By Danielle Taylor, Ph.D. Candidate

From the process of creating vellum and parchment, to the pronunciation of the words written upon those materials, professors and students of the Carleton English Department brought medieval manuscripts to life for primary and secondary school students this summer. Professors Siobhain Bly Calkin and Robin Norris, along with graduate students Danielle Taylor, Kaitlin Griggs, Montana McLaughlin-Tom, and Melissa Pullara attended the Education Days of the Medieval Fairs held by Upper Canada Village and Osgoode. Offering their expertise on the production of medieval manuscripts, they gave students the opportunity to learn more about the history of the written English word and treated students to a taste of what life would have been like in medieval scriptoria, the places where books were written, copied, assembled, read and stored in medieval Europe.

Photo credit: Jancis Sommerville, Upper Canada District

Multilingual Medieval England

 Students who attended the Education Days were provided with an opportunity to hear, see, and touch medieval manuscripts, as well as partake in activities which helped them imagine what it would have been like to work in a medieval scriptorium. Students were first treated to the recitation of medieval texts in Old English, Middle English, Latin, and Anglo-French – mimicking the multilingual sound world of both Medieval England and present-day bilingual Canada. Excerpts were read from medieval poems such as Beowulf and Bevis of Hampton, providing not only a range of sound, but also an introduction to the wide variety of medieval writings.

Photo credit: Jancis Sommerville, Upper Canada Village

Touching a Medieval Book

After hearing these medieval languages, students learned how a medieval book was handmade on animal skin. The students were informed of the long and costly process of making a book and were able to feel for themselves the difference between parchment and paper. Students learned just how expensive medieval books were to produce, and gained a new appreciation for the craft of bookmaking in this period.

Not only were students presented with samples of modern parchment, but Dr. Bly Calkin also brought two medieval fragments which allowed the students to see actual pages from books produced more than 500 years ago.

Medieval text

Becoming a Medieval Scribe

Once students had heard the languages and learned the process of producing a medieval manuscript, they were then given the chance to see for themselves some of what was involved in being medieval scribes. Students wrote Anglo-Saxon runes, decoded and copied Middle English scribal letters, and produced their own illuminated letters.

Taking Research Beyond the Classroom

These presentations were an opportunity for professors and students alike to bring their love of the medieval world, and their knowledge of medieval languages and books, outside the university classroom. The presenters offered the public a glimpse of just one example of the fascinating and important research being conducted at Carleton, and perhaps even inspired a number of students to become future medievalists! We look forward to offering this same opportunity to more students when we attend the fairs again next year.