The relationship between making and meaning in a medieval manuscript
How readers and listeners experienced books in the Middle Ages
The process, shapes, sizes, formats, materials and considerations of craft that went into the making of a medieval manuscript
As books “go digital,” we can appreciate what is gained in terms of convenience, accessibility and interconnectedness. However, we should also consider what is lost as texts transition to a digital sphere.
This module of The Book: Histories Across Time and Space seeks to re-introduce learners to the codex – a handwritten and hand-constructed book – as a three-dimensional object whose characteristics produce meaning in the experience of the reader.
This module is designed to walk you through the process of making a medieval manuscript. Using a wide variety of examples from the collections of Harvard’s Houghton Library, it will familiarize you with basic terms and concepts and give you a “feel” for the shapes, sizes, formats, materials and considerations of craft that went into the making of the book as we know it.
Throughout the Middle Ages there existed an intimate relationship between making and meaning. Codices were tactile as well as visual objects designed to engage multiple senses. In the illuminated manuscript, it is often impossible to distinguish neatly between text and image; rather, letters assume imagistic forms and images take the form of letters.
Bookmakers were sensitive to the interplay of materials, from the parchment of the pages to the wooden boards, designed to protect the contents. Each of these elements conditioned a reader’s interaction with the book. Bookmaking required a significant material investment. The production process was laborious and lengthy, involving many separate stages and craftsmen.
Books participated in a wide range of ritual, liturgical, devotional, educational and practical contexts, each of which in turn conditioned the presentation and reception of both their form and content.
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