Exhibition

The art of reading in the Middle Ages

Introduction

A scene from the New Testament in the centre: Christ rises from his tomb on the third day. The scene on the right: the prophet Jonah is thrown onto land after three days in the belly of the whale.

Before we can embark on our journey, it is necessary to have a closer look at the exhibition title: The art of reading in the Middle Ages. We usually call the period in European history from Classical Antiquity to the Early Modern Period the 'Middle Ages', which more or less covers the years 500-1500 CE. It is important to bear in mind that this term is a later invention and that 'medieval' people did not believe they lived in an intermediary period. Rather, they saw their age as a continuation of Antiquity. For this exhibition, the end date is extended to 1550, thus fully including the (gradual) shift from written to printed communication.

Today, we are inclined to think that literacy was a rare skill in the Middle Ages, mastered only by a small elite of monks, priests and courtiers. This is an anachronistic view, deeming a person literate if they can read and write, and illiterate if not. However, many people in the Middle Ages could read but not write - even Charlemagne, according to his biographer Einhard. Furthermore, reading exists in a multitude of forms. One can read images, such as paintings and stained glass windows (the ‘comic books’ of medieval times). Even by hearing, one can read: during the Middle Ages, it was common for texts to be read aloud in front of an audience.

Images interact with the text, both today and in the past. They could be employed as a mere illustration of the topics discussed in the text, but in some genres images are used to intensify the message. Especially in religious books, images could act as instruments to affect the spirituality of the reader. An image of the Virgin Mary praying or of the Crucifixion allows the reader (or perhaps more correctly – the viewer) to immerse themselves deeper in the experience and the appropriate affections. Lastly, images help structuring a text. A good example is the image below. This historiated initial, showing the execution of St. Lawrence on a gridiron, has multiple functions. It helps the reader to easily recognize the correct prayers for the feast of this saint. Simultaneously, it evokes emotion and makes use of the visual to imprint the saint’s torments and fate deeper in the reader's mind than only words could do.

Historiated initial showing the execution of St. Lawrence on a gridiron

Above: Historiated initial showing the execution of St. Lawrence on a gridiron (Museum Meermanno-Westreenianum, 10 A 16, f. 209r).

Furthermore, medieval scribes used images and decoration to structure their texts and present the information in a clear and easily accessible way. The division of texts in chapters, with headers, specific letter sizes and coloured initials to capture the reader’s eye and increase overview, is a medieval invention. Originally developed for copies of the Bible with glosses or commentaries, it was soon adapted for other types of texts, such as theological works and law books.

A 12th-century copy of the Psalms with marginal and interlinear glosses. The use of different text sizes, coloured initials and rubrics allows the reader to easily understand the different layers and organization of the text

Communication through both text and image was not restricted to books. Charters (authenticated written forms of legal acts) were another type of document where both aspects conveyed meaning. The seal represented the authority of the issuer and was as important as the contents of the document. Even within the seal itself, text and image were connected: the image of the seated ruler in full regalia was accompanied by the legend, identifying the person or dignity. To fully read these legal documents, one needed to assess the visual and material aspects alongside the text. The importance of this combination was recognised in the Middle Ages: one of the most common addresses found in charters is: ‘to all who will see this charter and hear it being read out (aloud)’.

Below: The great seal of Maximilian of Austria and Mary of Burgundy, appended to a charter of 1481. Both are depicted crowned and on horseback, identified by their coat-of-arms. The two-line legend surrounding the depiction gives all their titles.

The great seal of Maximilian of Austria and Mary of Burgundy, appended to a charter of 1481. Both are depicted crowned and on horseback, identified by their coat-of-arms. The two-line legend surrounding the depiction gives all their titles (BL Burn 346, f. 116r).

Retaining this example of charters, reading can occur in multiple ways. It can be personal and private – as it is mostly today – or solemn and public. By reading important texts aloud in front of an audience, information was made known to a larger group of people, while at the same time acquiring extra authority as it was now common knowledge. In fact, the Dutch word for ‘charter’ (oorkonde) as well as its German cognate Urkunde, is derived from the words ‘to hear’ and ‘to make known’. Examples include city privileges, often read aloud by officials in the market square or in front of the city hall.

The written word has multiple functions. It is used in liturgy to appease and praise God. It is used in studying to gather knowledge. It is used in a juridical and socio-economical context to draw up agreements and contracts, thereby ensuring the legal position of the parties involved. In commerce, written contracts and agreements were becoming ever more common as merchants travelled, traded over longer distances, and engaged in more difficult financial enterprises (such as buying on credit). It is used for leisure, by reading literary texts and poetry. The Middle Ages have given rise to many classics in world literature, such as the Roman de la Rose, The Canterbury Tales or the Divina Commedia. Reading is more than understanding signs and images, but also to interpret them in the correct context. This is found most prominently in medieval exegesis, where Biblical texts were read and explained in four distinct ways: historically, typologically, tropologically and anagogically. According to these four ‘senses’, the Bible can firstly be understood as an account of historical events. Typologically, events from the Old Testament are coupled with events from Christ’s life and are seen as ‘precursors’ to the New Testament. The tropological reading allows one to understand the deeper moral message, while the anagogical reading refers to the events at the end of time, such as the return of Christ, the last judgement, heaven, and hell. These different methods of reading and explaining are not confined to the Bible, but can be used on other important medieval texts.

Above: In the centre, Christ rises from his tomb on the third day. This scene from the New Testament is linked to the scene on the right, where the prophet Jonah is thrown onto land after three days in the belly of the whale; a famous example of a typological explanation of the Bible.

Medieval reading culture was by no means a collection of secluded communities, operating next to each other but not with each other. All groups were tightly connected, living in the same society. One needed to be a member of the clergy to enter university, but these institutions were located in the heart of the city, and the local economy (especially taverns) thrived through their presence. At courts, the nobility gathered together with ecclesiastical dignitaries (who often had worldly powers), while royal, noble and urban administrative institutions increasingly sought to employ people who had visited universities and were trained in law.