Practical Palaeography: Recreating the Exeter Book in a Modern Day ‘Scriptorium’

Dr Johanna Green is a lecturer in Book History and Digital Humanities at the University of Glasgow. Her PhD (English Language, University of Glasgow 2012) focused on a palaeographical study of the textual division and subordination of the Exeter Book manuscript. Here, she tells us about the first of two sessions she led for the Society of Northumbrian Scribes, a group of calligraphers based in North East England, bringing palaeographic research and modern-day calligraphy together for the public.

I am a Mackem.

(It’s important I admit this up front.)

Despite having lived in Glasgow for over fifteen years, my connections to my home town of Sunderland, and the North East of England in general, are still very strong. The reason goes beyond family connections; it was here I first encountered medieval manuscripts. The North East is particularly proud of its written heritage, and isn’t afraid to show it. The Lindisfarne Gospels, the Codex Amiatinus, Bede, Cuthbert, Aidan, Wearmouth, Jarrow – our medieval past is very much part of our modern cultural identity. I grew up ten minutes from St Peter’s church, Monkwearmouth, in a city where our most celebrated medieval 1-lindisfarne-gospels-mosaic-sunderlandmanuscripts had their facsimiles on permanent display in the city library, where public art along the riverside included a stone and mosaic monument to our written past (pictured, left). The result is that I have always been aware of the significance of the North East in the broader history of England and its written past. These connections between people, place and past was shown to be particularly strong during 2014’s exhibition of the Lindisfarne Gospels at Durham Palace Green Library, where over 100,000 people from across the NE – and from across the world – made the journey to Durham and queued to see one of our most precious cultural items. Manuscript images were projected 200ft against Durham Cathedral’s Norman towers as part of the city’s Lumiere festival; calligraphic cats adorned local buses, trains and banners; the local area was awash with over 1000 related community events encouraging the public to connect with this gem of their shared written heritage.[1]

One group involved in these events were The Society of Northumbrian Scribes. Founded in 2-tom1988, the Scribes are a group of calligraphers from across the North East who meet once a month to practice modern calligraphy, including special sessions which are led by a professional calligrapher.[2] Their experience ranges from the relative beginner to the professional. Their founder member, Tom Fleming (pictured, right) is now 94 years of age and has been practising calligraphy since he was 14; his work is internationally renowned.[3] Current Chairman Susan Moor was artist in residence at St Peter’s church, Monkwearmouth, Sunderland, when the Lindisfarne Gospels were on display in 2014. She and one other member of their group have also appeared on television in the last 4 years demonstrating their calligraphic skills (Susan Moor, Time Team, Series 19, Episode 5: ‘Chapel of Secrets’, Beadnell, Northumberland, 2012, and Dominic James, for the BBC’s ‘Sacred Wonders of Britain’, Episode 3: Lindisfarne, 2014), while the group is regularly invited to exhibit and provide demonstrations at many of the North East’s most high profile cultural events.[4] Inspired by the Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition, the Scribes, led by Susan, organised the international project, exhibition, and publication ‘Letters After Lindisfarne’ which encouraged calligraphic responses to the Gospels and its script, text and illumination; the submissions have since been published in book-form. In addition to regularly displaying their work across the North East, the Scribes have also produced a number of publications such as Building Bridges (2006), which includes a forward by Prof. Michelle Brown.

An Exeter Book Scriptorium  
Needless to say, as a palaeographer and as a native of North East England, I was thrilled when, in 2015, two years after I completed my PhD on the visual literacy of the Exeter Book, I was contacted by Mary Swales on behalf of the Scribes about the possibility of my leading one of their monthly sessions on “my manuscript” at Bede’s World, Jarrow, site of many a 1990s school trip. The fact that the Exeter Book manuscript consists entirely of script (no illumination or images) and was written by a single hand was of particular interest to the Scribes in contrast to their previous work on the Lindisfarne Gospels. How could I possibly refuse? How often does one get the chance to talk about one’s research with real, live scribes? I have long been convinced that to fully understand the mind of a scribe, one ought to have a go at producing script oneself. However, while I have previous calligraphy training, I am by no means a professional calligrapher, so we decided the best approach was to split the day’s workshop into two sections – the first saw a public lecture, providing an introduction to the Exeter Book, its codicology, palaeography and texts with an overview of my research findings, while the second centred on a practical session where the Scribes were asked to try their hands at replicating Anglo-Saxon Square Minuscule, alongside some of the Exeter Book’s litterae notabiliores; alternative activities included producing modern calligraphic responses to some the manuscript’s Riddles.

My own research centres on the scribal hand of the manuscript, specifically the ways in which the poems are divided and subdivided from one another and the decorative designs used for these litterae notabiliores throughout. For much of my research, I have spent considerable time (perhaps more than I am willing to admit) wondering where one ought to draw the line with palaeography. When do the details become so tiny to no longer be of any significance? When are they just important enough to mean something significant for our understanding of how the manuscript was created and arranged? How far am I willing to argue that these tiny features have significant impact? Is, for example, this littera notabilior Đ on f. 115v (Judgement Day I, left) different enough in a significant way to this H on f.97v, (The Partridge, bottom right), and in turn are both of these litterae notabiliores performing a different function than the H on f.98r  (Soul and Body II, far right)?[5]

The answer, of course, not only comes down to the contents and context of the texts in question, but also to the scribal process of creation, to the effort put into the production of each letter, to the number of pen lifts and changes of direction of the hand to effect these designs. I have a hunch it is within these margins of scribal effort that meaning is effected. However, until my visit to the Northumbrian Scribes, this hunch was simply that: a possibility, a suggestion. I was keen to see if watching the Scribes attempt the script/hand would tell me anything about these suspicions.

5-exeter-book-alphabetIn order to facilitate the hands-on session, I produced a very basic ‘alphabet’ of the script and scribal hand for the Scribes to follow, cropping graphs from images I had been given permission to use during my doctoral and postdoctoral research, arranged (very roughly) as they might appear against a baseline, along with a number of selected colour images of full folios (including some of my own, taken with kind permission of Exeter Cathedral Library in 2014). The selection of book-themed Riddles was provided in Old English with a modern translation. I had very little idea of how the Scribes might find the script/scribal hand – too easy, too difficult? – so this assortment of possible activities helped me to account for a range of interests and unknowns.

Let me tell you, nothing prepares a palaeographer for the sheer joy of having their own scriptorium, but in effect, this is what I had: over twenty Scribes with a collective wealth of experience approaching a hand I had spent nearly ten years researching. It was just wonderful to watch them work, to see how they held the pen, the angles of the nib required to produce the script, the concentration needed to negotiate the various forms the hand displays. In the main, each of the Scribes opted to begin by copying individual graphs of the script and scribal hand, followed by reproducing a number of the litterae notabiliores. One of the full pages I had given them was the opening to Soul and Body II (pictured above), and after an hour or so of familiarising themselves with the script, they began to reproduce a full folio of the manuscript.  What surprised me most about watching them work was how different the processes of production were between producing a littera notabilior with no decoration at all, with those processes required to produce one that incorporated simple parallel lines on descenders or crossbars as its only nod to decorative flourish.[6] As stated earlier, I had often wondered if and when these minor differences are significant enough to mean something, but it soon became clear that the scribal effort needed to produce the second of the two was considerably more than the first: more pen lifts, more changes of direction, a slower approach. This in itself suggested to me that this is something I ought to pay more attention to when analysing these features of the Exeter Book’s hand. The second thing that struck me was how difficult the script’s aspect was to produce at first, but how quickly the Scribes were able to reproduce a page once they had the hang of it. The pace of scribal production was another point I had often pondered (how long did it take for our scribe to produce the Exeter Book manuscript, given the script is so neat, so consistent throughout?) but it became apparent that in trained hands, the copying process was reasonably swift. I felt that I had experienced a glimpse of something we all wish we could see: how our respective manuscripts were copied.

The experience also made me realise something else: I had learned much by watching them write and talking to them during the process, but I had also learned much by trying to produce the hand myself. Rather than return to Glasgow and teach my undergraduates the finer details of the script purely through verbal or written description, perhaps providing space for my students to engage in the materials of manuscript production, to try out copying a script/exemplar for themselves would help increase their understanding of the process of writing and, in turn, deepen their knowledge of the constituent parts of a letter and their significance in palaeographic endeavour. This last is something I plan to include in future palaeography teaching.

In total, the full day ran from 10am to 3.30pm with an hour for lunch between. My public lecture, or introduction, was about two hours long with a coffee break midway through; the hands-on workshop ran for three hours. At the end of the day, the Scribes laid out their work along a table in a final ‘show and tell’ bringing together their collective scribal outputs. This format is typical for the Scribes’ workshops, but it was particularly effective for this specific topic. Having the space not simply to introduce a manuscript to the group but discuss the detail of its scribal contents was essential to the success of the day’s activities. A detailed morning session allowed for a more engaged hands-on; a three hour hands-on provided the Scribes the opportunity not just to practise, but to produce, the results of which can be seen in the images and the Vine below:

The Wanderer, produced by Dominic James, Society of Northumbrian Scribes, 2015.

Body and Soul II, front (left) and reverse (right) produced by John Rushbrook, Society of Northumbrian Scribes, 2015. Given as a gift.

I was thrilled with how the session went; not only because they had enjoyed themselves but that it seemed to me that we had both gained significant insights into the manuscript by working together. John very kindly sent me his finished piece, properly mounted, in the post as a thank you, while Tom gifted me a print of one of his most recent pieces, a calligraphic map (pictured below); both gifts are now in my office at work and serve to remind me of the benefits of collaboration and hands-on learning.


A Calligraphic Map of C7th Northumbrian Saints, Tom Fleming, Society of Northumbrian Scribes, 2015.

And that is how I brought my weekend to a close: nipping on an East Coast train back to Scotland with an A1-sized calligraphic map of 7th century Northumbrian saints tucked under my arm. Working with the Scribes was one of my most enjoyable and fruitful teaching experiences to date, because I learned just as much, if not more, than they did. I cannot stress enough how beneficial the process of collaborative production was, discussing the process of producing the script and scribal hand as they did it, asking questions of their choices. This meeting of theory and practice was transformational in my understanding of the script but also in their understanding of the role of palaeographers in decoding the decisions of past scribes.

Watching them work has fundamentally changed the way I approach my palaeographic research into the Exeter Book, and I was thrilled to be invited back by popular demand to deliver a second event in October this year at St Peter’s in Monkwearmouth – but perhaps details of that session should be saved for another post…

Dr Johanna Green (HATII, School of Humanities, University of Glasgow)

All photos courtesy of Johanna Green.

[1] Overwhelming Success for Lindisfarne Gospels Durham’, Durham University News, 1st October 2013 [Date of Access: 16/11/2016].
[2] For example, their calendar of events for 2016 included a special session on Italics led by professional calligrapher Gaynor Goffe. Click here for further information on the Society.
[3] See here and here.
[4] See, for example
[5] See presentations on this research at Leeds (2014, 2016), TOEBI (2013), and Kalamazoo (2016). Published forms of this research are currently in preparation and intended for submission in early 2017. Further details available on request.
[6] For further details, please see the Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry DVD (Muir, 2006) or the Exeter Book facsimile (Chambers et al, 1933).

6 Replies to “Practical Palaeography: Recreating the Exeter Book in a Modern Day ‘Scriptorium’”

  1. As one of those in the Mackem scriptorium that day I appreciated Johanna’s blog which has brought back memories of a fantastic day of the results of her scholarship and the opportunity to be involved in practical calligraphy. ( David – a Glaswegian, not a Mackem )

    Liked by 1 person

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