The secret lives of medieval manuscripts: Kathryn Rudy at TEDxUniversityofStAndrews 2013
Articles,  Blog

The secret lives of medieval manuscripts: Kathryn Rudy at TEDxUniversityofStAndrews 2013


Translator: Tanya Cushman
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven 600 years ago, Christians went to church,
and they learned to destroy manuscripts. And we see in this manuscript here,
the Hours of Blanche of Savoy, made in the 14th century, that the clergy here
are kissing a number of objects, including a book and a pax. And in the process
of kissing these objects, they pretty much destroyed them. So here, for example,
I’m showing you a pax, which has been kissed so vigorously
and so enthusiastically that all of the surface detail
has been worn right off of the bas-relief. And the priest, also, would kiss
this book, called a missal, which contains all of the texts
that the priest would need to read in order to perform the Mass, and in the process of doing that,
he would also kiss the book. And you can see that he’s kissed
the body of Christ here to the point where the paint
is worn down to the parchment, and possibly, he’s nibbled
the corner a little bit here as well. (Laughter) So, we can see here
just how worn this all looks, how much spittle
has accumulated on this opening as it’s laying there on the altar. And the problem was, of course, that in the process of kissing manuscripts
over and over again during the Mass, that the priest would destroy them. Now, artists realized that this simple use
would result in the destruction of books, and so they came up with a solution, and that solution that artists
came up with is this object right here, which is called the “osculatory plaque,” or “kiss target.” (Laughter) Now, the object –
the purpose of this object is so that priests can aim his lips
at the kiss target, thereby preventing damage
to the book itself. So this is an abstract shape
designed to protect the book from the priest’s overenthusiastic love for the painting
depicted here in the book. But as we can see in various examples
of late medieval missals, the priest wasn’t so interested
in kissing this abstract target, and his lips would creep up
the shaft of the cross and smear Christ across the landscape, to the point where some manuscripts, such as this one – and I just have to tell you here,
this was commissioned by a bakers guild, so there’s a little man putting bread
in the bottom margin here, in an oven – but this book was commissioned
by a bakers guild, and it’s extremely lavish, and it has a golden osculatory target, but you can see
that the priest has avoided this and instead has smeared
Christ’s groin and chest across the landscape. But you can’t really blame him because all that metal,
it’s like kissing someone with braces. This book also has an osculatory target
that has been avoided, but this time for a different reason. So this image was inserted
into a different kind of book altogether. This is a book of civic oaths that was written, and still kept,
in the city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch – I had to get my tonsils out to say that – and that is where
Hieronymus Bosch came from. But this book of civic oaths
was laid on a table, not an altar but just a civic table, and then oath swearers
would put one hand on the book and swear the oaths
that are copied inside it. You can see just how smeared
the book has become after being used for this purpose
for a number of decades. Now, I want to come back
to the Blanche of Savoy for a second to make a second point, which is that this image
also has an audience. So Blanche of Savoy herself
is standing at the altar, and she’s holding a book, and she is also going to imitate
what the priest is doing with his book. And it looks as if she could almost
lift up her book and kiss it herself. But that’s precisely what other people
did with their books. This belonged to Philip the Bold, and he had an image
inserted into his prayer book with an osculatory plate below – so, he wasn’t a priest; he was a duke – and you can see there’s just a little bit
of mild kissing here, but later on in this same book,
we see the pages he really liked. (Laughter) He had no fewer than five images
of the vera icon, the true likeness of Christ, stuck into his book, and he has pawed them completely and kissed the face to the point
where the paint is chipped right off. So in this, we can say that this practice
of kissing the image of Christ went from the priesthood to the noble class
to regular upper-class book owners, such as the one who owned this book,
made in Haarlem around 1475, and you can see that this lay book owner
has kissed the face of Christ, and in this quite beautiful image,
this book from Bruges, also made in the 15th century, the owner has used a rather moist
technique to kiss Christ and which has caused the blue paint
from the facing folio to stick to the body
when the book gets closed, and it makes Christ look
a little like a blue Dalmation. Now, this idea that to love something means to kiss it to bits carries over into other kinds
of devotional images, and I show you this, a book of sacred poetry,
all written in red here, with a facing image,
or a former image, of the Virgin, and she’s been kissed
down to the underdrawing, right out of veneration. Now, all of these images here demonstrate to us
the emotional charge of pictures and the emotional appeal
that they had to their owners. Also, the fact that they’re on skin – parchment, which medieval books
were copied on, is made from animal skin – so these books show us inadvertent stories about how people had
emotional responses to pictures and how they document
this skin-on-skin contact from the past. Now, this dirt and the skin-on-skin
contact in manuscripts is really present here. You can see that in this prayer book, this area down here
has been encrusted with hand juice from layers and layers of copying. But what’s really interesting
about this book is that deeper in the same book – you can see it’s the same kind
of decoration, the same kind of script – but this folio here on the right hasn’t been used nearly as much
as the other one. And so we could say that the owner
of this book, the reader, really used that text,
liked that text a lot, and was “eh” about the other one. And I wanted to find out
if we could quantify those dirt levels and see what people were reading, what people had an emotional response to. So to do that, I used this manuscript, a Book of Hours,
made in Delft around 1440, as a guinea pig. And here you see six
different openings from this book; you can see that there are
different amounts of dirt in the corners. This has quite a bit;
here’s a lot; here’s a little less. Now, I wanted to see
if you could quantify these words: more than, less than and so forth. So I looked around and found
this gizmo called a densitometer – which measures the optical density
of a reflecting surface – zeroed the scale at the top of the page,
where nobody would handle the book, and then took a reading from the juiciest part
of the fingerprint down below and then logged
these numbers into a graph, and you can instantly see
which parts were read. So here are the folio numbers,
the page numbers, down the side, and then the dirt meter –
dirt-o-meter-reader – up the side, and then the chapters of the book,
the different sections of the book, delineated in red. And so you can see
that the text that was most read is the Hours of the Virgin. Now, this has the largest area
under the curve; this is a text to be read
from early in the morning, in little segments, till late at night, but what you can also see
is at the end of the day, around 10:00 at night, the graph really falls off. So we might suggest that this person
fell asleep about a third of the time before finishing the text. Now, here is another graph
from a different Book of Hours, and you can see it has
a completely different pattern, this time with these sharp spikes, and these spikes, it turns out,
correspond to the pictures in the book. Here’s a person who used the book
primarily just to paw the pictures, although we can say that he
was also literate, he could read, because there’s some area,
some elevation under the graph here, at areas of text only. But the page that he liked the most,
with the highest spike here, is a picture of himself. So the picture he kept turning back to
over and over again is an image of himself
with his coat of arms and he’s looking at Saint Jerome
who’s looking at the cross, and he couldn’t get enough of this image. (Laughter) Now, here is a graph
from a third Book of Hours, and this time, yet another shape. Here’s someone who primarily read it for the Penitential Psalms
and then two prayers, one to Saint Adrian
and the other to Saint Sebastian. And here you see the incipit pages
of those particular texts. Now, Saint Sebastian, here, he was venerated with arrows
as his martyrdom, and these arrow wounds resembled buboes
from the Bubonic plague, so he was venerated
against Bubonic plague. So we can suggest
that the owner of this book had a severe anxiety
about Bubonic plague or contracting it and read this text over and over again,
possibly to prevent it. But on the other hand, here’s a folio
where there’s almost no activity, and this is a prayer to Saint Apollonia. Now, she was a female,
virgin-martyr saint, and her martyrdom was to have her teeth ripped out
of her mouth by a deranged dentist, and people would venerate her for dental pain
and mouth pain of all sort. So we can say that the owner of this book
feared the plague but had very good teeth. (Laughter) Now, all of this suggests
that medieval manuscripts can tell us something
about our lives now, namely that – well, it’s important to remember
that that print culture, which we’re currently abandoning
as we adopt screen culture, is quite different
from manuscript culture. So, print culture – on paper, don’t touch the book too much,
you’re not supposed to write in them whereas manuscript culture
invites this interaction with the book, and this skin just invites us
to touch it and to leave our deposits. We might even say that medieval people reveled in the possibility
of leaving their mark in the book, their cumulative marks of wear, in order to demonstrate their longstanding commitment
to certain texts, to certain images. And we might even think about the fact that when we use iPhones
and iPads and smartphones and all of these things
that we have to touch, that we’re having, we’re experiencing now, an unrequited love
for the tangible object, the tangible act of reading, which is lost in translation, lost in our screen culture, and that, in fact, we’re really yearning
to be medievals again. Thanks. (Applause)

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