Exploring the History of the Liberal Arts with SIMS Fellow Christine Bachman
“Medieval manuscripts allow us to see the physical traces of how students and teachers centuries ago taught and learned," says Christine Bachman, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Art History at the University of Delaware. Bachman’s research focuses on the construction, decoration, and use of early medieval manuscripts, with a particular focus on northwestern Europe in the eighth century.
While serving as the 2019-2020 Graduate Fellow at the Penn Libraries’ Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies (also known as SIMS), Bachman put together “A Liberal Arts Education for the (Middle) Ages: Texts, Translations, and Study,” an online exhibit featuring images of manuscripts from the Penn Libraries’ collections, scholarly commentary, and a list of books and articles for those interested in learning more.
The exhibit offers an overview of education in the early middle ages through the lens of a ninth-century manuscript, Boethius's Latin translation of Aristotle's De interpretatione. “It seeks to clarify how each of the seven medieval ‘liberal arts’ were interpreted and studied throughout the Middle Ages,” Bachman explains. Her research on this manuscript also appears in the Spring 2021 issue of the journal Manuscript Studies.
Shortly after the completion of her fellowship last year, we spoke to Bachman about her research, her experience handling centuries-old manuscripts, and her thoughts about liberal arts in the middle ages.
Describe your graduate scholarship and your fellowship with SIMS.
My dissertation examines the earliest surviving book covers from northwestern Europe — dating to approximately 700-800 CE — and analyzes them according to three major functions they performed: encasement, embellishment, and enshrinement.
Encasement refers to the ways that covers hold pages to enhance mobility and dissemination. Embellishment refers to how covers visually enhance the interest of the book or represent the contents through decorative motifs or imagery. Enshrinement refers to the elevation of the sacred status of the book through the addition of a cover — usually of precious materials that reflect and enhance the religious value of the book.
With my SIMS Graduate Student Research Fellowship, I was able to build my digital humanities and librarianship skills while also applying my knowledge of early medieval manuscripts. My research focused on LJS 101 and my fellowship projects combined close examination of the physical manuscript, study of the broader trends of Carolingian manuscript production and intellectual life, and digital presentation of research.
Your online exhibit includes several manuscripts, though the centerpiece is LJS101. Why make this manuscript the exhibit’s focal point?
LJS 101 is one of the most significant manuscripts held in the collections of Penn Libraries. Its early date and unique compilation of secular texts grant it exceptional value. The exhibition was designed to give viewers a rich introduction to this star of the collection, and also place it in relation to other manuscripts held in the collections.
Also, the relationship of LJS 101 to the liberal arts offers ample opportunity to make connections to other manuscripts in the Libraries’ collections, which are especially abundant in materials related to science, mathematics, and philosophy. I was able to easily identify beautifully decorated and textually rich manuscripts in the collections that illustrate each of the seven liberal arts. For example, to illustrate the subject of astronomy I chose LJS 57, which contains colorful images of the constellations as well as Hebrew astronomical texts.
Who created LJS101, and for what purpose?
We don’t have the names of the scribes and artists involved in making LJS 101, but, looking closely at the manuscript, it’s possible to discern in both the text and annotations the hands of several scribes. The diagrams and decorated initials may have been added by others. This shows that LJS 101 was the product of a community of scribes and artists — common practice in an early medieval monastery, where LJS 101 was likely made.
Monasteries served as the main centers of education in the early middle ages, and it is in one of these centers within a community of teachers and students that LJS 101 would have been used. It would have been used as a textbook for studying the subject of dialectic, or logic, and as a brief overview of grammar and rhetoric — the first two subjects of the liberal arts studied before dialectic.
Can you provide an overview of the contents of the manuscript?
The main text of the manuscript is a translation of and commentary on Aristotle’s De Interpretatione, also known as the Peri Hermenias, completed by the sixth-century statesman and philosopher Boethius (ca. 477-524). This text was central to the study of logic, or dialectic, in the early middle ages. Boethius’s text is paired with several shorter texts, such as a sample letter and definitions of words. Together, the contents of LJS 101 relate to the study of the first three subjects of the medieval liberal arts - grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic.
You were able to work with the manuscripts in the Kislak Center’s Charles K. MacDonald Rare Book Reading Room prior to Penn’s campus shutting down. Generally speaking, how does it enhance your scholarship/understanding to engage with physical artifacts?
At a time when we are increasingly experiencing objects virtually, such as the manuscripts in the online exhibit, it is crucial to remember the unique value of studying physical materials. Fundamentally, books are physical objects meant to be handled, studied, and read. By working with the original manuscripts in the reading room for this exhibit, I was able to observe the physical traces of how the individuals who made and used the books interacted with them. This added a more human dimension to my understanding of the manuscripts.
For example, when I was working with MS Codex 1629, a fourteenth-century commentary on the Commentaria ad Herrenium (the foundational ancient text for the study of Latin rhetoric), I was able to see on several pages traces of erased legal documents under the fourteenth-century text. Considering that these documents were reused in MS Codex 1629 made clear the connection between the law and rhetoric that had existed since antiquity uniquely tangible.
The exhibit considers the liberal arts as conceived and studied in early medieval monasteries. How do the medieval “liberal arts” conceptually differ from and/or intersect with our modern sense of the liberal arts?
In the middle ages, the liberal arts consisted of seven specific disciplines: grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. These were divided into the trivium – the literary subjects of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic – and the quadrivium – the mathematical subjects of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music.
The curriculum was designed so one would work through these subjects in a specific order, moving through the trivium and then through the quadrivium. In a liberal arts curriculum today, by contrast, we often divide subjects into three main categories: sciences, social sciences, and humanities, with numerous subdisciplines within each of those categories. Unlike in the middle ages, there is no universal structure for how a scholar moves through these different subjects.
What has remained consistent from the middle ages to today, however, is the idea that a liberal arts curriculum is meant to give one a broad education and an intellectual foundation for critical inquiry. At the root of the term “liberal arts” is the Latin word liber, meaning free. At their core, then, the liberal arts have always meant an education that develops this kind of freedom of thought.