Discovering the Codex: Outreach and the Perks of the Manuscript

In the first of our series of guest posts, Dr Pauline Souleau discusses manuscripts as a tool for outreach. 

Manuscripts. It is not a word the average pupil hears every day in class. It is usually not a word secondary school students have in mind when considering higher education paths. Yet, manuscripts are a gold mine for the graduate student, early career researcher, or established scholar in search of inspiration for an outreach presentation/academic taster session.

  1. They are not subject-specific tools. Outreach audiences are sometimes grouped by broad interests: humanities, social sciences, hard sciences. At other times, they are not organised at all and you have no idea what crowds you will be facing. As a medievalist, I have wondered what I could bring to a student whose subjects are maths, physics, and chemistry; how I could make them curious about my subject; how I could keep them engaged for an hour. Chromatography, digital restoration, programming, or medical history might just do that. With a presentation on manuscripts, these are some of the topics I might cover along with broader subjects such as art history, music, linguistics, philology, literature, history, philosophy, theology, etc.
  2. They are extremely visual and memorable tools. Whether you do the presentation at your university and can use its resources to organise a handling session or go to the school and give a Powerpoint presentation, the material and graphic aspects of the manuscript make it memorable and easy to discuss. Even if the students have no prior knowledge of classical, medieval, or modern languages, you can start talking about palaeography and/or linguistics with them; you can show them miniatures and have them ponder on the relationship between text and image; you can address manuscript production and text transmission and start hinting at the complex concept of authorship.
  3. They are new and alien tools. A manuscript is not something secondary school pupils have considered in much depth, if at all. Introducing them to the object and all it offers takes them out of their comfort zone in an accessible way which is exactly what you want from an outreach presentation. You want them to have a taste of what you do, what you teach, and what they might learn beyond school.

Outreach is a privileged space for the pupils and the academic. It allows us to think about research and teaching in different ways. It is an opportunity to interact with, and open new and various perspectives for, the next generation of university students by telling them about manuscripts and making them discover the codex.

Pauline Souleau, St Peter’s College, University of Oxford

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