04 February, 2008


Today my palaeography class went to the Minster Library to look at some manuscripts. They were all circa 1500, on a variety of topics.

Outwardly the most interesting was the Wycliffite Bible with the signature of Queen Elizabeth I on a page of 1 Thessalonians.

Most amusing was the book of hours, and most entertaining, partly because I'm familiar with books of hours and had stuff to look for and compare, and party because it was a contender for "best illustration." The apostles and early saints each got illuminated miniatures and little bios, and there was one poor fellow whose head got chopped off. He's depicted with a bloody stump of a neck, holding his head in both hands. Oddly enough, the halo was still up where the head should have been.

The other rival for "best illustration" was a book of medieval healing recipes. Lotta weird stuff, and it was a heavily used book. A large number of distinct hands wrote in the margins, marking places for easy recall. Mostly they did this in words, but occasionally pictorally. In one case, there was a dead cow, flat on its back with its legs in the air, with a cloud above it raining on it. I'm not sure what exactly this was meant to mark, but it's a great picture.

And most useful was a copy of John Mirk's Instructions for Parish Priests. At least, it said John Mirk on the handout, but it was in Latin (not Middle English) and it was prose (not poetry), and the title stamped on the cover was not "John Mirk." This makes it even more interesting than Mirk, because I have a published copy of Mirk already and this is new. I'll be going back for this one.

Now, this class is a palaeography class, not a codicology class, so I know this was a first for a lot of my classmates. I, however, got my book (the Mirk) and instinctively started doing a manuscript description of it. I can tell you how many quires it has, the pricking pattern, the catchwords, etc. It was kind of nice to sit down with something and be able to look at it more deeply than just "Oooh pretty book." To know what the questions are. To know where to go for the answers. It was a good feeling.

My prof came over and asked if I'd found anything interesting, and I pointed out a couple things which she then explained to me. I kept a straight face and refrained from pointing out that I knew why they were interesting and that's why I pointed them out in the first place. It's nice to think I got some useful education at UofT, stuff that will stand me in good stead.

Thanks, Scary David.

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