Nov 21, 2016

What is a Gloss? Part 1

Here's the first of a series of posts from Medieval Codes researcher Tristan Taylor:

Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Latin 7980, detail of fol. 5v.

What is a gloss? The term appears with relative ubiquity in scholarship but there is little consensus on what constitutes a gloss. Is a gloss simply a string of text that appears beyond the borders of what modern readers consider the primary text? The primary concern when defining such a term is the beginning. But where do we begin? Can we simply examine historical usage as the foundation, or should we look at the etymological roots of the term? Alternatively we can examine how scholars have labelled glosses functionally; that is, can we categorize glosses based on what value they add to a text? Another avenue of exploration still is the spatial dimensions of glosses: where do they appear on the page? To define such a ubiquitous term, we more likely need to examine all of these dimensions and explore their relations to each other.

Oct 24, 2016

Hierarchy of Decoration

London, British Library MS Royal 18 D II, fol. 6r, top margin

A post from Medieval Codes researcher Hailey Mullock.
Many medieval manuscripts contain elements of decoration, from single-coloured capital letters to fully illuminated pages with illustrations and elaborate borders. The decoration was not only for visual appeal but also worked to organize the text and convey information. Medieval manuscripts were often written in black with few page breaks or divisions, and decoration helped to divide and highlight aspects of a text. In order for the decorations to convey information to the reader, each manuscript, and sometimes text, has its own hierarchy of decoration. The decorative elements often change in size and colour depending on their position and function.

Sep 7, 2016

Seeing the Forest

A frosty web, courtesy of a spider in my back yard. Image: Yin Liu.

The year 2014 was the 25th anniversary of the creation of the World Wide Web. There has been, understandably, a great deal of reflection on the significance of this invention, which is generally accepted to have come into existence when Tim Berners-Lee, a software engineer at CERN, the physics research facility in Switzerland, proposed a hypertext solution for information management there. The original proposal is available on the Web, and it’s quite readable: ‘Vague but exciting,’ in the words of Mike Sendall. I’d like my grant adjudicators to say that about my research.

Apr 21, 2016


It's very difficult to do research on line-fillers in medieval manuscripts. When we searched for 'line filler' on the Web, all we got were advertisements for wrinkle creams. (Try it yourself.) But a line filler, for a manuscript scholar, is a decorative element that continues a line of text to the right margin:

University of Saskatchewan MS Ege 10 (detail)
Line-fillers in medieval manuscripts have a couple of functions. One of these purposes is to create complete lines that reach to margins to create an appearance of balance on the page. Another purpose of the line-fillers was to act as a mnemonic device, to help differentiate pages and mark passages. Christopher de Hamel notes that 'People in the Middle Ages loved to see order and patterns in things, and readers of manuscripts were probably more visual than we are' (de Hamel 2001, p. 28).

Dec 21, 2015

Merry Christmas 2015

Luttrell Psalter, fol. 12r
It's been a very long time since we posted to this blog, and I apologise. Work on the Medieval Codes project is still rolling along, but a lot of it is being done by the student researchers on the team, while the lead investigator (that's me) deals with the shock of life (or sublife) after returning from sabbatical leave. We hope to have lots of good stuff coming in the new year. In the meantime, here's our annual Christmas post.

This time we went to an old friend, the Luttrell Psalter (London, British Library MS Additional 42130). If you have looked at Courtney Tuck's post on the illustrations in this marvellous manuscript, you know that there is no lack of weirdness and wonderfulness in its margins. Here's an example: on fol. 12r, opposite calendar entries listing saints' days for the month of December, is this strange grotesque, which seems to be a scowly winged person with antlers. And they are illuminated antlers, at that. An angel crossed with a reindeer? Has our artist had too much anachronistic Christmas cheer? I don't know what to make of it either.

Let us learn to live with bafflement, and enjoy the holidays. Merry Christmas from fourteenth-century England.

Yin Liu