Designing English looks at the skills and innovations of these very early specialists who worked to preserve, clarify, adorn, authorize and interpret writing in English. For almost a thousand years most texts had been written in Latin, the common European language. Beyond the traditions established for Latin, books in English were often improvisatory, even homespun, but they were just as inventive and creative. In an age when each book was made uniquely by hand, each book was an opportunity for redesigning. The introduction of the English text posed questions: How did scribes choose to arrange the words and images on the page in each manuscript? How did they preserve, clarify and illustrate writing in English? What visual guides were given to early readers of English in how to understand or use their books?
The exhibition explores all elements of design, from the materials used, such as the size and shape of animal skins used to create parchment, to the design of texts for different uses, such as for performing songs, plays or music. Medical texts and practical manuals feature alongside ornate religious texts, including rare examples of unfinished illustrations that reveal the practical processes of making pages and artefacts. The use of English is traced from illicit additions made to Latin texts, to its more general, every day use, and spread to more ephemeral formats.
The exhibition features incredible early manuscripts held in the Bodleian collections, one of the largest medieval collections in the UK, alongside loan items from the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford and the British Museum.
Highlights of Designing English include:
• The Macregol Gospels, one of the treasures of the Bodleian Libraries, dating from Ireland in around 800 CE, with English translations added to the original Latin text.
The Macregol Gospel. In the beginning was the word’ – A late-eighth-century or early-ninth-century Latin Gospel, painted in Ireland by Macregol, perhaps abbot of Birr, County Offaly (d. 822), and glossed in the tenth century in English by two scribes. English translations were added to the original Latin text by medieval scholars. © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford
• English translations of hymns composed by Caedmon (657-680), an illiterate cowherd who lived at Whitby Abbey and is the first named English poet.
• The Alfred Jewel, an ornate enamel and gold jewel on loan from the Ashmolean Museum that contains the inscription ‘Alfred ordered me to be made’. The jewel is widely believed to have been commissioned by King Alfred the Great (849-899 BCE), who championed the use of English.
The Alfred Jewel. This beautiful jewel from Alfred’s era seems to be the handle of an aester, which is believed to be a pointer used when reading manuscripts. Written round the side in gold capitals is ‘AELFRED MEC HEHT GEVVYRCAN’. ‘Alfred had me made’ – but did he design it? © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
• Gravestones and other medieval objects engraved with English text, including an Anglo-Saxon sword and a gold ring found at Godstow Abbey, Oxford.
Gold ring found at Godstow Priory, Oxford. ‘Most in mind and in mine heart, loathest from you far to depart’. Who was meant to see these words? They’re inside the hoop of this gold ring, tiny and hidden from most eyes. That secret site suits the intimate rhyme: the words of lovers forced to part? Less suitable is the place where the ring was found by later antiquaries: in the grounds of a former nunnery, Godstow Priory near Oxford. Are these hidden words from a nun’s secret lover? British Museum, MME AF 1075. Gold ring, early 1500s; found at Godstow, near Wolvercote, Oxfordshire. © British Museum
• Medical texts such as revolving ‘volvelle’ diagrams, magical charms and colourful drawings and diagrams for doctors.
• Some of the earliest known works in the English language, including Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and early drama and songs.
The Canterbury Tales. A copy made around the third quarter of the fifteenth century of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1390s). At the division between The Tale of Sir Thopas and The Tale of Melibee, the initial, border, running head and title help the reader to navigate the text. © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.
• Examples of intricate texts with colour coded instructions on how to read them, such as an English translation of the Bible which may have belonged to Henry VI.
King Alfred’s Pastoral Care. King Alfred planned a set of useful translations from Latin, like this manual for clergymen. In this copy of Gregory the Great’s translated Pastoral Care, sent between 890 and 897 to Wærferth, Bishop of Worcester, the book ‘speaks’ (bottom left) and tells how Alfred ‘sent me to his scribes north and south’ with an æstel or pointer. Is the Alfred Jewel the æstel? © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford
Designing English is curated by Daniel Wakelin, Jeremy Griffiths Professor of Medieval English Palaeography at the University of Oxford, one of the few posts in the world dedicated to the study of medieval English manuscripts.
Professor Wakelin said: ‘Medieval writers had to be graphic designers every time they wrote or carved their words. Tracing the earliest uses of English, from illicit annotations on Latin texts, to more everyday jottings in ephemeral formats, this exhibition celebrates the imagination and skill of these early writers. Their craft and inventiveness resonates today when digital media allow users to experiment with design through word processing, social media and customized products.”
Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian said: ‘The Bodleian Libraries holds one of the most important collections of medieval manuscripts in the world, and this exhibition celebrates all aspects of the ingenuity and craftsmanship that went into some of the most beautiful, and everyday items that still survive today. The exhibition provides an intriguing and surprising history of English literature in one room".
Designing English: Graphics on the Medieval Page is at the Bodleian Library from December 1 2017 – April 22 2018
Astronomical ‘volvelle’ diagram with 3D disks revolving on string or a twist of parchment to let readers make calculations (for the phases of the moon and time of night). © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford