Conference Powerpoints and Conveying Emotions in History

I’ve just timed myself reading the conference paper I’ll be giving at ANZAMEMS next week on the panel ‘Emotions of Crime and Death in Medieval and Early Modern Europe’. 20 minutes, 27 seconds. That works! One of the ways I try to keep my pace even throughout a talk is by using a powerpoint of images and texts related to my research. As a visual learner, I find it very useful to offer my audience alternative ways of digesting the content of the medieval legal material I’ll be covering.  I also find that the text-based research takes on a more three-dimensional ‘feel’ when placed alongside images of the Middle Ages.

With the wealth of manuscript material now available on the internet, it is much easier than it was even a year ago to find, correctly cite, and use images to accompany academic presentations.  One of the most useful websites I turn to is the British Library’s Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, which has recently released many of its images for use under a Public Domain Mark. There is an advanced search feature which allows you to narrow down pretty easily what kind of images you are looking for, or what type of text you’d like to see.

I used this repository to find the following image from the Omne Bonum, written by James le Palmer in Southeast England around 1360-75.  This text is a general encyclopedia, one of the first of its kind in England to organize its material alphabetically.  Almost every large initial contains an illumination related to the subject of the entry.

British Library MS Royal 6 E VII, f. 345. Detail of an historiated initial 'I'(udex) of a judge. James le Palmer's Omne Bonum. England, S. E. (London), c. 1360-75
British Library MS Royal 6 E VII, f. 345. Detail of an historiated initial ‘I'(udex) of a judge. James le Palmer’s Omne Bonum. England, S. E. (London), c. 1360-75

This ‘historiated initial’ ‘I’ stands for ‘Iudex’, or ‘Judge’, and it contains a depiction of a judge, his clerks dutifully taking notes, and two bondsman presenting a suspect—who looks as if he’s developed a bit of stubble from waiting in prison for his day in court.

However removed the artist’s interpretation might be from what really occurred (it actually depicts well what is described in court records, minus the suggestion that only dwarves or children were employed as legal scribes), the image immediately enlivens history for us. It also reminds us of the skill and artistry involved in the creation of these artifacts. More so, perhaps, than some of the other images included in my powerpoint: thirteenth- and fourteenth-century legal documents.

I find many of the scans of legal manuscripts I need on Anglo-American Legal Tradition, a database run the by the O’Quinn Law Library at the University of Houston.  Some of the archives I need haven’t yet been scanned into this database, and for those I either order scans directly from the archive or visit the archive in person to see them myself.  (Visiting the UK archives in person last year proved a much cheaper option than ordering all of the scans I needed! This also allowed me to discover new cases while sorting through the manuscripts). Below is a photo I took during a research trip to The National Archives in Kew, England.  This is a 1373 writ that excuses Edmund Mordant of both killing his wife and killing himself due to his insanity.

The National Archives, Kew, C 54/211m36, photo taken by Rebecca F. McNamara, 5 Jan 2012
The National Archives, Kew, C 54/211m36, photo taken by Rebecca F. McNamara, 5 Jan 2012

Though I find these medieval legal documents fascinating in themselves—parchment (!), a judicial clerk’s unique ‘hand’ (handwriting), a script containing distinctive features of its period and place, legal Latin—I can see how they might not captivate every colleague seated in the room to hear the panel of papers. That’s where the extraordinary illuminations of medieval scribes come in. As a postdoc in Australia working on medieval Europe, I’m thankful for these databases (and the dedicated academics who create them) that provide the opportunity for me to ‘flesh out’ my research presentations.

The beauty of a large, multi-disciplinary gathering like the ANZAMEMS conference next week is that it brings these various components together—the texts, material culture, images, spaces, archeological evidence (hello there, King Richard III in a Leicester car park)—to understand and interpret the medieval and early modern past a little more clearly.

That’s also what I see the ARC CHE doing: pulling together expertise from researchers in a range of disciplines to continue to define the methodologies for interpreting emotions in the past, and pushing the field further. What an incredible process it is. Look forward to seeing many of you (and your powerpoint presentations!) in Melbourne next week for ANZAMEMS.

Posted by Rebecca McNamara

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