New publication: ‘Touching Parchment: how medieval users rubbed, handled, and kissed their manuscripts. Volume 1: officials and their books’ by Kathryn M. Rudy

Touching Parchment: how medieval users rubbed, handled, and kissed their manuscripts. Volume 1: officials and their books. A new open-access book by Professor Kathryn M. Rudy.

In her latest work, published in April 2023 by Open Book, Kathryn M. Rudy, professor of Art History at the University of St Andrews, considers how signs of wear on the folios of parchment manuscripts can reveal how those books were handled in the past.

Anyone who has examined considerable numbers of medieval European books—in museums, libraries’ special collections, archives, and in the homes of private collectors—will have noticed that they rarely survive into the modern era unscathed. Candle wax, water, and fire can disfigure books dramatically. Repeated handling can result in more subtle damage to images, parchment or paper folios, stitching, or bindings; this includes applying grease or dirt through bodily contact, abrading material by repeatedly touching it, poking holes by sewing on objects, and degrading the fibres of parchment, paper, leather, and thread by repeatedly bending and unbending them. These activities leave traces that reveal how people have interacted with books. Heavy use is visible in dirty surfaces, tattered stitching, frayed edges, and deformed material.

In Touching Parchment, Rudy presents numerous and fascinating case studies that relate to the evidence of use and damage through touching and or kissing. She also puts each study within a category of different ways of handling books, mainly liturgical, legal or choral practice, and in turn connects each practice to the horizontal or vertical behavioural patterns of users within a public or private environment.

With her keen eye for observation in being able to identify various characteristics of inadvertent and targeted wear, the author adds a new dimension to the medieval book. She gives the reader the opportunity to reflect on the social, anthropological and historical value of the use of the book by sharpening our senses to the way users handled books in different situations. 

Rudy has amassed an incredible amount of material for this research, and the way in which she presents each manuscript conveys an approach that scholars of medieval history and book materiality should keep in mind when carrying out their own research. What perhaps is most striking in her articulate text is how she expresses that the touching of books was not without emotion, and the accumulated effects of these emotions are worthy of preservation, study and further reflection.

Published as a free open-access book, Touching Parchment is available in several formats and is accessible to blind and seeing-impaired people. It has 122 images, all keyed to ‘alt-text’, so that readers with limited sight can hear descriptions of the images. There is also added metadata that tells a reader using accessibility aids what type of content is included. The author is keen to hear from readers relying on these accessibility aids about how to improve the reading experience even further.

Book contents:

Chapter 1: Feeling One’s Way Through the Book

Chapter 2: Ways of Touching Manuscripts

Chapter 3: Swearing on Relics and Gospels

Chapter 4: Kissing: From Relics to Manuscripts

Chapter 5: Swearing: From Gospels to Legal Manuscripts

Chapter 6: Performances Within the Church

Conclusion: The Gloves Are Off

Touching Parchment has 272 pages and 122 images.

Download Touching Parchment for free, read online, or purchase a print copy in hardback or paperback formats at Open Book


Published by Dr Julia Faiers

Julia Faiers received her PhD from the University of St Andrews in 2021. She wrote her thesis on the art patronage of Louis d’Amboise, bishop of Albi from 1474 to 1503, under the supervision of Professor Kathryn Rudy. Her postdoctoral research includes the nineteenth-century reception of medieval art and architecture, and late-medieval female art patronage in France. Julia gained a First Class Honours degree in art history at the University of St Andrews (1995). She won a British Academy Award to study for her MA in German Expressionism at The Courtauld under the supervision of Dr Shulamith Behr (1997), and spent almost twenty years working as a journalist before returning to academia in 2016.

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