Author: Michael Taylor, Curator of Books, LSU Libraries
When we think about history, we often think about it in terms of eras that were triggered or ended by a major event—the fall of Rome, the Russian Revolution, the invention of the steam engine, the abolition of slavery, and so on. While history is certainly full of many turning points that altered some aspects of life immediately and in a very noticeable way, historical change is generally more gradual and full of grey areas. Students beginning their study of history are often not very attentive to this, seeing the past as a patchwork quilt with little overlap between the squares. In reality, history is woven together in infinite ways, with some threads being shared by multiple (or all) eras. The world didn't wake up one day and say, "It's the Renaissance!" Instead, many elements of medieval life lingered for years (a few even remain today). Being able to see and understand the process of historical change and continuity is essential to building critical-thinking skills as well as a sense of empathy that can provide insight into why people in the past made the decisions they did. At the very least, it helps students gain a fuller understanding of how major events in history have shaped our world—what changed immediately, what took longer to change, what did not change at all?
By looking at books from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, students participating in this activity will be challenged to think about the process of historical change as it relates to the transition from manuscript culture to the world of print—one of those historical events that, in the popular imagination at least, occurred as soon as Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press. Students will hopefully build an awareness of how historians study and debate the impact of historical ideas and events.
This activity will train students to:
Joshua Roll and the Peutinger Table (facsimiles)
Ethiopian Bibles (19th century codices)
Martyrology of Usuard (15th century, facsimile)
Antichrist and the Fifteen Signs (mid 15th century, facsimile)
Boethius, De consolatione philosophiae (1486)
Sermones Meffreth alias Ortulus regine de tempore (ca. 1485)
Gutenberg Bible (ca. 1455, facsimile)
Godescalc Evangelistary (8th century, facsimile)
Leonardo Bruni, Historia del popolo fiorentino (1476)
Manuscript leaf on paper (15th century), in Pages from the Past
Cicero, Paradoxa, De Amicitia, De Senectute (after 1494), scribal copy
Martialis (1501), Aldine imprint
Divine Comedy (1491, facsimile)
Martin Luther, Ein Sermon uber das Evangelion Marci (1534)
A laptop computer or iPhone
(Click links to go to catalog records and place a request to view.)
This activity uses active learning to enhance students’ observational skills and awareness of the historian's craft, and to arouse their interest in working with materials from the Middle Ages and Renaissance by giving them a hands-on experience. It is not intended to be a comprehensive introduction to the transition from manuscript to print, and you may wish to follow it up with a more thorough class lecture.
The questions below are provided as suggestions to help your students notice common threads and differences between the materials selected and then relate them to larger historical concepts.
Class time needed: 60 minutes.
Place one item from the list of materials in front of each student or small group of students. Ask them to spend 1-2 minutes exploring the items and familiarizing themselves with their basic features. (This is a good time to give a quick lesson in handling archival materials.)
Begin the discussion and move from item to item by asking “Who has... ?” or “Group number three has [name of book]. Why do you think...?”