Anna Boeles Rowland is a DPhil student in Medieval History at Merton College, Oxford. Dr Pauline Souleau is a Lecturer in French at Somerville College, Balliol College, and Magdalen College, Oxford. In this post, they follow on from their paper at Teaching the Codex II (May 2017) and introduce the Manuscripts Outreach Network.
The Project/The Network
What would later become the Manuscripts Outreach Network was created in 2016 by Anna Boeles Rowland (@AnnaBoeles), Mary Boyle (@maryrboyle), Tristan Franklinos, and Pauline Souleau (@paj_souleau). The original intention was to showcase Merton College’s (@MertonCollege) fine collection of medieval manuscripts and books to groups of school children from comprehensives in the Oxford area. In 2017, the project took its new shape as the Manuscripts Outreach Network and Sian Witherden (@sian_witherden) and Alex Peplow joined the team.
The current aims of the Network are:
- to provide access to manuscripts and manuscript studies to children in an engaging way;
- to liaise with schools and encourage teachers to use manuscripts as a teaching tool;
- to highlight what manuscript studies can offer for Outreach and Widening Access and Participation (see Pauline Souleau’s Teaching the Codex guest post Discovering the Codex: Outreach and the Perks of the Manuscript);
- to encourage interest in manuscripts more generally.
The Cheney School Visit
The first MON event took place on 9 February 2017 with Cheney School, a comprehensive with Academy status located in Headington, Oxfordshire. The pupils and their teachers spent a late afternoon at Merton College.
The full MON team was there, supported by Fellow Librarian, Dr Julia Walworth (@JuliaWalworth), and Assistant Librarian, Dr Petra Hofmann. Merton’s Schools Liaison and Access Officer, Hazel Wigginton, provided leaflets about the college and the University of Oxford.
Our Cheney School contacts were Head of History Mr David Gimson, now Head of Higher Attainment, and Dr Lorna Robinson, Classics Lead and Director of the Iris Classics Centre.
The session was originally capped to ten students to ensure not only that the manuscripts could be carefully supervised but that each student could closely examine each manuscript with a specialist close at hand. Winter flu notwithstanding, there was a total of six students: one year-7 and four year-8 pupils, and one sixth former. Mr Gimson and Dr Robinson chose the students who they felt would be most receptive to such an event. The MON team met with the teachers twice prior to the event itself to discuss plans and logistics.
The timetable of the day was as follows:
15:30- 15:35. Arrival and welcome
15:35-15:55. Tour of Merton’s once-chained Library
16:00- 16:10. Introducing medieval manuscripts
16:10-16:50. MSS observation, with 3 rotations every 10 minutes
16:50-17:00. Final conclusions and questions.
The tour of Merton College’s old library was an integral part of the event: it provided students with a lived experience of the context of medieval manuscript and book culture (e.g. how these books were stored and used). The brief 10-minute introductory talk on medieval manuscripts used a fifteenth-century collection of St Augustine’s sermons. This overview discussed the creation, makers, and life of manuscripts: scribes, scripts, miniatures, binding, changes, and reusability.
The tour and talk gave students context and knowledge and allowed them to approach the next exciting phase of the event – the observation of the manuscripts – confidently. For this we designed four stations, each manned by 1 or 2 members of the team. To give the students an experience of different types of manuscript we held three rotations every ten minutes: as each the students moved to the manuscript station on their left at regular intervals, it was manuscript speed-dating or musical chairs of sorts!
The Cheney School Visit Feedback & Outcome
We encouraged students and teachers to fill in feedback forms. What was highlighted by both groups is that the pupils enjoyed the immersive library visit (despite finding the library a bit cold!) and were particularly engaged with the discussion of how manuscripts were made and the history of what people wrote on. One comment stressed that they enjoyed learning about the manufacture of parchment and ink. During the manuscript observation, students were thrilled by the visual aspect of the manuscripts as well as the material and contextual aspects of the books. They were very pleased to have the opportunity to look at the manuscripts up close and appreciated the details they may have missed otherwise without guidance from the specialist team.
This launch event was a pedagogical experience for the MON team and enabled us to see how the pupils reacted and what it was they found useful or interesting. After a debriefing session, analysing our experience and the feedback received, we came to these conclusions:
- the structure of the session was very successful: the staged progression from context, manuscript creation, and finally actual observation;
- the combination of staged progression, varied activities, and close tutoring was crucial. We tried (and managed) to avoid one group of students standing around one manuscript in a “lecturing” mode;
- as a result, the students really enjoyed the practical focus: how manuscripts were made; how people wrote in manuscripts (scripts, ink, etc.) and how they learnt to do it. Given how interested the children were in these aspects, more focus could be given to manuscript-making and -writing workshops in upcoming MON events.
What next for the Manuscripts Outreach Network? We feel that this question deserves a blog post of its own so we will leave it at that for now. What we found out with the Cheney School visit is that this trial-run was a success and our aim is to continue pushing MON forward, organise more events, reach out to more schools in Oxfordshire and beyond, and partner with Access and Outreach bodies and institutions. The future of the Manuscripts Outreach Network is unfolding – watch this space for future developments!
Anna Boeles Rowland and Pauline Souleau, University of Oxford