Meeting the medieval manuscript man.

The Internet supplies me with a virtual community of acquaintances who share some of the interests that motivate me. As a historian (of science) I have only limited possibilities of such contacts in my own physical geographical surroundings so the Internet has proved a real boon providing me with a richness of contacts over all in the world. Having said that it is always a fascinating experience and until now a pleasure when I get to meet a member of that community in the flesh either on my travels or when they come here, to where I live. So it was a pleasant surprise when I discovered that Erik Kwakkel was holding a public lecture at the University of Erlangen, my alma mater, last Wednesday evening.

Erik Kwakkel (@erik_kwakkel) is a palaeographer and codicologist whom I follow on twitter where he tweets his wonderful discoveries of scurrile illustrations, doodles and other strangeness from mediaeval manuscripts to which he adds his own humorous captions. He also has a Tumblr where he posts more photos of manuscripts investigated on his travels and a blog for posts on aspects of his research project at the University of Leiden ‘Turning Over a New Leaf: Manuscript Innovation in the Twelfth-Century Renaissance’.

For those of you who didn’t swallow a dictionary for breakfast a palaeographer is somebody who studies the hand writing in manuscripts and a codicologist is somebody who studies books as physical objects, especially manuscripts in codex form. For his lecture in the Medieval Latin department of the university Erik was wearing his codicologist hat.

Given the nature of his lecture “The learned page. Books in the medieval classroom” the audience was comparatively small but well informed with yours truly as the most ignorant person in the room. Erik presented us with some of the results of his research work very much in the form of work in progress. He was keen to show what facts one can deduce from the form of a book without actually reading the text that it contains. His first example concerned narrow books in the early high middle ages. Apparently nearly all books conform to a set pair of dimensions the width being normally around 0.7 of the height. However there is a small percentage of books from this period that as distinctly narrower than the norm, Erik’s research question being why? He thinks that these books are conceived to be held in one hand by the reader instead of being laid on a lectern. His second example concerned the dimensions of study books from the same period. Erik’s lecture was both highly informative and very entertaining, the second being an attribute that I very much appreciate in a lecturer. I should point out that Erik’s performance was particularly heroic as Wednesday was the hottest day ever recorded in Erlangen with the afternoon temperature reaching 37°C in the shade and the university does not have air conditioning.!

The Mysterious Medieval Manuscript Man during his lecture (taken without flash!)

The Mysterious Medieval Manuscript Man during his lecture (taken without flash!)

After the lecture we retired to a local Greek restaurant with Erik’s host from the Medieval Latin department, Professor Ferrari, and Professor Günther Görz, a friend of mine, who amongst many other things is a historian of science who has a special interest in the transfer of knowledge in the middle ages and who was also at the lecture. As usual when academics come together under such circumstances the conversation wandered back and forth over a range of topics although I’m afraid that Erik suffered more local academic gossip than he should have done being outnumbered three to one by the locals.

The Medieval Manuscript Man at large on the streets of Erlangen

The Medieval Manuscript Man at large on the streets of Erlangen

I found the whole evening very pleasant and very much enjoyed putting a face to an Internet acquaintance and can confirm that Erik Kwakkel in the flesh is as informative, friendly and entertaining as he is on twitter, where if you don’t already follow him you should.


Filed under Autobiographical

3 responses to “Meeting the medieval manuscript man.

  1. Baerista

    Awesome post, Thony. Erik Kwakkel is a hero. He keeps reminding that, even though I work with medieval manuscripts all the time, I know virtually nothing about them.

  2. Ben Breuer

    The pattern described sounds pretty much like what I know for music scores from that and earlier periods. Though it is perhaps not the ratio but the absolute width that plays a role. Also, whether the book was used by a soloist during service, or as teaching device, or both.
    (Private note: Cheers to Erlangen!)

  3. Pingback: Books about the book | The Renaissance Mathematicus

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