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“An almanac from Worcestershire in 1389, on sheets folded in different arrangements. There are many ways of telling time and predicting the future: the church’s liturgy, the farming year, the omens in thunder, astrology. The maker of this almanac shows them all, experimenting with words and pictures in various arrangements. And he stitches the shapes and folds the edges of sheets into varied designs for this varied information — a long strip of zodiac signs or the saints’ days in one giant calendar, for instance.” (MS. Rawl. D. 939. Anonymous almanac; copied probably 1389; Worcestershire, courtesy Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford)

Designing English: Graphics on the Medieval Page at the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries examines the how the creation of early English books, from their hand-written language to the bindings themselves, can be viewed as pioneering graphic design. Whether a hunting manual with ages of deers described through illustrations of antler growth, or an elegant 15th-century copy of The Canterbury Tales where borders and titles guide the reader through the text, these manuscripts grappled with engaging their readers through their visual design.

“We’ve deliberately used the term ‘design’ which wasn’t used in our sense during the Middle Ages,” Dan Wakelin, professor of medieval English paleography and curator of Designing English, told Hyperallergic. “First, the term ‘design’ helps us appreciate the creativity of the past. Medieval craftspeople left us few records of their own thought processes, so we often need to use our own terms when we try to reconstruct them. The term ‘design’ brings to light aspects of the thoughtfulness and ingenuity behind medieval manuscripts and artifacts which we might otherwise miss.”

“While some authors and scribes put the data of astronomy and astrology in tables or diagrams, others made books with moving ‘volvelles’ like this: 3D disks revolving on string or a twist of parchment. That let readers make calculations (for the phases of the moon and time of night) for themselves, in more combinations than any one diagram could show.” (MS. Ashmole 370, fols 24v–25r. Nicholas of Lynn, Kalendarium, composed 1386; copied 1425, courtesy Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford)

Bodleian Libraries has one of the largest medieval collections in the UK, and the exhibition features over 60 manuscripts and objects. It’s installed at Oxford’s Weston Library, which reopened in 2015 after an extensive restoration and renovation. The majority of medieval manuscripts are written in Latin, but the era saw the emergence of vernacular English in text. Some of the objects are utilitarian, such as a manual for swan handling; others were subversive, like English annotations on a Latin religious text. For instance the work of an illiterate cowherd called Caedmon who composed hymns based on his dreams, and is often recognized as the first English poet, appears scrawled in English in the margins of a Latin manuscript.

While the skill in an illuminated manuscript like the lavishly painted 800 CE Macregol Gospels is evident, Designing English also considers more mundane books, which are rarely exhibited. Unfinished works and illustrations can reveal the processes behind these books. Wakelin emphasized, though, that the exhibition is not only about “how books were made.” It’s more interested in a more general sense of design, where creators were experimenting with line and color, and image and text, all within different spaces and proportions.

Pages depicting flasks of urine for diagnosing disease, from The Twenty Jordans (MS. Ashmole, 1413). The pictures run across facing pages, so that you can compare samples easily (courtesy Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford)

The greater availability of paper in the 15th century meant more people could make books, with medical texts being some of the most popular. A guide to diagnosing diseases based on the colors of urine — a common approach in the era — has two pages illustrating several flasks, so the reader could readily compare this organized knowledge. A revolving “volvelle” diagram on another manuscript allowed readers to make their own astronomical calculations for the moon and time of night. Scraps of medieval songs on loose pages and herbals further demonstrate how practical usage was important in medieval design.

“People in the Middle Ages, as now, did not only write in the codex: they designed a format of diverse shapes and sizes, as we do — some on ‘writing materials,’ and many in the world of things,” Wakelin said. He added that the exhibition “includes a large number of things that are midway between books and artifacts,” which involve writing or illustration, or the materials of medieval books, but are not necessarily a traditional folding codex.

“King Alfred the Great says, in his preface to Gregory’s manual for clergymen, that every copy had an ‘æstel’ on it. What an ‘æstel’ was is not sure, but etymology suggests it was a pointing tool, to follow the words when reading. This jewel from Alfred’s era seems to be the handle of such a pointer, and written round the side in gold capitals is ‘AELFRED MEC HEHT GEVVYRCAN’. ‘Alfred had me made’ – but did he design it?” (courtesy Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford)

For instance “The Alfred Jewel,” on loan from the Ashmolean Museum, has the inscription “Alfred ordered me to be made.” It’s believed to refer to King Alfred the Great (849-899 CE), who was a leader in the use of English. There are also images of gravestones, as well as an Anglo-Saxon sword, a gold ring, and even food.

“Of course, the medieval food has rotten away, but we are displaying two books which report writing on food,” Wakelin explained. “For one report, we reconstructed it — writing on bread, butter, and an apple; and we’ve included photographs alongside the book of instructions. The apple later became a lovely apple pie.”

Recognizing the design of these manuscripts and objects can in turn inspire contemporary creation, something which Oxford is exploring in Redesigning the Medieval Book. For this complementing show, contemporary book artists were invited to preview Designing English, and then made new works of book art in response, 24 examples of which are on view.

As Wakelin stated, “Spotting such ingenuity of form and function, and identifying it in more familiar terms, allows us to see what might be imitable or inspirational — or challenging — for our own design practice.”

“The artist of this hunting manual draws distinctions (literally, draws) between different ages of deer, which would be hard to identify without these pictures of the growth of their antlers.” (MS. Bodl. 546, fols 2v–3r. Gaston Fébus, The Master of Game, translated by Edward of York between 1406 and 1413; copied between 1413 and 1459, courtesy Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford)

“The first English poet whose name we know is Caedmon (fl. 657–80). An illiterate cowherd at Whitby Abbey, he composed hymns inspired by dreams. The only surviving record of his word are found in Bede’s Latin Ecclesiastical History. Many scribes or readers knew the hymn in English and added it in the margins, as here at the foot of a page in a different ink. In many of these manuscripts, English was an afterthought.” (courtesy Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford)

Gold ring with the words: “Most in mind and in mine heart, loathest from you far to depart.” The ring was found by later antiquaries at a former nunnery, Godstow Priory near Oxford (early 1500s) (courtesy British Museum)

Macregol Gospel: “In the beginning was the word” (late-8th-century or early-9th-century), Latin Gospel, painted in Ireland by Macregol, perhaps abbot of Birr, County Offaly (d. 822), and glossed in the 10th century in English by two scribes. English translations were added to the original Latin text by medieval scholars (MS. Auct. D. 2. 19, fol. 127r., courtesy Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford)

“King Alfred planned a set of useful translations from Latin, like this manual for clergymen. In this copy of Gregory the Great’s translated Pastoral Care, sent between 890 and 897 to Wærferth, Bishop of Worcester, the book ‘speaks’ (bottom left) and tells how Alfred ‘sent me to his scribes north and south’ with an æstel or pointer. Is the Alfred Jewel the æstel? ” (courtesy Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford)

“A copy made around the third quarter of the 15th century of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1390s); at the division between ‘The Tale of Sir Thopas’ and ‘The Tale of Melibee,’ the initial, border, running head and title help the reader to navigate the text.” (MS. Rawl. poet. 223, fol. 183r., courtesy Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford)

Designing English: Graphics on the Medieval Page continues through April 22, 2018 at the Weston Library (Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, Oxford, England).

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print and online media since 2006. She moonlights...