National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar, "The Materiality of Medieval Manuscripts: Interpretation through Production"

Director: Jonathan Wilcox
Held at the University of Iowa

Rhonda L. McDaniel

Middle Tennessee State University


IImagine the smell of raw goatskin soaked in a lime solution, the ring of the scraping tool as it peels layers of skin off the stretched, dried hide, the taste of skin dust floating in the air. Imagine the stiffened fingers struggling to wield a quill while forming strange-familiar letter shapes, the thrill of seeing the link-stitch marching more or less neatly across the binding of a book, the pride of possessing the material products of one's labors—the horror and disappointment of realizing a mistake has been made and must be emended.

Now imagine how such sensory knowledge of the medieval book as a material object might translate to the virtual sphere of digital platforms. Can such a translation be made? If so, how might the knowledge and insight gained from a close encounter with material books cross over and be communicated or replicated by electronic media?

Such experiences and questions engaged the sixteen scholars who participated in the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Summer Seminar, "The Materiality of Medieval Manuscript: Interpretation through Production led by Jonathan Wilcox.1 The faculty and two advanced graduate students in this seminar represented institutions all across the country and a variety of ranks and interests:

  • • James Barker, Asst. Prof. of Philosophy & Religious Studies, Western Kentucky University
  • •Robert (Scott) Bevill, Ph.D. Candidate, English, University of Tennessee
  • •Heather Blatt, Asst. Prof. of English, Florida International University
  • •Nancy Blomgren, Assoc. Prof. of English, Volunteer State Community College (TN)
  • •Paul Gaffney, Assoc. Prof. of English, Hiram College (OH)
  • •Susanne Hafner, Asst. Prof. & Director, Medieval Studies, Fordham University (NY)
  • •Marjorie Harrington, Ph.D. Candidate, English, University of Notre Dame (IN)
  • •Jane Jeffrey, Prof. of English, West Chester University (PA)
  • •Eric Mason, Prof. and Chair of Biblical Studies, Judson University (IL)
  • •Rhonda McDaniel, Prof. of English, Middle Tennessee State University
  • •Rebecca Mouser, Asst. Prof. of English and Philosophy, Missouri Southern State University
  • •Sarah Noonan, Asst. Prof. of English, Lindenwood University (MO)
  • •Paul Peterson, Teaching Fellow in Scandinavian and German Languages, Augustana College (IL)
  • •David Porter, Prof. of English, Southern University (LA)
  • •Ellen Rentz, Asst. Prof. of Literature, Claremont McKenna College (CA)
  • •Michelle Sauer, Prof. of English & Gender Studies Affiliate, University of North Dakota
Each participant came to the seminar with a project model based on a particular medieval manuscript page in mind. These manuscript pages ranged from early medieval copies on parchment of Virgil's Aeneid (with scratched glosses) to late medieval collections of exempla written on paper, and from biblical texts to the devotional object of Christ's side wound drawn on the manuscript page. (Participant reports on each project may be found at this LINK.)

During the course of the first two weeks of the seminar the participants engaged in making the actual materials they would use to construct their projects. Each had the opportunity to de-hair a goat hide (fortunately they did not have to actually kill the goat first), then stretch the hide on a herse frame and use a lunellum on the stretched hide under the watchful instruction of Jesse Meyer. The physicality of the labor of scraping and sanding the dried hide provided material for conversation for several days after. Gentler processes followed, however, including attempts at cutting a quill into a usable pen and sessions led by Cheryl Jacobsen on writing the script of one's model page(s). Sara Sauers discussed the importance of page layout for both medieval and modern books and then taught the participants how to use a straight edge and pencil to find the golden ratio for the page layout of the projects. Each participant had the opportunity to try the somewhat messy endeavor of hand drawing paper from a vat of slurry following the process shown by Timothy Barrett. Julie Leonard spent several days patiently demonstrating and guiding a variety of bookbinding projects which focused primarily on producing a model of Carolingian bookbinding but also extended to models of papyrus scrolls and papyrus codices such as those found at Nag Hamadi. In the midst of all these activities, the seminar participants read articles that addressed the perceived divide between craftsmanship and scholarship, material books and digital media, and the nature and potential of the digital humanities, especially as applicable to medieval manuscript studies. The last portion of the seminar focused on application of the experience gained in the first two weeks to discussions of the digital humanities and on workshopping participant presentations on their individual projects, allowing the opportunity for others in the seminar to ask questions, make comments, and offer recommendations for further lines of research or development. Fittingly, the seminar ended with discussions of how seminar material might be incorporated into teaching and disseminated into the scholarly community through conferences and publications.

The NEH Summer Seminars such as this one are designed to provide college and university faculty with opportunities to refresh and deepen their understanding of important ideas, texts, and topics in the humanities, and the faculty participants in this seminar reflected a broad diversity of institutions from community college to flagship state university and everything in between. (Two seats in this seminar were set aside for advanced graduate students, thus making the seminar a professionalization opportunity, as well.) The seminars take place at institutions with strong research collections so that participants can also pursue their own research interests in addition to the topics of the seminar. In a competitive process, the director and faculty of the seminar select participants based upon the application materials, which include the NEH application cover sheet, a CV, and an application essay that describes a proposed project and one's qualifications for pursuing it. For this seminar, each applicant had to propose a specific model of a manuscript page to be produced during the course of the seminar (in my case, the Paschal Hand page found in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 579, 49r). Factors in selection include the evidence for the applicant's effectiveness and dedication as a teacher and scholar in the humanities and the potential for the seminar to contribute to the applicant's teaching and scholarship, the relationship between the applicant's intellectual interests, perspective, skills, and experiences and the focus of the seminar, and the conception and organization of the applicant's proposed project and its likely contribution to the seminar. Those selected to participate receive a stipend from the NEH to defray the expenses of travel and lodging.

The seminar on "The Materiality of Medieval Manuscripts: Interpretation through Production," was a well-planned, well-led seminar rich in content, experiences, and material examples to take back to both undergraduate and graduate classrooms while advancing individual research useful for conference presentations and publication. The University of Iowa proved to be an excellent location for such a seminar and the generous hospitality and contributions of the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, The Center for the Book, the University Libraries (especially Special Collections), and the Department of English were deeply appreciated by all participants. If the seminar is offered again in future years, I strongly encourage those interested in paleography, codicology, book arts, and digital humanities to apply.



Roll over images to see a larger version.


Stretched goatskins left to dry.


Practice with the quill and ink made according to a medieval recipe.


Learning how to measure letter height of the model's script on a scrap of parchment.


Drawing paper from the vat of slurry.


Link-stitching an end tab to a partially bound book.


1. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this report do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.