A couple of weeks ago, I had cause to talk to first-years about manuscript production. Courtesy of the nice man in Rare Book, I had scans taken from the facsimile of the Old English Hexateuch,* and we took a ten-minute break from the sensible classwork on Old English to look at pictures of Satan falling out of Heaven, and God looking at his own finger with an expression of bemusement, like “holy shit, I can CREATE STUFF? No waaaaaiiiii!”
Turns out Wikipedia has more striking pictures than I was able to get hold of!
Perhaps I should’ve printed this out and taken it to class.
Overall, this was a pretty rewarding exercise. I mean, I got to talk for ten minutes about Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, obviously I enjoyed it. I was impressed at the number of my students who seemed genuinely interested in the letter-forms and punctuation: remembering that I had to be dragged kicking and screaming into palaeographic work during Honours, I hadn’t expected first-years to be all that engaged in the written part of the scans. Clearly not everyone is as grumpy about palaeography as I was.
It seems pretty important, to me, to show students manuscripts, facsimiles, scans, whatever, as early as possible. I can remember one week in second year in which I sat through three lectures on manuscript production – one in each of my subjects save for French grammar. And then we did it all around again in second semester! At any rate, I summarised all those introductions to manuscript production and spat it out in the form of “here, look at these scans, aren’t they nifty, and a nice break from the close reading we’ve been doing for the first half of the class?”. And I think my students found it interesting? At the very least I suspect that I’m entertaining, when waxing enthusiastic on topics medieval.
What surprised me was the small number of students who were apparently grossed out by my quick account of “why it takes ages to make a medieval book”. First you have to raise your cow/sheep/miscellaneous beast; then you have to treat your skin and stretch it out; then you have to trim it and fold it into quires; and so on and so forth. To me, this information is either boring (lots of detail about people long dead) or fascinating (lots of detail about people long dead!). Gross wasn’t an option that I’d considered. I quickly discovered that my assurance that all the parts of the deceased animal would have been used for something didn’t help.
I’m told this isn’t actually an uncommon reaction, but I’m still not sure what to make of it. Me, I like gross things. Gross things are interesting. The cremation scene in Beowulf, with the exploding bones? INTERESTING. Plague? INTERESTING. Descriptions of how to carve game: actually, these bore me to tears. The battle scenes in Lawman’s Brut, with the blodgutes and violence and people’s innards falling out? INTERESTING.**
Weird and gross stuff as a method of teaching about the past has a… well, a substantial if not always an honourable history. See also, Horrible Histories.*** In my mind, it goes right along with my other favourite, Funny Things About Sex In The Past.**** It’s no co-incidence that I remember as much from my first-year Renaissance and Reformation course as from first-year medieval history, despite having reinforced and added to my learnings from first-year MDST, while I’ve taken no further early modern history at all. RenRef showed me weird medical pictures and taught me mysterious things about midwifery! It had a whole week on sex: what you can know about sex from court records! from medical texts! from diaries and letters and things!
What’d you think, internets? Are gross things a handy educational tool? Is grossness just an unavoidable side-effect of imparting certain kinds of historical information? Should I, in future, try to seem less enthusiastic about the whole stretching-out-skins and then treating them with urine process, in the interests of seeming more like a sensible teacher and less like a twelve-year-old kid?*****
* Which is to say, low-grade copies of a useful but not exactly pretty black-and-white facsimile of a manuscript which, I’m told, is UTTERLY GORGEOUS and brightly coloured and fun in person. Inspiring, huh?
** I am, however, not up for televised blodgutes. Growing up without a TV = no reality boundary. IT MOVES. IT’S REAL. IT’S BEING DISEMBOWELLED. You see the problem here?
*** Most of what I can remember from the compulsory WWI unit in high school history is to do with the layout of a trench, with specific reference to a) mud and b) trench foot. Thanks, Horrible Histories!
**** This used to be a party-trick of mine. People would drag other people over to meet me at parties so that I could tell them funny things about historical sex. Sadly, this doesn’t seem to happen so often anymore.
***** I was going to say twelve-year old boy, but hey, I liked gross historical things as a kid!