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Union students’ medieval quires praised by paleography expert

Union sophomore Katherine Kipp works on a manuscript quire as part of Gavin Richardson's Middle Ages class on Chaucer. (Photo by Morris Abernathy)
Union sophomore Katherine Kipp works on a manuscript quire as part of Gavin Richardson's Middle Ages class on Chaucer. (Photo by Morris Abernathy)

JACKSON, Tenn.Jan. 2, 2007 – Texts are cheap these days, according to Union University English professor Gavin Richardson. That’s why he wanted his students to appreciate the value of books from ages past.

“We don’t even have to buy a book anymore,” Richardson said. “You can get an e-book. You can get texts on your Palm Pilot, on your Blackberry. I want to make my students aware that texts meant more in the Middle Ages. Owning a deluxe manuscript in the Middle Ages is a status symbol. It’s like owning an SUV today.”

To accomplish his goal, Richardson assigned students in his class, “The Middle Ages: Chaucer,” during the fall 2006 semester to produce a manuscript quire using medieval practices. A quire was a subsection of a manuscript that was inscribed with text, and then the quires were all bound together to form a single manuscript.

For the assignment, Richardson divided his students into four groups. Each group worked with a piece of goatskin to produce a quire, using dipping inks and goose feathers which they cut into quill pens.

Each member in a group had a different responsibility. Junior Racheal Pressnell did the border artwork for her group’s project.

“I spent at least 24 man hours on that project,” Pressnell said. “I put a lot of time into it.”

Pressnell said she enjoyed her labor, and that the project gave her an appreciation for the value of books in the Middle Ages.

“It was a wonderful artistic break amid all of the papers I had to write this semester,” she said. “I really appreciated the idea of working with medieval methods and just the feel of the inks and the vellum, and I wanted to do a good job. It gave me a much greater respect for book making in general, and a much greater respect for the arts of literature of that period.”

Sophomore Katherine Kipp was the scribe for her group, and said she spent much of a weekend writing the text for her group’s quire -- the creation account from Genesis in Latin.

“It made me appreciate how difficult it must have been to produce a book in the Middle Ages,” Kipp said. “I really enjoyed it, just to be able to write in the Middle Ages way.”

Richardson said he didn’t know what to expect at the beginning, but that he was pleased with the efforts of his students. He publicized the project among some colleagues and received positive feedback from many of them – including Christopher de Hamel, author of one of the textbooks Richardson uses for the class.

“When he writes and says he’s been looking at these student quires with delight and astonishment, it takes a lot to astonish the Corpus Christi College of Cambridge paleographer,” Richardson said. “He says he’s never heard of a medieval English class doing this. That’s high praise.”

To see samples of the students’ work, visit www.uu.edu/personal/grichard/Paleography Exercise/paleo_frames.htm.


Media contact: Tim Ellsworth, news@uu.edu, 731-661-5215

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