Follow the Reader: a Virtual Exhibition Highlighting Manuscript Margins

Mariken Teeuwen is senior researcher at the Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands (Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences), and Professor at the Department History and Art History of Utrecht University.

Between 2016-2020, Irene van Renswoude, Irene O’Daly, and I worked together on a project titled The Art of Reasoning: Techniques of Argumentation in the Medieval Latin West (400-1400). We set out to study techniques of processing texts fundamental to the art of reasoning (rhetoric, dialectic, logic) by analyzing the evidence in the margin. In the current grand narrative of the intellectual history of the Middle Ages, scholars apparently only started to question received knowledge and think critically in the twelfth century, when the age of scholasticism created a new intellectual climate and universities were born. Yet the tools for thinking critically and challenging authorities have always been part of the intellectual toolbox of the Middle Ages (and before). The misunderstanding is, we argued, not only caused by lingering prejudices about the ‘Dark Ages’, but also by the hidden nature of the evidence: whereas the tools of scientific argumentation of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries manifested themselves in the production of texts and new textual genres (sententiae, disputationes), in earlier ages they often took the shape of paratexts: commentaries, marginal annotations, diagrams. In fact, in the later ages, they still often took that shape. In the project, therefore, we studied examples of annotated texts, described and mapped reading techniques and pondered how these reflect continuous or changing attitudes towards knowledge, studying or teaching. Articles and books have been published and more are forthcoming as a result of our work.[1]

Leiden, UB, GRO 22, f. 11r
Leiden, UB, GRO 22, f. 11r (detail): scheme added to Cicero’s De inventione, giving options for ‘mortal beings’: male/female, English/French, from York/London. See Irene O’Daly, “Leiden, UB, GRO 22”, The art of reasoning in medieval manuscripts (Dec 2020).

To reach out to a broader audience we also created a virtual exhibition, The Art of Reasoning in Medieval Manuscripts, together with Renée Schilling, our creative research assistant, and Bas Doppen, web designer and front-end developer. The central idea was to take visitors on a tour to explore the inside of manuscripts, showing them the details that we ourselves observed. Even before Covid-19, a virtual exhibition had always been our plan, because in a physical exhibition it is simply not possible to leaf through a manuscript and point out details.

For the exhibition we secured the collaboration and permission of two main collections: Leiden University Library and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Both libraries already have generous copyright permissions for the use of their materials in non-commercial, academic or educational (online) publications. When we approached them, they were, fortunately, very receptive to our ideas for the online exhibition. In the course of the project, yet more material was collected from sites with CC-BY licenses or even more liberal licences (e-codices, Parker Library on the Web, Bibliothèque virtuelle des manuscrits médiévaux, Initiale, et cetera), so that we could tell our story not only in words, but also in images. Ultimately, the site exhibits fourteen manuscript portraits and explores four themes, to allow the visitor to see a fuller picture of medieval intellectual life. In order to give the exhibition greater appeal and exposure, we collaborated with a 3D Animation Studio, Colorbleed, to create a very short introduction to the site – a teaser – to explain our central idea in one minute. To make that happen we spent some time explaining our research to the creative minds at Colorbleed, who were eager to step outside their world and get a taste of ours. We, on the other hand, were excited to use their visual story-telling skills. After our first session they presented us with story boards pitching a translation of our ideas into a visually strong clip, and we started working on the ideas that fitted best. The teaser shows the richness of medieval manuscripts: their long biographies, which are visible on the page via ownership marks and wear and tear, and their different layers, expressed through readers’ annotations responding to the text. The clip expresses the idea of being able to explore some of that history and complexity by diving into the manuscript. The whole experience of working together was, for us, very inspiring and fruitful. It gave us a clearer sense of what it was that we wanted to show.

In the fourteen manuscript portraits, the goal is to take the visitor by the hand, and show them the (hidden) treasures of the books: a tear, carefully repaired with needle and thread; a song notated in neumes on a fly leaf; a funny drawing or naughty illuminated initial in a dry treatise on logic. The books we chose all contain treatises on the arts of rhetoric or dialectic, but often also include other texts, which then tell us more about the context in which these treatises were read. They also all contain notes in the margins, traces of readership which we explored to understand more about the way in which these treatises were used by students and scholars to learn the art of reasoning.

Leiden, UB, BPL 144, f. 10r
Leiden, UB, BPL 144, f. 10r (detail): Drawing of Boethius’s ‘wheel of fortune’. See Mariken Teeuwen, “Leiden, UB, BPL 144”, The art of reasoning in medieval manuscripts (Dec 2020).

In choosing our four themes, we aimed to bring together our observations about the manuscripts to form a more general narrative. The first theme, Rhetoric and Dialectic, introduces the visitor to the medieval classroom, the curriculum and the disciplines of rhetoric and dialectic. It briefly explains what the medieval education system may have looked like, which subjects were taught, which texts were read, and what they had to offer. The second theme, Teachers and Students, introduces the visitor to a small number of significant teachers and students in the medieval tradition of rhetoric and dialectics. We chose a handful of teachers whom we came across in our manuscript selection. The third and fourth themes are the most exciting part: they seek to show details in the selected manuscripts that reveal how readers actually worked with their texts: how they read, learned and remembered. In the third theme, Glosses and Diagrams, we show the techniques used on the page to work with texts. In the fourth, Debate and Controversy, we show how the theory of speaking and reasoning can be connected to some real historical debates and controversies.

Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm. 19437, f. 19v
Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm. 19437, f. 19v (detail): Portrait of Alcuin ( left) and Charlemagne (right) disputing, in a copy of Alcuin’s Dialogus de dialectica. See Irene van Renswoude, “Debate on adoptionism”, The art of reasoning in medieval manuscripts (Dec 2020).

The goal of our efforts was to show the richness of medieval scholarly thought, method, and experiment within the context of monasteries, cathedral schools and universities. Manuscripts – hand-copied books produced by and for monastic communities or individual students and scholars – were our looking glass: they reflect a world of thinking, arguing, learning, and teaching, but also of joking, criticizing, and even fuming. In these books we find eyecatching anecdotes and colourful personalities: history comes to life. We are curious to hear what you think about our efforts, and would be happy to receive feedback on the errors it will, undoubtedly, still contain. If you find the site useful for your own teaching, please let us know!

Mariken Teeuwen, Huygens Institute and Utrecht University


[1] Published results are Irene van Renswoude, ‘Crass insults. Ad hominem attacks and rhetorical conventions’, in Utah Heil (ed), Das Christentum im frühen Europa. Diskurse – Tendenzen – Entscheidungen, Millennium-Studien 75 (Berlin, 2019), 171–194; Irene van Renswoude, ‘The art of disputation: dialogue, dialectic and debate’, in Early Medieval Europe 25 (2017), 38-53; Irene van Renswoude, with M.B. de Jong, ‘Introduction Carolingian Cultures of Dialogue and Debate’, in Early Medieval Europe 25 (2017), 6-18; Irene O’Daly, ‘Reading the Historia Scholastica at the close of the twelfth century: Cambridge, Trinity College, MS B.15.5’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History 71/2 (2020), 270-92; Irene O’Daly, ‘Appropriation and allusion: John of Salisbury’s use of Horace’, in Jean de Salisbury: Nouvelles lectures, nouvelles enjeux, eds Christophe Grellard, Frédérique Lachaud (SISMEL, Florence, 2018), 109-132; Irene O’Daly, ‘The Classical Revival’, in Erik Kwakkel and Rodney Thomson (eds) The European Book in the Twelfth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2018), 240-58; Irene O’Daly, ‘A Newly Discovered Roll Copy of Peter of Poitier’s Compendium historiae in genealogia Christi (JRL Gaster MS 2037) and Alexander Nequam on the Immaculate Conception’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 93/2 (2017), 91-144; Mariken Teeuwen, ‘Reading Boethius around 900: Manuscripts of Boethius’s Texts and Their Annotations’, in W. Pezé (ed), Knowledge and Culture in Times of Threat: The Fall of the Carolingian Empire (c. 900) (Monographien zur Geschichte des Mittelalters; Vol. 69, Stuttgart: Hiersemann, 2020), 279-303; Mariken Teeuwen, ‘Die Ränder der Handschrift als Spiegel des mittelalterlichen Geistes: Die karolingische Zeit’, in P. Carmassi and Chr. Heitzmann (eds), Marginalien in Bild und Text: Essays zu mittelalterlichen Handschriften (Wolfenbütteler Forschungen; Vol. 156, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2019), 61-77; Mariken Teeuwen, ‘Practices of Appropriation: Writing in the Margin in Twelfth-Century Manuscripts’, in E. Kwakkel and R. Thomson (eds), The European Book in the Twelfth Century (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature; Vol. 101, Cambridge: CUP, 2018), 139-156; Mariken Teeuwen, ‘Traces of readers and users in manuscripts with glossaries: examples from Leiden University Library’, in Claudia Di Sciacca; Concetta Giliberto; Carmela Rizzo; Loredana Teresi (eds), Studies on Late Antique and Medieval Germanic Glossography and Lexicography in Honour of Patrizia Lendinara, Vol. II (Pisa: Edizioni ETS, 2018), 743-758. More articles and books are submitted, under review, and in preparation.

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