The manuscripts in this exhibition, which range in date from the early twelfth to the late fifteenth century, all contain images of books in the process of being made, presented, exchanged, written or read. The images in their pages testify to the central place of the book in many, if not all, aspects of medieval life, part of an ongoing process of the textualization of culture central to the European Middle Ages that embraces and comprehends developments as varied as the history and transmission of the heritage of Antiquity (Nos. 7-8), the creation and codification of literary traditions, the establishment of performance practices for a corpus of liturgical chant (Nos. 4 & 9), the regulation of personal piety (No. 5) or, in the case of the tournament book (No. 3), the rules of chivalric competition, and the invention of new forms of pedagogy (No. 10). Images of books in books not only document the various settings in which manuscripts were used or even how they were employed, they also testify to a self-conscious culture of the word in which books served as a symbols of authority, access and authenticity. Author portraits attach a text to an authoritative originator or identify him as a vehicle of the Holy Spirit. Dedication portraits pay homage to patrons, who participate in the process of creation by lending their authority to the authors who transmit, translate or create works at their behest. They also associate recipients with the virtues, knowledge, and expertise associated with the text. Images further serve as cues to how a given text should be received, for example, by inviting readers to engage in debate or peer over the shoulders of other participants. They can also provide a symbolic gloss or identify book learning as the key to wisdom. As seen in these books, reading was by no means always a private or silent process: it could involve public performance, as could writing, to the extent it involved dictation to an amanuensis. Text and image, writing and picturing, were much closer to one another in much of the Middle Ages than they are today. Just as the calligraphy and illumination that constitute the art of the book underwent profound changes over the course of centuries, so too the practices of reading and writing that they supported and enabled themselves have a history. At a time when the book is undergoing a process of profound transformation, medieval manuscripts give us cause to consider the ways in which the book as a medium itself served to shape the content and experience of reading. Tolle, lege, “Take up and read,” in the words of Augustine. To which one might add, introspectare! Look inside! Take a look!
Jeffrey F. Hamburger, Kuno Francke Professor of German Art & Culture, and Chair, Medieval Studies Committee, Harvard University