Exploring Medieval Manuscripts: An Interview with Erik Kwakkel

Erik Kwakkel - Photo by Willem-Jan Schipper

Erik Kwakkel – Photo by Willem-Jan Schipper

If you are interested in knowing more about medieval books and manuscripts, you will want to follow the writings and posts by Erik Kwakkel. The Associate Professor at Leiden University has focused his research on understanding the how’s and why’s of the creation of manuscripts in the Middle Ages. His research has made international headlines, and his social media profiles is followed by thousands who enjoy the fascinating images of medieval books and writings that he sends out.

We had the chance to interview Erik and ask about his interest in medieval manuscripts:

While many medieval historians often research using books and manuscripts, you are one of relatively few scholars who decided to focus on the manuscripts themselves and its material culture. Why did you choose to explore that area of the Middle Ages?

I did my MA in Middle Dutch literature and noticed that I enjoyed working with manuscripts more than with the texts they contained. So when I had to come up with a topic for my PhD, I turned to Middle Dutch manuscripts. My PhD-thesis is a study of the oldest collection of prose manuscripts that survives in Dutch vernacular: twenty-three manuscripts from the same monastery, all produced in the fourteenth century. During the four years that I wrote my thesis I learned to appreciate making seemingly insignificant material observations and turning them into arguments that addressed broader, cultural themes – reading, the movement of manuscripts, how people interacted with literature. I realized this was my thing: to take the material and mold it into something that supports the cultural. This link between the material book and history is still what defines my work – I even discussed the importance of this link in a recent book chapter. My interest in the material book and the expertise required to make sense of it was sparked in the manuscript classes by Peter Gumbert, which I took as an MA-student. He was an inspiring instructor and would ultimately become my mentor. I am very grateful that I now occupy his position at Leiden University and that I am able to introduce new generations to the medieval book, hopefully as inspiring as he did.

Watching your social media feeds and your website it seems to me that you are constantly finding many, many fascinating images and items. How much time have you spent going into libraries and archives to discover all of this, and do you have any secret method that allows you to find these hidden gems with manuscripts?

The peculiar thing is that I have much less time now to visit libraries than I had when I was a PhD-student. I ran a big project over that past five years, which at one point included six researchers. This means, inevitably, that there are a lot of things to look after, which pushes looking at actual manuscripts to the background. I enjoy directing a project, but looking at medieval books is now something I do no more than once a week. So when I do go to the library I am trying to make the best of it! Not only do I come out of the building with the data I need for my own research, but also with a lot of “artsy” images, taken with a professional camera – although I also take a lot of snapshots with my phone.

I use the images for blog posts, Twitter and for the image column I run in a popular historical magazine in Holland (you can buy it in the supermarket where I shop and I love that the medieval manuscript has made it into the grocery store). I think the trick is to always be “on”: I don’t separate being a researcher from being a person that promotes the medieval book via social and other media (I do a lot of radio interviews and public lectures in Holland). It only takes a few seconds to shoot out a tweet with a great image when I am in the library.

Another resource for the images you see in my twitter feed and blog are online databases. I “consume” a lot of digital manuscripts per week as I look for specimens to include in my scholarly publications. As I am there browsing, I will simply download images that I think will be enjoyed for Twitter or useful for a future blog post. My rule of thumb is: if I find the image enjoyable, fascinating or unusual, then so will my followers – because that is how twitter works. By the way, those qualifiers usually end up in a tweet, which simply expresses what I think of an image (I will never call something great or unusual if I don’t think so myself). The secret method, to answer that part of your question, is to be curious and allow yourself to be surprised about objects that you routinely encounter.

In the past couple of years I’ve noticed the interest in medieval manuscripts explode in social media and the web – part of that can be attributed to your own work –  but why do you think that we have seen this wave of interests in manuscripts and their images?

I think the interest started to take off with the proliferation of good-quality images on the web. When I first started to research medieval manuscripts, in the 1990s, there was hardly anything out there. And what was available looked pretty terrible, both in terms of the websites’ UI and their content. Today it is very easy to find suitable images of high quality. Moreover, the Creative Commons licenses that libraries have started to adopt invites people to do something with digital manuscripts, from simply tweeting images (like I do) to constructed actual research tools (like @SexyCodicology’s DMMapp, which is the best gateway to collections of digitized manuscripts), or even producing coffee mugs with manuscript images on them. I am really grateful that libraries and museums invest money to build up freely accessible collection of digitized manuscripts – which is why tweets without attributions make me so mad.

I think we are just at the beginning of a movement that will present us with a great deal more. We will see an increase, for example, in the digital output of academic research projects, which present us with free databases and “niche” images collections, like Peter Stokes’ DigiPal. The digital presence of the manuscript has opened the eyes of internet users to the extent that a growing number of people are getting accustomed to visiting certain manuscript-related websites and blogs, just as they would for news and fashion. I love that something quirky and nerdy like the medieval book is becoming mainstream.

There is a saying: “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, but what are the kinds of manuscripts that you find that you most enjoy looking at?

You may find this surprising, but I do not favor illuminated manuscripts. My least favorite type of manuscript is the Book of Hours, especially those of high quality. Not only were colorful books like this exceptional in medieval times (some estimates put the presence of illuminated manuscripts in medieval libraries as low as one in ten), they are also completely predictable in terms of production – how many bifolia to the quire, their dimensions and preparation, etc. They are, in a sense, the factory products of the Middle Ages.

I much rather look at books that many would call scruffy, but what I like to think of as the “artisan” counterpart to the factory product. Schoolbooks in particular are most enjoyable to study, because you can see how the owner used and revamped it purposefully with a specific aim in mind, as shown by the annotated margins, the layout and the unusual manners in which the objects are put together. Let me put it this way: It is great to see a Ferrari zoom by on the street, but the vintage Volvo that has been altered by different generations of drivers is ultimately much more interesting as an object.

Finally, what are the kinds of issues and topics that you would encourage medieval scholars to explore when it comes to manuscripts and books from the Middle Ages? What do we want to learn more about?

The study of the medieval book is so young (codicology as a discipline was established in the 1950s) that there is still a lot of work to be done – thankfully. The great thing about the professional study of medieval books is that academics all have a very particular interest, resulting in studies that are actually presenting very different observations, even when it concerns the same manuscripts. I would hope that there will be generations of scholars who find their own niches and look at medieval books in their own unique ways. I am not in favor of steering research in a particular direction, which would limit the range of new things we learn. That said, the digital dynamic is becoming increasingly important, in part because funding bodies favor this find of research – this includes my own research, of course. Old-fashioned research, involving a scholar leaning over an actual manuscript with a pencil, will likely not disappear, but I hope it will remain a significant part of what we do as manuscript scholars.

medieval mag 36Here are some of the ways you can explore Erik Kwakkel’s research:

Medievalbooks – Erik’s blog

Quill: Books before print

@erik_kwakkel – his Twitter feed

Erik Kwakkel’s Tumblr page

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