St Augustine Was Eaten by a Bear: Book Production in Carthusian Monasteries

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St Augustine Was Eaten by a Bear: Book Production in Carthusian Monasteries

Lecture by Erik Kwakkel

Given at the Royal Alberta Museum Theatre on October 19, 2012




Abstract: Carthusian monks loved books. Their rule prescribed that they copy them a set number of hours per day, that they look after them, and that they not write in them. So when a bear near the Grand Chartreuse, the order’s motherhouse, got hold of the larger volume of St Augustine’s Letters, the monks quickly wrote to a friend in Paris to send them a new copy. The book practices in the Carthusian Order form a great introduction to the production of the book in the Middle Ages. Carthusian scribes reflect the full spectrum of medieval book production: on the one hand they conformed to broader norms, while on the other they adopted new practices. Covering this scope, the lecture will show how monks in the Middle Ages made books; it will also reveal what is special about the book-loving Carthusians.

Excerpt: I’m going to briefly talk to you about what a manuscript actually is, because I imagine many of you have never seen one or touched one… and I want to talk about the Carthusian Order, which is very important because is there is very direct relationship between what the Order is all about and what the books these monks in the Order used actually looked like. There is an interesting relationship between the rules about which these individuals lived and the books as physical objects. That is exactly what I do in life with my project with five people – were looking at the physical appearance of books. I actually tell my student not to read but to look, because reading distracts from actually understanding the book as an object. So stop reading and lets think about physical appearance: what does it look like, what does it feel like, what does it smell like.

You can follow Erik Kwakkel on Twitter @erik_kwakkel

Sharan Newman