Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Medieval Materiality: the Multisensory Performance in Late-Medieval Manuscripts

Emma Katherine Hardiman[1], Department of Art History, University of Nottingham


Medieval manuscripts were explored through the senses of their contemporary readers, who saw, touched, smelt and tasted their books while reading their content aloud. Sensory engagements such as this created a performance of the manuscript that heightened devotional experience and empowered individuals to curate their own rituals and religious experiences. These haptic ideas were also deeply ingrained in the medieval medical belief of humoural theory. It was believed that through the senses one's internal bodily composition and spiritual wellbeing could be altered. Through exploring the material composition of the manuscript and the vellum from which it was made we can understand this sensual consumption of medieval materiality.

Keywords: Medieval art, late-medieval manuscripts, manuscript illumination, materiality, the Black Death, humoral theory.


During the late middle ages attitudes towards images underwent profound transformation […] art [was] conventionally perceived as a barrier rather than a stepping stone to the highest levels of contemplative experience.
(Hamburger, 1998: 111)

Jeffery Hamburger highlights a noticeable shift in attitudes towards art in the late Middle Ages for Christians in Europe. He highlights a key transformation in the use of images, enabling proximity to the divine through the creation of an experience (Hamburger, 1998: 111).I would argue that a cultural shift towards first-hand experience occurs, treasuring epiphany and self-realisation over doctrine and teaching. We therefore begin to see the performativity and materiality of art objects such as manuscripts being explored and manipulated.

Annunciation, The British Library Board, Harley 2966 f14v (1475)

Figure 1: Annunciation, © The British Library Board, Harley 2966 f14v(1475), reproduced by kind permission.

I will explore this phenomenon through two case studies. Figure 1 is a private prayer book dated to 1475 and Figure 2 is a canonical text dated 1450, which would have been publically used by a priest in the church service for the congregation. We can see that these performances were curated in both public and private texts.

Figure 2: Canon Page, The Hague, KB 78 D 11, 133v (1450)

Figure 2: Canon Page, The Hague, KB 78 D 11, 133v (1450), reproduced by kind permission.

I would link these changes in the consumption of art to other cultural changes which occurred after the events of 1348. The Black Death of 1348 had convinced many medieval Christians that humanity was living a life of which God disapproved. For many there was no other way to explain the devastation that the pestilence had caused; over one third of the population of Europe had died. Traditional understandings of medicine often assumed that illness was a direct cause of sin, and therefore a divine punishment. Medical belief was therefore also intertwined with theology and many believed that through maintaining a healthy body the soul was healthy by extension. Medieval humoural theory was conceived by Aristotle (384–322 BCE) and provided the basis of medicine until the seventeenth century. The underlying principle was that the body was composed of four humours that needed to be in balance in order for the person to remain healthy. This theory became sacralised during the medieval period and Thomas Aquinas (1265–1274) explains how it developed to underpin all human interaction taking from it the idea of consumption through the senses: 'it would seem that sensuality is not only appetitive, but also cognitive,' he writes (Thomas Aquinas, Article 8).

Medieval people saw their senses as a gateway to earthly enlightenment. Both physical health and spiritual wellbeing were malleable to external influences, consciously and subconsciously (Thomas Aquinas, Article 8). Through this understanding of the senses the manuscript was able to be consumed by the reader. People began to practise in new ways and because 'Christianity was, almost from its inception, a religion oriented around things, it was accepted that these things could mediate a dialogue between the mortal and divine unlike Judaism and Islam' (Goldwaite, 1993: 72). I will introduce the circumstances for this change before analysing two case studies for an explanation of the performance medieval users found within their manuscript in depth.


Art was a key element in religious practice. Medieval churches were highly decorated in multi-layered schemes: the walls were painted and art adorned every available space. Art also traditionally occupied the liturgical centre of the church (and therefore also the church service) in altarpieces. These were focal points for devotion, activated by the church environment and the ordained priest who led the service. Art could give the unattainable idea of heaven a physical presence, which created a focal point for people's devotions and religious aspirations. However, I would argue that individuals were able to curate their own devotional experience through medieval manuscripts in the later Middle Ages. Books were powerful not just because they gave an individual control of their religious learning but also because their materiality enabled an individual haptic experience of faith. Materiality was significant in the medieval period, ingrained in everyday medical and theological belief; Caroline Walker Bynum explains that 'medieval materials were pregnant with significance' highlighting these sophisticated belief patterns (Bynum, 2011: 58).To the medieval person the world was seen as a highly sensual place. Through their senses, it was believed, people could experience the world in such a way as to alter their own bodily composition, their mindset and even their metaphysical relations with heaven. Beryl Rowland provides examples of people seeking confession after having accidentally witnessed animals copulating and full of fears of their own soul's corruption because of the experience (Rowland, 1978: 207).

Anything which came into contact with the body physically, such as clothing, food and book vellum, was important. I began to explore the significance of the book as a composition of materials as well as its more cohesive intrinsic value as a powerful multi-sensory devotional tool. I will therefore focus on the material of the pages of the book, vellum. This is a material which is transformed from an animal skin, typically cow, sheep or deer. This material was produced on the fringes of society in tanneries, beginning with the controlled decomposition process of the skin before it was stretched and dried (see Appendix 1); the trade took place in isolation because it produced a very strong and distinct aroma. During my research I undertook this process to understand how the transformation of the skin and its material quality could provide more insight into medieval belief (see Appendix 2).

Despite the unpleasantness of the process of creating vellum it was viewed as having a certain power. A person could take a raw animal skin and transform it into a material that could mediate with the divine and provide a manifestation for miracles. Thomas Aquinas explains that God has placed within material objects the potential for divinity, and that it was through a process of refinement that they were able to become divine making vellum a highly significant material (Thomas Aquinas, Article 8).

Magnificence and the manuscript

Medieval manuscripts were luxury items, usually highly decorated (Goldwiate, 1993: 1). They were expensive to produce and therefore only available to the higher echelons of society. Self-fashioning became important during this period; there was a cultural need to express wealth and status through appearance, through architecture and increasingly through portable material possession. The Black Death had impacted greatly on the economy. Previously, due to population increases and years of bad harvests, the price of grain had risen and the power of the feudal lords, who were great landowners, had been strong. When the population fell so did the price of grain and the feudal lords' income depleted while the general population had more disposable income. The power of the merchants, usually residing in towns, grew dramatically as people could spend more on luxury goods. This caused a shift away from the old feudal aristocratic structure of society to a more centralised city economy.

Lords had previously projected their power through the traditional space of country estates, but within town environments they needed a new expression of power. With great new restriction on space, it was on the person that the elite came to demonstrate their identity. We can see how complex this social demarcation became in Figure 3, an image by Gentile Bellini. Although this image was created much later in c.1500, it is a fine example of how entrenched these new ideas became, still in use centuries later.

Figure 3: Gentile Bellini, Miracle of the Cross at the Bridge of S. Lorenzo, Venice, c1500

Figure 3: Gentile Bellini, Miracle of the Cross at the Bridge of S. Lorenzo, Venice, c1500

In the bottom right-hand corner we see a group of men in clothing associated with their office. Ranks were demarcated through subtle changes in fabric, cut and coloration. These signifiers were so important they would be widely recognised around the city of Venice. Sumptuary legislation was put in place to protect this visual social stratification, through art, food and clothing (Rembrandt, 1999: 60). These laws were 'aimed at protecting the nobility's honor, ever more aggressively challenged by rich non-patricians' undue display of magnificence' (Sperling, 1999: 25).We can therefore assess the value of a manuscript based on its monetary cost as it could perform the identity and status of its owner. The pigments involved often had to be traded, sometimes over very long distances. Bright and bold colours were important to honour the subjects they depicted. In Figure 1 we see bright reds, gold leaf and deep blues, the paler blue on the right-hand page and the brighter blue on the cloak of the virgin imported from Afghanistan (Baxandal, 1982: 10).This proclaims that she is the most important figure in the image because the most expensive materials have been used to depict her. Luxury consumption required a social structure for it to be appreciated as a status symbol. Previously Christian belief had deprecated the acquisition of material wealth and the display of status as a vice. But during this period we see the theory of magnificence, developed by theological scholars such as Thomas Aquinas. This transformed owning a luxury from a vice into a virtue (Fraser-Jenkins, 1970: 164). It was believed that God had created the world and all within it, so by expressing personal wealth and glory, patrons were also celebrating the work of God and being virtuous (Fraser-Jenkins, 1970: 164). Through great elaboration the celebration of God becomes elevated, and with it the cost of the manuscript, indicating the patron's magnificence through expenditure.

The manuscript as an intercessor to the divine

Art was a powerful device in Christian worship. In the later Middle Ages it frequently became a 'stepping stone to the highest levels of contemplative experience' (Hamburger, 1998: 111), intermediating a link with the divine and facilitating personal devotional dialogues between saints and readers. This we can see in the many examples of art taking place or actuating miraculous events (Belting, 1994: 263). This attitude towards art continued into the Reformation when art was often destroyed and humiliated through removal of eyes, hands and mouths to stop them communicating (Heal, 2002: 25-46).

The materiality of the art influenced how it performed in this way due to prevalent and widespread haptic beliefs. These haptic ideas were seen by many to underpin almost all interactions. If one thing came into contact with another the two would both absorb each others' qualities. Because vellum had once been living as an animal skin, it was believed to contain a residual memory of that life; a power that was believed to have been instilled by God. Because of this 'it was so extraordinarily difficult for people in the later Middle Ages to see any matter as truly dead' (Bynum, 2011: 112).The book was therefore seen as alive to many medieval users, and by extension any likeness that was placed on its surfaces. In Figure 2, therefore, the user was not touching a likeness of Christ but Christ himself, using the image as a proxy for Christ's body. Through the portability of books and their increased secular patronage in the later Middle Ages people could now own these devices which enabled them to experience these divine interactions. In both Figure 1 and Figure 2 we can see where the reader has touched the image repeatedly to access this link. '[users] physically interacted with devotional manuscripts […] one form of interaction was kissing, or devotional osculation […] believers also kissed the divine words whose physical presence embodied divinity, which patrons could capture through touch' (Rudy, 2011: 2). These marks have been studied in depth by Kathryn Rudy who analysed manuscripts using densitometry (Rudy, 2010: 1).

Figure 2 would have been used in the central Christian ritual of Mass. The image would be physically activated by the touch of a priest during the service, just as through transubstantiation the wafer is transformed from bread into the body of Christ in medieval Christian belief. We can see that the priest here has physically engaged with the deeply symbolic wounds of Christ, mutilating the image in the process. The image could be held up for the congregation to take in visually, just as sometimes the bread wafer was held up for viewing instead of being ingested by the individuals (Rudy, 2011: 2). These rituals and the space of the church were imbued with a traditional power and mystique which created a powerful context for religious experience. The church space was designed to facilitate a shift in decorum; through the monumental structure and the moulding of light the space in which the book was activated was powerful. The light fell down from above due to high windows in traditional medieval church design, which meant that the space was visually isolated from the everyday world outside but also that it created a space rich with decoration and polychrome that was believed to be a channel of heaven. The space was therefore seen as powerful because it transformed heaven into an earthly location. The church punctuated life; each Sunday the Christian population would go to Mass. The priest was an important figure in Church hierarchy. He channelled divine teaching to the congregation and served the theological needs of the parish, therefore occupying a powerful role.

Within Figure 1 this power is transformed to the individual. The traditional monastic hierarchy is removed in the individual engagements with the book; they are not in the powerful church space and they mediate their own intimate, un-prescribed and personally malleable interactions. Both of these texts were in use at the same time. So we do not see the replacement of the traditional church authority with a new power of the individual; rather we see both old and new ways of worship running in parallel with each other to create a vibrant theological experience for the privileged elite who could afford to patronise these manuscripts.

This mutilation has been considered in the design process in Figure 2; at the bottom of the page we see traces of a round plaque intended to act as a portal of this power, trying to divert this touching and therefore protecting the powerful image from devotional mutilation (Rudy, 2010: 1). Vellum as a material behaves in many interesting ways. Because the hair is chemically removed from the skin through the use of urine or lime, leaving the follicles intact, the skin still behaves organically and it absorbs he residual greases from the touch of the patron as they use the book, which makes lasting marks. This importance of touch and proximity can also be seen in Figure 2, indicating that it was a devotional strategy that could take place publicly in a church service as well as privately in personal devotional books. There is a round and greasy patch surrounding the feet of Christ where this wafer has been placed during Mass. Proximity and touch are important parts of the ritual which has been repeated often. With an understanding of medieval haptic beliefs, we can infer that an intentional transformation is being curated. Because the bread wafer is turned into the body of Christ during transubstantiation and then it comes into contact with the manuscript page, the page is able to absorb this temperament and energy into its vellum; the pages of the book simultaneously becoming another host for the body of Christ (Rudy, 201: 1).

Curating the manuscript

The reader was necessary for the activation of the image, but the manuscript also provided the user with the opportunity to curate a composite and personal devotional object. Walter Ong writes that 'it is impossible for script [or imagery] to be more than marks on the surface unless it is used by a conscious human being as a cue to sound words, real or imagined, directly or indirectly' (Ong, 2013: 75). This can be seen as part of a growing motion towards personal devotion complementing public worship. This 'discovery of self' was accelerated during the indiscriminate killing of the plague years, when congregational worship became less common due to a fear of contracting the pestilence (Sekules, 2001: 7-8). In personal manuscripts we see the development of unique rituals that curate spiritual legacies through individualisations. Through adding these tokens and devices the manuscript becomes a talismanic palimpsest and site of memory for when the reader needs to be remembered after death in order for salvation into heaven (Belting, 1994: 304).We see this in Figure 1 with the addition of a vellum Eucharist wafer (now removed). The discoloured space outlining the shape remains, where the user rubbed and kissed it indicating its prolific use as a stimulant for the re-enactment of the public service in a private context (Rudy, 2011, 13).This celebration had been dependent on a strict code of order within the church, including prescribed liturgical equipment and spaces. The user has therefore become empowered, able to deliberately imitate an aspect of this ritual themselves.

Both Figure 1 and Figure 2 have been mutilated through prolific engagements such as rubbing. This we see as a wider phenomenon in many other texts. The reader has been drawing into themselves the goodness of the manuscript through sensual and personal religious rituals. 'Although it is often difficult to study the habits, private rituals, and emotional states of people who lived in the medieval past, medieval manuscripts carry signs of use and wear on their very surfaces that provide records of some of these elusive phenomena' (Rudy, 2010: 1). The process of this transforms the function and significance of the manuscript as the book becomes a palimpsest of a lifetime of devotional experience, a magnum opus devotion.

The user has also created their own ritual through the addition of curtains (now removed), which adds a physical performance into worship. The user can choose to reveal or conceal the image (seen in Figure 4).

Figure 4: Netherlandish Manuscript of Hours, full page miniature with silk curtain, The Hague

Figure 4: Netherlandish Manuscript of Hours, full page miniature with silk curtain, The Hague, KB, 130 E 18, ff. 86v-87r (1475), reproduced by kind permission.

The use of curtains could act rather like a winged altarpiece of the previous century, obscuring the image during everyday worship and opening it up in a celebration of full polychrome during specific occasions (Heal, 2002: 25-46).The holes in which these curtains were sewn are still visible on the vellum. This mystifies the image and subsequently increases its power, as argued by Richard Trexler (Trexler, 1972: 20).We could also infer that this curtain protected the image as it is much less abraded than others in the manuscript such as Figure 5.

Figure 5: Flagellation of Christ (heavily abraded), The British Library Board, Harley

Figure 5: Flagellation of Christ (heavily abraded), © The British Library Board, Harley 2966 f30v, reproduced by kind permission.

It is possible that Figure 1 was concealed for specific occasions and therefore used less. This reveals a hierarchy of religious worship where the user is controlling and maintaining the haptic engagements with their book to curate experience. This theatrical use of the book would only increase its power through the mystification of the object and its engagement reserved for occasions chosen by the reader. The reader therefore controlled the consumption of the image, choosing to mystify and reveal it in their own personal devotional strategy.

Subtraction from the manuscript

The manuscript was viewed as powerful, a divine stepping stone with residual life contained in its pages. The users touched the pages to draw out links between them and the divine they represented but they could also draw temperament into themselves (Sykes, 2007: 349-50). In this way the reader can keep their humoural composition in balance from the pages. We can see these habits and rituals recorded in a cumulative build-up of grease absorbed by the vellum (Rudy, 2011: 10). What is very striking is the fluctuation in build-up between pages (seen through comparison of Figure 1 and Figure 5). To some extent this is because dirt and grease sticks to the flesh side of the vellum much easier than to the hair side, but we can also infer that people interacted with different pages for different lengths of time (Rudy, 2011: 1).This is representative of an intellectual revolution, where cross-referencing ideas through the book becomes more popular than linear reading (Belting, 1994: 304). This would have enabled people to pick and choose what to interact with depending on their spiritual needs. The human body needed constant help from external corruption of the senses that could be both conscious and subconscious (Rowland, 1978, 207). In Figure 1, for example, there is great mutilation of the image; we see that the vellum is significantly darker and parts of the image have been destroyed.

Figure 1 has been kissed; we can see this through an imprint left by both nose and mouth on the page. The act of kissing was supposed to be particularly good at absorbing and emitting as it involved the mouth and this symbolic act was believed to facilitate a momentary mixing of the souls of the reader and the divine in the image (Thomas, 1991: 211-22). But the reader is also able to consume the manuscript through smell, sound and even taste.

The vellum is an organic material and with that comes a very distinct smell; it is generally accepted that manuscripts would be read aloud too, the reader literally awakening the words. We can therefore see an interplay between the static object and the active performance of its content. Medieval manuscripts were originally imbued with a sense of magic, as they immortalised words (Ong, 2013: 110). The book was therefore associated with the idea and power of memory. Through its use and through physical ornamentation via curtains and added objects the permanency can be transferred into the temporary field of experience time and time again; a type of experience which many believed was purer than dictation of knowledge. I would argue that this is because this experience becomes part of the patron through use moulding their composition. In some accounts we hear how a manuscript tasted, tasting sweet when the body was in balance and bitter when the soul had sinned (Alexander and Binski, 1987: 33). In these ways the reader consumed the manuscript almost like food in order to be a healthy person.

Banquets were popular at this time and notions of humoural consumption permitted the attendees to eat or decline foods on account of their personal humoural needs at that time. I would argue that a manuscript can be used in this way, to supplement liturgical worship when the individual feels the need. The manuscript humouraly supplemented congregational worship to be consumed by the reader to keep them healthy individually, still visible in the absorbed greases in the vellum.

The miraculous manuscript

Although the power of memory in the pages had existed since early manuscripts, after the Black Death it took on a whole new level of significance. It was believed that a person's memory on earth was necessary for easy entry into heaven. This had traditionally been made possible with grave markers but as many bodies were placed in mass graves and their belongings destroyed through fears of moral contamination, many felt a crisis in how to create a new locus for identity. The plague killed seemingly indiscriminately, leaving people with the expectation of disease (Marshal, 1997: 487).But the manuscript could perform miracles; it could absorb the reader's temperament and become an extended manifestation of themselves, their acts of worship immortalised in the vellum (Shinners, 2006: 477).

Christianity was full of haptic belief, and art often made powerful focal points. We therefore see a growing culture of talismanic and touch relic acquisition which could exist increasingly prevalently alongside church practice. Manuscripts could create similar literal protection through talismans and charms. In Figure 6 part of the image was removed for use as a talisman (Carruthers, 2008: 38).

Figure 6: Lamentation of Christ in the Tomb (mutilated), The British Library Board

Figure 6: Lamentation of Christ in the Tomb (mutilated), © The British Library Board, Harley 2966 f39v-40r, (1475), reproduced by kind permission.

This tradition existed well into the sixteenth century where manuscript fragments that were sold as talismans, this even continued into the later woodcut culture in Europe. Written rubrics refer to the left-hand page in Figure 1, stating that reciting certain prayers in front of the image would protect readers from death without confession, even if decapitated (Rudy, 2011: 10). Confession was necessary for ascension and so the manuscript safeguards the reader's soul.

The extensive mutilation caused to images such as Figure 1 and Figure 2 occurred over time. The consumer would have been aware of the effects of their ritual engagements, the marks on the page therefore becoming deeply symbolic to the reader as a physical manifestation of their acts of piety and consumption of the manuscript. But I would argue that it became also an immortal manifestation of their soul, consumed by the organic nature of the vellum (see Appendix 1). Thomas Aquinas explains that this blending of mortal and divine souls was not seen as blasphemous; it was believed that God had placed the potential for greatness in all things, therefore the process of creating great objects was seen as fulfilling God's intentions (Thomas Aquinas, Article 8). Although the process of making vellum was far from desirable, there was a certain magic which was associated with it. The raw animal skin was transformed into a clean, sensual and expressive cultural object which could be moulded by the acts of the user and become an extension of the soul. The process of this mutilation by the reader was therefore seen as divine. The visual marks made by the reader of Figure 1 transform a momentary act of devotion into an eternal one. Sensual experience often exists in a momentary field; the medieval manuscript was therefore significant as it could immortalise this experience and residual memory.

Remembrance was also crucial to ascension, and this visual legacy would ensure that the user was remembered. In this way the consumer could be taking positive steps to gain control over the world they saw in turmoil (Nelson, 2000: 203). The idea of consumption was therefore reciprocal, as the manuscript could absorb the acts of devotion of its reader. The residual memory of that soul and its pious actions can be immortalised in the manuscript (Rudy, 2010: 40).

Vellum retained its organic qualities which meant that it occasionally appeared alive. The vellum produced as part of my research reacted to the environment it was in by curling and bending when it was exposed to warm and moist air. This sense of life is asserted in Figure 1 where metal clasps have been included to prevent the vellum from curling and splaying apart as it reacts to the changing environment. The metal clasps are excessive for just holding the manuscript shut but symbolise the powerful life within the manuscript (see Appendix 1). The pages would bend and curl, moving organically, and this could have been interpreted as a performance of the power that the manuscripts were seen to have. Many manuscripts were filtered with these clasps and later into the Middle Ages we see a notable expansion of their size. This links back to the virtue of magnificence as patrons were asserting through the large clasps that the power of their book outweighed that of others. If the book was more powerful, not only could the patron afford the best and most powerful materials but they were also themselves humourally perfect and full of pious energy to enhance the power of the book through their interactions. The flaws within the skin were also celebrated in many cases. Scars and insect bites left visible marks on the vellum which were not seen as imperfections, but rather a reminder of the residual life that the vellum contained within it; A visual proof of its past life and further proof of the magic imbued within its transformation process. This also serves as a reminder of the process of its transformation from raw animal skin to useable material. This in turn becomes one of the ultimate expressions of magnificence and of the discovery of the self through sensual engagement with the manuscript; the manuscript becomes a personal miracle, created consciously by the reader and a testament of their strength of piety.


Medieval haptic beliefs meant that the material qualities of a manuscript could be used to curate a devotional performance. Not only was the manuscript seen as an aid to bodily health through humoral balance, but it could take care of spiritual wellbeing too. It brought users directly into contact with seemingly miraculous happenings and divine dialogues. Their use of the manuscript could be immortalised within the pages with which they interacted, their acts of devotion over time physically manifesting themselves in the pages. Although private manuscripts did not remove the need for the church service, they did empower secular users to enact their own personal rituals which occasionally mimicked the traditional rituals of the service. There was a greatly increased need to display personal identities though self-fashioning and the manuscript could provide a very powerful statement about one's wealth, spiritual purity and even divine favour.

The Black Death set in motion many ideological changes in Europe as belief and practice were shaken and placed in doubt. New material culture consumption patterns became prevalent and the manuscript was able to answer many of the unanswered fears left by the pestilence. This gave them immortality as an absorbed manifestation in the manuscript long after their death. This helped them ascend to heaven through their remembrance and honour, through the physical remains of their piety engrained into the vellum. After this research I will be expanding my study to further material processes that the manuscript and other medieval cultural objects underwent, such as the binding and illuminating of the manuscript.


I would like to acknowledge the help of Dama International and Dr Naomi Sykes in the Parchment project. Dr Gabrielle Neher for her support throughout the project and Dr Katheryn Rudy for her inspirational research.

List of Figures

Figure 1: Annunciation, © The British Library Board, Harley 2966 f.14v(1475), reproduced by kind permission.

Figure 2: Canon Page, The Hague, KB, 78 D 11, f.133v (1450), reproduced by kind permission.

Figure 3: Gentile Bellini, Miracle of the Cross at the Bridge of S. Lorenzo, Venice, c1500

Figure 4: Netherlandish Manuscript of Hours, full page miniature with silk curtain, The Hague, KB, 130 E 18, ff. 86v-87r (1475), reproduced by kind permission.

Figure 5: Flagellation of Christ (heavily abraded), © The British Library Board, Harley 2966 f. 30v, reproduced by kind permission.

Figure 6: Lamentation of Christ in the Tomb (mutilated), © The British Library Board, Harley 2966 ff. 39v-40r, (1475), reproduced by kind permission.

Appendix 1

The process of making vellum.

Step in process Elapsed time for step Explanation Observations
Wash the skin 7 days Here we needed to remove the blood, firstly to prevent decomposition but also to remove dirt from the hair of the deer. The hair is able to hold a large amount of dirt, but also air. Trying to submerge the skin in water to soak proved problematic.
Remove large pieces of flesh 1 day The removal of the skin had left some significant pieces of flesh. These had to be removed to prevent decomposition, but this had begun to set into the soft tissue and the smell began. The smell was rather overpowering, even noticeable from outside the locked room. The flesh was relatively difficult to remove; it did not come away in strips but in small fragments and so it became a very fiddly and time consuming job.
Lime bath 10 days This was to remove the hair from the skin without damaging it. Pulling or cutting at the hair would certainly damage the skin and make it unusable. The solution was to be relatively weak. The smell seemed to get better until the skin was stirred to ensure equal exposure to the alkaline solution. Here big air bubbles would rise which were very pungent. Tanners were often based outside of towns because the smell of the industry was so bad.
Wash 3 days Then the lime solution needed to be entirely removed from the skin; we needed to wash it to make sure no further erosion took place. The smell reached its peak here and the edges of the deer skin had become yellowed from overexposure to the lime, but they would be removed later on anyway.
Make frame 2 days We needed a frame to support the stretching vellum approximately 140cm x 140cm. The skin was surprisingly large, as it had expanded during emersion.
Removal of remaining flesh and subcutaneous layer 7 days This was the final removal stage before stretching. This was very difficult to remove and the smell was at its worst, no one could spend too long with the skin before needing fresh air.
Lightly stretch on the frame 1 day I laid the skin on the frame and tied the edges before turning the frame on its side and tightening the cords. This was to let the skin adjust to the frame and was said to stop the skin from snapping and ripping.
Re-wet and stretch tighter 1 day Then the skin was stretched as tight as we could make it. The skin had elastic properties; it sprang and could be stretched relatively easily. When tight and poked there was a noticeable sound. You could push finger-marks in the skin and it would also resettle moments later.
Re-wet and scrape 1 day This was the first time the skin was adjusted; the cords had become noticeably slack and the skin noticeably bigger and thinner.  
Repeat tightening each time 7 days This happened daily.  
Let skin begin drying naturally 7 days I continued scraping the skin but without rewetting the surface. Here a small patch of mould formed.
Scrape 2 days The subcutaneous layer began to fall away easier. The stretching of the skin seemed to be faster than the subcutaneous layer and so it peeled away with more ease. The mould grew.
Apply chalk 7 days The chalk draws out the remaining oils in the skin; it also helps whiten the surface of the vellum and also smooth's it. There had been some clear and greasy looking areas appear, which the chalk corrected. These areas were noticeable thinner than the other areas but did not seem to follow any logical pattern due to the stretching. Some areas did correlate with cuts into the skin which had occurred in the unmaking process.
Scrape and cut from frame 1 day. Once scraped one last time the skin was cut and remained flat for a few minutes but as soon as it was moved to a warmer room the skin began to curl quite dramatically due to the change in humidity. The subcutaneous layer came away like dust along with the chalk. As the humidity in the environment changed the vellum was noticeably curling and bending as it absorbed surrounding moisture from the environment.

Appendix 2

I documented this project in a blog which can be found at Here daily updates were posted about the project. Once the research had been completed I was lucky enough to present my findings at the British Conference of Undergraduate Research and this presentation can be found here as a PDF


[1] Emma Hardiman is currently a student at the University of York studying Medieval Art History. Her undergraduate research was conducted at the University of Nottingham in Art History.


Alexander, J. and P. Binski (1987), Age of Chivalry: Art in Plantagenet England 1200-1400, London: Royal Academy of Arts

Aquinas, T. (c. 1265-1274), Summa Theologiæ, Article 8, The existence of God in things, accessed 2 December 2013

Baxandal, M. (1982), The Limewood Sculptures of Renaissance Germany, Yale University Press

Belting, H. (1994), Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art, Chicago Press

Bynum, C. W. (2011), Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe, New York: Zone Books

Carruthers, M. (2008), The Manuscript of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fraser-Jenkins, A. D. (1970), 'Cosimo Me'a dichi's Patronage of Architecture and the theory of Magnificence', Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 33, 162–70

Goldthwaite, R. A. (1993), Wealth and Demand for Art in Italy 1300-1600, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press

Hamburger, J. F.(1998), The Visual and the Visionary: Art and Female Spirituality in Late Medieval Germany, New York: Zone Books

Heal, B. (2002),'Images of the Virgin Mary and Marian Devotion in Protestant Nuremberg', in Parish and Naphy (eds), Religion and Superstition in Reformation Europe, Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp. 25-46

Rudy, K. M. (2010), 'Dirty manuscripts: quantifying patterns of use in medieval manuscripts using a densitometer', Journal of Historians of Netherlands Art, 2 (1-2), 1-22

Rudy, K. M. (2011), 'Kissing Images, Unfurling Rolls, Measuring Wounds, Sewing Badges and Carrying Talismans: Considering Some Harley Manuscripts through the Physical Rituals they Reveal', Electronic British Library Journal, available at, accessed 9 October 2014

Marshal, L. (1995), 'Manipulating the Sacred: Image and Plague in Renaissance Italy', Renaissance Quarterly, 47, 485–5 32

Nelson, R. S. (2000), Visuality Before and Beyond the Renaissance: Seeing As Others Saw, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Ong, W. J. (2013), Orality and Literacy, London: Routledge

Rembrandt, D. (1999), Figured Riches: The Value of Gold Brocades in Fifteenth-Century Florentine Painting, The Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 62, 60-92

Rowland, B. (1978), Birds with human souls: a guide to bird symbolism, University of Tennessee Press

Scribner, R. W. (1994), For the Sake of Simple Folk: Popular Propaganda in the German Reformation, Oxford: Clarendon Press

Sekules, V. (2001), Medieval Art, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Shinners, J. (2006), Medieval Popular Religion, 1000-1500: A Reader, Toronto: University of Toronto Press

Sperling, J. (1999), 'Reproducing the Body Politic in Late Renaissance Venice', Comparative Studies in Society and History, 41, 3-32

Skyes, N. J. (2007), 'Animals, the bones of medieval society', in Gilchrist, R. and A. Reynolds (eds), 50 Years of Medieval Archaeology 1957-2007, Leeds: Maney, 349–5 0

Trexler, R. C. (1972), 'Florentine Religious Experience: The sacred image', Studies in the Renaissance, 19, 7–41

To cite this paper please use the following details: Hardiman, E.K. (2014), 'Medieval Materiality: the Multisensory Performance in Late-Medieval Manuscripts', Reinvention: an International Journal of Undergraduate Research, BCUR 2014 Special Issue, Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite this article or use it in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal at warwick dot ac dot uk.