Category Archives: Teaching

My Week of Lecturing in Oxford

It is the evening of Thursday 27 February, 2014, and at the moment I am sitting in The White Horse being stared at by Inspector Morse, who frequented this pub back in the day – and who seems to have left a portrait behind every time he did. When I look out the window I can see the Bodleian Library, that treasure trove of medieval books. For the past week this is where I have been: Oxford, more precisely Corpus Christi College. Invited to be the 2014 E.A. Lowe Lecturer in Palaeography, I came to the college for a week to give lectures on medieval script. I learned a lot over the past week, both from the audience’s responses and through discussions with colleagues, both inside and outside Corpus Christi College – a most welcoming and hospitable community. This blog has everything to do with medieval manuscripts, but it is more personal than usual, if you forgive me: I thought I’d give a sense of what it entails, doing lectures in a historical place like this. So here is my week of being part of a stimulating academic world.

Corpus Christi College, Oxford (pic: my own)
Corpus Christi College, Oxford (pic: my own)

I arrived in Oxford last Thursday afternoon, just in time to hear @WillNoel do the annual McKenzie Lecture in bibliography in St Cross College, titled “Bibliography in Bits”. Will, Twitter celebrity par excellence, is a well-known proponent of Open Access and making digital data available for all to download and use. (“For free!” he would add to that in a loud voice.) He talked about digital surrogates of medieval books: how a manuscript’s digital representation is its own entity, how it exists – is – in its own right. He showed how a digital manuscript is a resource that teaches us things the material object itself may not reveal. His lecture (and the dinner that followed) formed a great start of my week here. It would also be the last thing I would do – until now, sitting in this pub – without a certain amount of pressure.

That pressure was not just generated by the venue, but also by the fact that the data at the heart of my lectures had just been harvested – with the indispensable help of my Research Assistant, RV. The paint of my lectures still wet, much of my free time was filled with going through my data and deducing how to expand the scope of my papers with their help. My three lectures aimed to show how the major book script of the Early Middle Ages (Caroline Minuscule, in use from c. 800 to c. 1100) morphed into the major book script of the Later Middle Ages (Littera Textualis, or Gothic script, used from c. 1200 to c. 1600). It’s a great topic because the century in between the two is filled with experimentation by scribes, of mixing older and newer features, and of fights for dominance between opposing letter shapes. My approach was threefold. First, finding a way to describe in objective terms what the actual difference is between the letter shapes in the two scripts. Second, registering in a database whether scribes in different ages and geographical areas preferred the Caroline or Gothic presentation of a letter. Third, translating this data into graphs that provide insight into the transformation from the one script into the other. Each step of my research came with challenges and limitations, but also with opportunities to advance our knowledge.

Title slide of my first lecture
Title slide of my first lecture

So, here we are, on the Friday: my first lecture. It focuses on how the transitional script from the Long Twelfth Century evolved over time. The theater is filling up nicely (about 75 people have come) and I start to do my thing. I discuss the method for about twenty minutes and then dive into the paleographical depths of the complex hybrid script. Highlighting differences between letter shapes I begin to carve out an objectified description of the road between Caroline and Gothic, focusing not on the overall impression but on hard, measurable features. I challenge the traditional temporal boundaries of the two scripts and feel brave enough to query, at the end of the lecture, whether we ought to perhaps abolish our notion of Caroline and Gothic being different scripts. Would it not be better to regard them as different expressions of the same writing system? My data certainly backed up this provocative idea. After the lecture a dinner was organized in the founder’s room of Corpus Christi Corpus: a great end of my first performance.

Then came the weekend, which I spent with family just outside Oxford – walks, pubs, and a newspaper on Sunday. On Monday I did an extra-curricular masterclass for the Centre for the Study of the Book, which runs under auspices of The Bodleian Libraries (here). It had been arranged only a few weeks earlier, within half an hour, and entirely through Twitter messages between me and @DanielWakelin1 – medieval books are so modern! In a seminar room filled with graduate students, faculty and nine medieval manuscripts I talked about two unusual book types: the elegantly tall and narrow holsterbook, and the off-cut manuscript, which is made from recycled strips of parchment. The students had picked out a selection of specimens from the Bodleian Library, adding to the class’s hands-on character. In the afternoon the Fellow Librarian of Merton College gave me a private tour through their medieval library, which is Britain’s oldest surviving library designed for use by scholars (I blogged about it here).

Medieval Library at Merton College (pic: my own)
Medieval Library at Merton College (pic: my own)

Then came Tuesday and my second Lowe Lecture. Having done temporal development last Friday, it made sense to focus on the enormous regional variation in the transformation from Caroline to Gothic. When you place a manuscript from Germany next to one from France you can sense that they are not equally advanced, but with a new tool I developed I could support such intuitive verdicts with a number. I introduced the notion of Gothic Weight, which measures the “Gothicness” of a script written between 1075 and 1225. It gives a value to each of the thirty or so features I track in my database: 2 points for Gothic, 0 points for Caroline and 1 point if the script trait in question is presented in a mixed form – meaning that the scribe uses both Caroline and Gothic on the same page. When the points are added up, you end up with one number representing how advanced or behind an individual scribe was with respect to his handwriting. It means you can compare a German and a French manuscript objectively, as well as comparing Germany and France as a whole (by taking the average Gothic Weight), or even map the increase of Gothiness over time within European regions.

Sculpture of a scholar, Bodleian Library (Pic: my own)
Sculpture of a scholar, Bodleian Library (Pic: my own)

Wednesday and Thursday were filled with working hard on the third paper, in which I aimed to show how Gothic script evolved not over time or in different regions, but as a novelty that was passed on to new generations of scribes. How did idiosyncrasy turn into new norm? My database did not provide an answer to this question, but using my data in combination with broader questions I could explore the very difficult question of a script’s dissemination – albeit without providing a definitive answer. The paper mainly focused on training, as I figured this was the moment when a new script feature had the chance to jump to a new user – a novice in a monastery being trained to write for the first time. In fact, such transmission would depend on the person in charge of training novices: if he was modern and advanced, then likely so would his pupils be. The main part of the paper therefore examined two cases where teacher and pupil were found on the same page: the first prompting the latter, monitoring progress, and correcting mistakes. It is exciting research given that you study, in a sense, the “homework” of a medieval scribe.

After the lecture I was invited for dinner in St Edmunds Hall and after that I retreated to the White Horse, where I am currently writing this blog. The bell for the last round has just rung, so I must be off – away from this pub and, tomorrow, from Oxford. One last time I will open the medieval gate of Corpus Christi College with my electronic key chain – a contrast that strikes me as a suitable parallel for my week of studying digitally the handwriting of medieval scribes.

More information – The full abstracts of my Lowe Lectures are found here. More about my approach to medieval script in this blog about kissing letters. Download this free book if you want to read an article I wrote on mapping script objectively.

Note: This post was originally written for, and posted on, my project blog MedievalFragments.

Strangers at a Party

Talking about medieval manuscripts in front of a camera is really tough. This verdict shot through my head as I was taping podcasts in the Palaeography Room at the University of London’s School of Advanced Studies recently. The activity seems no different than demonstrating the beauty of the handwritten book to a group of students or an audience of lay people, something I can do with my eyes closed. You lift a manuscript out of the storage box and explain the significance of its features, as passionately as possible, while flipping pages. In actuality, however, the rolling camera brings unusual pressure to the event.

Not only is a continuous flow of clear and clearly projected observations needed – hesitation is deadly as it would mean having to repeat the ordeal – but while speaking one has to also identify and formulate the next thing to say. These two simultaneous mental processes are accompanied by a third, I quickly found out. Soon after I had started, an evaluative voice in my head began to ask questions: from ‘Did I say this correctly?’ and ‘Will the viewer be able to make out the detail I just pointed out?’ to the more worrisome ‘What will you say next, Erik?’ and ‘Did I just scratch my nose?’

It did not help that I had not seen the material in front of me before: the manuscripts and fragments had introduced themselves briefly to me only an hour before, while climbing out of their boxes and shaking off their envelopes in the curator’s office, relieved to be out in the open again. Yet while the items and I had had a pleasant conversation, I did not really know them. In fact, presenting them in front of a camera to a potentially very large online audience felt like introducing a complete stranger to a busy party. Who were they? Where did they come from? What made them tick? And why again had I invited them?

As is often the case with public speaking, it is exactly this intellectual challenge of thinking on your feet and not exactly knowing what you will say next or how you will tie an observation to your train of thoughts, that makes it so much fun to do. And so I pressed on and taped 5-minute podcasts on the Paris Bible (‘Written in a letter of only 2 mm high, comparable to a modern newspaper!’), a student textbook (‘Not a single unabbreviated word on this page!’), manuscript fragments (‘Behold, hidden treasure in a bookbinding…’), layout (‘This scribe really knew what he was doing.’) and the transition from Caroline minuscule to Gothic script (‘Look at these two letters biting each other.’).

What I have learned from the experience? You’ll be alright if you are able to forget the camera. You do better without judging what you say as you say it. And it helps to pick items that have pronounced features and that relate to the theme of a podcast in a clear manner. But most of all, that introducing strangers at a party can be a lot of fun.

Added 9 May, 2012:

History SPOT published a blog entry describing the filming of these movies from the perspective of the camera man.

Note: This post was originally written for, and posted on, my project blog MedievalFragments.