Touching books

Jamie Locke-Jones
Friday 28 October 2022

In the era before screens, how did people handle, touch, rub, kiss, abrade, decorate, annotate, and inadvertently damage their books? As a result of Kathryn Rudy’s foundational ‘Dirty Books‘ article, for which she measured the darkness of fingerprints in medieval manuscripts in order to quantify use, others have begun thinking of indirect measurement in new ways. Students and scholars at all levels have started incorporating use-wear analysis into manuscript history.  

To bring these ideas to a broader public, the Knowledge Exchange and Impact fund supported an exhibition proposal about how medieval and early modern people handled their books, and how certain book forms challenge our visio-centric screen culture of today. The resulting exhibition, titled Sensational Books, co-curated by Professor Kathryn Rudy and Professor Emma Smith (Oxford), is available at the Bodleian Library from 27 May 2022 to 4 December 2022. How did people use sound, smell, touch, taste, sight, and proprioception (the sensation of the body in space) to interact with books? The exhibition will include items from the Bodleian’s collection of scratch-n-sniff books and exploding books, as well as edible books. It will accompany activities for the seeing impaired. 

Kate has delivered over 30 lectures about how medieval people handled their manuscripts, including a TEDx talk in 2013, and one in 2021 about the effect of human breath on manuscripts. She has also made a video about what a late medieval obituary manuscript from Notre-Dame in Paris tells us about how people commemorated the dead – partly by touching images of the deceased – which can be viewed below.

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