IMS Open Lecture: Photographing Medieval Manuscripts

The Institute for Medieval Studies hosted their first lecture as part of an ongoing series on the 1 October with Professor Kathryn Rudy from the University of St. Andrews to discuss her research.

Katy Rudy spends her time studying manuscripts not to read what is written within but to, “Read signs of wear to understand how they were used.”  As such, her lecture was less about nitty-gritty details of history, but more about photography and setting up a shot to tell a story.  Her methods of unconventional photography fueled this research as she looked for places where the manuscripts were touched more regularly, where there may be saliva marks, or when certain pages might be turned more aggressively than others.

Professor Rudy had unique methods to photograph manuscripts that enabled her to discover details of medieval culture and religion heretofore unnoticed.  Of note were a church choir book in use during the 15th century with saliva damage from singers, a prayer book used by Philip the Good (Duke of Burgundy from 1419–1467) with some pages where Philip likely held his greasy, sweaty forehead to the book when praying, and various back belts from the Scottish National Library with unique foldout patterns including one that creates an astrolabe.  Professor Rudy demonstrated how normal manuscript photographs are taken, with two photos for each side of a book and then having them digitally stitched together.  Interestingly, this removes much of the dirt and grime that may be visible with the naked eye, something a museum would want as it would be unprofessional to have “dirty” objects on display but ultimately detrimental to a researcher looking for evidence.  Professor Rudy went on to demonstrate her techniques to get more information from the manuscripts.  One method involved using her hand to demonstrate the size of the manuscrupt to scale.  Another involved taking photographs while mimicking the potential placement of the owner’s hands.  Other tricks used background lighting to highlight grime and opening up side pages to their full spread to get a better sense of what the manuscript looked like in action.  Even with an untrained eye, there is a veritable gold mine of evidence unlooked for by modern scholars.

“Scholars must have access to physical materials to allow historians to reach conclusions not easily achieved from flat photos.”

Professor Rudy also discussed the delicate topic of accessibility.  Many of her methods are conducted in a way as to prevent any damage to the manuscripts, but it is the kind of research that archives are very hesitant to allow.  Many of the more well known and popular libraries with the largest collections specifically prevent historians from accessing the physical manuscripts, instead prefering to provide pictures and copies to visiting academics.  She noted that “Scholars must have access to physical materials to allow historians to reach conclusions not easily achieved from flat photos,” and that she had more success from those libraries with smaller, more local collections.  However, the burden then is upon academics to travel to those locations, and those who cannot for one reason or another are at a disadvantage.  Yet by having academics create a more varied portfolio of pictures, or even video of unique manuscripts that do not open like normal books, those students and scholars who would be unable to travel could still learn about and understand these manuscripts in completely new ways.

“I find that restrictions help with creativity.”

As the evening wrapped up with a question and answer session and social hour, where attendees were encouraged to talk not just with each other but with our visiting scholar, the discussions were increasingly broad.  Some questions dwelt on Professor Rudy’s research, such as issues with negative space where it is clear that direct touch was avoided at all costs, but even that yields conclusions.  Other questions toward the end dealt with research in general.  Interestingly, Professor Rudy dealt with many restrictions in her work with and access to manuscripts.  But she answered that point by saying, “I find that restrictions help with creativity.”  Some new avenues of her research came about solely because some archives prevented her from taking pictures in certain ways.  Even as the night wound down, people continued to press her with questions.  Yes, it was titled toward medievalists working directly with manuscripts.  But here was a professor who likes to live life in the fast lane, who lives by the motto that necessity is the mother of all invention, who can combine her passion for photography with her love of research and scholarly progression, and who loves to help other students with progressing their own endeavors.  It is absolutely advised to check out future Open Lectures, as even those topics that might not seem directly relevant to your research might turn out to be amazingly relevant.