This is a guest post by Maggie Johnson,
a student in “Reading the Medieval Book”
On 14-15 November undergraduates in Dr. Scott Gwara’s course “Reading the Medieval Book” encountered more than forty medieval manuscripts at UNC’s Wilson Library and Ackland Art Museum, and at the Rubenstein Library on the Duke campus. Freshman Maggie Johnson wrote the following synopsis of the excursion.
Our class trip to UNC Chapel Hill and Duke University gave fascinating insight into the types of medieval manuscripts. Although the collection here at USC is informative, seeing unique books both sacred and secular introduced a new dimension to medieval literature.
UNC Chapel Hill has manuscripts in two locations: the Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library and the Ackland Art Museum. The librarians of the Wilson Library were welcoming and are very much interested in the preservation of their collection, which includes a truly minuscule Middle English bible—perhaps three inches wide and four inches tall at the very most.
Also notable in the Wilson Library collection is a tome of monastic vows, beginning in the Middle Ages and spanning hundreds of years up to and beyond the Revolutionary War.
More focused on artwork than books themselves, the Ackland Art Museum has a collection of illuminations taken from various sources.
Although there were several beautifully painted manuscripts, the most elaborate and interesting was a leaf taken from a gradual (a large medieval book of music for the Mass). The music itself would be beautiful to translate and perform, but the illuminations along the borders are far more attention-grabbing. They show three scenes from the Adoration of the Magi: two of travel and one of the Adoration itself. The border contains intricate featherwork in yellow and blue, with small creatures hidden amongst the swirls.
Also in the Ackland Museum are two leaves from different manuscripts depicting David in Penance, a popular illumination from the “Seven Penitential Psalms” section of medieval books of hours.
Although the pieces from Chapel Hill were themselves beautiful, a more varied collection waited in Duke University’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The library itself is closed for renovations, but the collection was still available for viewing. Among the most notable of the manuscripts at Duke were an incomplete leaf from an Atlantic Bible (the largest type of Bible produced) and a seventeenth-century notebook containing information both mathematical and astronomical.
The notebook was perhaps the most interesting piece from the weekend, since it was a secular work as opposed to the sacred texts on display. It was a deeply personal book: whoever penned it may well have been a university student; he was clearly interested in the three theories of the solar system’s layout as well as different forms of geometry. It may have also been one of the more informative books available to the class, as it gave a new look into the secular side of medieval scholasticism.