How to touch, smell and taste a ‘deconstructed’ medieval manuscript

A unique opportunity to experience a medieval manuscript as a sensory experience is currently taking place at the University of Leicester.

The opening page of the manuscript begins the story of the martyrdom of St Cyriac (St Cyricus, St Qirqos). Two distinct columns are set out between interlaced ornamental bands. Black and red are the most commonly used colours in Ethiopian manuscripts. Green and yellow are less common but typically used for page decoration. Image courtesy University of Leicester

Armand De Filippo, a Museum Studies PhD student in the University of Leicester’s School of Museum studies, is conducting research into an early 18th century Ethiopian manuscript which is from the Library’s Archives and Special Collections.


As part of his research, Armand has established an exhibition, which allows participants to touch, smell and even taste a typical manuscript from the medieval period broken down into its component parts – including, blood, ink, pigments, animal hide and frankincense.

This month participants will be exploring the exhibition. Wearing camera glasses, they will have the opportunity to interact with manuscript materials, experience an audio-visual installation and let free their curiosity and imagination within the display setting.

This information will contribute to Armand’s research exploring how we interact with medieval manuscripts in display settings and shed light on how people engage sensorially and emotionally with physical objects.


“The display attempts to take the participants beyond the glass case and a solely visual encounter with a manuscript and, instead, enable them to ‘apprehend the intangible’, to explore and experience the manuscript as a physical, 3-D object,” Armand explained. “I am interested in finding out whether physical and sensory encounters with manuscript materials, interwoven with digital theatre, inspires visitors’ curiosity, imagining, arousal and creates a sense of empathy with past times and past lives.”

The Ethiopian manuscript (MS210) tells the story of St Cyriac and his mother St Julietta being persecuted and martyred in around 304 AD. The manuscript is written in Ge’ez, an old Ethiopian language.

The manuscript is believed to have arrived in Britain in the mid-nineteenth century in the hands of a soldier as part of a trove seized during Queen Victoria’s reign. A significant number of manuscripts and other treasures were brought back to the UK around that time following British military action in Maqdala in Ethiopia.


With generous funding from the School of Museum Studies and the Library’s Special Collections department the manuscript has been digitised, allowing viewers to zoom in and view physical characteristics previously unavailable to be seen by them- such as hair follicles, insect bites, veining and scoring on the parchment.

“I have selected this manuscript,” Armand noted, “not only because it is full of wonderfully intimate detail, but also because its structure and physical form bears a striking resemblance to some early medieval manuscripts. The materials and techniques of manufacture evident in MS210 would have been familiar to an Anglo-Saxon monk.

“The support of the Library, Special Collections and Dr Simon Dixon at the University of Leicester has been essential to making my work possible.”


Dr Simon Dixon, Archives and Special Collections Manager at the University of Leicester, commented that “Armand’s ground-breaking work is challenging us to rethink how we can present our collection of manuscripts to audiences. The exhibit he has created is innovative and imaginative, and I would encourage people to get in touch with him to participate in the research.”

Dr Sandra Dudley, Head of the School of Museum Studies, added, “Armand’s research opens up the possibility of some really exciting insights into new ways of exhibiting old manuscripts and books. I’m also delighted that it has provided an opportunity for the School to collaborate more substantively with the University Library.”


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