Medieval Studies Workshop – Manuscripts in a Sea of Data: Reflections

By Guest Blogger: Brandon Hawk

brandon-hawkBrandon Hawk is Assistant Professor of English at Rhode Island College.  With an interdisciplinary perspective, most of his interests in research and teaching encompass what might be called transmission studies: the afterlives of texts and ideas, including circulation, translations, adaptations, and representations in various cultures and media. He is especially fascinated by the intersections between analogue and digital, and the implications of those connections for understanding and teaching the past.


The Medieval Studies Workshop for Secondary Educators at Fitchburg State University was one of the most fun experiences I’ve attended recently. When I was first invited to contribute, Kisha Tracy asked me to run a workshop on “digital medieval resources for medieval teachers.” After considering the topic, I decided to narrow it to a subject that I find myself often thinking about in my own teaching and research: “Manuscripts in a Sea of Data.” (The PowerPoint slides I used for the presentation are available here.)

My goal with the workshop was to introduce, in a cursory way, a number of resources for learning and teaching about medieval manuscripts online. While many of us don’t have access to actual, physical manuscripts—let alone the abilities (and time, energy, financial support, etc.) to help students work with them—the digital age opens up many more possibilities. Yet the wealth of information on the internet (some worth pursuing, some sketchy at best) also poses a number of important questions: What are the best resources? How do we get students interested? What kinds of questions can we explore?

Before jumping in to my presentation, I asked participants to humor me with a group activity (which I adapted from an exercise by Ben Tilghman, and have used in my own teaching). I showed the accompanying image, had participants break into groups of 3-5 people, and told them to work together to decide what the page says. In other words, I wanted participants to transcribe the page, or write out what it says in modern letters, to the best of their abilities. I gave a few hints to start: first, it’s in Latin, although knowing Latin isn’t a prerequisite (and maybe not even directly helpful) for figuring out how to transcribe the page; and, second, the whole thing is mostly written out in Roman script, although some of the letters are obviously highly decorated. After about 10 minutes, we gathered back together to discuss the image.

At this point, I revealed the identity of the image: folio 211 recto in an English illuminated manuscript created around the year 700, now known as the Lindisfarne Gospels; this image contains the first page of the Gospel of John in Latin. The text reads:





When standardized and modernized to be more readable to modern eyes, the text says, “in principio erat Verbum et Verbum erat apud Deum et Deus.” Translated into modern English, it reads, “In the beginning was the Word: and the Word was with God: and God….” This identification opened up a whole new way of looking at the page, and sparked a lively discussion.

From this activity, I continued the rest of my presentation, including an overview of helpful websites and digital resources. Some of my favorites include:

The Getty Museum playlist about manuscripts

Quill: Books before Print

Erik Kwakkel’s medievalbooks

The Glossary for the British Library’s Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

Digital Medieval Manuscripts Mapped

e-codices: Virtual Manuscript Library of Switzerland

In addition to these sites, there are also a number of resources for teachers:

The J. Paul Getty Museum site for educators

The Electronic Beowulf for teaching the Old English poem

An online facsimile of the Hengwrt manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

Still, by far, the highlight of the workshop for me was the activity and discussion that came from it. Our discussion ranged across the dynamism of the exercise, its difficulty, mystery, and compelling nature; how it could capture the interest of students; how it helps to understand medieval manuscripts and how we approach them from hundreds of years later; and the links between medieval books and aspects of digital culture like websites, hyperlinks, gifs, memes, and ways of reading. All of this reminded me of the many possibilities that can open up by looking at a manuscript page for the first time, and the power of a good riddle for all students of the Middle Ages.

Interested in learning more? Join us for our Annual Medieval Studies Workshop


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