"Medieval Life" Comes to Parkway Central

By Janine P. RSS Wed, September 2, 2020

What do books and objects from 800 years ago have to do with our present-day concerns?

An exhibition taking shape online and in the Rare Book Department's William B. Dietrich Gallery uses objects from the distant past to illuminate enduring topics like how we practice religion, interact with our government, earn income, build families, and experience the natural environment. The viewer is invited to consider how medieval Europeans thought about their lives and the world around them, and how their concerns relate to our own in the twenty-first century.

The handwritten documents in this exhibition—called manuscripts, from the Latin manus, meaning “hand,” and scriptus, meaning “written”—were made during the medieval period, between 500 and 900 years ago, in England, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. While each manuscript has its own unique history, looking at so many medieval European manuscripts together can tell us something about what people were thinking and doing back then.

"Medieval Life: European Manuscripts in Philadelphia Collections," represents the culmination of a project that digitized most of the medieval and Renaissance manuscripts in Philadelphia area collections. Bibliotheca Philadelphiensis, a Digitizing Hidden Collections grant funded through the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) with support from the Mellon Foundation, has rendered every leaf of these unique works of art into freely available digital files. A collaborative effort of the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries with administative support from Lehigh University Libraries, the comprehensive online resource provides access and discoverability through both a user-friendly interface where the manuscripts can be paged through virtually, as well as through OPenn, the University of Pennsylvania Libraries' machine readable sets of archival images which can be queried with the aid of a number of apps to be made into a project of the end-user's choosing.

To celebrate this groundbreaking resource and in recognition that digitizing objects tends to drive interest in seeing the original, the Free Library will display items from our own extensive collection of pre-modern manuscripts as well as ones borrowed from many of the project's partner institutions. The exhibition was curated by Dot Porter, Curator of Digital Research Services in the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies at Penn and co-Principal Investigator for the CLIR grant.

Though it is true that almost everything on display is from Christian traditions – these are the books that survive in the greatest numbers in American collections from that time period – in Europe, depending on when in the long “medieval” period (500 to 1500) you look, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism all thrived. Currently the Free Library of Philadelphia is co-leading a major project to digitize manuscripts of the Muslim world from Philadelphia collections and Columbia University, thanks to funding from the Council on Library and Information Resources made possible by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. And Philadelphia’s great Hebraica and Judaica from all over the world also deserve attention.

For additional context, the Rare Book department plans a companion display in its Carson Gallery of books and other objects exploring these topics – family, environment, law and justice, the environment, and religion – from a number of diverse traditions and time periods.

The digital exhibition complements our physical exhibition. The items selected are a sample of the larger physical exhibition, which has been postponed due to ongoing concerns related to coronavirus. Look forward to the physical exhibition at Parkway Central Library’s Dietrich Gallery when we plan to open at a later date in 2020. The opening date is yet to be determined but the exhibition will be available once it is safe to welcome visitors to the Rare Book Department.


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