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Stanford scholar delves into the secrets of medieval texts

February 2, 2015

By Marguerite Rigoglioso


Digital tools, including a free, public online manuscript training course, are allowing English professor and medieval manuscript scholar Elaine Treharne to share her expertise well beyond traditional classroom walls.

Most people don't realize that medieval manuscripts carry in them not only the words of people centuries ago, but also a history in blood, sweat and tears – quite literally.

Take the 13th-century British tome that did double duty as an impromptu shield for a hapless monk when the Vikings attacked his monastery. Bloodstains that can still be found on its interior pages bespeak of the gruesome encounter.

Or witness the telltale signs of devotional weeping – blurry ink and puckered vellum – that pepper descriptions of the suffering of Christ in numerous illuminated prayer books once pored over by the faithful throughout Europe.

Texts of the Middle Ages may be something of an open book, but, says Stanford medievalist Elaine Treharne, it takes a trained eye to recognize the numerous and nuanced historical details in the manuscripts that once served paupers, priests and princes. But help is on the way, in the way of a Stanford Online course.

Where the first European manuscripts were made, how they were constructed, what they were about and what they reveal about European culture are among the topics Treharne covers in the free course, Digging Deeper: Making Manuscripts.