When medievalists play parlour games …

Because what’s a party without a game of ‘Guess the medieval Bible story’? (Scroll to the end for the answers.)

(1) British Library, Kings MS 5, fol. 2r
Clue: It helps to know that Moses is often portrayed in medieval artwork with horns, based on Jerome’s literal translation of the Hebrew word ‘qaran’ as ‘cornuta’ (‘horned’) to describe the shining of Moses’ face after speaking with God on Mt Sinai (Ex. 34:29).
(2) British Library, Harley MS 1527, fol. 12v
(3) Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (Munich), Clm 14159, fol. 2r
(4) British Library, Kings MS 5, fol. 10r
(5) Bodleian Library (Oxford), Arch. G. c.14, fol. 27r
(6) British Library, Harley MS 1527, fol. 13r
(7) British Library, Kings MS 5, fol. 20r
(8) Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (Munich), Clm 14159, fol. 3r

Next round, it’s going to be Guess the Medieval Animal …

(9) Koninklijke Bibliotheek (The Hague), KA 16, fol. 50v


  1. Moses and the burning bush (Exodus 3)
  2. An angel visits the Magi in a dream (Matthew 2)
  3. Jacob wrestles with the Angel (Genesis 32)
  4. Moses and the Israelites receive manna from heaven (Exodus 16)
  5. Jonah and the whale (Jonah 1-2)
  6. Jesus in the Temple as a boy (Luke 2)
  7. Samson carries away the gates of Gaza (Judges 16)
  8. Rahab hangs a scarlet cord from the walls of Jericho (Joshua 2)
  9. A camelopardalis (otherwise known as a giraffe!)

More information on these manuscripts:


My First Lecture

Last week, I passed yet another milestone in my DPhil career: delivering my first undergraduate lecture. There was definitely a thrill to walking into the Victorian grandeur of the Examination Schools to see my name and lecture up on the screen, directing interested audience members to Room 2.

Admittedly, such interested parties were few in number: a couple undergraduates and a friend providing moral support. I also have a feeling my best intentions of a conversational pace and plenty of pauses were quickly overshadowed by my desire to just get through the thing in one piece.

Still, as first lectures go, I think I’m fairly pleased.

I gave the lecture as part of a Faculty scheme to allow advanced DPhil students an opportunity to prepare and deliver a single lecture in Trinity term, for the theoretical benefit of third-year undergraduates revising for their final examinations. The titles of the DPhil lectures are posted along with everything else on the lecture list, but otherwise not particularly advertised (from anecdotal evidence, having 0 to 3 actual undergraduates in attendance seems to be about the norm).

Despite its minimal impact in terms of audience numbers, though, it did turn out to be a useful experience and one I’m glad I took advantage of. Writing the lecture was certainly more difficult than I had anticipated.

It’s difficult to pitch for an unknown audience – when you’ve spent three years buried in a particular vein of research, you tend to lose perspective on what is or isn’t common knowledge. What exactly will the faceless undergraduate know or not know? At 50-minutes, it’s also an unfamiliar length for those of us accustomed to either 20-minute conference papers. And of course, in a one-off lecture, rather than a lecture series, there’s always the temptation to slip things in you feel they really ought to know, or that you know to be interesting, even if it doesn’t precisely fit into the line of your argument.

My hastily selected lecture title–composed while jet-lagged at a conference in Australia–had me exploring the intersection between intellectual and political culture in the High Middle Ages. Given the nature of my own research, I decided the most interesting approach for the students would be by way of the intellectual sources they generally have less exposure to.

I have to admit, I initially got a little carried away with way too many pretty pictures from the Liber Floridus, but many (many!) drafts later, when all my favourite illustrations and virtue diagrams were strewn across the cutting room floor, I had finally settled on a more streamlined approach.

The final lecture took just a few types of often understudied ‘intellectual’ source types–biblical commentary, sermons, and mirrors for princes treatises–and used them to demonstrate how ideas could filter through from intellectual to political culture, with examples from my own research on counsel. In essence, the concept I most wanted to communicate was that ‘ideas matter’, and that the excitement of doing this sort of history is figuring out which ideas, how much, and to whom.

And the great thing about the lecture writing process (all stress and existential crises and tiny audiences aside) is that trying to get undergraduates excited about something restores some of your own excitement. The sources I was most comfortable discussing in a lecture were definitely those that I had myself discovered in a ‘Eureka’ moment, or painstakingly transcribed and translated from the original manuscripts – sources which I was uniquely equipped to convey to students who might one day go on to acquire the skills to do the same thing themselves.

And I suppose the whole thing just makes one feel like a historian!

[Image: ‘Prudence’ in Laurent d’Orleans’ La Somme le Roi, from British Library, MS Royal 19 C II, f. 48v (14th c.)]

Online Palaeography Classes

I recently came across these excellent guides to palaeography from the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (St John’s University). As well as access to a number of helpful resources, they have virtual courses in Latin, Syriac, and Arabic scripts, as well as guides for manuscript transcription.


Bibliothecal Bumblings Abroad

Sitting at home, planning a research trip seems like a fairly straightforward matter. You draw up your list of manuscripts, check the library opening hours, and book the nearest AirBnB, confidently promising valuable results your supervisor and anyone willing to give you money.

On the ground, things are a different matter: catalogues were wrong, the microfilms are awful, your bibliothecal vocabulary in the required foreign language is distressingly limited, all while you try to navigate a strange new system with surprisingly numerous slips of coloured paper.

Continue reading Bibliothecal Bumblings Abroad

Scribal Higgledy-Piggledy

I don’t expect too much from a medieval scribe. I accept that he may not always know the correct spelling of a classical name or whether he needs a subjunctive and he might occasionally have to fudge it a bit. I accept that he contents himself with only writing about a quarter of the letters, leaving me to fill in the rest. I accept that his speed of writing may result in a certain loss of legibility.

I would, however, expect him to write from left to right in a reasonably straight line.

Continue reading Scribal Higgledy-Piggledy

Medieval Manuscripts in Oxford Libraries

Introduced last year, the online catalogue Medieval Manuscripts in Oxford Libraries provides descriptions of the 10,000-odd Western medieval manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, as well as those of a few Oxford colleges, and saves one entering the somewhat bewildering world of the Bodleian’s print catalogues.

The Historian as Artist?

The first duty of a historian is to produce works of art. By this I do not primarily mean works that are finely written, but works that are emotionally and intellectually satisfying, that combine a clear unity of conception with a vivacity of detail, and portray people whose actions are intelligible within the framework of their circumstances and character. It is thus that one might describe as the aims of a Balzac or a Tolstoy: I say therefore that a historian should aim at satisfying the same emotional and intellectual needs as a novelist or poet. How he is to do this within the limits of the available data is the great question.

R.W. Southern, ‘Aspects of the European Tradition of History Writing’

Eureka! (and some elephants and Mongols…)

Lest I paint too grim a picture of the doctoral student’s life and efforts, I should clarify that while there are days when researching with medieval manuscripts feels like a very slow attempt to squeeze meaning from a stone, there are at least, in compensation, the days when you actually find something, even the something, that makes the previous weeks of fruitless research almost worthwhile.

Continue reading Eureka! (and some elephants and Mongols…)

Encounters with the Philosopher

I have to confess, prior to about a month and a half ago, I hadn’t ever read much Aristotle. Not only that, but while I would confidently nod my head in agreement when someone else mentioned ‘the significant impact of the translation of Aristotle’s works in the thirteenth century’, I only had a somewhat vague idea of what this impact actually was (unaided by the fact that many medieval historians writing on the topic seem to assume you already know and therefore spare themselves the effort of going into any detail).

This gap in my knowledge became readily apparent when I attempted to summarize medieval virtue ethics in an essay for my supervisor and more-or-less concluded with the formal essay equivalent of ‘…. and then Aristotle happened, and … things?’

Needless to say, I was sent away to acquaint myself with the Philosopher, more particularly with his Nicomachean Ethics.

Continue reading Encounters with the Philosopher

Bibliographies of Medieval Sources

Oxford Bibliographies: Medieval Studies

I’ve only just stumbled across this website, run by Oxford University Press. It provides annotated bibliographies on a whole host of medieval topics, from ‘Anglo-Saxon Art’ to ‘Women’s Life Cycles’ – particularly useful if you are making a foray into a new topic or genre, such as medieval liturgy, and need a brief guide to the state of the primary sources as well as recommendations on the best entry secondary sources.

ARC Press Bibliographies

Another good set of bibliographical lists for various aspects of medieval studies.

Latin & Palaeography Tools

Two invaluable online resources that have been lifesavers for me as I’ve started to work with unedited manuscripts:

A. Cappelli’s Dizionario de Abbreviature – The indispensable and definitive guide to Latin abbreviations, this online version of the Italian edition is much more comprehensive than the later English edition.

Some academic libraries (including the Bodleian) also have subscriptions to Abbreviationes Online, which allows you to search a growing database for any medieval Latin abbreviation.

Enigma – In what I can only imagine was the result of an inspired friendship between a medievalist and a computer programmer, this brilliant tool allows you to enter as much of the word as you can make out, together with a host of wildcard options, and then provides you with a list of every possible option, courtesy of Whitaker’s Words. Particularly cleverly, it allows each minim (the identical vertical strokes found in ‘i’, ‘u’, ‘m’, and ‘n’) to be entered as a ‘!’, so for example,  ‘!!!!!!!ere’ spits out only three possible options (innuere, munere, numere) which you can then narrow down based on context.

If Only They’d Thought of Me …

One of the inevitable frustrations of working with primary sources is that they don’t always say what you would like them to say. Worse, they don’t take what seem like golden opportunities to say what you’re pretty sure they were thinking, but never seem to actually articulate. It’s almost like they weren’t writing with you, a graduate student roughly 800 years in the future, explicitly in mind!

Continue reading If Only They’d Thought of Me …

Using Canon Law

I found approaching canon law for the first time for historical research more than a little tricky, so I thought I would distill some of the most helpful ‘starter’ information I found on the way for anyone else embarking on it. (For more detail on what I was actually looking for, see my earlier post.)

Continue reading Using Canon Law

Canon and Roman Law, Oh My!

In a (not so) recent post, I was complaining about remarking on the difficulties I’ve encountered deciphering the early modern printed editions of the canon law texts I’m working with. Today I thought I’d focus on what canon law is and why I’m hoping these texts will be worth the effort.

I’ll start by giving some general background on canon law and then dive into a more detailed discussion of an example from my own research.

Continue reading Canon and Roman Law, Oh My!

Humbert de Romans

Humbert de Romans is surprisingly overlooked as a historical figure, given his influence in the early shaping of the Dominican Order in the mid-thirteenth century.

Elected as the fifth Master-General of the Dominican Order in 1254, only a few decades after the Order had been established, Humbert reorganized and thereby standardized the Dominican liturgy, had a new edition of the Order’s Constitutions prepared, drew up new Constitutions for the nuns associated with the Order, and wrote a number of influential and—for modern historians—informative works concerning the operations of the Order.

Some of his key works include:

  • De eruditione praedicatorum (On the Instruction of Preachers) – Reflecting contemporary changes in the makeup of society, Humbert writes of sermons preached ad omne genus hominum (to every type of person), taking into consideration the dominant circumstances of the audience and varying the sermon accordingly. He also discusses the value of private conversation for edification.
  • De officiis ordinis (On the Offices of the Order) – A very informative treatise on each of the various types of officials within Dominican convents, from the master-general down.
  • De dono timoris (On the Gift of Fear), a.k.a. Tractatus de habundantia exemplorum (Treatise on a Wealth of Examples) – A highly popular collection of hundreds of exempla, or illustrations, for use in sermons, around the topic of one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Humbert de Romans’ collected Latin works can be found in Opera de vita regulari, edited by J. J. Berthier (Rome, 1888). His Treatise on Preaching has been translated into English by Walter M. Conlon (London, 1955).
The most useful secondary work in English is probably Edward Tracy Brett’s Humbert of Romans: His Life and Views of Thirteenth-Century Society (Toronto, 1984), which includes a summary of each of Humbert’s works.


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