This semester, 14 students are setting quill pen to goatskin parchment, creating a medieval manuscript.
The project is part of the special topics class Medieval Piety, taught by Gavin Richardson, professor of English. This is the third time Richardson has assigned the creation of a medieval-style manuscript.
“Because texts are so free and cheap … we’ve become a little blasé about the text,” Richardson said.
“The texts don’t mean as much, I think, because any attempt to make something cheap or free tends to trivialize it. But in the Middle Ages to have a text meant an animal had to die. You had to kill an animal, you had to bleed it, you had to skin it — somebody did. The vellum [parchment] was expensive.”
The class divided into four groups, each of which will create a portion of the Book of Hours, a Latin text that includes psalms and prayers that would be sung during seven canonical hours of the day.
One group will create a calendar, another a series of hagiographical suffrages, which are prayers and narratives centered on the saints. A third group will create selections from the “Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” while a fourth will create selections from the seven penitential psalms.
The process started with the purchase of goatskin vellum from a parchmenter in New York. Some supplies were purchased with departmental money, but every student also contributed $5 for the skin.
Soon the students will divide the skin into sections and “prick and rule” it, creating small holes in the skin to measure lines on which to write.
After careful planning, the students will create small illustrations called miniatures. Some will use artificial gold leaf, which is attached to the parchment with a glue-like substance called gesso.
Last, two scribes from each group will use quill pens to ink the text, doing their best to approximate medieval handwriting.
Richardson said in medieval times, college students would rent portions — called quires — of their textbooks, then copying those books out by hand.
“Just think if every college student had to copy — had to copy — their own textbooks, and that that was part of your education,” Richardson said. “You probably would not be quiet as cavalier about those books that you had to work so hard to own and have. Probably the knowledge that’s contained within those books would be more precious to you for having literally labored and sweated over those words.”
Richardson said the students in his class grasp that concept intuitively.
Luke Brake, sophomore English major, said for him the class has already caused him to look at words with greater thought.
“You can really see the beauty of each letter form, even with our letter forms which of course are different, but the typewritten text has its own letter form as well and its own beauty,” Brake said. “I think it’s something we could definitely do well to appreciate more.”
Brake said even though the class has not begun to ink their manuscript, which will be due in November, he can already see the significance of the project.
“So much time and effort and commitment was put into the works [medieval people] would be reading that the entire attitude toward the written word is different,” Brake said. “Each page is precious.”