Caroline Villers Associate Fellow Lecture

Dirty Books: Quantifying Patterns of Use in Medieval Manuscripts Using a Densitometer

Wednesday, 20 January 2010
17.30, Research Forum South Room

Medieval manuscript with illuminations and finger prints
Folio from a prayerbook made in the eastern part of the Northern Netherlands , showing dark deposits from handling in the lower margin. Liège, University Library, Ms. 2091 B, fol. 14r

Speaker(s): Dr Kathryn M Rudy (Caroline Villers Associate Fellow 2009-10, The Courtauld Institute of Art)

Ticket/entry details: Open to all, free admission

Organised by: Dr Aviva Burnstock

Medieval manuscripts carry signs of use and wear. The priest repeatedly kissed the canon page of the missal, leaving his greasy nose print behind. The devotee regularly touched the image of Mary out of veneration, but inadvertently rubbed the paint off the vellum. Medieval readers of books of hours and prayerbooks – the largest surviving category of late medieval books – often held their manuscripts open for reading by resting their thumbs at the lower corners of the opening. The more often that readers used a text, the darker the thumbprints became.

Using a densitometer, Kathryn Rudy has developed a way to quantify the darkness of these thumbprints, which correlate to the frequency of a reader’s handling and use. The resulting data show which sections of manuscript the reader used and which ones s/he ignored. Some readers concentrated on saving their souls by reciting indulgenced texts. Others repeatedly read prayers to ward off the bubonic plague. Quantified patterns of use reveal the habits, fears, and anxieties of medieval book owners and the ways that they interacted with their books.

Kathryn Rudy received a PhD from Columbia University and a Licentiate in Medieval Studies from the University of Toronto. She is the former Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts at the National Library of The Netherlands. She has published books and articles on Dutch, Flemish, German and English manuscripts of the late middle ages.


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