Puzzling Through Early Medieval Manuscripts: An In-Class Exercise

Whenever I talk with fellow art historians about teaching, one common question that arises is how to get our students to be more active in their observations of artworks. How do we cultivate (and inspire a love of) looking at art, rather than simply seeing or scanning it? One traditional–and effective–method is to encourage students to draw, but in some students this merely compounds the anxiety, as they get too hung up on their drawing skills to reap the benefits of the exercise. “Slow Looking” assignments have gotten a fair amount of attention recently as another way to develop students’ observational skills (see here and here for excellent discussions of the approach). I love slow looking assignments and have incorporated them into nearly all my courses, but they have their limitations. The primary drawback, as I see it, is that such exercises are necessarily open-ended: if you are going to ask a student to spend one or more hours looking at a work of art, their experience is naturally going to be more intuitive and exploratory. That is to say, they will look and look (and boy will they–my students love these exercises), but they don’t look purposefully. There is no other goal than developing a deeper familiarity and aesthetic understanding of the work.

Even with the tremendous value of getting students (especially millenials) to spend so much time looking and observing, slow looking assignments privilege a certain kind of aesthetic experience, one which is conceived as under-determined, meditative, and primarily structured by the formal qualities of the work. Questions of symbolism, narrative, and concept are understood to arise out of this experience. Art historians will recognize this approach as culturally constructed–specifically post-Kantian and modernist–and we need to recognize that it thus miscasts the experience of pre-modern or non-Western artworks. As beneficial as slow looking assignments are, they do not serve all artworks equally well.

1 - Book of Kells, f. 8r 2. Book of Kells, f. 124r 3. Book Of Kells, F. 130R

[editors note: The images in the post correspond to those in the PDF uploaded in the hypertext below.]

This exercise serves to structure a looking experience more appropriate to its art. The initial reaction of most students first encountering the manuscript art of the early medieval British Isles is one of awe and bedazzlement. The carpet pages and display lettering found in the books is both entrancing and overwhelming, and the intricacy of the interlace and other patterns is such that these pages would seem custom-made for slow looking exercises. But there is good reason to think that such an exercise, for the reasons just mentioned, would be at odds with the visual practices of the time. Specifically, there is a lot of evidence that early medieval makers and beholders valued visual puzzles, and saw compositions such as these not as potential transcendent experiences, but as conundrums that needed to be parsed and solved. Rather than the open-ended experience of a slow looking assignment, then, students need to approach these works more as a challenge, as a problem to be solved.

The in-class exercise is designed to help students move past the eye-popping qualities of Insular display scripts and start to think about them in sophisticated ways. It was inspired by a paleography exercise Michael T. Orr used in his classes when I was an undergraduate at Lawrence University. It works best in smaller classes (<25 students) at the intermediate or seminar level. It takes about 30 minutes of class time.

4. Book of Kells, f. 183r 5. Book of Kells, f. 285r  6. Book of Kells, f. 292r


Print off reproductions pages from Insular gospel books featuring display scripts, and also the transcriptions of what those pages say (all included in this plan). Print color versions if at all possible – they are much easier to read, and the use of color in these pages is both interesting and significant (as Heather Pulliam’s work is bearing out).

Before the class, spend a little time yourself with the transcriptions working out the lettering, so that you’re familiar with the pages.


Divide the class into groups of two or three students, and give each group a picture. Ask them to come up with a transcription of the page (you’ll probably have to explain what a transcription is). They’ll protest that they don’t know Latin, but they don’t need to – all they’re shooting for is a transcription, and these pages are mostly written with letters from the Roman alphabet used in English. (tip: if you happen to know that there’s a student with strong Latin, give her or his group a page with more text) Let the students struggle with the pages for about 5-10 minutes (depending on the level of success / enjoyment / frustration you observe), and then go around and give each group the transcription for the page.

The transcriptions will boggle their minds. They’ll laugh, sigh, and possibly cuss. Give them 5-10 more minutes to match up the transcription with the page. When it’s all over, put a couple of the pages up on the screen and ask someone from the group to come up and work through the page for their classmates. They’ll want you to provide the “answers” for the parts they couldn’t make sense of, so be ready for that. Do this a few times, but not for all of them in the big classes

12064288_10205203793119720_884130504_n 8. Gospels of St Chad, p. 221 9. Lindisfarne Gospels, f. 29r


The discussion will naturally revolve around a very basic question: why did they do this? You may want to show images of the Gospels of St. Augustine of Canterbury (Rome, 6th c.) and the Codex Amiatinus (Wearmouth-Jarrow, l. 7th–e. 8th c.) to remind students that Insular scribes had access to and could produce manuscripts in the Roman style, and that working in the Insular style is a choice – it’s not simply that this is just how they made books back then. Also, for context, you may want to show normal text pages from Lindisfarne or Kells, since students sometimes get the mistaken impression that the display pages are representative of the whole book.

So: why were these pages made to be so hard to read?

The students have struggled with it and giggled over it and are loosened up, so they’ll talk. Some things they’ll say:

  • To show devotion to god.
    • Certainly true. Even though it’s a fairly simple and obvious explanation, it still shouldn’t be discounted.
  • To hide what’s written, because literacy was only for a select few.
    • Probably true. These pages may have served to reinforce the hierarchical divisions between literate, semi-literate, and illiterate, and between learned and unlearned.
    • There’s good evidence that at least some of these books were displayed publicly in ritual settings, and also good evidence that many of the laity would have recognized some of the letters, without being able to read the language. In that respect, modern-day students are about as (il)literate as many medieval people who would have seen these books.
    • But consider supernatural readers, too – these pages may also be hiding the text from the Evil Eye.
  • To show that the bible is difficult and that devout readers need to work at it.
    • Probably true. This is related to, but distinct from the previous point: even those who were highly literate needed to be humble before the complexities of scripture.
  • To “familiarize” the text by setting it in the pagan visual styles that beholders would have been accustomed to.
    • Possibly true. Michelle Brown makes a fine case for Lindisfarne’s “runey” aesthetic being part of a project to localize the book within the local cult of Cuthbert. But I think this interpretation should be balanced by a recognition that most of these books were made two to three hundred years after the spread of Christianity through the isles, and were also made in a monastic context: this is not so much a “conversion” context.

Some prompts for further discussion:

  • Consider the cross-linguistic play on these pages, such as the phi on the last line of the Lindisfarne Matthew page (spelling “filii”). Greek was hardly known, probably the scribe just knew the alphabet and that was it.(The students in fraternities and sororities will identify with this) Why bring it in here?
    • Perhaps to show off some fancy knowledge, to remind readers that the Gospels were written in Greek, and to emphasize the global, polylinguistic nature of the church. The runic letters may have been used for similar reasons, as well as to localize the manuscripts, as noted above.
  • Why all the different letter shapes? Why make an M so many different ways?
    • Again, difficulty. But I think that there’s also some experimental semiotics at work here: the scribes are fascinated by the fact that you can make letters all sorts of different shapes, and still have it mean the same thing (again, think of the phi).

10. Lindisfarne Gospels, f. 27r 11. Lindisfarne Gospels, f. 211r 12. Lindisfarne Gospels, f. 95r

Further Reading:

  • Cynthia Hahn, “Letter and Spirit: The Power of the Letter, the Enlivenment of the Word in Medieval Art,” in Visible Writings: Cultures, Forms, Readings, ed. by Marija Dalbello and Mary Shaw (Rutgers University Press, 2011), 55-76.
  • Laura Kendrick, Animating the Letter (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1999), 36-64
  • Benjamin C. Tilghman, “Writing in Tongues: Mixed Scripts and Style in Insular Art.” In Insular and Anglo-Saxon: Art and Thought in the Early Middle Ages, edited by Column Hourihane, 92-108. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2011.
  • idem., “The Shape of the Word: Extra-linguistic Meaning in Insular Display Lettering.” In “The Iconicity of Script,” edited by Jeffrey Hamburger, special issue, Word & Image 27, no. 3 (2011): 292-308.
  • Leslie Webster, “Encrypted Visions: Style and Sense in the Anglo-Saxon Minor Arts, A.D. 400-900,” in Anglo-Saxon Styles, ed. Catherine E. Karkov and George Hardin Brown (Buffalo: SUNY Press, 2003), 11-30.

13. MacRegol Gospels, f. 52r 14. St Gall Gospels, f. 3r 15. St Gall Gospels, f. 79r

2 responses to “Puzzling Through Early Medieval Manuscripts: An In-Class Exercise”

  1. Marie Gasper-Hulvat says:

    This is fantastic!

  2. Susannah Fisher says:

    I love this in-class activity! Now I am puzzling through how to make a similar directed-slow-looking assignment for a paper prompt.

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