Various Student Feedback
on the Paleography Project
Below are select responses from students concerning the trials and triumphs of working on the paleography project:
When given this assignment, I did not realize the amount of time and patience it would require. After becoming aware of these matters, I gained much respect for scribes of the time.
I felt that I rushed through this process of illumination and it still took five hours. Iíve never been gifted in the arts, so this process of patience was a little different for me. It was frustrating to spend an hour on each page, but looking at the final product, it was well worth the frustration.
Hands-on projects in English literature classes are almost unheard of, especially at the undergraduate level. The ENG 431 Chaucer Paleography Project, however, offered a valuable opportunity for students to experience medieval practices directly in order to learn the basics of manuscript production. The project offered a unique chance to practice skills such as quill preparation, calligraphy, vellum preparation and illumination, achievements unavailable from a lecture alone. Students benefited from the project by obtaining a richer understanding of medieval book production, important insights into medieval cultural references throughout Chaucerian text, and a new respect for hand-made manuscripts.
After each person in my group expressed their grief of how much time each step took, I feel we were each extremely proud of our final product. We each worked very hard to do the best we could do on our designated part of this project. It was a great feeling to see our finished manuscript at the revealing at your house on Friday night. This project was a challenging and educational experience.
Once we got together, Lindsey and I began plotting out the placement of the text and dividing up what would go where. Actually, this might sound dorky, but I counted each word, divided that by the number of lines we had put on our manuscript, and then put in line breaks in the text so that we could be sure we were on the right track as we wrote. While we didnít stick to these exactly, it did allow us to know to halve the size of our ruled lines, so that we could put more text on the page, and also that the first chapter was significantly shorter than the second, so we would have extra space between chapters. Lindsey wrote the text, and then I filled in white spaces with red curly-cues like I found in the book we read in class. I love how each spot on the pages of medieval works was filled with color, and they took the time to make each segment of their writing beautiful. Perhaps we could encourage more reading if we did this as well. I know that I would probably enjoy reading about the Baltic States in the eighteenth century a lot more if the pages were as embellished as the pages of our medieval texts.
I learned a lot from this assignment, as mentioned above. Clearly, the scribes worked tediously over their manuscripts, which were not boring texts, but beautiful works of art. Also, the high value of vellum was made clear, as they used every bit of usable space. This was reflected in our project, as a freak accident wet the last page of our quire, wrinkling and stiffening the material. Although todayís student would just grab another piece of paper and make a copy, we took the time to work with it and were forced to ink it anyway.
We got most of it done in one sitting, which I think helped us because we stayed focused and had a more uniform look. We discussed changing writers to represent the scribal change but decided it might be better if we split up the tasks into chunks. I used my quill for the writing but it had taken me a very long time to get it the way I wanted it. By the time I reached the end of the vellum my tip was mush but I was afraid to cut it again. I didnít think Iíd ever get it back to the way it was so I just dealt with it. Things went smoothly for us so I think we all enjoyed it.
Doing this project gave me an entirely new view on this type of ancient manuscript. It amazes me now how many works were preserved under these circumstances. The writing went much faster for me that I had anticipated but I also had misspellings and splatters and numerous other problems that would have been utterly painful if I had really had to do this perfectly. I honestly have to admire those that were able to do this hour upon hour, day after day. Even the story preserved in the manuscripts became more precious to me once I had a better understanding of what it took to allow me to read it today. I had heard it all before, but like many other things, no one ever really understands until they must do it themselves.
I was able to put into practice the theories learned in the classroom, while also coming across singular problems and questions I never would have thought about had I not tried to duplicate the practices on my own. For instance, we learned in class that [scribes] would prick the edges of a manuscript in order to draw the lines equidistance apart, but what methods did they employ to make those pricked holes? These and other quandaries came to light only through the attempted duplication of medieval practices.
The best part of this assignment was seeing the manuscript come to life from plain goatskin to a beautiful medieval manuscript. I only worked on four pages of illumination and it took me five hours. Historically, these scribes put me to shame. I have such an appreciation for these scribes who developed pages a day with such ease. Not to mention the pressure the scribes were under to get these manuscripts completed on time and without error. There were several times where inks would run together and seemingly every time I tried to fix the problem, it only got worse. It may have been because the ink doesnít absorb well, or I just put too much ink on the manuscript itself.
Writing on the vellum was one of the most unique experiences I have had in a long time. It was interesting to me how difficult the entire process was. The preparation (pricking, ruling, and outlining where all I would write) was one of the more tedious parts of the assignment. Actually, the entire project was tedious and definitely gave my hand a couple of cramps. It took about a month of working on this project off and on in order to complete my part of it. Imitating the actual letters was difficult using the quill pen. I found that doing the letters my way, instead as instructed, ended up looking just as good and it was easier because it was closer to the way I write now. Numerous times, I could see that the letters were not turning out the way they were earlier so I thought that maybe it would best to trim my quill. However, by trimming the quill, both the quill and I had to get used to writing again. It was amazing, and annoying at times, how much just a couple of snips could throw everything off.
This project was a handful and a half. It was not a group project at all, considering I did 75% of the work. It was frustrating for me and my group at times because I had so much to do on it and no one else could work on their part until I was done.
Though I have some moral reservations about causing the death of an innocent goat merely for my educational edification, I have to say his project was a lot of fun. I assume for the benefit of my conscience that Chaucer the goat died a quick and humane death and that the company/persons which produced our vellum is/are morally opposed to the cruel treatment of animals. It would be nice to know these things for sure. Obviously, it didnít bother me enough to ask before I took part in the assignment, but that information would be a nice additional blurb to the project, although, most of my classmates probably would not care.
Aside from size adjustments, I would also suggest two other changes for the future: the percentage weight on our grade, as well as the due date. As to the first, perhaps if it were "worth" more we would have just been more stressed about it. Nonetheless, I cannot help but think the pure quantity of time required to produce the quires should be reflected in the grade. I am pretty sure I spent almost as much time painting on the illustrations for the quire than I did studying for both of the tests combined. The 5 percent also seems a little unjust because it was not just a lot of time, but precious time towards the end of the semester when EVERYTHING is due! Therefore it would be better for the poor undergraduates if you took it up say sometime in the beginning of November- not right before a break or exams.
It did not take quite as long as I had initially feared and
the end product is something of which I am proud to have been a part in making.
Never again will I think the same about goats, scrolls, quill pens, or pots of
ink. Never again will I take for granted the abundance of books at my disposal.
Never again will I think quite the same about the Middle Ages. In
addition, this project was helpful because it was inherently holisticówe talked
about the culture, theology/religion, economy, and sociology of the Middle Ages
all in this one assignment. Granted, there were no class periods devoted to any
of these topics, nor was our discussion exhaustive of any one of them, but the
project required studying how each of these elements interacted with one another
in a practical instance of Medieval life. I thought this was helpful and
ultimately added a sense of history and reality to the class.