Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - November 2, 2012

A wealth of knowledge

Exhibit showcases the treasured books and pages of the Middle Ages

by Rebecca Wallace

If you owned only one book in your lifetime, imagine how the experience of reading would change.

A medieval noblewoman fortunate enough to possess a lavishly illustrated book of hours would treat it as a treasure. With real gold leaf and lapiz blue, it might be worth as much as her house. She would read the prayers in its parchment pages many times in her life, closely and deliberately. She would pore over it to worship in private, and carry it as a status symbol in public. This was reading as devotion, reading as meditation, even reading as showing off.

There was reading as ritual, too. The text helped the clergy to perform their ceremonial duties, with bolder letters serving as theatrical cues. Here is where to raise your voice; here is where the Mass reaches its climax.

In a world before printing, the reader was closely connected to the person who had meticulously written the words by hand, passing the knowledge on. The very act of reading wove people more closely into their communities, past and present.

"Reading is something we take for granted as something universal through the ages," said Kathryn Dickason, a Stanford University graduate student in religious studies. But scanning a document online and scrolling through an ebook are worlds different from the process in the Middle Ages.

The noblewoman, for instance, would have read her book on many levels, seeing through the prayers to the allegories and other symbolism in the drawings. She would have known that the peacock drawn in the margin symbolized immortality and the Resurrection. Fruits, flowers and herbs had hidden meanings, too.

Today, "we still don't fully understand the decorations," said David Jordan, assistant director for library development at Stanford. "They're often very subtle."

For visitors to the Bing Wing in Stanford's Green Library this fall, the medieval experience of reading unfolds through parchment fragments and codices set out under glass cases. Dickason and Jordan have co-curated an exhibit called "Scripting the Sacred," drawing on the university's collection of medieval manuscripts.

The exhibit focuses mainly on the ninth through the 19th centuries, with many religious books: Bibles, commentaries on the Bible, personal prayerbooks, saints' biographies and liturgical genres. There are also a few ancient papyrus sheets that provide historic context.

In one glass case are medieval parchment pages from a particularly hefty Bible. This was the 12th-century Atlantic Bible from Italy, so called because "only Atlas could lift it," according to an exhibit card. For contrast, a miniature illuminated 13th-century Bible from Paris has impossibly ant-like writing, immediately sparking the question, "How could they read that?"

"One theory is they would place a glass of water ... David, is there any truth to that?" Dickason said, miming using a water glass as a lens over the parchment.

"Maybe," Jordan mused. "By this time there were some magnifying glasses."

Dickason started working with medieval manuscripts a few years ago, when she took a Stanford class on the paleography of the medieval and early Renaissance, taught by Jordan and emeritus professor George Hardin Brown. She and Jordan hope that exhibit visitors will gain an appreciation for the medieval art of reading.

Jordan added that the exhibit has been getting two to three class visits per week, including students studying tattoos, Latin and music. "I'd like it to be a meeting place for the local community to discuss medieval manuscripts," he said.

Under the Munger Rotunda of the Bing Wing, the curators have placed large facsimiles of period manuscripts, because the rotunda gets too much natural light to display originals, Jordan said. The originals are in the neighboring Peterson Gallery, under dimmer light. Elizabeth Fischbach, exhibits manager and designer, was also active in putting "Scripting the Sacred" together, working with preservation staff and advising on exhibit design.

Is it rare to have a student so closely involved in curating a Green Library exhibit? "It's ideal," Fischbach said. "We'd like to have more. This year we have three."

Along with the Bibles, display items include several Missals, the liturgical books used to celebrate Mass. Here it's easy to see what a dynamic activity reading was. One 14th-century Roman Missal, bound in codex form, in places has bolded text and some words written in red ink, indicating points of emphasis for the clergy reading the text out loud. Musical notes are written in for the Pater Noster. One can imagine a single clergyman sharing these words with a large, rapt audience.

"These manuscripts had meaningful impacts on entire communities ... even though the literacy rate was probably 5 to 10 percent," Jordan said, referring to a figure often cited for the time period of antiquity through the early Middle Ages. "There's a parallel here: Our guests probably won't be able to read these manuscripts, but we still hope to convey some meaning."

Even if visitors can't read Latin penned in Gothic miniscule script, they can still see signs of how writing changed over time. One area of the exhibit shows how the letter "A" was quilled in different centuries and places, how it evolved. Paleographers analyze these features in texts to determine where and when they were from.

Other clues come from the books of hours that wealthy people in the Middle Ages commissioned. Books were tailored to individual people, so one would contain different prayers in a differing order from another. They also often included calendars with local saints, giving hints about where they were made.

These books are some of the most striking in the exhibit, with their fervent colors, glints of gold and finely detailed illustrations. One 15th-century book from Ghent burgeons with leaves and petals and curlicues, with blue peacocks peeking out of the foliage. Another from 15th-century Italy depicts the crucifixion against a background that looks a lot like Florence. It also has coats of arms from two Florentine families, which means the book may have been a marital gift.

The scribe-artists behind this workmanship were clearly skilled and patient. But everyone's human. Jordan points out one facsimile of a German manuscript in which the artist painted a beautiful large capital "O," but then apparently realized it was supposed to be an "M." Rather than doing the entire page over, he added a peculiar extra leg to the letter.

One 14th-century Bible from France or Flanders seems flawless — except for the extra words on the side. "He left out three separate passages and had to write them in the margin," Jordan said. "I'm sure he was very unhappy."

"Maybe he had too much mead the night before," Fischbach said, laughing.

The last case in the exhibit focuses on the destruction and recovery of the medieval manuscripts. Countless writings have been "lost, destroyed, or severely damaged," reads an exhibit card, blaming fire, water, bugs, rats, spilled wine and other culprits. Books have been harmed by collectors cutting out illustrations; parchments have been defaced by scribes scraping off one text and adding another one on top. Sometimes, religious manuscripts were destroyed because a new religious movement came along.

In other cases, people took medieval parchments and used them as bindings for newer books over the centuries. Which might seem like desecration, except that then the old parchments were tucked inside, their words and pictures protected from the sun, just waiting for modern historians to discover them, Jordan said.

He looked at the Atlantic Bible pages, pointing to the center where the text had faded in a line. The parchment had been used to bind another book, with the center becoming the new book's spine. "That's the reason these fragments survived," he said.

What: "Scripting the Sacred," an exhibit of medieval manuscripts at Stanford University

Where: Munger Rotunda and Peterson Gallery in Bing Wing, Green Library

When: The exhibit runs through March 17. Exhibit cases are lit up Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sundays from 1 to 6 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: For more information, go to http://www-sul.stanford.edu/depts/spc/exhibits/ . David Jordan is also available to answer questions or give tours of the exhibit on Sundays from 2 to 4 p.m. He can be reached at dajordan@stanford.edu.

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