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Mmmonk Manuscripts by Candlelight

19 March 2024

We are used to studying manuscripts in artificial light, powered by electricity. But that is not how medieval readers saw their manuscripts! So we decided to conduct an experiment at Bruges Public Library to find out what it was like to read manuscripts by candlelight.

The manuscript in the images is a 13th century copy from Ter Doest Abbey of the Speculum doctrinale by Vincent de Beauvais (Bruges Public Library Ms. 251).

It was a unique experience. With the lights out, and some medieval music (Josquin des Prez) playing in the background, the atmosphere was serene and quiet. We automatically lowered our voices to a whisper. We also automatically took much more time to look at the pages, focusing only on the areas where the light of the candle fell. A form of slow art, if you will.

We noticed details that had remained hidden in artificial light, like the shine of varnishes on top of illuminations, and the shine of small initials dabbed in yellow paint, highlighting (literally) the first letters of new sentences, which is only visible by candlelight!

Here are some practical insights, for those who would like to do this at their own institution:

  • Safety first!! We used rechargeable LED candles with moving flames. Very realistic, but without any safety hazards.
  • We gave our visitors (= library staff) a candle. This provided autonomy, turning it into an active experience. It helped to navigate the dark room and to explore the reflections on the manuscripts at their own pace.
  • Light reflects on the surroundings. Provide a dark table or a dark cover for your table and wear dark and neutral coloured clothes.
  • Expect many questions on light options in the Middle Ages, so brush up on your knowledge on candles, torches and lamps.
  • We had a mixed set-up with display cases and with a live demo on a table. Both have their pros and cons. Cases: Larger audience, with less need for constant supervision, but it is not possible to move the pages. Live demo: The movement of the pages is wonderful, but handling can only be done by an expert and the group has to be smaller.
  • Spread the cases, don't put them together. The lights in the various cases combined can become too bright.

At Mmmonk, we believe in a holistic approach to fully understand medieval manuscripts, using not only your intellect but all of your senses. Professor Elaine Treharne gave an inspiring talk on this subject at Mmmonk School, which you can rewatch here.