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Getting Medieval in Your Class

Feb 22, 2010

In Professor Andreea Boboc's English 25 course, "Dementors, Desire, and Medievalism," students do not simply read books—they make them, the old fashioned way. Or at least, the medieval way, using parchment, quills and homemade ink.

Dr. Boboc's "Dementors, Desire, and Medievalism" course focuses on medievalisms, which are representations (erroneous or not) of the Middle Ages in literature, film and popular culture of the later centuries. In modern parlance, the Medieval Ages are the quintessential "Dark Ages": bloody, dirty and savage.

"Such inaccurate generalizations speak volumes about the often dismissive ways we deal with the past and about the liberties we take with the great developments in history, literature, science, and the arts to which the Middle Ages significantly contributed," said Dr. Boboc.

The course investigates the reasons for this dismissal and encourages students to compare such "medievalisms" with some of the extraordinary achievements of the Middle Ages.

Recreating a Medieval Scriptorium in the 21st-Century Classroom

In one of the many student-centered activities in the "Dementors, Desire, and Medievalisms" course, students learn to appreciate medieval book making and material culture by designing, writing, and illuminating (decorating) their own piece of sheep skin parchment.

Dr. Boboc introduces students to the arduous transformation of sheep or calf skins into parchment and the division of labor in the medieval scriptorium, a monastery room where monks copied and bound books together.

She describes the planning and ruling of a manuscript page, the process of drawing and illumination, and other production details.

For three consecutive class sessions of about 50 minutes each, the 21st-century Pacific classroom becomes a medieval scriptorium.

Student Decorating a Manuscript
Student illuminating a manuscript

Students work in pairs and are given the following utensils: a goose or turkey quill, a knife, black ink powder, ink pot, a sheet of parchment made of sheep skin, a pencil and a ruler. For colors other than black, they may use commercially prepared Levenger ink.

Some utensils used
Some of the utensils given to students

Students must plan and rule their parchment sheet and prepare their own ink by mixing the dark ink powder with water and bringing it to a consistency suitable to writing. They choose a text and write at least two lines from it by imitating a given medieval script. They also illuminate their parchment sheet with designs of their own choosing.

Student Examples of Illuminated Manuscripts:

This example from Beowulf, a 10th-century manuscript
This example from Beowulf, a 10th-century manuscript from Anglo-Saxon England, fulfills all project requirements: illuminated initial S, foliate border (left), imaginative line fillers (with drops of blood being blown from the sword on the right to fill out line two and three), and an ink blot turned into a fuzzy bird (bottom of the page, middle), creatively masking a mistake. Notice that the first two and the last two lines are written in a different scribal hand than lines three to six.

Musical Manuscript
A medievalism of a musical manuscript page
This example uses an elaborate A initial, foliate borders, and images to create a medievalism of a musical manuscript page. The different hands are less visible here, though the letters in line four look bigger than the rest.

Of course, the musical notes in a medieval manuscript look a little bit different. Compare with the following page from the Luttrell Psalter, a famous medieval manuscript richly illustrated with depictions of everyday life in the 14th century:

Page from the Luttrell Psalter 

In a medieval manuscript, one hardly knows what to expect. The dancing creatures above can suddenly turn into impudent babewyns, baboon-like creatures:

Impudent babewyns
Impudent babewyns

The lower image is a student example of a babewyn.

A manuscript page that has been scraped clean and reused is referred to as a palimpsest. In this example, the student successfully erased the mistake on the left side and replaced it with the image of a feather. Erasing ink from parchment sounds easier than it is. The sheep skin must be scraped clear, and writing again on the cleared area often proves difficult because ink tends to run into the parchment.


This hands-on learning activity was made possible through a Pacific Distinctiveness Grant in summer 2008 for creating the course "Dementors, Desire, and Medievalism"; a CAPD grant applied for with History Professor Ken Albala, who conducts a similar scriptorium activity in his "Renaissance and Reformation" course (History 100); and continuing monetary support from the English Department to cover recurring supply expenses.

With funds from the CAPD grant, Drs. Boboc and Albala hope to host a facsimile of the Luttrell Psalter in the Library's Special Collections, so that students can experience first-hand this wonderfully illuminated 14th-century book, in which images are used both to depict and re-imagine medieval realities. Click here to read more about the Luttrell Psalter.

English 25 both serves as an introduction to the major in English and fulfills a general education requirement. Each semester, students can choose among several versions of English 25, each with its own topic.

Dr. Boboc plans to offer “Dementors, Desire, and Medievalism” at least one semester per year.


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