Tag Archives: manuscripts

Defining the Child

Children’s literature, and more importantly for my purposes, the academic study of such literature, has gained significant prominence over the last ten years. Perhaps before I go further I should offer the disclaimer that I am hardly an authority on the genre, and have very limited experience with it outside of having read it to my own children, having had it read to me as a young child, and a brief summer course in Child Lit I took while obtaining my MA. Consequently, it was the course on Child Lit that demonstrated the full range of topics available for academic discussion – I had not until then ever considered Child Lit as anything more than entertainment for children.

I was fascinated, and while I admittedly have not spent large amounts of time on the topic, I ended up outlining the historic/psychological/socio-cultural implications of childhood extending from the Middle Ages into modern times. Perhaps I will turn all my findings into a paper one day. Yet at the moment they are rather scattered, so please bear with me.

In the meantime, I argued that children’s books, if traced through time, could be used as reflections of the way society viewed children at any given point, and the interrelation between these views on children and the messages adults provided for children within literature. In other words, the values outlined within the pages of Children’s Literature speak to the ways in which children were perceived and tell us today the roles children played through history.

My research began with Philippe Aries since no searches for “child” or “childhood” in almost any database will yield less than at least five references to his work. I also used Nicholas Orme who counters Aries’ argument almost to a point of literary attack. After perusing several more authors (sources below), I formed some of my own observations of how children and subsequently childhood historically progressed through the mirror of society, the children’s book.

There appears to be a disproportionate amount of research that believes Aries argued children didn’t exist. I am startled by this egregious misrepresentation of his findings, and even more so for the relative ease with which it has made its way through the grapevines of academia, mutating into a distorted outline of findings on childhood over several hundred years. In reality, he only postulated that it wasn’t until the mid seventeenth century that children, and by extension childhood, were seen as they are now. While he may have overstepped in his analysis when stating that children did not at one point in history receive love from their parents (a point he later counters), his overall argument relied on the treatment of children, and not the emotional implications of having them. Without actual proof to rely upon (and fodder for future research, although I am fairly certain Margery Kempe’s Book II would serve my purposes), I cannot fathom that in the Middle Ages mothers loved their children any less than they do now. However, I do believe this love was not exhibited in the same ways. Tracy Adams argued that women were perceived to not love their children as a result of their position in society and their lack of power in the household that reflected upon the power they wielded over their offspring. As women were unable to have a definite say in the upbringing of children, they consequently chose to distance themselves from these children and allowed the dominant roles in the household to intercede as these women subsequently removed from themselves all control or position in a child’s life. Ultimately this did not define the mother’s love for her children or the emotional attachment involved with the process that in this scenario seems completely irrelevant, but rather defines the societal demands placed upon the mother and child, specifically those outlined by Aries.

I think I may be defending Aries here, and if that is the case, then I do so only because despite that I feel his methods were rather faulty, I cannot help but pay homage to him as a pioneer in the study of the concept of childhood. Nor do I find many of his results to be inaccurate. In fact, starting an all out academic war against his theories is in itself a dated process. Yes, he was wrong on many fronts, but he was also equally right on just as many, and more importantly he paved the way towards the study of childhood – an objective that wasn’t terribly prominent before.

To fully understand this, it would be better to look backwards from the present day;  you don’t even have to look far to begin seeing the discrepancies of child rearing between generations, and further, to tie this into the messages that children’s books focused on which should cast some light on the ways children were viewed. Before even attempting to delve into a historical analysis I will show a very modern, and personal example.

When I was little I distinctly remember having a book read to me that outlined how I was supposed to help my mother sew a dress. The imagination played no role in this type of book (one of many), while today I read to my daughter about talking ponies forming friendships. Both books have a moral, or lesson to be learned, but obviously one is more utilitarian than the other. Arguably social skills are just as important as sewing skills, but the difference is in the expectation on children’s behavior. My daughter is taught social skills as a means to making friends and spending her time playing with them, while I was taught how to sew (albeit for reasons unknown since I can barely reattach a button), and, if memory serves me correctly, how to iron. However, this brings forward another question: do modern day children lack social skills, or did children in previous eras lack them due to paucity of materials delineating proper social behavior? I believe the answer illustrates not only how the expectations placed upon children have changed, but also serves to trace the types of environments children lived in.

For example, in my modern day anecdote I was not taught via anthropomorphic horses how to relate to other little girls my age because it was understood I would learn these skills through the experience of interacting with others on a very regular basis from a very early age. My children on the other hand have the advantage (depends on who you ask) of being in daycare where they too learn these skills, but for those children who are not in a school setting until six or seven when they attend elementary school, today’s society does not always offer much in the way of interaction. Children as young as four and five are not allowed to roam the streets and neighborhood park and play until sunset lest their parents wish to either be arrested or have their custody taken away, or both.

I understand I am diverging greatly from my original topic and this hardly has anything to do with medieval childhood, but I wanted to point out the disparity in ideology between even two very modern times in order to segue into the ways children were treated and what was expected of them in much earlier periods (and what better way to smoothly segue and transition than to blatantly tell you I am doing so?).

The Auchinleck manuscript, often known for its hagiographical texts, also houses a very personal aspect of medieval history – the family dynamic. The Seven Sages of Rome, central to the manuscript is ripe with implication of an intended audience for the manuscript that is perhaps not at first perceivable – the family, and consequently a younger audience within this unit. Once again to pull you into our modern times and provide a parallel example, think of the multiple youthful protagonists of our hero stories (now movies), and our coming of age tales, all catering to a young audience that is facilitated by the parents or caregivers who must provide this form of entertainment for the child.

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(Auchinleck MS, folio 326r – Since the Seven Sages contains no artwork outside of flourishes on the initials, here is an illustration from the segment on King Richard within the Auchinleck – depictions of kings and knights in medieval manuscripts were just as appealing to children then as they are now)

Returning to Aries, he looked at the societal configurations of the medieval period, mapping the role of children in the home. Yes, children will play, their imaginations will get the best of them, but once playtime was over, they were also expected to fulfill certain roles that extended beyond keeping their rooms neat and picking up their toys. Children as young as eight would be sent off to other homes to learn trades or pay off family obligations. And this was within what would be considered middle to upper class families. In poor families the children were simply expected to earn their keep. No one had time for fantasy when there was water to be brought, bread to be made, wood to be cut, laundry to be beaten, and numerous other chores. This is not to say that children performed all or any of these chores, but much like I was taught to sew (to little avail) when I was four or five, so were these children shown much more difficult tasks at young ages as a means of exposure for future use. Basically everyone had things to do, and the nuclear family as we perceive it today was just not there, nor did the modern dynamic exist.

I have to briefly pause here and mention the overwhelming number of references I found to hagiographies of children while conducing this research. While there is no apparently neat way of inserting my findings here since they appear to be completely unrelated to the rest of this brief analysis, I have to remark that this may not be fully accurate. Child hagiographies, for their myriad abnormalities of realty, shed light upon the distinction between reality and the desired, and thus demonstrate the reality of childhood in the Middle Ages via various means of negating those traits that appear superfluous or unrealistic. In short, through carving away the unbelievable we are left with a rather accurate portrayal of childhood.

More over, as education began to gain importance, so did the idea that children were not simply miniature adults, but rather the future of society. Once public (for those of you across the pond, private) and more or less standardized education became prominent, this idea of the child as something special took hold. Children, long before holding the title of heirs and being cherished for the upholding of the blood line, became the gateway to the future in a broader, globalized sense where the child was seen as the conduit for future generations and what would be invested in the current generation of small children would benefit others later on. This altruistic stance was not easily adapted, and the time in which it became well practiced is still under debate, but it appears that around the seventeenth century education overthrew the desire to create trade workers. Thus another facet of caregiving had its inception and educational progress became something to monitor, overreaching well beyond the higher classes into the wealthier middle classes who could nevertheless afford to educate their children as opposed to sending them off to work.

As a newly educated class of children emerged so did the family dynamic shift. Children had fewer chores, more study time, and if logic serves properly, these chores still needed to be completed, leading to families seeking out solutions for their needs. The socio-economic implications of educating children is well beyond the scope of my research, but I have a hunch that broader education shifted much of the ways employment functioned from as early as the twelfth century onward.

Yet, it is during this period when children began an education that the materials used to educate them became scrutinized. Books were not owned in the dozens, and only some children had the luxury of hailing from literate families in the early middle ages. Even so, those who owned books had few specifically designated for small children who were often left to navigate family volumes, and were most likely quite entertained by illuminated manuscripts should any be available. While multiple manuscripts often had amusing miniatures, decorated initials, and bas-de-pages, one source in particular was terribly appealing to small children, the bestiary. However all of these sources functioned as distractions and didn’t often serve as formal instructional material.

Three cats and a rat, 13th century.

(British Library, Harley MS 4751, f. 30v – clearly such images would entertain children, especially considering how much they already entertain adults)

Educational material had been around for hundreds of years where Books of Hours, or Primers served as the primary pieces for instruction in various ways, from reading to forming a compendium of proper Christian behavior. Picture books  or pictures in books had been optimal for the illiterate for decades, and even rolls designated to church settings often had miniatures embedded upside down in order to face the audience, properly spilling over the lectern during worship so those facing the front could see the pictorial depiction of the sermon.

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(Bridwell MS 13, Book of Hours, Hours of the Virgin, Calendar: August folios 9v-10r – Such decorated manuscripts served a twofold purpose to instruct and as can be seen from the types of decorations, to entertain. The various miniatures and marginalia contain important information such as the labor of the month, picking of the grain, and harvesting that are well connected with the month of August for those who cannot read the title of the month in red on the first line of folio nine. However, some images are solely there to serve decorate purposes, such as the creature at the top of folio ten, or the bunny, enlarged below, “reading” in the corner of folio nine)

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(Bunny detail)

But little existed solely for children, especially in any sort of secularized milieu. Enter Child Lit. It was in no way recognizable to the children’s books we have today, but such texts provided enough information for small children. They were whimsical, colorful, and most importantly imparted moral teachings – essentially the medieval predecessors to our children’s books.

N.B. As I research this topic further I hope to find specific examples of medieval children’s lit, along with further historical evidence. In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed!


Adams, Tracy. “Medieval Mothers and Their Children: The Case of Isabeau of Bavaria in Light of Medieval Conduct Books.”

Aries, Philippe. Centuries of Childhood.

Classen, Albrecht, Ed. Childhood in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: The Results of a Paradigm Shift in the History of Mentality.

Gies, Frances, and Joseph Gies. Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages.

Hanawalt, Barbara. Growing Up in Medieval London.

Orme, Nicholas. Medieval Children.

“Give and Ye Shall Receive” at the Getty

Today I had an amazing day at the Getty previewing their newest upcoming exhibition that will open just in time for the holidays on December 16, “Give and Ye Shall Receive: Gift Giving in the Middle Ages.” If you follow me on Twitter you may have noticed my mini flurry of tweets and pictures from the presentation, but here is a more in-depth look at some of the beautiful works you can see during the exhibit. I am personally super excited about going back and seeing the full array of manuscripts and pieces of manuscripts once they are officially on display. (Note: yes, the Getty knows I am posting all of these fabulous images).

The presentation was guided by Christine Sciacca, curator of manuscripts, and this exhibit specifically. She recently, as in a few days ago, went to retrieve some of the works that will be on display, and after brief introductions dove right in (because there is never enough time to really talk about manuscripts).

Gift giving in the Middle Ages functioned as a means of establishing connections, but the ubiquitous practice had far broader connotations than are immediately perceivable to a modern audience. Aside from obvious gift giving occasions, gifts were also considered a form of exchange and functioned within an economic medium. This latter definition further expanded the language of gift giving, and added nuanced understandings of how the objects operated – much of which has become ambiguous to us today. The idea of reciprocation comes to mind, and with it questions about the power relations involved, if any. However, before I turn this into a pseudo-anthropological discussion on the economy of gift exchange that perhaps strays too far from the intentions of this post, let’s return to the Getty exhibition.

A very popular gift during the medieval period was the book due to the arduous work that went into producing it (making it all the more valuable), but also the ease with which it could be customized and/or personalized. While looking at the several manuscripts and manuscript leaves today, a point I found most interesting was the disparity of the materials, from their various uses to the roles they played within the practice of gift giving. Sometimes these roles were obvious, as one book will shortly demonstrate, while at other times far more research needs to be conducted to discover how the manuscript fits into the gifting tradition.

The first item we began with was a choir book from the late 13th century. As Christine reiterated during the presentation, medieval book size was often indicative of purpose, and a choir book, generally used by multiple people simultaneously, could get rather large. As each book has its own purpose, quirks, and identifying points, one of the most intriguing things about choir books (and antiphonaries) is their combination of music, text, and images, the latter of which serve as quick reference points for the different sections. While the period of this choir book occurred well before the heyday of similar works, which is generally considered the thirteenth century, it is an extremely beautiful and well detailed manuscript.

Here is a picture of the choir book in question that was most likely created in Bologna:


First, my poor picture taking skills will hopefully drive everyone to see the actual exhibit, because this obviously doesn’t do it justice. However, on this particular page the initial C that measures about my entire hand spread out, is illustrated with the image of St. Nicholas handing gold coins to a father who is in desperate need for a dowry for this two daughters (the tiny figures features in the top windows of the house) lest he be forced to send them into prostitution. Appropriately we viewed this manuscript on December 6th, the day of St. Nicholas. Even though this has nothing to do with the Getty, should you wish to read more about St. Nicholas, or view similar representations of him providing dowries to fathers, you can read about his tradition here, his connection to Sinterklaas here, and a Nation Geographic representation here.

Choir books were often  even larger than the desk sized one of the previous image as can be seen from the cut out here:


This is an initial K in a choir book from the mid fifteenth century from a cathedral in Seville, and the art tells us that is was worked on by the Master of the Cypresses (behind the female figure you can see his well known cypress trees). Among the many works attributed to this artist are over twenty mutilated choir books. Several of them are missing pages, and some have nothing but a few pages left even though the reasons for the various conditions of these manuscripts vary. Some were probably just lost over time, while some pages were taken out, or cut out, to accommodate newer versions of music. Such destructions of art appear unfathomable to us today, but at their time these manuscripts fulfilled necessary functions and changes were necessary.

The figure in the center is the female embodiment of Charity, or Caritas as she is here named in Latin. Her robes are extremely ornate in gold, with fur linings on her coat. Here she is the embodiment of her name, characteristically endowing those in need, like the beggar to her left, with a gold coin, while brandishing the cross in her right hand, very clearly linking Christ’s sacrifice to charity that must be passed forward among humans. Interestingly the cross is connected to a string that travels into Charity’s heart, and then the same string resurfaces and is affixed to the poor man to her left. While this depicts proper Christian conduct, and serves as a reminder of how we must behave to those who have less than us, I can’t help but also read it in a more cynical light where gift giving explicitly has strings attached, drawing attention to the duality inherent in gift exchanges.

The ornamented lower border, Christine mentioned, would be a running motif of this exhibition, as a reminder of the complexity of gift giving. It will be done in all gold, and should be quite the sight.

Before moving away from the choir books, to demonstrate the laborious process of using them on a regular basis, Christine showed us a picture from one of her recent trips that depicts a book stand for such incredibly large books.



This is an iphone photo I took of the photo she showed us on her tablet, so the glare and twice removed nature of it makes it difficult to see the details, but it is a very large contraption designed to hold multiple of these books, one on each of the ledge-like structures along each face, or flat surface.

The next work we looked at was part of a larger collection, and on display were four leaves of a British Book of Hours from the late fourteenth century which have finally been brought together. Several more exist, but their whereabouts are currently unknown, and efforts are underway to locate them.

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These come from different sources, such as the one on the bottom left of St. Nicholas reviving a youth that comes from the Berger Collection at the Denver Art Museum.

What typically stands out from these pages most, however, is the almost overbearing presence of heraldic representations. Heraldry is not my forte, but from what I gleaned from the conversation in the room, the language of heraldry acts as a barrier to deciphering it. Each color scheme (not even taking into account how colors in manuscript inks have often changed), each symbol, and so forth, exist within their own semantic world guided by elaborate rules. For a better understanding of heraldry, should you be curious, you can visit these notes on medieval English genealogy. In short, before decoding anyone’s coat of arms, the code of how these symbols were categorized must be learned, and from them can be found provenance, and even perhaps the reasoning behind a manuscript’s creation.

The numerous coats of arms that adorn almost every single page offer innumerable pieces of information about this manuscript, but for our purposes here, I will only focus on two things. It was likely created under patronage. While it probably acted as a gift, and as was mentioned during the talk, these symbols most feasibly broadcasted a union between families, it also hinted at the economic transaction built into the system of patronage. Even if the final gift was without expectations of reciprocation, the process undertaken to create this work extends into questions of not only what it cost to produce this manuscript, but also who was in the position of giving or receiving it. Even though the idea of gifts varying across the different socioeconomic classes is almost painfully obvious, here there is an even more stratified and nuanced distinction even between those occupying the same spaces in society. Of all the pieces looked at today I think this one appears to be (at least for me) the most puzzling, especially within its role as gift.

Thus I turn to the last piece we saw, Getty Museum, MS 17, where the reason for gift giving is significantly less problematic.


This is a charming fifteenth century English psalter. The author is unknown, and it could have been gifted numerous times from inception to its last known owner. However, it was within its last venue where another important facet of manuscript gift giving comes to the forefront: medieval manuscripts did not lose their luster, nor stop functioning as gifts at the end of the Middle Ages.

In the early twentieth century American book collector and bibliophile Philip Hoffer gave this medieval psalter to his wife, Frances. On the first page of the manuscript we find the inscription testifying to this:


Should you not be able to see the writing: “Bunnie, darling / Your engagement “ring” / remember? / P.H.” This book not only carried with it its monetary value, of which there was probably plenty, but the symbolic and sentimental value similar to what it once held.

I am sure I would have to conduct much more research into these works before forming any further conclusions, or even conjectures, but as these books changed hands during the act of gift giving they performed certain roles, and meant myriad things to their owners – givers and receivers.

Once again, I cannot wait to see the display in its entirety!

But, before ending the day, we were given one more generous treat by the Getty, and Anne Woollett, curator at the Getty, and specifically of the Spectacular Rubens: The Triumph of the Eucharist, gave us a guided tour of that exhibit. Photography was not here permitted since every piece is on loan from elsewhere, so I don’t have any lovely photographs to show you, but if you are in the Los Angeles area, it really is quite a sight that must be seen.

The exhibit focuses on a very specific aspect of Ruben’s work, namely the twenty tapestries with which he was commissioned by the Infanta, Isabella. The sixteen foot tall tapestries which were originally designed to tower over each other certainly challenge our notions of space. With only four in the room it appeared the images would permeate from their respective areas and into museum halls, so one could only imagine the full effect of twenty such works across vast walls and corridors. The exact placement of these tapestries has been disputed among scholars on various occasions, but the Getty does provide an example of a convincing way in which they could logically be placed with the confines of their original housing.

As I cannot here describe in words (and pictures would really not serve much better) the vivaciousness of the works, and since I have always been fascinated with the process of creation more than the end product, I will instead leave you with a recommendation of the book with the same name as the exhibit that is far better suited at describing these massive and amazing works.

The Female Scribe IV

Thus far my female scribe research is still concerned with nunneries and their capacities for scribal activity (Should you wish to visit the previous posts in this series: Part I, Part II, and Part III). My most recent find was another book by Michelle Brown in line with her previous one, but illuminating another piece of female agency within scriptoria. Consequently this lead me down a whole new path of research. The primary focus relied on excavations where numerous whole and fragmented styli were found in Anglo-Saxon nunneries. While the best indication of manuscript creation is typically the manuscripts themselves, tools for such endeavors often survive just as long and can in some cases be even more indicative – a manuscript may not always have a clear, paleographically traceable provenance, whereas the tools were there for a distinct purpose.

I want to digress for a moment just so we can look at these writing instruments and better understand what they were for. This will probably not aid in the overall scope of this project, but the historical value associated with these tools is just too exciting to pass up.

Syli were used for purposes such as pricking, ruling leaves, hard point annotating, and underdrawing. These instruments were generally made of iron or bone, but sometimes of other alloy metals and even  silver (a significant point that will be addressed later).


This is an early medieval stylus found in North Yorkshire dated to be from around 900-1000 AD. The elaborate design on the handle tells us it was either meant as a gift, and probably belonged to a member of the upper class  or a high ranking member of the clergy (or perhaps all of these things are true, and it could have been a gift for someone high in the clergy who also happened to belong to the upper class). However, not very much is known about this particular one, especially whether it belonged to a male or female. The material is primarily a copper alloy.


Here is a stylus that dates from around 700-800 AD that is also made from copper alloy which was found near Lincolnshire. This one is obviously far more simplistic and by all appearances had a very utilitarian purpose. Of the styli found from this period (of which there are not as many as you would think), most of them resembled this rather than previous or the following one.





The top piece is a broken shaft from a stylus found in Lincolnshire that has been dated to about 800 AD. The bottom picture is what is thought to be the head to the stylus which was found in the same location several years later. It may appear like this is a very large piece of the two fragments would be connected, but combined the stylus would only be about 12 cm. long – smaller than the average pen these days. Both pieces are made from silver, and the head has quite some detail on it. Here is a close-up of the end:


There appears to be an animal’s head engraved into it, but due to corrosion the animal cannot be identified. This was however, a rather common practice in the Anglo-Saxon culture where elaborate engravings served to denote another kind of literacy – a cultural one where such symbols and puzzles were read for a meaning we don’t quite as easily grasp in modern times. The animal depicted here appears to either have its tongue out, or is biting something. While I have not done any studies on styli before this, I have studied jewelry and brooches from the period, and this style that developed around 600 AD used these sort of representations of animals biting or eating each other to remark on the natural order of the world. It was also believed that different animals had proprietary characteristics that would be transferred to the objects they decorated. However, since this animal here is undecipherable, I wouldn’t even know where to begin with that. (And here is an amazing article about Anglo-Saxon pins by Anna Gannon).

This last silver ornamental stylus could quite possibly resemble the one gifted by Boniface’s successor to Abbess Eadburga who educated Boniface’s relative, Lioba, who in turn went on to become abbess of Bischofsheim. The relationship between Eadburga and Boniface, however, is not restricted to this particular incident and extends to mutually beneficial transcription activities where Boniface would visit Eadburga’s Minster-in-Thanet to have highly detailed and ornamental manuscripts copied.

Of the many books copied under her supervision, perhaps the most famous is the Selden manuscript of the Acts of the Apostles that have “EADB” scratched with a stylus at the end. Conjectures have bee made that this particular manuscript may have not just been supervised by Eadburga, but actually coping in her hand. Further, this particular manuscript contains numerous female pronouns leading to further inferences about the intended audience. While the female pronouns, just like the one found in the Lancelot manuscript (that I discuss in previous segments of this project) indicate a female author, these pronouns do not necessarily imply a female audience – and such a conclusion would require quite a leap in logic. Unfortunately the Boldleian does not have any pictures online of the Selden MS Supra 30. If anyone has seen it, I would love to hear impressions on it.

In the meantime, I would like to further explore nunneries and female scribal activities in general. But at the moment I probably should run off and teach my undergrads about John Keats…


Blackhouse, J and Webster L. The making of England: Anglo-Saxon Art and Culture.


McKitterick, Rosamond. “Nuns’ Scriptoria in England and Francia in the Eighth Century.” 

Parkes, M.B. “A Fragment of an Early Tenth-Century Manuscript and Its Significance.”

The Uses of Literacy in Early Medieval Europe. ed.  Rosamond McKitterick. 

Wilson, D.M.  Anglo-Saxon Art