Bodleian Library reveals the skills and innovations of the very first graphic designers of English on the page, from King Alfred to Chaucer
When we think of illuminated manuscripts of the Anglo Saxon and early English period most of us probably conjure images of texts written almost entirely in Latin. Indeed, for almost a thousand years most texts written in England were produced in Latin, the common European language.
Yet beyond this firmly established tradition, the first examples of written English were actually taking root alongside. And even if these books in English were often improvisatory and homespun, they were just as inventive and creative – as the Bodleian’s Designing English exhibition reveals.
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“It is absolutely true that the majority of medieval manuscripts are in Latin,” says curator Daniel Wakelin, Professor of Medieval English Palaeography at the University of Oxford, “but English was copied from way, way back.
“Even beyond our exhibition, if you look at inscriptions on artefacts around the country, which obviously we can’t chisel out of walls and bring in, English is everywhere.”
Wakelin’s exhibition traces the earliest uses of this vernacular English, from illicit annotations on Latin texts to more everyday jottings in ephemeral formats, in a celebration of the imagination and skill of the early writers in English.
Drawing on the early manuscripts collection of the Bodleian, together with loans from the Ashmolean and British Museums, the exhibition explores all elements of design, from the materials, such as the size and shape of animal skins used to create parchment, to the design of texts for different uses, such as for performing songs, plays or music.
In an age when books were made uniquely by hand, each book was an opportunity for design innovation and the exhibition looks at the skills of these very early specialists who worked to preserve, clarify, adorn, authorize and interpret writing in English.
“English books were a little bit less institutionalised,” says Wakelin, “and their making was a little bit more improvisatory, sometimes even a bit make do and mend. So we’re interested in the way that people have had to make books for themselves outside of the grander traditions.”
Yet one of the first exhibits visitors will encounter is a wholly authoritative book, King Alfred’s Pastoral Care together with the famous Alfred Jewell, both of which were made on the command of King Alfred. The latter, an ornate enamel and gold jewel contains the inscription ‘Alfred ordered me to be made’.
“That’s an attempt to reaffirm the use of English after the Vikings have run over the country and caused havoc, it’s kind of like a rear-guard defence.
“But we’ve also got three copies of the Bible from around 1400 and if you were caught owning one of those, you were likely to be burnt alive and the book burnt with you. But lots have survived.
“It’s bit of a mystery as to who did own the hundreds of copies that do survive, but Oxford was a place where it was probably translated; it was home of the heretics and the rebels, so it’s nice to have them on show here.”
As well as King Alfred’s books and the collection of highly dangerous and incendiary Bibles in English (one of which was owned by Henry VI who was presumably above suspicion), the exhibition features a beautifully illustrated Chaucer, and another work of English poetry Caedman’s Hymn, which is considered to be the first poem written in English.
Caedman was an illiterate cow herd at Whitby Abbey in the late 600s who one day had a dream in which he was inspired to write poetry in praise of God. Luckily for him, the Abbess, St Hilda, was wise enough to recognise that he wasn’t ‘mad’ and she ordered her scribes to write his words down.
“We’ve got the official account in Latin of how this great cow herd had done all this,” says Wakelin, “and then they don’t bother to give you the English poem – someone else has had to add it in the margin later. It’s done neatly and rather lovingly with a little box round it, but it’s very much an afterthought.”
By the 15th century, when paper became more widely available and people were beginning to use everyday handwriting, more ordinary people were able to write, and there is a mini-explosion of self-made books in English. Medical texts and practical manuals with tips and diagrams were particularly popular among these amateur book makers who lovingly made, kept and preserved their creations.
“These are some of my favourite exhibits when ordinary people were suddenly much more able to write for themselves – and they do, they feed on it, kind of like when people seized on microblogging.”
But beyond the written English, Wakelin says the design of these books reveal a sense of innovation and a period when everyone it seems became an amateur graphic designer.
“Try and set out something by hand neatly,” he says, “and it can often end up a dog’s breakfast. These people had that challenge on every page – you couldn’t ask Word to do the centring or the justifying, you had to be a stylish bookmaker, even if you were just copying down a shopping list.”
Something that isn’t a mere shopping list is the volvelle diagram, the book of magical charms, colourful drawings and diagrams for doctors. With their revolving parts, arms and arrows that you position to gain some sort of insight into the workings of lunar medicine, they are among the most intriguing yet puzzling artefacts in the exhibition.
According to the time of day, the hour and the position of the moon, the owner would work out whether it was auspicious time for bloodletting or medical treatment.
Another intriguing self-made book is the Worcestershire Almanac, which dates to around 1389, and is full of useful information including zodiac signs and the labours of the month, all set within a useful 12-panel concertina design that allowed the user to flip between information about astrology and seasonal agriculture.
Other charts with lunar information include a Brontology, which was used for predicting the future by the currents of thunder.
“It has some wonderful bits of advice,” says Wakelin, “if it thunders in July for example fools will take over the world, I think that might have happened at some point…
“And then if it thunders in September rich men will die but there will be a good harvest. It is kind of ludicrous fortune-telling but it’s rather brilliantly done – again with the folded sheet breaking up the months and little pictures for each prediction.”
These old printed materials in English might be eccentric, but apart from offering an intriguing and surprising history of vernacular English literature, they each have something inherently individual that links us vividly to the past.
“It’s that interest in things that have a human connection,” suggests Wakelin, “because even though these objects are often made by anonymous people, they’re a bit rough and ready and you can see the traces of the person who made them.
“You can see that somebody made a mistake there or had to chisel, paint or erase something here, so there’s that kind of immediacy – a human connection which I think we forget in digital media. You hold your e-reader or a laptop or a phone, and it’s just not as distinctive or as powerful as an object made by hand.”
Designing English: Graphics on the Medieval Page is at the Bodleian Library from December 1 2017 – April 22 2018
To show the likeness of these medieval documents to modern craft, Designing English will, until 11 March 2018, be exhibited alongside Redesigning the Medieval Book: a display of contemporary book arts inspired by the exhibition. The exhibited contemporary artworks include calligraphy, prints, embroidery, pop-up books, videos, games and jewellery.
The Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford is the largest university library system in the United Kingdom. It includes the principal University library – the Bodleian Library – which has been a legal deposit library for 400 years, as well as 27 libraries across Oxford including major research libraries…