Folios, Quires, and Codices, Oh My! Introducing Manuscript Studies to Undergraduates

Colleen Curran recently submitted her PhD in Palaeography & Manuscript Studies at King’s College London on the morphology of Insular Caroline in tenth-century Britain. She writes here about her pilot scheme to introduce manuscript studies to undergraduate students. 

In September 2016, I organized and taught a pilot scheme to introduce English undergraduates at King’s College London to Old and Middle English manuscript studies. Earlier in the year, Antonio Lenzo, an undergraduate in the English department approached me to see if I would be interested in leading a palaeography workshop for English undergraduate students at King’s College in association with the King’s College Student Opportunity Fund. The workshop was not intended to be a replacement for formal palaeography teaching. Rather, it was intended to be both an introduction to manuscript studies as well as a supplemental demonstration of how manuscripts can be a fruitful line of enquiry for literary studies.

There were a few challenges with organizing this pilot scheme. Mainly, none of the students had any formal Latin, Old English, or Middle English training. In addition, we were under tight time constraints. We could only do this course outside of term for no longer than a week. We were also confined by a limited budget to London institutions. The Student Opportunity Fund is also strictly related to student-led events, so I could be the only instructor.

I decided to break the workshop down into three distinct parts: an introduction to palaeography and manuscript studies, a manuscript session for both Old and Middle English manuscripts, and a student-led ‘conference’. The goal of this breakdown was to instruct students about script history and how to handle manuscripts, then introduce the students to manuscripts, and ultimately let them perform their own manuscript analyses.

The introduction session could only be for two hours. In the session, I covered the basics of codicology (for example, we made construction paper quires as a group to help illustrate the process and how folios build into quires which build into codices) as well as script history in England from pointed minuscule to secretary. Due to time constraints, I focused on teaching the main alphabet of those scripts, their development, and how they were used. The overall aim was to provide enough of a background for the students to be able to identify key letterforms and other features in the following manuscript sessions. I tried to keep my examples to literary works – such as Beowulf, the Exeter Book, Chaucer, and Piers Plowman – that they might have come across in their first year of studies. I also had editions of these texts to hand so I could show the students how the edited text actually appears in the manuscript forms. In addition, I also focused the last fifteen minutes on proper etiquette in a manuscript reading room and how to hold manuscripts (if the librarians allowed).

Photo by Colleen Curran, used with permission of the Wellcome Trust

For the manuscript sessions, I collaborated with Lambeth Palace Library and the Wellcome Trust Library. Both institutions graciously allowed the students to view the manuscripts closely for two-hour long sessions each. At Lambeth Palace Library, we worked with their Anglo-Saxon collections. Thanks to the librarians, I was able to show the students four Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. We spent a majority of our time focusing on MS 194, which was written by the main scribe of the Exeter Book. We used printed and digital facsimiles of the Exeter Book to compare and contrast the scribe’s different performances. The Exeter Book facsimiles also brought up questions of how editions of medieval texts differ from their manuscript context. The other three manuscripts brought up questions about the relationship between word and image, the timeline of script history in England, and the role of transitional scripts in Anglo-Saxon England. For this session, the students were not allowed to touch the manuscripts.

We examined the Middle English collections at the Wellcome Trust Library with the assistance of Dr. Elma Brenner. We looked at digital images of a Middle English scroll to compare it to the codices that the students had seen. We also compared the gothic scripts (textualis, anglicana, and secretary) to the more set aspect of the Anglo-Saxon scripts that they had seen the previous day at Lambeth Palace. The Wellcome Trust also provided us with a few illuminated manuscripts, which allowed the students to think more about book production and question why certain manuscripts were illuminated and others were not. We also saw one paper manuscript, so the students could compare paper versus parchment productions. As at Lambeth Palace, the students were not allowed to touch the manuscripts.

The final stage of the workshop – our ‘conference’ – has yet to take place due to schedule clashes and difficulty in finding rooms. However, the conference will allow the students to present some of their observations on the manuscripts that I assigned to them based upon their interests. I assigned each student a manuscript from the British Library that was based upon their interests (ranging from medical recipes to script change to illuminations) and was also digitized. I chose to select manuscripts that were digitized to a) preserve the manuscripts and b) allow students more flexibility in accessing them outside of library hours. When looking at their manuscripts, I encouraged students to present merely what they thought was interesting – if they had more than three days of experience, what lines of research would they pursue with these manuscripts? Did they find letterforms interesting? Any art features? The overall composition of the book? Currently, the workshop is scheduled for the first week of term in the beginning of January with professors and lecturers also invited to attend.

Overall, the pilot scheme was successful. With the course ranging from taught instruction to individual research, the students experienced an introduction to what working with manuscripts might be like, if they chose to pursue this at a higher level. Whether or not their interaction with manuscripts continues from here or will end at our conference, the students benefited from this supplemental workshop that will aid them as they continue in their undergraduate literature courses. Again, I extend my thanks to Lambeth Palace Library, the Wellcome Trust Library, and the King’s College London Student Opportunity Fund, all of whom made this manuscript workshop a possibility.

Colleen Curran, King’s College London


3 Replies to “Folios, Quires, and Codices, Oh My! Introducing Manuscript Studies to Undergraduates”

  1. This sounds so fantastic! Is there someone to continue this course next year? I wish I’d been aware of the significance of MS studies as an undergrad. My timtetable filled up with languages and history instead and I only came to palaeography years later during my Masters. In my A Level teaching I occasionally get to talk about aspects of textual criticism when divergent readings appear in our texts and I think there could be more made of this in relevant A Level classes.


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