Reading the Unread: parchment damage in a fifteenth century Netherlandish prayer book

Speaker: Sophie Clayton (University of Leeds) @sophieclayton97

As we sit behind a screen with hundreds of digitised manuscripts at our fingertips, we must be mindful of what is lost in the process of digitisation - namely the tactile interaction with parchment. Parchment damage is often overlooked in the increasingly growing digitisation of manuscripts, with projects favouring the more illustrious and elegantly illuminated texts. Looking closely at parchment damage can provide us with a plethora of information about a manuscript - not only about its production, but also the medieval act of reading and interacting with its pages. Contrary to popular beliefs, medieval scribes and rubricators were often deeply aware of the notion that they were writing onto the skins of slaughtered animals and used this understanding to their advantage. In this paper, I shall explore damaged parchment that is utilised by scribes to draw attention to its very nature as skin.

Drawing on the work of Michael Camille and Mary Carruthers on reading images, I shall analyse an instance of parchment damage in a late fifteenth century Netherlandish prayer book and explore the medieval reader’s relationship with this non-linguistic aspect of the manuscript. Through my reading of this parchment damage, I will demonstrate how the scribal exploitation of the material as skin enhances the religious power of the object. I will demonstrate that that which appears unreadable and unread to a modern scholar would not have been viewed as such by the medieval reader. As a result, I conclude that, whilst the digitisation of manuscripts has encouraged and nurtured much fruitful scholarship, more careful attention should be given to parchment damage both during the digitisation process and in medieval studies more broadly as an insight into medieval reading practises.

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