All posts by Anthony Bale

Anthony Bale is Professor of Medieval Studies at Birkbeck; he is currently teaching the "Medieval Material Texts" MA module and researching the scribe of "The Book of Margery Kempe".

Leverhulme Artist in residence at the Material Texts Network

Animation artist Shay Hamias and Birkbeck academic Professor Anthony Bale have been awarded funding by the Leverhulme Trust for a ten-month residency by the artist, to be based in Birkbeck’s School of Arts. Their project will explore medieval manuscripts as a source, inspiration, and critical intertext for contemporary animation.

Birkbeck hours; King David at Prayer (fol. 85r)
Birkbeck hours; King David at Prayer (fol. 85r)

The project takes as its cue the idea that illustrated manuscripts sought to ‘animate the letter’ – that is, to bring the word to life through visual and media effects. Working with the medieval manuscript holdings of Birkbeck’s library and of other London institutions, Hamias will explore what animation can bring to the vibrant, lively world of the medieval page.

Hamias and Bale are both interested in questions relating to design, ways of reading, and the status of media. Can animation help us see what we can no longer see in medieval books? Can we activate the emotions of a contemporary viewer in similar ways to how our medieval predecessors responded to the illuminated manuscript? What techniques did medieval artists use to animate the mind and communicate via the eyes? What techniques and illusions were used to evoke visual or intellectual ‘movement’? Might animation offer a translation of a medieval mode of viewing, one which is more comprehensible to the modern viewer but based on medieval imagery?

The main outcomes will be

  • the development of an entirely new interface between contemporary animation and medieval studies
  • a mutually-creative encounter, with impacts through Birkbeck including its Library, including public and scholarly symposia and new animated films by Hamias. Hamias is particularly interested in animating a contemporary counterpart to the medieval book that would expand on the visual language of the Middle Ages to address a present-day issue or narrative.
  • resources for further work on animation and medieval manuscripts, which will include Hamias’ films as creative responses to a range of medieval manuscripts, including those held by Birkbeck.

Shay Hamias will take up his residency at Birkbeck in January 2017. For examples of his work click here.

London-based animation artist Shay Hamias
London-based animation artist Shay Hamias


For more details about the Leverhulme Artist-in-Residence scheme click here




If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy our previous posts about the Birkbeck manuscript and rare books collection here and here.

Four forgotten medieval books at Birkbeck College

When is a book not a book? The destruction of a book – through burning, through recycling, through iconoclasm, for instance – places great emphasis on its materiality, its power as a physical object that must be destroyed. Conversely, when nobody knows about a book’s existence, it simply disappears – both the physical book and the textual lives inside it. When a book is unknown and hidden away it is perhaps reduced to the bare facts of its existence: a piece of matter unread, unloved, unvalued, uncatalogued.

Books disappear easily when they are not catalogued; it is through catalogues and finding aids that medievalists find their sources. When I joined Birkbeck College as a lecturer in 2002, I was excited to find that the College owned one manuscript, which I knew about from Neil R. Ker’s magisterial four-volume catalogue, Medieval Manuscripts in British Libraries. But time passed, I became diverted by other projects, and I never got round to looking at the manuscript. And then I more or less forgot about it.

This year I have been teaching a class on ‘Medieval Material Texts’ for students on Birkbeck’s MA in Medieval Literature & Culture. It struck me that it would be so much easier to talk about medieval books if one had one to show to the students – to talk about the binding, the physical construction of a book, the stains and the damage, the signs of a book’s lived life, as well as the text, the decoration, the illustration. So, somewhere in the back of my mind, I remembered Ker’s description of one manuscript, and looked it up, and sent an email off to my subject-librarian at Birkbeck’s library.

It was as much as a surprise to the College as it was to me to image3discover that Birkbeck houses a small collection of not one but four medieval books (three manuscripts and one incunabulum). I quickly arranged to view the books, three of which have not been catalogued and do not seem to have been viewed since around 1991. The books comprise a sort of ‘capsule collection’: they represent several important developments in European religious culture, in book history, and in literary tastes.

The books are:

Birkbeck Hours; Pentecost (fol. 105r)
Birkbeck Hours; Pentecost (fol. 105r)

The Birkbeck Hours (sine numero): a beautiful small book of hours, from northern France, dated to c. 1400.

MS L.I: the rules and customs of the Capitoli della Compagnia di S. Girolamo of Siena, dated to the early fifteenth century.

MS 108.C: a manuscript of the Sententiae Sapientiae, attributed to Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, and Seneca, and which once belonged to the Monastery of St Zeno, Verona; dated to c. 1450.

Dictys Cretensis & Dares Phrygius (sine numero): a skin-bound volume, a much-read history of the Trojan War, printed at Venice, 1499.

Birkbeck hours; King David at Prayer (fol. 85r)
Birkbeck hours; King David at Prayer (fol. 85r)

One of the manuscripts, the Birkbeck Hours, was given to the College in 1977 by the widow of Dr Charles Fox (1897-1977), a lecturer at Birkbeck who later became a distinguished mathematician at Concordia University in Montreal. How the other three manuscripts reached Birkbeck is not known at present, although we do know that MS L.I was purchased by the College in the 1950s, probably to be used as a teaching aid. Ownership inscriptions in MS 108.C show that, in the nineteenth century, it belonged to a Peter John Bruff and, later, the Victorian scholar and antiquarian R. A. H. Bickford-Smith (1859-1916).

The books open a window onto readers and writers from hundreds of years ago; by coming back into public view, they can delight and instruct again. A more detailed examination of the books will, in time, yield much more about the lives these fascinating books have lived, and continue to live.

NB: The books are not currently available for public view, but it is hoped that a digitisation project will make them available online in due course.