany my working thoughts. I eased myself into a rhythm of stillness, interspersed with small sounds and increasingly-familiar voices. Then, I shut the case of the last book with a careful clunk and away it went, to sit quietly until some other scholar will crinkle its vellum leaves open again.

      I feel, writing this blog post, as if I am transported back to that little room in the corner of Worcester Cathedral. In the restfulness of my campus office, my mind is making imaginary echoes of the sounds that I heard there. Then a door clicks open, and one of my absent office-mates is entering the room. “Hi”, he says.

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