Illuminating Life: Manuscript Pages of the Middle Ages

The manuscripts of the Middle Ages are the source of lively and enduring interest. Their popularity has persisted well into the age of print and digital media, where they continue to command a lasting imaginative appeal. To turn their pages is to make tactile contact with the past. It evokes a sense of continuity and invites comparison. In their pages we find traces of lives long gone—the wear and tear of frequent thumbing, annotations in the margins, obituaries attached to the text—and signs of their importance to their owners, for whom manuscripts were prized and often personalized possessions. In all cases, they were written (scriptum) by hand (manū), and many were illuminated, or embellished with gold and precious pigments and adorned with carefully wrought initials and illustrations. Even with the advent of print and movable type during the fifteenth century, many of these decorated elements remained, evidencing the longstanding and important connection between books and material culture.

Of the manuscripts and printed books on display here, many are illuminated, some lavishly, while others are more standard and less ornate editions. Yet they all brim with signs of use and cast an illuminating light on life in the later Middle Ages and beyond. Books were far less common during this period than they are today, though they nevertheless served important educational and devotional roles for those who owned or used them. Several of those displayed here contain annotations made by students, teachers, and others who studied the text, while others were used by priests and preachers who provided religious guidance and instruction to their communities. The Psalter and the Book of Hours were objects used for individual prayer and devotion, while the Office of the Dead bears signs of its use by a religious community who turned its pages on many occasions. These manuscripts and printed books (incunables), whose contents range from literary to liturgical and legal to theological, invite us to consider historical change and continuity as we turn their pages. We contemplate the decline in the centrality of religious observance since the period of these manuscripts, while at the same time we recognize a certain continuity between then and now as we encounter the manuscripts’ myriad of marginal annotations.

Nine of the books on display were loaned to the University of Guelph from Les Enluminures, a rare book and manuscript dealer with offices in Chicago, New York, and Paris. They come to us as part of Les Enluminures’ Manuscripts in the Curriculum II program, which provides institutions and their students with an unparalleled opportunity to work directly with original manuscripts (an activity usually reserved for researchers and collectors). The three remaining texts come from the University of Guelph’s own Archival and Special Collections. This exhibit, produced by four experiential learning classes at the undergraduate and graduate levels in conjunction with faculty and staff members, is designed to illuminate our understanding of the Middle Ages through the pages of its manuscripts.



Curated by students at the University of Guelph in History 4700: Matthew Belo, Tyler Boothby, Sara Filipopoulos, Judy Li, Evangeline Mann, Mathieu Martel, Keegan McNaught, Andrew Northey, Talia Sicoly, Nicholas Snow, Josie Thomas, Paul Watson, Broghan White, Margarita Wilson, Kristian Zlatanovski

The library is committed to ensuring that members of our user community with disabilities have equal access to our services and resources and that their dignity and independence is always respected. If you encounter a barrier and/or need an alternate format, please fill out our Library Print and Multimedia Alternate-Format Request Form. Contact us if you’d like to provide feedback: