Medieval History, Illuminated: Book Historian Erik Kwakkel Uncovers the Past Through Books

Damaged binding in Leiden University Library shows hidden fragment. Photo by Erik Kwakkel.

At Medieval Books, book historian Erik Kwakkel brings the world of medieval manuscripts to life. Erik is a lecturer at Leiden University, the oldest university in the Netherlands, and blogs about this specialized topic in fresh ways. His posts appeal to academics and experts in the field, but also general readers intrigued by his commentary, discoveries, and parallels between medieval and modern times. Here, he talks about a day in the life of a medieval book historian, the benefits of blogging, and getting people excited about history.


What does a typical day look like for you?

Erik Kwakkel
Photo of Erik Kwakkel by P.H.J.W. Schipper.

First, I bring the kids to school, and the rest of the day evolves around medieval books. I study most through digital images — how different my field has become over the past decade, with all these wonderful online image databases! The objects I’m interested in are scattered around the world and digital photographs are an easy way of seeing a lot of them in a short amount of time. A few times per week, I study them in the flesh — an apt description considering that most manuscripts I look at are made from animal skin.

I also teach manuscript courses at Leiden University, and preparing for my classes takes a big chunk out of my day. There are few manuscript scholars and their numbers are decreasing worldwide (the field is a popular domain for budget cuts). So, it’s important to get a new generation interested in the objects: teaching courses about manuscripts and blogging about them are key.

Blogging, by nature, puts us in front of a screen. But your work is more hands-on, focused on ancient books and artifacts. What are the challenges of blogging about old, dusty manuscripts?

While I can show on Twitter and my blog what manuscripts look like, I cannot share their smell and feel.

While I can show on Twitter and my blog what manuscripts look like, I cannot share their smell and feel. There is nothing like the smell of a medieval book, especially those that haven’t been opened for a long time. Touch is important too, because such a direct interaction with the past conveys what the famous historian Johan Huizinga called “the historical sensation”: the feeling of excitement you get when you handle a historical artifact, in an archive or a library, for example.

Another challenge relates to the discrepancy between what the normal medieval manuscript looks like and what people think they look like. Very few manuscripts actually contain color and decoration, while those that are shown on exhibition and in social media are pretty books — and for good reason, because this is how you draw a crowd. Rather than only show beautiful manuscripts, which are the exception, I include a lot of “average” — non-illuminated — manuscripts as well. It takes an effort to “sell” these, but readers get a better sense of what medieval book production was really like.

Photo by Erik Kwakkel.
Entry in foundling book of Leiden’s Holy Spirit Orphanage: “Anonymous child found in the Church of St Peter on the altar,” 1491. (Erfgoed Leiden, HGW, Archiefnr. 519, Inv. nr. 3384.) Photo by Erik Kwakkel.

How has your blog made it easier for you to share your research?

A blog allows you to build up a reservoir of mini essays that can have an exceptionally long life and which are given new life all the time — not just by myself, but also by others.

With my blog, I can show interesting finds quicker and to a broader audience, and with less effort than through other means, such as traditional publications. I frequently do public lectures and write for printed non-expert publications, but blogging is a much quicker and more creative medium.

I also find it quite useful that I can draw attention to a specific post when need or opportunity calls for it, like a discussion on Twitter or when I want my students to read about a certain phenomenon. A blog allows you to build up a reservoir of mini essays that can have an exceptionally long life and which are given new life all the time — not just by myself, but also by others.

What has been your most exciting find?

Two years ago, I worked with my students in the Bibliotheca Thysiana, a seventeenth-century library in Leiden. I was teaching them about medieval fragments, pages or snippets from medieval books that were recycled by binders in the early-modern period. They used cut-up (old-fashioned) medieval books to support the binding. Among the fragments in the library was a whole pile that came from a single binding, and it turned out to be an archive of internal messages from a fifteenth-century court near Heidelberg (Germany). The notes referred to the daily routine at the court — quite unusual. For example, one read: “Please go to the city to buy some roses and make sure they are not yet in bloom.”

This side of daily life is not commonly reported on, simply because the notes would be thrown out after use — and they were, I guess, except we fished them out of the bookbinding again. I blogged about the find, but I also used the notes in a post about “texting” in medieval times, which is an apt parallel.

Photo of the hidden archive (and the bookbinding it came from) by Giulio Menna.

From your posts on medieval selfies to name tags, you have a knack for making your research — and medieval history in general — fresh and relevant. What has your blog and online presence taught you about what works — and what doesn’t?

I have learned a lot from simply trying things out, both with my image stream on Twitter and with the blog. I know from my experience as a public speaker that drawing parallels to modern times helps people to connect to something as “alien” as a medieval book made from animal skin, whose pages were filled with a quill. I frequently publish posts with such a modern link, because our interaction with information has not changed all that much. To make a post work, it also helps to include images that illustrate the text well, particularly if the photographs are also visually stimulating in their own right. A good example are the images in my post “The Skinny on Bad Parchment,” which discusses how medieval individuals dealt with damaged leaves and what we can learn from damage and repairs. The images in this post are particularly delicious.

I know from my experience as a public speaker that drawing parallels to modern times helps people to connect to something as ‘alien’ as a medieval book made from animal skin, whose pages were filled with a quill.

Photo by Erik Kwakkel.
Name tags of foundlings, fifteenth century. Top one reads: “This child is Bartholomew.” (Erfgoed Leiden, HGW, Archiefnr. 519, Inv. nr. 3384.) Photo by Erik Kwakkel.

You focus on the quirky bits of medieval book culture. If medieval monks were to study our material culture, what things would they find the strangest or most exciting?

Photo by Erik Kwakkel.
Classical manuscript in Leiden University Library. Photo by Erik Kwakkel.

I think medieval monks would love the internet — especially if they were able to avoid certain inappropriate websites. They were very keen on having the latest knowledge on a certain topic, just like us today. They were also very busy finding out if the book they owned contained any mistakes. We see medieval monks correct texts all the time. For this reason, they would probably love to browse the web. And what to think of high-resolution images as those presented for free on e-codices? The images are easier to read than the real manuscripts, thanks to the incredible zoom function.

I think monks would also be surprised by how quickly we are able to reproduce text, on the printing press, but particularly on the copying machine. These wonderful devices would take months and months of work out of their hands, because copying a single Bible could take as long as a year. Then again, medieval monks probably wouldn’t know what to do with themselves, given that copying with the quill was a big part of their daily routine.

The medieval period is often grossly misrepresented in popular culture — Game of Thrones comes to mind as a faux-“middle ages” narrative. As a historian, does that bother you?

Photo by Erik Kwakkel.
Sixteenth-century bookbindings with title labels in the Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel. Photo by Erik Kwakkel.

I don’t mind this at all because I am an opportunist. If a large audience gets interested in medieval times through Game of Thrones or historical fiction, that is great. To keep the Middle Ages relevant and accessible, we need these large popular platforms. However, I do mind the websites and Twitter accounts run by individuals whose only aim is to make money. I will not mention them here, but there are plenty of historical Twitter accounts that post splashy images to attract attention — but provide incorrect information.

It is especially poor practice when the source of the images is not credited. Libraries digitize their collections and offer them, free of cost, for us to look at and use in blog posts. The only thing we need to do is to credit them. We need to be thankful that these institutions offer this service for free. This is why I always accompany the images on my blog with the details of the institution and the manuscript number, and include links to these online resources.

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Are there any medieval artists you’d recommend for anyone who’s interested in digging deeper, but might be daunted by the period’s reputation?

If you want to get a taste for manuscripts, I’d recommend browsing e-codices or read the blog of the British Library. A good read about medieval books is The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. His medieval Sherlock Holmes is an absolute delight, and it shows you a more or less accurate depiction of daily life in the monastery and its scriptorium — although I think in reality the mortality rate was much lower.


Read more from Erik Kwakkel at his blog, Medieval Books, and follow him on Twitter (@erik_kwakkel) and Tumblr (Erik Kwakkel).

February 29, 2016Books, History, Interviews,