frank davis memorial lecture series

Royal Manuscripts at the British Library

Script as Image

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

17.30 - 18.30, Kenneth Clark Lecture Theatre

page of text with rectangular inset of text
Text page f.238 from Justinian, Tres Libri, Royal 10 D I, ff. 215-264, N. Italy, first half of the 13th century, © The British Library Board, Royal 10 D I

Speaker(s): Professor Jeffrey Hamburger (Harvard University)

Ticket/entry details: Open to all, free admission

Organised by: Professor John Lowden (for further information, please contact Dr Jim Harris

In Visible Words (1969), John Sparrow could still assert that “the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages have little to show in the way of inscriptions in which either the text or its presentation can claim to be a work of art.” This astonishing generalization itself now seems little more than a relic of a benighted period of scholarship. Paleographers have long since ceased to regard the study of the history of handwriting as a subsidiary Hilfswissenschaft. As one of the most important, influential, persistent and pervasive technologies in the history of humankind, writing in relation to such affiliated topics as literacy, linguistics, cognition, and media studies has a central place across and beyond the humanistic disciplines. It is time, in turn, for historians of medieval art to take a broader view of paleography, rather than view it primarily as a means of dating or localizing monuments, or, at the most literal level, deciphering illustrated texts or epigraphic inscriptions. Within the realm of visual imagery, the written word can rise to a form of representation in its own right, prior to and independent of the complex phenomenon generally considered under the rubric of “text and image” - a generalization as true of modern art as it is of the Middle Ages. In contrast to modernity, however, through much of the Middle Ages, as in Antiquity, the primary status of the spoken word ensured that writing, no less than picturing, was subject to suspicion as a form of representation. Drawing on a wide range of examples, including books from the British Library, Professor Hamburger’s lecture will discuss the various ways in which the elaborately inscribed and decorated written word could also be seen as a form of imagery.

Two thousand manuscripts from the Old Royal library were presented to the British Museum by George II in 1757. About one hundred and fifty of the most richly illuminated will be displayed in a joint British Library/Courtauld Institute of Art exhibition, Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination, at the British Library from 11 November 2011 to 13 March 2012. Taking this extraordinary collection as their starting point, the Frank Davis Memorial Lecture Series for 2011 will explore aspects of the patronage, manufacture, function and collection of books in medieval England and France, and will provide a broad context for these precious survivors of the library of the kings and queens of England.

Jeffrey Hamburger is Kuno Francke Professor of German Art and Culture at Harvard University, where he is also Chair of Medieval Studies. His teaching and research focus on the art of the High and later Middle Ages, with particular reference to manuscript illumination and text-image issues. Among his many publications are The Cult of John at the Dominican Convent of Paradies bei Soest (2008), Crown and Veil: Female Monasticism from the Fifth to the Fifteenth Centuries, co-edited with Susan Marti (2005), The Mind's Eye: Art and Theological Argument in the Medieval West, co-edited with Anne-Marie Bouché (2005), St. John the Divine: The Deified Evangelist in Medieval Art and Theology (2002), The Visual and the Visionary: Art and Female Spirituality in Late Medieval Germany (1998) and Nuns as Artists: The Visual Culture of a Medieval Convent (1996). Professor Hamburger is the recipient of numerous prizes and awards and serves on the advisory boards of institutions throughout Europe and the US.

Sponsored by the FM Kirby Foundation

Back to Events Calendar