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2012 Fall Issue 7 (November 2, 2012)

Scribes in the Libe

November 4, 2012
By Ben Strauss

Have you ever seen a copy of De Rerum Naturis or the Ashburnham Pentateuch? If the answer is no, then come to the “If you give a monk a manuscript…” exhibition in the library, which displays many medieval facsimiles that come from monastic communities.

The exhibition showcases important manuscripts written by monks from 800 to 1100 CE, an important historical era that was about the time of the death of Charlemagne to the First Crusade.

Most of the works were written in France and Germany; these countries were the location of some very important and key monasteries in the Middle Ages. Other manuscripts came from England, Spain and Italy, which also had scholarly Benedictine monastic communities were book production was a defining feature of the monks’ lives.

Most of the works are religious works like De Rerum Naturis (or On the Nature of Things), but some are secular like the Codex Hispana.

In addition to writing religious works, monks recorded legal documents for future reference.
There are also differences in the quantity and quality of illustrations in the manuscripts. Monks disliked images for non-functional uses, so Werdoner Psalter originally had little illustrations. Similarly, the original text of De Rerum Naturis contained no illustrations until it was recopied at Monte Cassion Monastery in the early 11th century; even there, its illustrations were not done for artistic value but to help inform the reader of the textual content.

Other texts used large amounts of illustration to teach people who could not read the bible about Christianity.  The Ashburn Pentateuch contains large colorful pictures to illuminate the Old Testament and provide a Christian interpretation of it.

To make the exhibition, the students in the history class Early Medieval World with Professor William North first divided into different groups based on what they needed to accomplish for the exhibition. Some groups worked on the exhibition cases, while others created the large wall cards; there was even a publicity group, a website group, and a podcast/ video group that helped spread the word of their class’s exhibit.

In the class, students discussed the role of monasteries in medieval life as places of worship and repositories of written works, since monasteries were the intellectual centers of the Middle Ages.

To start making the exhibition, students had to research the facsimiles of the manuscripts. For big books like De Rerum Naturis, they could only show one page in the exhibition case. Russel Peterson ’15, who worked with this large book, said, “We really wanted to find images that were intriguing and interesting for the audience.”

Those who didn’t directly work on the exhibition taught classes in the local elementary and middle school, plus Northfield High School about the medieval world.

Overall, students had to combine many different skills sets to bring the project to completion, many of which like web design students do not normally do during history classes. Niko Duffy ’13 said, “Our exhibition was the culmination of a liberal arts experience.”
Just like the manuscripts added intellectual knowledge to the medieval world, the exhibition enhances both the education of the students who made it and the Carleton community who can see it at the library.

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