Durham Cathedral’s stony interiors, relic-filled spaces, and halls echoing with choir song was a fitting setting for Quadrivium‘s twelfth event, which focused on how we can explore the medieval period through material media. Stepping inside, the cathedral flaunts the richness of its past through the visual and material, as you gaze up at its carved stone arches, and explore the libraries and collections that are contained within.
The day began with a session on vellum led by Aditi Nafde. Vellum is prepared animal skin that is cleaned, bleached, and stretched to form writing material for manuscripts in the medieval period. This material was by no means cheap, and its use in books, especially once the cheaper and more easily printed upon paper emerges, denoted the quality and social status of the object itself.
We clustered into a room in Durham Cathedral’s Palace Green Library, and were set the task of leafing through several vellum manuscripts before us, asking ourselves what we can tell about these objects without looking at the text, only the materiality of the book itself. Some key clues might be the size and shape of the manuscripts and the text written on them, the collation of the pages, handwriting and annotations, and the binding. We had before us texts ranging from Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde to a 14th-century recipe book. One material aspect of these texts that illuminated their production and meaning was the use of space – where a devotional poem compiled by John Lydgate, with its precise clerical hand encased by wide margins, might indicate the luxury nature of this object, the worm-holed collection of recipes had every corner crammed with words.
This session was followed by a tour of Durham Cathedral, which included its Open Treasure exhibition. Here we saw the fragmented wooden coffin of St Cuthbert, alongside the treasures retrieved when his shrine was excavated in the 19th-century, including a stole, a gold pectoral cross, and even a wooden comb.
The afternoon was spent with Magnus Williamson as we explored the medieval voice through the medium of music books. These books ranged from the 11th- to the 16th-century, and we observed the changes in notation and layout as production of these items and their uses developed over the centuries. These objects are clearly performative and social, and one fragment of a table book had four vocal parts that were pasted adjacently on the page so that each singer could stand on one side of the paper and see their part (see below left-hand image). Such books and sheets are physically organised for a specific material use, a use that is often social, even allowing men and women (whose parts were often together on one sheet) to share physical contact as they share and sing from these books.
That evening we returned to Newcastle and met at Blackfriar’s Restaurant where we had a talk from Giles Gasper on food, as we discussed medieval ‘recipes’ discovered in Durham Cathedral’s medical collections from the period. The gastronomical and the medical see much overlap in these texts, with many early ‘recipes’ being for aphrodisiacs. The texts themselves were found hidden amongst other ‘recipes’ for ointments and remedies, giving both food and these recipe books a dual identity in how they were used. These recipes were for sauces, often bitter to taste with a heavy reliance on vinegar and garlic, and even more international flavours such as coriander and ginger. These books also pre-date the popularity of sugar cane that would transform Western diets, creating a preference for the sweet, in the early modern period. This final session was followed by a medieval banquet, including pork, beef and raisin pie, saffron butter beans, fig rolls, and traditional mead.
I was unable to attend the second day of the conference, which included talks from Rob Collins on stone, and from Johanna Green on digitising medieval materials and medias. The theme that runs across all sessions, though, is how much we can gain when we consider materiality alongside text. The layout of a music sheet, the binding of a religious poem, a hidden recipe, can all denote meaning beyond what is found in the words themselves. Here we see objects speak for themselves, allowing us to piece together history, ‘reading’ their materiality for clues, using all our senses to analyse their meanings.