Arts and cultures at the crossroads

Written by Tansy Barton, Academic Librarian - Manuscript and Print Studies |

Arts and cultures at the crossroads

Written by Tansy Barton, Academic Librarian - Manuscript and Print Studies |

At the end of February 2022, Senate House Library welcomed undergraduate students from New York University in London, introducing them to resources in the Special Collections Reading Room for a challenging assignment. As part of the course ‘Arts and Cultures at the Crossroads’ with Karen Karbiener, Professor of Liberal Studies at New York University, students each had one of 15 medieval fragments and 5 documents with seals to examine and then write a short essay on their findings. 

The students worked on uncatalogued manuscripts ranging in date from the 13th to 16th century and written in Latin but in many different hands. Without catalogue information, the students had to rely on what they observed in the fragment or document, examining the materiality and the type of script to help date and possibly give a geographical origin. Alongside what they could decipher of the Latin text, students used online tools and the resources of the Palaeography Collection, to draw conclusions on the origin and original purpose of the item. 

Ideally, all collections in our Library would be catalogued and easily accessible to researchers, but pockets of uncatalogued material are not unusual. In this case, it provides a valuable source of examples for the students to work on. The material came from two sources: MS902, a box of mostly unidentified medieval manuscript fragments that has been added to through donations over several years, and documents from the Fuller Collection, a large collection of documents, seals, and objects.

NYU student Ahad Rehmani deciphering a manuscript from 1391, part of the Fuller Collection
NYU student Ahad Rehmani deciphering a manuscript from 1391, part of the Fuller Collection

The seal of approval

Giving students an opportunity to work with original medieval material in a special collections setting, not only shows the value of primary sources in learning and research but also the importance of conservation and collaboration. Following great feedback, we aim to do more teaching with special collections such as this in future. Here are a few personal reflections from the NYU students that were part of the session:

“A story that transcends lifetimes was encapsulated within the palm of my hand, and by simply touching a medieval manuscript, I too became a microscopic piece of its millennium-old narrative. Without being granted access to Senate House’s Special Collections, I would have never been able to touch history nor become a part of it. Mere gratitude on my behalf does not give the situation justice.” Isobel Kenna

“It was amazing for me to discover the fragmented manuscript to be a part of a copy of St. Isidore’s Etymologies, one of the most popular translated and transcribed texts, second only to the Bible during this time period. I started with no information about this parchment to then being able to translate all of the Latin text on this manuscript and discover what this fragment was a part of. I would have never had the chance to discover and uncover the importance and value of this piece, without the collaboration of NYU and Senate House’s Special Collections and the generous availability and accessibility of Senate House Library.” Alexandra Przysucha

“Last semester we read The Epic of Gilgamesh, and in the introduction, it said that when George Smith cracked the code, he jumped on the table and stripped. Since I read that, it's been in the back of my mind, but as soon as I had a breakthrough in my analysis, I finally understood the excitement that Smith experienced over a century ago.” Tad Eisenberg

“To get to hold a medieval manuscript and then decipher it bringing pieces of the puzzle together: its script, the parchment, number of strands in the thread, the columns, the text itself was like life rewinding back. As a freshman undergraduate, it is not only rare but enriching as well because it helped me make sense of my own life experiences and how every object has a story to tell!” Anand Kumar

“My experience in the Senate House Special Collections room was eye opening to the immense amount of work and effort that goes into the preservation and analysis of undocumented manuscripts. After countless hours of observing, I deduced that my manuscript was most likely a legal or administrative document from 14th century England. I will forever appreciate the process of deciphering the manuscript and piecing the puzzle together.” Ahad Rehmani

NYU student Jordan working with a document from the 1280s in the reign of Edward I, from the Fuller Collection
NYU student Jordan Esi working with a document from the 1280s in the reign of Edward I, from the Fuller Collection
a chirograph document dated 1391 from the Fuller Collection
A chirograph document dated 1391 from the Fuller Collection

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