When it comes to researching medieval manuscripts, Samantha Tyson says photocopies or digital versions cannot hold a candle to the real thing. “And don’t hold candles to them,” laughed the third-year Medieval Studies student.
Today, Western students can touch a distant past further back than they ever have been able to thanks to a manuscript donation by a noted professor in the field.
Western’s Archives and Research Collections Centre recently announced the donation of 10 medieval manuscripts, as well as accompanying custom-designed enclosures, from English and Writing Studies professor Jane Toswell. This collection includes what is now the university’s oldest manuscript, a fragment of Missal of Susanna and the Elders from Germany, circa 1125.
“I get starry-eyed looking at such history. A lot of students take for granted the amounts of physical items we have here,” added Tyson. “Asking for digital copies is one thing – it’s so convenient. But students overlook the value of being able to sit down and look at the actual document that will likely outlive all of us.”
The manuscripts were part of Toswell’s personal collection, one she built prior to teaching a first-year course in Medieval Studies in 2011. The collection was an opportunity for her to bring history to life for her students.
“To have your hand on a manuscript and know that a specific piece is from the 12th Century – so it is 900 years old – is a beautiful thing,” she said. “I want to make it available to all the students. From the beginning, I knew this is what I had planned to do.”
The latest addition to the archives includes everything from a leaf of a pocket Bible (ca 1250) and antiphonal reading (ca 14th Century) to a fragment of humanistic minuscule piece from the Augustinian Canon (late 15th/early 16th Century).
One of Toswell’s favourite pieces is from the Biblical apocrypha the Catholic Church outlawed because of the story of Susanna, a wise woman who the Old Testament Biblical figure Daniel admired tremendously. Many people don’t know Susanna’s story, as it disappeared from the Book of Daniel because “the church didn’t like this powerful woman,” Toswell said.
“I knew what was available would be a lot of music manuscripts – those are the ones that tended not to get as much wear and tear and were safer being kept in monasteries,” Toswell said. “I wanted some of the stuff that was unusual, with good illumination.”
Fourth-year Medieval Studies student Matt Burch said the manuscripts definitely have a romantic feeling surrounding them – the look, the texture, even the smell. It’s something you don’t think will be at a university or, if it is, will be in such limited resource, he added.
“That’s just it, being able to look at them and touch them, you get a better idea of what it’s all about. It’s the ultimate resource. This is the actual text,” said Burch, adding two translators can look at the same document and see two different things. “But when you get the opportunity to read it, you may see it translated another way. You get that from a manuscript. It is the true source. It’s almost like when you’re a kid you’re thinking of Indiana Jones and ancient text. But this is the real thing.”
Tyson added physical evidence from a period like this is often “the only evidence we have of a specific text or specific song.”
“Even texts that are possibly mundane to some, like a cooking recipe or mercantile record, the pages themselves have their own history,” she said. “There are such incredible things here (archives), physical testaments to the humanity of a specific era.”
University Archivist Robin Keirstead said Toswell has worked with the archives in the past in making recommendations for purchases. He appreciates her generosity in donating her personal manuscripts to the university.
“The ones most important are the ones that sometimes don’t look too exciting and colourful,” he said. “People have an image of what a medieval manuscript looks like. To then see the variety, they’re like, ‘Wait a second.’ These will increase three-fold the number of good medieval samples we have.”
PAGES FROM THE PAST
A collection of 10 medieval manuscripts, as well as accompanying custom-designed enclosures, have been donated to Western’s Archives and Research Collections Centre by English and Writing Studies professor Jane Toswell. They include:
- Leaf from pocket bible with Ezekiel passage from France or Germany (ca 1250);
- Leaf from missal with antiphonal reading for Good Friday from Northern Italy (1450);
- Leaf from gradual with the cerise initial from Italy (1425);
- Leaf from a gradual from Germany containing comic versals (ca 1475);
- Fragment of humanistic minuscule piece from the Augustinian Canon (late 15th/early 16th Century);
- Fragment of Missal of Susanna and the Elders from Germany (ca 1125);
- Small leaf with Luke passage from a Book of Hours from France (ca 1485);
- Small leaf from a calendar from a Book of Hours from France (ca 1485);
- Leaf of antiphonal reading from Italy (ca 14th Century); and
- Fragment of gargantuan missal from an antiphoner probably from Spain (late 15th/early 16th Century).