This past 27 April, Dr. Frank Coulson of Ohio State University gave a lecture on a manuscript he discovered in the Walsh Library. Coulson believes that Walsh Library MS Item 14, a 15th century manuscript fragment listed by Digital Scriptorium as a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses with marginal commentary, is actually a 14th century copy of the Metamorphoses with a marginal translation written by Giovanni de Virgilio. Giovanni de Virgilio was a 14th century Paduan scholar who was educated in Bologna and who was commissioned by the Studium of Bologna to lecture on Lucan, Statius, Ovid, and Virgil (for whom he had a particular love, as one can surmise from his chosen name.) Only his Ovid lectures survive, along with a few of his other translations and commentaries. We’ve some insight into Giovanni’s personal life, including his friendship and extended correspondence with Dante Alighieri. Indeed, Giovanni even wrote an epitaph for Dante’s tomb. [Read on for more on Professor Coulson’s talk] Continue reading
This past 21 April, Bernard College hosted the annual Interuniversity Doctoral Consortium Medieval Conference. Each year PhD students come from the various IUDC participant institutions to present some aspect of their research to their peers and professors. This exchange facilitates both a greater sense of community between the IUDC member institutions and gives PhD students on the verge of defending their dissertations a chance to receive valuable feedback from others of a myriad of disciplinary backgrounds. Students came to present from NYU, Columbia, Rutgers, Princeton, CUNY, SUNY Stony Brook, and Fordham. The two Fordham students presenting this year were Nathan Melson and Samantha Sabalis, Medieval Studies alumni and currently of the History and English departments, respectively. [Read on for more on Nathan and Samantha’s presentations and the IUDC consortium] Continue reading
This past 11 April, the Center for Medieval Studies hosted its annual “Compatible Careers” event. Each year, the Center asks alumni to share their experiences of finding jobs after their graduations that go beyond the traditional academic/tenure-tracked path. The perennial question for graduate students nearing their graduations is: “what next?” To study what you love is a joy, but the fact of the matter is that, eventually, one needs to realize what one wants to do for a living. This question haunts many a student at night, especially those who would elect a non-academic path. The purpose of this annual workshop is to show students that taking alternate paths is not only possible, but it may even result in finding a better fit for them. This year’s speakers represent a wide array of careers that show promise and reward the creative medievalist willing to look beyond the usual choices presented to them. [Read on for more about the 2017 Compatible Careers Workshop] Continue reading
This past 5th of November, Dr. Hafner brought both her Manuscript Culture class and a collection of brave volunteers to Pergamena, one of the few tanneries left in the United States and one of the precious fewer tanneries in the world that also produces parchment. Officially listed as Richard E. Meyer and Sons, its current name derives from the Latin term for Pergamum, which first produced parchment in large quantities for writing purposes after Alexandria imposed a ban on papyrus exports to the city in response to Pergamum’s own attempt to build a great library to rival Alexandria’s. Down an unassuming rural road in Montgomery leading out into the woods, a van filled with semi-comatose students and faculty who knew exactly what was in store for them pulled up to a gray barn. When the van emptied and all had disembarked, the large front door of the barn opened. The crowd of eager and nervous medievalists approached, caught their first whiff of the scent of dead and dissolving flesh through the cool morning air, and came to understand exactly what the next seven hours entailed. Some practically ran into the barn, ready to see what Jesse Meyer, the owner, had in store for them. Some entered hesitantly, not sure how long it may take for them to acclimatize to this very new and different environment, or, perhaps, not sure if they wanted to acclimatize to it. Still others entered with grim determination, accepting the onslaught on their noses as the price they would have to pay to see just how the parchment we look at and read from actually was made, driven by the need for enlightenment. Dr. Hafner, who has been to Pergamena on multiple occasions and who brought another Fordham group there just last April, looked amused at the reactions of her students.
Once inside the barn, covered with cobwebs that looked as if they had been established there since the tannery’s opening in 1865, the crowd gathered around Jesse Meyer, who delivered an introduction to not only how Pergamena itself was established, but also why they do what they do and to what end. While leather production makes up a good deal of their income, Meyer related that parchment production also retains its demand. Book conservators look to Pergamena for parchment produced in an archival-friendly and historically accurate way, while artists who like to work with parchment also come to Meyer for their own materials. It is toward this latter end that Meyer himself got into parchment production. Before the tannery was made into what we know of as Pergamena, Meyer, a sculptor by training and nature, saw hides and parchment as great materials to work with as mediums for three-dimensional art as they can be shaped in practically any way one wants, as long as the hides are prepared properly.
Adding parchment to the products already produced by the family workshop, Meyer learned of the medievalist academic community and their desire to learn all they can of parchment production and how the physicality of the book impacted readers’ understanding of its contents. Meyer reached out to them, being one of the few in America who could give them exactly what they were looking for. Seeking to come closer to the medieval process, Meyer attempted to learn as much as he could from medieval handbooks on parchment production, but ran into the issue of descriptions of the process being less than clear. In a business such as tanning or parchment making, one is only as valuable as one’s process is secret, thus written details are few and far between, either in medieval sources or modern. Trial and error were Meyer’s tutors, and he’s learned well. Meyer, now actively engaged with medievalists across the country and attending the odd conference, often takes his show on the road, showing students and professors alike the rare sight of parchment actually being made.
Beginning his description of the process with a note of warning that parchment making and tanning can be bad for the skin, hair, nails, and relationships, Meyer presented the students first with a vat in which hides are left to sit in a lime solution, the acidity of which must be constant and monitored. Meant to dissolve remaining fat, flesh, and loosen hair or fur, these vats of lime are generally referred to as “pits” for the fact that they used to be always kept in pits in the ground. In some places in the world, such a Morocco, this is still done in such pits, with the oldest operating pit tannery in the world in Marrakesh. In upstate New York, barrels serve to contain the mixture of lime and liquefying beast.
Meyer brought the crowd deeper into the barn, cluttered with vats, soaking hides, and machinery spanning the last century. It was time for the hands-on portion of the presentation. Meyer reached deep into a nearby vat and drew from it a goat hide and flung it across a round beam, sending a stream of liquid flying across the room. In an admirable display of spontaneous coordination, the group of students parted instantly to avoid every airborne droplet. These skins were meant to be worn around an animal’s body, thus laying them flat in this untreated state would make them difficult to clean. Laying them across a beam gives some semblance of their natural shape. He demonstrated first how to scrape the hair off the skin. With a single movement, Meyer scrapped-off around one-third of the goat hair, showing just how effectively the lime solution works. Then, other students tried their hands at it, donning Meyer’s apron and gloves. Then, after the hair was removed, Meyer demonstrated how to remove the remaining flesh and fat from the underside of the skin. Brandishing now a crescent-shaped metal knife coloured by use and age to an appropriate hue of reddish-brown, Meyer showed how to remove the flesh without actually damaging the hide itself. The skins of deer, sheep, goats, and cows (the most common types he works with), while certainly durable, still can be damaged during this process, with cuts made by the scrapping knife an ever-present concern. For this portion a few volunteers went forth to try their hand at wielding this time-tested blade. With a mound of flesh steadily building up around the beam’s stand and the occasional, oddly satisfying, “plop” echoing through the workshop, Meyer related that it is at this point that one can really see the quality of the hide one is working with. The end product, be it either leather or parchment, is only as high a quality as the source material, and if the animal was butchered improperly or carelessly or killed in an inefficient or amateurish way, then it will result in an inferior hide, requiring that much more work to make serviceable.
From scraping and soaking, the crowd moved on to drying and stretching. After the skins were cleaned and soaked to remove the residual lime, they were air dried. Attached to frames with clasps holding the hide flat from every possible angle, the skin would dry under tension so as to prevent it from reverting to its natural shape. Parchment, as Meyer related and demonstrated, is flat because it is dried in such a tense position, thus, when it gets wet again, that tension is released, and it curls. Attached to these frames, the skin, once dry enough, needs to be shaved down to make the surface sooth enough to write on, but coarse enough to retain ink. Using another crescent-shaped scrapping knife, he showed how he would scrape strips of skin off the hide till it met the desired smoothness. Here, too, students tried their hands at the process, meeting varying levels of success, but everyone contributing a bit to the future usability of that skin for the preservation of a message, either in writing or as art.
By the end of the day, every student was fully engrossed in the details of watching an animal skin turn into a vehicle for the preservation and transmission of human knowledge and experience. Reservations had been replaced with genuine fascination and a newfound appreciation for what it took to produce the books of hours and bibles medievalists admire and, all too often, take for granted.
The Centre would like to thank Jesse Meyer for opening his shop up to us again on an early Saturday morning and giving us the chance to experience a part of human history that we have come all too close to losing.
On October 28th, students of Dr. Hafner’s Manuscript Culture class attended a lecture at the Butler Library in Columbia University in order to hear a private seminar from Consuelo Dutschke, curator of the Medieval and Renaissance rare book collections. The Rare Book Collections seminar room stood behind a secret door which at first glance looked like a wall. The Rare Books Collection has under its control a locus of incunabulum; namely books and documents printed from early Western Europe up until January 1, 1501.
Once we were all ensconced in the lecture room, Consuelo brought to our attention approximately twenty documents and books laid out over a long wooden table. “Keep an open mind,” Consuelo said as we leaned forward to survey the documents, “or you’ll never find what’s out there.” With these words in mind, we began to participate in an interactive lecture that involved answering questions, translating passages, and experiencing the privilege of holding the documents and books themselves.
Since manuscript scholars can’t rely on colophons or script types to give us the place, date, and author necessarily, we must rely on nuances within decoration and textual format to give us some context. Consuelo highlighted and demonstrated the importance of decoration as a way of localizing each book, in some cases identifyingdown to its very city of origin. Before even opening some of the texts, Consuelo described how the original book bindings hinted at a book’s region of origin. For instance, if a book had clasps (do you recall what it was about the clasps that made them specifically Italian? I think it had to do with their being closed toward the back of the book, but I’m not sure), it was likely to have been made in Italy. With Consuelo’s tutelage, we were enlightened on the uses of decoration and the history of the manuscripts and books.
Consuelo shared with us the importance of manuscript culture history. In 1953, French Paleographers created the CIPL (Comité International de PaléographieLatine), an establishment that aspired to solve a fundamental question about manuscript culture: how do we go about studying these manuscripts? Though the CIPLlost momentum, their work was not in vain. Today, the most used book on manuscript identity is Tuscany’s version of the CIPL, which includes a method of dating the documents by means of comparison and contrast. In the United States, Columbia works alongside UC Berkley to produce the Digital Scriptorium. The strengths of a digital database include the use of vibrant color, a vast library, and the ability to correct inaccurate cataloguing and classification information.
As for Columbia’s Plimpton Manuscript collection, Consuelo described why so many manuscripts were broken off in scrappy segments instead of being retained as whole books. George Plimpton, the founder of the Plimpton collection, bought a myriad of cheap little items from 1925 to 1965. One hypothesis as to why these manuscripts were sold folio by folio instead of by book was because of their cheapness. Consuelo offered another imposing hypothesis: that libraries often accept and recognize volumes of one work, having difficulty classifying and describing a book containing multiple works or texts. Due to this, many manuscripts have portions in several localities.
The class was certainly an enlightening one. Not only did we learn about manuscripts and documents by reading and holding them, but we learned about manuscript culture history and how conservationists and curators locate the time and place of the manuscript. In addition, Consuelo’s generosity and warmth culminated in an exciting and welcoming experience that shall not be forgotten. On behalf of the Centre of Medieval Studies, I wish to thank Consuelo Dutschke and Columbia University for hosing such an enlightening class, for it provided indelible inspiration towards our quests to study manuscript culture.
On September 30th, Katherine Briant of Fordham’s Center for Medieval Studies curated a viewing of medieval manuscripts and early printed books in the Mertz Library’s Rare Book and Folio Room as part of the first day of this year’s Biduum Latinum, which was hosted by the New York Botanical Garden. Consisting of thirteen books of botany and medicine that span the late 12th to mid-16th centuries, Katherine’s exhibit presented examples of some of the most influential scientific texts of the Middle Ages in forms and copies ranging from the startlingly beautiful to the equally startlingly practical.
Two Circa Instans copies were displayed, one from the late 12th century (QK 99 .P575 1190) and the other from the last quarter of the 13th century (QK 99 .P575 1275). The former, much more practical in its appearance and having been well-used, contrasted with the latter copy, which was obviously meant to be admired beyond the contents of its leaves.
The contrast gave the exhibit’s audience a more complete understanding of the space these texts inhabited in medieval intellectual culture and manuscript culture. While of a more practical nature than many other kinds of texts, medical and botanical books were still decorated, showing the simultaneous importance of both the knowledge that the book was meant to transmit and the presentation of that knowledge on the manuscript page.
Also of note were two other works Katherine presented and described. The first, a medical compilation from 13th-century France (R128 .C65), shows the ways in which recorded medical knowledge was expanded and commented upon by readers who added ample notes and marginalia over time to the text. Another text, a 1565 Venice edition of Mattioli’s Commentarii, was paired with an original woodblock used to create the illustration of Eruca Sativa (Rocket) for that plant’s entry in the book. The audience had the chance to compare the image produced in the text with the mirror image carved into the woodblock, imagining the action of pressing the inked block into the page and visualizing the physicality that early modern book production entailed.
This book viewing was a wonderful way to end the first day of the Biduum Latinum, and it provided participants with the opportunity to see the material objects that transmitted the botanical knowledge featured in the bootcamp’s second day. The Center would like to congratulate Katherine on her successful exhibition and would like to extend a grateful thanks to the New York Botanical Gardens for their warm welcome.
On Saturday, April 16, a group of Medieval Studies graduate students, along with undergraduate students taking Dr. Nina Rowe’s Illuminated Manuscripts course and other Medieval Studies majors and minors, visited Pergamena, the only parchment-making workshop in the United States. The master of this shop, Jesse Myers, provided students with a truly interdisciplinary experience. He began the day by telling students the long history of his family’s business, which began as a tannery in sixteenth-century Germany and moved to the United States in the early nineteenth century, traveling up and down the Northeast before settling in Montgomery, New York. After a series of contracts were terminated about ten years ago by companies including Steinway & Sons and a bowling shoe factory, he decided to revamp the family business by filling a niche industry: parchment-making. Although his family still works leather as well, Myers’ decades-long interest in creating parchment paid off; they now provide materials for manuscript reproduction, bookbinding, and archival restoration, just to name a few industries. Myers has also helped scholars settle debates that have previously been unsolvable for centuries, such as finding evidence against the use of uterine calves in the creation of medieval books of hours.
In addition to this personal history lesson, Myers also told students the history of parchment, starting in the fifth century BCE, and described how tanners around the world today work leather and parchment. He also introduced students to the more scientific side of parchment-making, including the chemical processes it takes to prepare the skin and how physics and biology apply to his work. Myers additionally gave students a lesson in economics, detailing for instance how the recession caused a rise in beef sales, thus decreasing the number of calves available for creating luxury parchment. But perhaps the most exciting parts of the day were the hands-on portions. Myers let any interested students (and professors) try their hand at de-fleshing the skin, squeezing the moisture out of the wet parchment, and scraping off the excess follicles. He used these more practical lessons as a way to show us how difficult it was to work as a parchment-maker in the Middle Ages and to emphasize how far new machinery has taken us.
Having the opportunity to not only catch a whiff of the parchment-making process but also to experience the process firsthand and to get an in-depth look at the business gives participating students an advantage in understanding the reality of parchment. Jesse Myers provided students with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and these students can now go forth and add new dimensions to their scholarship while contributing novel insights into medieval life.
By Heather Hill
Dr. Nina Rowe, Chair of Fordham’s Department of Art History and Music, has been awarded year-long fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) for her new book project, The World in a Book: Weltchroniken and Society at the End of the Middle Ages. This project, analyzing 22 of the known 56 extant illuminated Weltchroniken, or world chronicles, dating from 1330-1430, seeks to study works typically produced for lower nobility and burghers. This genre of manuscript, with text written in verse in the Middle High German vernacular and richly adorned with extensive illumination cycles, presents events from biblical and ancient history as a seamless narrative. Following in a similar fashion as her previous work on the study of mass-produced ivories intended for a popular market (see below), illuminated Weltchroniken, while by no means indicative of the artistic tastes and sensibilities of the typically silent medieval illiterate majority, do shed light on the more common and wide-spread tastes and desires of the larger segments of the rising middle classes.
These manuscripts were composed of texts by multiple authors, the best-known of whom is Rudolf von Ems (ca. 1200-1254), but extensive pictoral cycles smooth over the pastiched quality of the text. The genre of Weltchroniken transcends changes in preferences of medium, being found on both parchment and, from 1390, more mass-marketable paper. An example of a paper Weltchronik held in the New York Public Library (Spencer MS 38) inspired Rowe to pursue this line of research. During the NYPL’s 2005 exhibition The Splendor of the Word, this piece came to Rowe’s attention. Captivated by the style of its illustrations, she had to postpone her study of this book and its genre until the completion of the project she was working on at the time. As explained by Rowe, being non-devotional in nature, Weltchroniken are examples that complicate the prevailing assumption that the pious works commissioned by the highest levels of secular and clerical society represent the majority of Germanic high and late medieval book production. Non-devotional genres are deserving of further, more in-depth study as well, and reveal more about medieval society than devotional works alone can provide. This point, understood amongst scholars of literature and history, is still fraught among art historical academic circles, where the dominant narrative is still driven, by and large, by Enlightenment principles of viewing the medieval era as a time in which piety and religiosity defined every aspect of life at every level of society.
This latest project, while a departure from the subject matter of her previous work on sculpture in monumental cathedral facades (see below), certainly does fit with Rowe’s prevailing interests in analyzing how the production, use, and presentation of art challenges our underlying assumptions about medieval social and interfaith dynamics. Neither Christianity nor its rivals and neighbors, at the organizational or devotional levels, were monumental constructs, unified by their opposition to one-another and unyielding or undifferentiated in their hierarchical structures. The farther one looks down the pyramid of medieval society, the more complex the image of that society becomes, and Weltchroniken provide the impetus to look at more than just the pyramid’s pinnacle.
“Pocket Crucifixions: Jesus, Jews and Ownership in Fourteenth-Century Ivories,” Studies in Iconography
32 (2011): 81-120
The Jew, the Cathedral, and the Medieval City: Synagoga and Ecclesia in the Thirteenth Century
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011)
By Kevin Vogelaar