On Thursday 9th February, six students made history when they became the first ever students to view a collection of beautiful manuscripts from a collection owned by Merton College.
The students, who were selected to take part as they were volunteers for the new Rumble Museum at Cheney, made their way into town after school to Merton College, where they were met by Outreach officers, Medieval Historians, and the Librarian.
They were then given a tour of the atmospheric and fascinating historic Upper Library, one of the earliest libraries in England. They were shown how volumes were originally stored in chests, as book shelves had not yet been invented! The volumes were kept flat and chained to desks and lecterns.
Students were impressed by the Bodley Chest, which had a highly complex mechanism of iron locks, as well as a false keyhole and early version of an alarm system! They were also interested in the globe, which showed early and inaccurate knowledge of the world, and an exaggerated representation of the British Isles.
After this informative tour, they then received a presentation introducing the manuscripts, including the material they were written on - parchment made from sheepskin. A roll of this was passed around, and the spine mark and hair follicle marks were clearly visible. Tristam, the presenter, spoke about how the manuscripts were often annotated with hands pointing to certain bits of the text, and how the large, heavily illustrated letters at the start of sections were done by different scribes, and were designed to make the beginnings of chapters stand out.
At this point, students had the opportunity to work one-to-one with the Merton Outreach team, exploring individual manuscripts. These ranged from a Bestiary, written in French and Latin, exploring creatures such as centaurs and ostriches, each with a moralising aspect at the end, to a manuscript of Aristotle's De Animalibus, which was beautifully illustrated. There was also a Quran which had been translated into Latin, and a book of charters.
Students were able to talk about these with experts, and spend ten minutes exploring each manuscript.
This was a wonderful occasion for students to experience and explore a range of fascinating manuscripts which had never been made available to school students before, and to view the manuscripts as artefacts which record information about culture and learning both as objects in themselves as well as the texts they hold.
We are enormously grateful to Merton College's Outreach team for this very special trip, which was hugely enjoyed by students and staff alike.