Tuesday, 31 March 2009

How on earth did they do it?

I've mentioned in my previous post that I've been to see the book of Kells. There was, however, another book in the museum building, a travel book from the 13th or 14th century that I found as impressive as the great Kells manuscript.

Imagine a book, a manuscript, with nice miniatures on the chapter headings. Now shrink it until it has pocket size. You can still buy bibles printed on extra-thin paper, with extra-tiny print that is extra hard to read because the print from overleaf, and the print of the leaf after that all shines through. In the museum, they had the medieval equivalent to this: Tiny, incredibly clean and regular letterings and then that miniature. I'm short-sighted, so I can squint at close-up at smallish things and still see them properly, but to make out all the details on that incredible drawing (which was by far not as faded as the Book of Kells illuminations, and sparkling with a blindingly gleaming gold background), I'd have needed to remove the glass case and move so close to the book that my nose would almost touch it. It really looked like a very detailed normal-size miniature shrunk. It was a moment of awe for me, and I'd have so loved to take a photo of this... but sadly, photograpy was forbidden as usual.

But the smallness of this miniature, in connection with the small detailed knotwork depictions in the B.o.K., make me want to hypothesise a bit. Or, rather, plunge a dear old hypothesis of mine into the cold waters of the blogosphere.

Have you ever wondered how those miniaturists did it? I mean it's not like today, where you just run into the opticians' and buy yourself a pretty little magnifying glass, with a table mount and extra light (battery powered) so you can see things at 15 times their size. Theoretically, magnifying crystals might have been used - but they would almost certainly lead to some distortion.

No, my pet hypothesis is that all those crazy miniature-miniaturists were more or less short-sighted - and maybe extremely so. An optician once explained to me that he wouldn't correct my shortsightedness with my glasses to the full extent theoretically possible, but only slightly below that, because, as he said, "we don't want you to lose that natural magnifying properties your eyes have". In addition to a magnifying effect that shortsightedness seems to have, people like me can also creep up creepingly close to the things we want to look at and still focus properly.* So maybe those illuminators of tiny things made use of their disability, exploiting it as a special talent in the scriptorium? I can imagine a short-sighted monk, hunched over his bit of parchment, nose almost touching the page, using the thinnest brush available to colour in the lines he drew the day before. Smelling the wet scent of the colours, adding a touch of the brush here, another one there.

Of course, once the farsightedness of age came in addition to the nearsightedness, his miniaturist career might have been over. One of these days, before it's too late for me because the far-seeing-of-age sets in, I'll grab some extremely thin brushes and inks and sit down to make a truly miniature miniature. Just to see if I can. Not wearing any lenses or glasses, of course.

* The downside to this, naturally, is shortsightedness. Which means that when reading without contacts or glasses, my nose hovers less than 10 cm above the book page. I have to move the book (or my nose) to the right-hand side of the book once I'm finished with the left-hand page. And I only see blobs and swirls of colours past the half-metre mark. And I regularly thank the powers that be for the invention of contact lenses.

Monday, 30 March 2009

There's no place like home!

I'm back from my little trip abroad - I went to Ireland for a little more than a week, going to the Borderlines XIII conference and then having a few days more in Dublin.

The conference was neither as international nor as interdisciplinary as I had hoped, but good fun and very informative, as I now know a gazillion more Middle English than before (gone straight up from "none at all" to "I can understand some simple words"); learnt that the same differences between archaeologists' and literature-ists' papers exist in Germany and in Ireland; found that there is so much still to learn; got the distinct impression that I should really try to read some Chaucer one of these days; discovered that Irish saga background is really different from Middle European background; learnt where the Liffey and the Puddle flowed together in the old town of Dublin; finally understood why my "Celtic-style knotwork" always ended up with one crossing out of pattern and a few more odds and ends. Sadly, I was not really fit as with an appalling bout of bad timing, I caught a head-cold straight before leaving for Ireland and thus felt like I had cotton wadding inside my skull instead of a brain for the first one and a half days.

After the conference, I got to see the book of Kells, the Georgian Town House Museum(Number 29), the National Museum, the Collin's Barracks (second part of the National Museum), Phoenix Park, the Botanical Gardens, and the innards of several bookstores and supermarkets. I ended up with a few photos (though sadly, most of the Irish museums seem to have a strict no-photo policy), a few bars of Cadbury's chocolate, some other odds and ends and a few books, both work and non-work.

Alltogether, I'd say the trip was well worth it (even though Ireland seems exceedingly expensive to me) - the visit to the National Museum alone was so good that in retrospect, I'd have travelled for that. Should you get the chance, go see the wonderful hairnets they have, made of silk thread so thin that you'd think it is one single fine human hair; or the small bit of gold brocade tabletweave from Viking Dublin; or the wonderful bog garments, dating to the 17th century but showing stunning parallels to diverse medieval garments. And I should also add that the museum staff I met were all extremely nice and extremely helpful, and the visit to the museum is free (though the cakes in the museum café are enormously expensive).

It was, in short, a wonderful trip, but I'm thoroughly happy to be back home again now. Not least because I really missed the home-cooked food and the fresh fruit out of our grocery box - somehow, even a freshly-made sandwich just can't keep up with, say, a pie with turkey breast, fresh carrots, onions, sprouts and a cream sauce with fresh parsley. And an apple for dessert.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Away, away!

I'm away from home and, therefore, this blog for the next week and a bit, for a mixture of Conference, Birthday Partying and holidays.
Regular blogging will resume Monday, 30 March.

Have a good time until then!

Monday, 16 March 2009

Textilforum Call for Papers

The official Call for Papers for the Textilforum is now out, and a copy is up at our website.

Whether you are researching a textile project involving the craft aspects, working in textile restauration or a professional dyer, tablet weaver or spinner using historical textile techniques, go over there and send us some info about you, your work and a proposal for a paper or presentation. We also need a few more people to take part in the Spinning Experiment, so if you are a seasoned hand spindle spinner, you can use the form to tell us, too. The experiment time (spinning time of 10 hours) will be spaced over five days, so a bit more than two hours each morning will be spinning experiment time, and time for your own disposal after that.

And if you know somebody who might be interested, please pass on the information!

An Interview!

Through some lucky coincidences in timing and an old acquaintance, I will be interviewed on Tuesday for "Huscarl on Air". Huscarl is an independant Austrian online magazine that offers a German-language platform to everybody connected with Living History, medieval Markets/Fairs and Reenactment. They are aiming for interesting and variegated reports, both in written form and on their monthly radio programme (all German, too).

This Tuesday, the radio programme topic is archaeology - how one gets the idea to study this, what excavations are really like, and what scientists and Living History folks think about each other. The programme is on air tomorrow evening, 19.00 to 22.00, and you can tune in to Radio B 138 via the Internet. And if you can't wait until tomorrow to hear something from Huscarl on Air, you can download live recordings from past programmes. Enjoy!

Friday, 13 March 2009

Spinning Experiment Calculations

I'm still not finished with preparations for the Experiment test run. I have forgotten to ask the lady running the pottery workshop how much the clay will shrink upon drying and firing, so I'll have to make a wild guess at somewhere between 3 and 10 per cent. Then I have some serious doubts about whether some of the spindle whorls will be workable, since trying to reduce weight while keeping the same Moment of Inertia leads to a thin disc of a whorl... made from ceramic. Used for real-life spinning... where a thread can break. And so can the whorl (unless it breaks when firing first).

Ah, science is fun. I can't wait to break the first few whorls on my next day of fumble-spinning. And should those thin and fragile discs really work... I'll make a bunch more for the experiments. And maybe we can substitute the clay for the big-but-thin whorls with some material with the same density of the fired clay - preferably material that is not as fragile as a 3 mm thin disc of ceramic.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Time just flies by...

After some very hectic and rather stressful weeks, I feel like things are slowly getting under control again. I have managed to meet all the deadlines even with new and unexpected extra deadlines dropping in, so the struggle to get everything done in time was really worth it. Even my little folder/brochure got finished, printed and delivered in time and doesn't look all bad - two of the pictures turned out a little more "technicolor" than I had intended, but I'd say it is still okay. The two important pics and the text have both turned out fine. I'll never, ever work with Quark Xpress, though - I thought I'd do myself a favour and work with a proper layout programme. It did not turn out well. In the end, it was faster making the layout anew in good old CorelDraw, even if that means not as good control over text layout.

Unfortunately, there is no time to lay back and relax - yet. I hope I can get a good writing flash in this week, and I have to finish preparing yet another presentation. And finally write all the emails I didn't get around to write yet.

The weekend will be spent doing things with clay, mostly in service of the Spinning Experiment that will run during the Textilforum, since I need to have a test run first making and then spinning with the whorls we will use for the experiment. Hopefully there will be enough time to do some other ceramic stuff for my own amusement - and maybe a cooking pot or two will come out of the weekend.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Hairnets, part IV

Time for another hairnet, again from the treasure of Abbey Sint-Truiden in Belgium (Dutch Wikipedia Entry about it).

This net has large mesh for the St.-Truiden finds, with only 9 mesh per square cm, so about 3 mm mesh size. It is dated to the 13th or 14th century and preserved in three fragments, the largest of which is 12 x max. 30 cm. The material for the nets is red silk, and the net is embroidered with silk in white and green, the latter coloured with Reseda luteola (and probably something else, undetected). Atached to the net are a band of textile with motifs in different colours and two tablet-woven bands.

The net is knotted in the round, and beginning and end of the work can not be distinguished. The net is embroidered all over with "hooks", made in linen stitch.

Hairnet before conservation.
Picture clickable for larger view.

There is unfortunately no "after-conservation" picture of the net.

Source: DECONINCK, E., GEORGE, PH., DE JONGHE, D., Y., VAN STRYDONCK M. J., WOUTERS, J., VYNCKIER, J. und DE BOECK, J.: Stof uit de Kist: De Middeleeuwse Textielschat uit de Abdij van Sint-Truiden. Leuven 1991. Catalog nr. 103, pages 348-349.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

News from Cologne Archive

For those of you who can't read German, here's a short summary of the News from Cologne's homepage:

One of the two missing men has been found dead, but there is still no trace of the 24-year-old student. Search for him is going on, but there seems to be no hope; the tracking dogs have been exchanged for tracking dogs trained to find corpses. Since the desaster has been seven days ago, it would need an enormous stroke of luck for him to survive. About 70 helpers are doing their best to help the specialists. Unlike the heap of rubble of the archive itself, the collapsed houses are unstable, hindering the search and making it very dangerous.

Recovery of the archive material is also done with a lot of hands - and some good news for a change: Some of the objects are in a surprisingly good condition; firemen have recovered a steel locker with old seals almost undamaged. During the night, there have been about 150 persons working to save archive material, including many archivists.
Cologne Fire Brigade says they want to try recovering all the archive material and will not quit before this is done. First predictions say that work on the archive ruins might take up to one year.

And finally, a short video of the place and rescue work:

Link: rheinvideo.de

Monday, 9 March 2009

Cologne Archive is in ruins...

On the 3rd of March, the archive of Cologne collapsed. About 18 kilometres of books, manuscripts, letters and documents now lie in a huge crater in Cologne city - most of it probably mashed to a pulp. Many old documents are lost, and with the damaged paper that can be recovered, a whole generation of paper conservators will find work enough for the next twenty or thirty years.

This leaves me speechless. Go google for news about it and mourn. In the Middle has already posted about it, too.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Conference Time!

I'm on the conference about colours in the middle ages, "Farbiges Mittelalter" in Bamberg. The conference will last until Thursday, but since I'm a bit stressed right now, regular blogging will resume next Monday.