Manuscript ASMR, and some quick networking

I met a lot of people at SoCal Swordfight this weekend! I even remembered to give out my business cards, mostly while I was sitting at the HEMA Bookshelf table with Michael Chidester of Wiktenauer fame. (I brought cards to my Primary Source Storytime class, but forgot to give them out.)

I wanted to solve this problem more elegantly, like having a sidebar with links to websites I think you should visit, but I couldn’t get WordPress to display that on the front page in addition to individual post pages, so here we are.

If you were hoping it would help you buy books about swords, you should go visit HEMA Bookshelf, but I hope you’ll also look around a little here at my informal but informative research articles, recorded talks and podcast appearances, and more.

With that out of the way, here’s a little collection of videos I thought you might enjoy, showcasing the tiny noises that manuscripts and other special books make.

Continue reading “Manuscript ASMR, and some quick networking”

Medieval and early modern history lectures

I watched a ton of recorded lectures in 2020 and 2021. Here’s a selection of my favorites, roughly grouped but not really in an organized order.

  1. Codicology and manuscript history
    1. Erik Kwakkel
    2. Schoenberg Symposium
    3. Dark Archives conference
  2. Medieval and early modern history
  3. Art history
  4. Arms and armor
    1. Royal Armouries
    2. Dr. Tobias Capwell
    3. Robert MacPherson
Continue reading “Medieval and early modern history lectures”

Come out and meet Catherine of Alexandria

Detail from “Madonna and Child with Saints in the Enclosed Garden,” follower of Robert Campin, National Gallery of Art

It’s October 11th again (er, it was– I’m a little rusty), which means it’s time for me to write an oblique post for National Coming Out Day. You can read all of my past NCOD posts in the “special occasions” tag; apparently I intended once to write other special occasion posts . Organizing things that I haven’t written yet is hard. And speaking of “haven’t written,” October 11th has snuck up on me just as I’m trying to shake off a long writing dry spell, so I don’t have a big elaborate planned thing this time.

Carved walnut statue, Rhine valley, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Today, I’m going to tell you about just one topic: Saint Catherine of Alexandria.

I’m going to call her just “Catherine.” Catherine of Alexandria is probably the most famous one, but there are quite a few other saints named Catherine.

She’s not my patron saint; I don’t think I have one. I regret sometimes that the medieval spiritual experience is pretty opaque to me– but I said I was going to stick to just one topic.

I run into Catherine a lot when I’m on an art gathering binge, because she’s maybe the most common medieval motif of a lady with a sword, and seems to just generally have been a very popular saint. I’ve written a little about her previously, in my post about gauffered books.

Stained glass window, Boppard-am-Rhein near Koblenz, The Cloisters

It seems like the academic consensus points to Catherine of Alexandria not really being real. She was absolutely real to medieval Europeans, as real as Amazons and four humours medical theory, and that’s important. But I guess I feel better about attaching my own symbolism to her if there’s no authoritative “true” story that must be discarded first.

Last time I wrote about her, I suggested that Catherine and fellow virgin saint Barbara were icons of self-education and independence. “Icon” there means something like in “style icon,” but also something more literal: both saints include a book among their aspects, the props that symbolize parts of their stories and make them identifiable across centuries and art styles.

But most of all, I– silently, until now– think of Catherine as a queer icon of nonconformity.

Continue reading “Come out and meet Catherine of Alexandria”

Reminders I needed

Okay, first, something super small that’s been bugging me: when I wrote about the Rule of Saint Benedict and “Open the ears of your heart and listen,” I said I first learned about it from a Janina Ramirez documentary, and it was actually Secrets of the Castle episode 5.

With that out of the way– hi! It’s been a while.

I’ve been getting out to events some this year, and I met (or re-met) quite a few of you. It’s been really good to remember why I do stuff like write blog articles and, really, research in general. It’s just not as interesting without someone to tell about it. You’re all a lot more excited about my weird ideas than I expected after too much time being a hermit, and that really means a lot to me.

I spent much of the beginning of the year preparing for ICMS Kalamazoo, where you joined me on a whirlwind tour of merfolk and epic battles and sinuous hybrids. In Dijon, I showed you teeny tiny writing and said “I don’t know” about Fiore and Florius a lot. In Iowa, I used my dayjob skills to turn parts of your intense but kind of rambly leadership summit into guidelines and standards. In Washington state, I read you stories that were both charming and tragic. In New Hampshire, I wasn’t even presenting anything and you found me and talked to me about translations anyway.

And maybe this was the whole point all along: I’ve missed you, and I think it’s high time I started writing up some of the things I’ve investigated and visited. Yes, I owe you a lot more explanations about merfolk. I haven’t forgotten. And I want to get back to sharing manuscript pictures with you, maybe with more paleography photos I took myself than clippings from scanned manuscripts.

I don’t think I’m ready to start reading social media again, so some experimentation will be required to figure out how this is going to work. But I don’t need to say “I hope you won’t mind”; you’ve all reminded me that that’s what this is all about, and you like seeing new and strange things.

Scales and Mail sources

This is a collection of links to high-resolution sources of images used in my “Scales and Mail” presentation at ICMS Kalamazoo 2022.

Continue reading “Scales and Mail sources”

More merfolk: “Poor, unfortunate swords” and “Scales and mail”

I haven’t written anything new about merfolk yet, but I did give a presentation about them for CyberSquatch 2021, which is now available on YouTube! (As before, CyberSquatch gave the presentation a much better title than me; I can take no credit for that.) Give it a watch; it has some content that’ll be our second visit to the mermaid cafe sometime, and photos I took of merfolk decorations on armor, and also I learned some unexpected things while putting it together.

If you want to follow along with the slides, grab this PDF. Or maybe follow along right here, if the fancy embed player works.

In other merfolk news, this might be burying the lede, but the week after I gave that presentation I submitted a proposal to the 2022 International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo. It was accepted, so next up on my research schedule will be “Scales and mail: fish knights in late medieval romances and arms and armor decoration.”

(I had to consult three neutral parties about whether to call it “Scales and mail” or “All in mail, never clinking.” Which I guess means I have one less blog article title to figure out when the time comes.)

I’m sure you’ll be excited to learn I’ve found even more Ghent-Bruges mer-warriors, even more mer-warrior misericords, and even more words to mispronounce, like zitiron and ichthyocentaur and maybe anguipeds. You heard about Syrenka from Warsaw; tune in to the same mer-time, same mer-channel to hear about the Dutch Zeeridder too.

And, oh boy, are the late medieval romances a ride and a half.

Catch you on the flip side, true believers!

Turning golden pages: bookmarks and book culture in paintings

My investigation into gauffering, the practice of impressing patterns into the gilded edges of books, began when I said “Well, it can’t be that rare, I’ve seen it in loads of paintings.”

Since saying that, I’ve been to a couple of major museums (but only a couple, since, y’know, pandemic). My in-museum photography is improving (especially since I got a nice camera), and it’s time for a new installment of “weird little details about books in paintings.” So, here are some photos I took at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Last time, I noticed that in a couple of my examples, the books in paintings had a fancy ornament at the top of the spine. With some new examples and some research, I now believe those ornaments are fancy versions of multi-stranded bookmarks.

Medieval readers didn’t usually read books front to back continuously the way we do now, so the unitary (or are they monolithic?) bookmarks we use now wouldn’t work for them. Instead, many medieval bookmarks had multiple thin cords or strands, all attached to a single anchor that would sit at the top of the spine and keep the individual markers from escaping. These are called portable register bookmarks, because they’re a removable, reusable version of a binding with many ribbons, strings, or strips attached to the top endband for use as bookmarks.

If that’s not quite making sense, check this out: a surviving seventeenth-century example with thirteen silk markers, each hand-braided to hold a Latin prayer quotation. You can see more examples of this and other types of medieval bookmark, both artifacts and paintings, on Robert MacPherson’s “Bookmarks” board.

In Gerard David’s The Virgin Among Virgins, three of the women are reading books, and their book bindings and postures indicate they have different tastes and styles. All three have bookmark anchors, and two of them have the same style as the University of Cambridge artifact.

A lot of these examples are women readers, but this biased selection doesn’t reflect actual bookmark-user demographics, in art or in history. Here’s a painting in which two men have portable register bookmarks, as a counterpoint.

Here are the ones I spotted in my National Gallery of Art photos:

Continue reading “Turning golden pages: bookmarks and book culture in paintings”

Open the ears of your heart and come alive

Hello, dear readers! It’s been a while. We have some catching up to do, but not today. I’m late for my usual National Coming Out Day post because I’ve been off adventuring. I had plenty of time to push words around my head while in transit, but not much for working with images, so this one’s more thinky than past installments, but I’ve included some rainbowish pictures from my stash.

I’ve been working, for a long while now, on better understanding my authentic self, not least in order to be that person more often. It’s not easy; for all my education about writing well and organizing information for others to use, communicating about emotions, even to myself, is a big challenge. I often identify my feelings by analyzing my own behavior after the fact, and it’s often unclear behavior like “writes a National Coming Out Day post every year that isn’t quite about coming out.”

Three tiny dragons and one medium-dog-sized dragon, all colored blue and green with yellow and red bellies that make them look like little dragon rainbows, all breathing fire together.

“Open the ears of your heart, and listen.”

I think it was in a Janina Ramirez documentary that I first heard this quotation from the Benedictine Rule. I’m not usually into inspirational sayings, but this one really stuck with me. Maybe because listening with, and listening to, my heart feels more approachable than something like following my heart.

Sometimes, listening means noticing a tiny shy voice saying This.

Sometimes it’s more like giving in, like listening to gut feelings or the spectral advisors that perch on shoulders rather than reaching for concrete, logical ways to make decisions.

Sometimes it’s not so much opening the ears of my heart as consulting my heart’s compass. No details, no map, just a notion of what direction my path should lead.

And sometimes it’s about noticing what’s different in the moments when I come alive.

Those feelings can be difficult to examine. I’ve needed a lot of practice to not get bogged down in sadness about how different “alive” feels, how infrequent these moments are, why “come alive” feels like the right words and not something like “wake up” or “turn up the resolution.” Am I saying I’m dead the rest of the time?

A whole-page illustration from a medieval manuscript. In the main part of the image, an angel with rainbow wings dotted with peacock eyespots and dressed in a pink robe and green cape floats among sunset-colored clouds. In the border, a noble wearing a gold and fur robe prays before a gold-edged book, while two white dogs wait nearby.

Coming alive is like warm sunshine in my heart, like brightening faded colors, like walking without being slowed by heavy baggage I don’t know how to put down.

My latest adventure involved traveling to two HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts, or historical sword study) camping events, and visiting a museum and a rare book reading room in between. It’s been a good context to think about my authentic self and how to indulge and present that person. I often find it easier to make decisions, even at low-stakes times like packing clothes or choosing what material to read out loud, by considering what other people expect from me and what might disappoint them. Understanding and inhabiting my authentic self means learning to notice when I’m doing that, and taking some time to put myself first.

When I started having HEMA travel adventures, I guess I hoped I would feel pretty much like regular life in different places and around different people. And some of the experience was that. But there were also moments when I felt alive, and then I knew that I hadn’t felt alive in a long time, and it was almost more devastating than it was amazing. I could see how much my baggage was holding me back, and how long I had been letting my sword life be merely good enough on somebody else’s terms.

With practice, it got less devastating, and I’ve gotten better at noticing and appreciating the moments more while they’re happening. I made some big changes to my life (sword and otherwise). I haven’t been able to do a lot of work toward consciously re-creating the circumstances, thanks to the ongoing global pandemic, but that’s on my life goal to-do list.

It was good, this past week, to get back to events, and to make a checklist of what I wanted to see at a museum, and to navigate the rare book reading room experience without having an impostor syndrome crisis. I was once again just hoping to feel like me enough to make some new connections, recognizing that after 18 months of no travel, no events, and no group socializing, that was still pretty ambitious.

During these travels, I had a lot of social blahs, but I also had moments when I absolutely had to go introduce myself and talk to somebody. I tried a new format and style of presentation, trusting myself that it wasn’t too ambitious, and it went better than I was sure about and very well-received. I listened to what felt right, which several times meant offering to help someone even though I didn’t have energy for conversation.

And I noticed that I had come alive and felt like I’d left my baggage behind for a while well before the moment was over, and was able to hang onto that feeling and make the moment last longer.

I guess where I’m going with all of this is, if you looked up my blog because we met on my adventure, thank you for helping me come alive and stay in touch with my authentic self. And if you’re a long-established reader, thank you for continuing to help me share and explore the directions my heart’s compass leads me.

A many-headed, winged rainbow dragon with a rider in classical dress walks in a fantastical tournament parade.

Let’s go down to the mermaid cafe

Medieval manuscript art of a bare-breasted mermaid wearing a red hat and a gold crown, playing a long trumpet with a French banner.

It’s time to talk about mermaids. And mermen, and merenbies, and merpeople, and merfolk.

Some of you may recall I posted an interesting armored mermaid illustration a while ago. (It’s the only time I’ve ever said “I’m going to write something short this time” and actually did.) I haven’t found another one quite like it, but I did investigate further.

Aside from seeming to depict a merperson with breasts, both in and out of armor, the page was interesting because it was in a book of hours. Books of hours are usually illustrated with biblical scenes, natural plants and animals, and scenes of medieval life and work. They are also a delightful source of strange hybrid creatures, but usually in the border decorations, not given the same amount of space and detail as illustrations of saints or the Holy Family.

But before I get into the quest for more female armored merpeople, let’s look at the general scene of merfolk in manuscripts. In the hopes of getting a more representative and less biased sample than usual– or at least differently biased– I searched the Morgan Library’s manuscript collection for any manuscript images where the description mentioned a mermaid, merman, et c.

This is still a biased selection, because it’s only the images that the Morgan chose to highlight and add descriptions to, using one of the several keywords I searched for, plus undescribed images I identified in the other available scans of the manuscripts. Unfortunately, most of these were not manuscripts that are available in high resolution, so you’ll have to forgive the image quality.

Here, in approximate date order, is what I found. All images are by the Morgan Library.

M730: Psalter-Hours

  • Created: Arras, France
  • Date: after 1246.
  • Language: Latin and French

The oldest mermaids I found are also the tiniest, and sadly the page scans are also very small, so these are just plain hard to see.

Many medieval manuscripts use some kind of decoration to take up the blank space at the end of each paragraph, or each item in a list. These decorations are often fairly simple and geometric, such as alternating red and blue rectangles with fine gold outlines. M730 takes this to the next level and puts teensy marginal figures onto each rectangle. All of the figures with human torsos kind of look like merfolk, because their legs have to trail out behind them to accommodate the short, wide rectangle format.

If this looks like your jam, definitely take a closer look– there are at least a few of these little pairings on every page available on the website, plus many also have ornate initials or borders with their own marginal figures. My favorite are the wrestlers and jousters.

A few of these don’t have mermaids, but I will leave that as an exercise for the reader.

G24: Les voeux du paon (poetry)

  • Created: Belgium, probably Tournai
  • Date: ca. 1350.
  • Language: French

In M730 the images were mostly too small to make out what the merfolk were doing, but often they were about to begin armed combat. G24 adds a new occupation: the bare-breasted merperson (on the right) is playing a jawbone. Note also that these three examples show at least two different types of tail, one with periodic bands and scalloped fins, the other with round overlapping scales.

M919: Book of Hours

  • Created: Paris, France
  • Date: ca. 1418.
  • Language: Latin and French
  • Artist: attributed to the Egerton Master by Millard Meiss.

And now, we come to the fifteenth century. Here are two mermen, one with a fish-like tail and a bagpipe, the other with a perhaps dolphin-like tail holding a two-handed sword and a very long fish.

The third image is a whole page that doesn’t have enough pixels to be cropped further. In the right-hand margin is a merman wearing a yellow hat and a green doublet, with a blue tail with many fins, perhaps holding a spear with a red pennant. (There is also a man wearing red and blue fighting or playing with a dragon.)

Continue reading “Let’s go down to the mermaid cafe”

The Midas touch: adding gold to illuminated initials and borders

It’s time to talk about gold in manuscripts again! These are photos I took at the Morgan Library of manuscript M279.

When I made my appointment with the Morgan Library reading room, I was asked why it was important that I see the manuscript in person, rather than a digital surrogate such as high-quality scans. I explained that I’m interested in the use of metallic elements in manuscript art, which can’t be fully captured by the consistent light and camera angles used when creating digital surrogates.

Since I usually only work with digital surrogates, I had no idea just how true this was.

These pictures are, of course, also photographs, and thus also unable to fully capture the details. At least partly by intention (but also because I was using an unfamiliar camera), I took them at a variety of angles, and often much closer to the page surface than I was allowed to get my face. I hope they convey some of the intense and dazzling nature of manuscript decorations.

Regrettably, they don’t convey much about scale, because the manuscript was pretty big and I needed both of my hands for the camera, and because these are zoomed and cropped to draw your attention to specific details. For reference, each page of the manuscript is about 8 by 12 inches (22 by 31 cm). All of the parchment in the manuscript is roughly the same shade– variations here are because I adjusted the exposure and white-balance of the photos so that specific details were clearer. I was shooting with no lighting beyond what was provided by the reading room, a compromise that makes reading possible but is much darker than photography prefers and much brighter than conservation prefers.

This may sound like a strange way to read books, but only examining manuscripts in modern, idealized lighting conditions may prevent us from appreciating everything their creators put into them. Medieval readers had fewer options for reading light sources, and only skylights in the middle of the day might provide bright, even, downward light. Uneven, flickering, and angled light were probably more likely. Ines Correia observes that some manuscript production practices make a lot more sense with low-angled light (called raking light in photography, used to bring out surface texture). Blank pages were often ruled using “dry point,” scoring subtle un-inked lines that are nearly invisible to the reader, but sharply angled light would cast tiny shadows to reveal them.

All that said, my strangely angled photos are still lit with diffuse, overcast light and a single modern lamp, so these don’t recreate that angled-light viewing experience. However, raking light is an interesting thing to consider while examining textured and reflective elements.

One detail about the first page of M279 that caught my eye is how the heraldic escutcheon at the bottom is worn away. Kathy Rudy has found this can be the result of repeated reverent touching rather than deliberate defacing. The obliteration here seems less even and thorough than examples I’ve seen that were clearly intentionally destroyed, such as blackening that neatly fills the escutcheon but stays within the lines, or finger-smearing that rubs out the entire offending item and a little of what’s nearby too. It is interesting that the damage here is fairly precise, not just avoiding the angels but also leaving the blue and gold oak design at the top of the shield untouched (literally). If the intent were to deliberately remove the symbol of identification or family affiliation, surely this, the device of the famous della Rovere family, would not be retained.

That’s not what makes it interesting for today’s topic, though. This illustration features one of the medieval methods for adding metallic gold to manuscripts. The della Rovere oak branches and the borders and repeating designs of the angels’ robes are all colored using a liquid paint called shell gold (because it was often kept in a mussel shell). This is added late in the illustration process– here the opaque gold designs are on top of the delicately shaded folds of fabric.

The idea of covering a whole area of the page with a sheet of pure gold seems incredibly lush to the modern eye in a way that highlights of gold paint don’t, but in fact shell gold was considerably more expensive than gold leaf. One reason for this is complexity: you can make gold leaf with a supply of gold, a piece of special leather called goldbeater’s skin, and the right hammer. Gold can be beaten until it’s only microns thick, so the weight of gold in a single sheet of leaf is actually quite small.

However, turning gold into a substance that can be used as paint, and stored in between uses basically requires alchemy. It seems to be fairly easy alchemy, but it’s fussy for the same reason making gold leaf is straightforward: gold is soft enough to squish under pressure, and squishing multiple pieces of gold together combines them into a single piece. The usual processes for turning raw materials into powdered pigments don’t work. More importantly, shell gold is more expensive than gold leaf, because it requires more actual gold.

This little fellow in Roman-ish armor is from the top right corner of the same page. His armor is colored with several shades of grey for the steel, and then a less metallic, darker goldish color for the fauld and shoulders, with all areas (including his sandals, staff, and banner) then highlighted with touches of a lighter goldish shade.

But the most famous and striking manuscript gold is gold leaf. Gold leaf is added at the beginning of the illustration process (but usually after all the verbal content has been written in by a scribe), working over pencil outlines of illustrations and initials. This ten-minute video by the Getty Museum shows pre-1400 methods for working with gold leaf on panel paintings.

Here’s some gold leaf in M279, on an initial Q. It’s very recognizable because it’s so shiny. It has also aged to a finely cracked surface, which the other materials on the page have not. The tiny dots to the left are also gold leaf, but the inner ring of the Q is mosaic gold, which is not gold at all but bronze powder, used in similar fashion to shell gold but yielding a warmer color that’s duller but still very distinctive next to the velvety matte paints.

Continue reading “The Midas touch: adding gold to illuminated initials and borders”