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