Medieval documents displayed at Krannert

Photo by Greg Gancarz | This book from England, ca. 1400, is rare in that it still contains the subtle ways book makers would mark out lines and basic designs for each page, details that would usually be painted over in the final product.

Photo by Greg Gancarz |
This book from England, ca. 1400, is rare in that it still contains the subtle ways book makers would mark out lines and basic designs for each page, details that would usually be painted over in the final product.

Greg Gancarz

Staff Writer

Visitors to the University of Illinois Krannert Art Museum over the past several weeks have likely passed through its most recent exhibition “Making and Breaking Medieval Manuscripts,” located in the West Gallery, focused on handwritten or printed texts from the 13th-16th centuries.

The items on display included hand drawn text and illustrations, such as royal family bloodlines, regional maps, and even scores of renaissance music. Each piece of artwork tells a different story about itself and its owners throughout the ages.

For an even more in-depth examination of the texts, specifically medieval charters and legal documents, the museum hosted Carol Symes to speak on the evening of Feb. 9, the last event of the exhibit. Symes, an associate professor of history, global studies, and medieval studies at the University of Illinois, has already written several books on her specialty and is in the process of working on yet another one.

Held in the Krannert Art Museum Auditorium, the talk titled “Cherishing Charters in Medieval England: Archives of Passion, Aspiration, Longing, and Loss,” delved into an examination of these near-ancient texts, describing the importance these legal documents had for medieval citizens and explaining how even the littlest marks and details could shed light on where a piece of parchment had been on its long journey.

Often times, the legal records, contracts, and other records discussed by Symes survived by little more than mere chance. Unfortunately for medievalists like herself, books and records used on a daily basis in that time period rarely survive to be studied by today’s scholars.

Only the rare items usually stand the test of time, with legal documents often being among them, due to their importance in proving land ownership in the medieval world. They were similar to today’s legal documents, except there was usually only one copy for each party, so losing it was not something to be taken lightly.

Some of the most revealing stories came directly from the text of the last wills themselves. These centuries-old tomes offered a glimpse into the personalities and intimate lives of the everyday people of the past.

On one will, entirely written in Latin, Symes pointed out a curious annotation on the bottom—the only English on the entire piece. Seeing as how English was not considered a legal language for documents at the time, Symes proposed the text, which was an edit to the previously written will, was likely a last minute change made by a man on his deathbed. With no time to hire and find a scribe to make an addendum in proper Latin, the head of the household wrote in his last wishes in the only language he knew.

Stories like these litter the parchments and papers that Symes pours over for her work every day, each piece providing insight and intrigue into lives long since passed.

In Symes own words: “handwriting really is the work of the hand, and we can just learn so much by taking that seriously.”

On Feb. 13, the pieces on display in the west wing of the Krannert Gallery were once again packed up and put into the archives, much like they once were for preservation many centuries ago. Most of the incredible craftsmanship and artwork will not go far however, with most of it residing at the University of Illinois’ Rare Book and Manuscript Library.