By Alex Day, Learning Trainee at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery
How do you engage young people with old books?
The margins of medieval manuscripts are a curious place. In the Bird Book of Hugo Fouilloy, written in the 13th century, there are creatures known as blemmys with heads hovering in their chests. In the margins of The Breviary of Renaud de Bar, a gothic manuscript written in France in 1302, things get arguably stranger; a rabbit jousts a dog whilst riding a snail with a bearded head (pictured). In more manuscripts than you’d imagine, rabbits appear to have taken over the world. Alongside these murderous rabbits, folios from the middle ages abound with serpents that fly, web-footed beings and grotesque hybrids of humans and reptiles, known as ‘drollery’.
Much like our own, the margins present a world turned upside down. And no one is quite sure what all these doodles mean. It is certainly a surprise to find intricately painted toilet-humour beside a sacred text. It’s possible the purpose of such vulgar visions is to moralise the reader (sin and you’ll be roasted alive by lascivious rabbits) or satirise the society. Either way, it grabs your attention and makes you giggle.
Not only are medieval manuscripts funny, they are luxurious. The Lindisfarne Gospels, written in the 8th century on a small island off England’s northeast coast, may have required 130 animal skins to make it. It also involved a rare pigment from the Himalayas known as lapis lazuli and the cover is barnacled with shiny jewels. Not one to take a chance, medieval abbots would attach precious volumes with chains to stop touring scholars from leaving the monastery with them. Such books were worshipped …and sometimes given a tender kiss.
Norwich Castle, a stronghold turned gaol turned museum, is no stranger to literature. At its heyday at the end of the 12th century, it was the administrative capital of East Anglia with a cavernous library of paperwork. In the museum’s collection, we have the 16th century commonplace book of Henry Appleyard and the 15th century Castle Acre Processional, used by monks just outside of Norwich. Thanks to a £20,350 grant from the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust, these superstars of vellum will be preserved and restored in time for display in our new Medieval Gallery. And as it happens, the East Anglian School of Illumination was particularly fond of drollery. The Gorleston Psalter, a 14th century manuscript, is infamous for humorous marginalia such as rabbits (of course) conducting a funeral procession and wielding an axe (pictured).
Such a colourful history deserves to be investigated. Grotesque beasts and bejewelled covers would surely, we reasoned, capture the imaginations of children and families. To coincide with World Book Day 2021, Norwich Castle’s Learning Team launched a brand-new event: Scribe School; a series of creative writing workshops that bring manuscripts to life.
Over February half-term, our virtual scriptorium opened its doors to an ambitious cohort of fledgling scribes. Three workshops (‘Capture the Castle’, ‘Ye Olde Comic Strips’ and ‘Scribe and Scribble’) helped scribes craft their own manuscript using nothing but pen and paper. Each one was an hour long and free to attend and whisks you back in time to 1121 – the year of Henry I’s visit to Norwich Castle.
It was important that Lee Warden (Project Learning and Engagement Officer) and I looked the part. To appear as a master scribe, I borrowed a costume that once dressed a manikin in Norwich Castle’s dungeon, and in my webcam’s foreground, I lit a candle and uploaded a background image of a medieval bedroom. Hooded in hessian and smelling suitably stuffy, we were ready to scribe. When the time came and our screens were full of expectant children and families, our workshops began with a good old stretch to limber our writing muscles. We then tested our ‘quills’ on a test sheet, a process known as a ‘pen trial’, and participants were encouraged to hear they were the perfect age to carry out long hours of scribing.
I then had some alarming news to deliver. To my dishonour, I had been scribing late into the night to finish a manuscript for a noble client and low and behold, the pages caught fire. We urgently needed a new story. At ‘Capture the Castle’, scribes wrote an adventure story inspired by the sights, sounds and smells of medieval Norwich. ‘Ye Olde Comic Strips’ took tales from history and applied them to comic form and our final event in the series, ‘Scribe and Scribble’, journeyed into the art of uncial script and bestiary. We finished our manuscripts just in time for the royal visit. Scribes were hurried along by an animated rabbit that moved across the screen and to focus the mind, each session was accompanied by a playlist of hip-hop classics, like Blackstreet’s ‘No Diggity’, rendered with medieval instruments.
It’s important Scribe School is accessible to all. To support scribes on the autism-spectrum and with SEND, we sent a short film describing these novel sessions; helping to quell any anxiety. Slides were subtitled for the visually impaired and tasks were open-ended and scaffolded with sentence-starters. Each workshop was capped at around 30 participants, like a school’s classroom, to help us offer tailored support and activities were curriculum-linked; offering a healthy dose of ‘edutainment’ during the school holidays. In the end, three workshops sold out and 150 people visited our scriptorium.
What effect did the year 1121 have on our audience? One adult described it as “a life saver for us frazzled parents” and another said it was “a lovely break from home-schooling”. A young participant said what they loved most was “being able to write about poo and fighting”. Scribes were most likely solitary people, but we found joy in a shared experience.
And what relevance does scribing have to our modern lives? Manuscripts are not such a distant history. Until 2017, all laws in the UK that passed through the Houses of Parliament were written onto parchment. And today, marginalia continues to inspire local creative fiction. In Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, the eponymous beast is described as coming from “the illuminated pages of a manuscript”.
Scribe School, with its costumed characters and a cohort of scribes, helps to animate this history. It is an invitation to live amongst it and discover the joy and relevance of old practices. What better way to understand the scribe than by becoming one? It also reminds us of the magic potential books have to transport us. In our scriptorium, the past is just a bunny hop away.