Illuminating collaboration breathes life into medieval manuscripts

Thanks to a benefactor's generosity and the hard work of a team at Yale, a treasure trove of rare medieval manuscripts is now on display at Beinecke Library.
A sign in the lobby of Yale’s Beinecke Library promoting an exhibition of the Takamiya collection of rare medieval manuscripts.

“Making the Medieval English Manuscript: The Takamiya Collection in the Beinecke Library,” an exhibition on view at the library through Dec. 10, is the product of a collaboration between graduate students in medieval studies and Beinecke staff.

Shortly after Christmas last year, Gina Hurley and Eric Ensley visited the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library’s facility on Winchester Avenue where one of the world’s great collections of medieval English manuscripts awaited them.

Hurley and Ensley, Yale graduate students pursuing doctoral degrees in medieval studies, were part of a team organizing an exhibition on the manuscript collection of Professor Toshiyuki Takamiya, who built an unprecedented assemblage of Middle English texts.

Takamiya, professor emeritus of medieval English literature at the University of Keio in Japan, deposited his collection on long-term loan at the Beinecke Library in 2013 to make it available for research and scholarship.

As planning for the exhibition commenced, Hurley and Ensley spent two weeks working in a small office on Winchester Avenue surrounded by collection’s 143 English manuscripts, including three copies of “The Canterbury Tales” and Chaucer’s treatise on the astrolabe, as well as works as varied as William Langland’s “Piers Plowman,” early-English translations of the Bible, and a Middle English medical manuscript — all catnip for medievalists.

Accustomed to engaging with manuscripts one-by-one in the Beinecke’s reading room, Hurley said that to have the entire collection at their disposal was an enchanting experience.

That was amazing,” she said. “I cannot tell you what a disconnect that creates in one’s mind from the typical experience of the reading room.”

Hurley and Ensley worked with fellow graduate students Emily Ulrich, Alexandra Reider, and Joseph Stadolnik, as well as Raymond Clemens, the library’s curator of early books, and archivist Diane Ducharme, to organize “Making the Medieval English Manuscript: The Takamiya Collection in the Beinecke Library,” an exhibition on view through Dec. 10. 

Manuscripts on view include a near-complete copy of the B version William Langland's narrative poem "Piers Plowman," dating to about 1550, and located furthest right.

Hurley, Ensley, and Ulrich discussed their experiences creating the exhibition during a recent talk at the Beinecke Library.

For the graduate students, whose work often can be solitary and geared toward academia, the exhibition presented an opportunity to collaborate and share their knowledge and ideas with the general public.

I haven’t worked on teams, and I haven’t had bosses,” said Ulrich, adding that her work only requires occasional interactions with a faculty adviser. “The rest of the time it’s me puttering around in my home study thinking about 14th-century materials. I really welcomed the opportunity to collaborate.”

Ensley said the project compelled the students to be public academics and resist the urge to only speak to an academic audience.

In that way an exhibition asks us to think about what in our field is worth relating to the public and what they might be interested in hearing about,” he said.

For Ducharme and Clemens, the collaboration provided the chance to work as group with a team of passionate scholars, whose ideas helped to shape the exhibition.

They brought their own scholarly passions,” Ducharme said. “They brought their enthusiasm. They brought their patience. One of the things that everyone got to find out is how much fun it is to work with a group of really excited people as we selected materials and dealt with the heartbreak of realizing that a manuscript won’t fit in a case or conservation won’t let it be displayed.”  

Conservators and exhibition coordinators devised a method for displaying fragile manuscript rolls.

Showcasing the Takamiya collection, in the context of the Beinecke Library’s wider collections, the exhibition tells the story of early-English books: how they were made; how people used them; and why they remain important.

The curators strove to pique people’s interest in the Middle Ages, often using the manuscript’s physical beauty — their illuminations and calligraphy — to lure visitors into a deeper story.   

When you come to an exhibition of medieval manuscripts, you expect to see gold leaf and floriated borders,” Ensley said. “What is important, I feel, is to show off those aesthetic qualities while also using them to draw in a viewer so that they may learn something new about the Middle Ages.”

For instance, the curators hoped the aesthetic beauty of the illuminated religious texts on display would make people curious to learn why the books were so elaborate and how religion influenced daily medieval life, he said.

The curators experienced the countless difficult choices presented by using the exhibit space in the most efficient and effect way. Ulrich recalled struggling to decide which page to display in a manuscript written in three languages.

Getting the range of languages within one manuscript visible to one person at one time required coordinating with the library’s photographers and getting reproductions made,” she said.

The curators learned to come to grips with physical limitations imposed by the display cases.

You have three books that you want to display showing early English script, but one is big and two are small, and they actually can’t exist next to each other in he way that you want them to for a chronology,” Ulrich said.

The exhibition includes this display of medieval devotional texts.

The project’s collaborative nature and the collection’s breadth forced each curator to learn about subjects that they had never before engaged with in any depth.

We got to dabble in the areas of each other’s specialties to really learn deeply from one another,” said Hurley, who specializes in medieval romance literate and hagiography. “That made the experience all the richer for each one of us.”

The collaborative effort forced each curator to learn about subjects that they had never engaged with in any depth. Hurley had to consider the books materiality — their bindings, parchment, pigments and other physical structures — in a manner that her academic work does not usually require.

A number of the manuscripts involve subjects, such as music and law, that fall outside the expertise of the curatorial team and prompted consultation with experts across campus. 

The Beinecke and Yale offer an extraordinary community of knowledge to draw from,” Ensley said.

Aside from the materiality of the books and the texts they contain, the exhibition explores Takamiya’s approach to collecting, which exposed the curators to the strategies, decisions, and devotion involved in building a world-class manuscript collection.

The curators praised the library’s conservation staff and exhibition coordinators for helping them to overcome a series of logistical challenges. For instance, they devised a way to display fragile manuscript rolls that makes them seem float weightlessly in an acrobatic and beautiful form, Hurley said.

I can’t do justice to how beautiful they are in their display,” she said.

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