Touching Skin: Why Medieval Readers Rubbed and Kissed their Manuscripts. Bard College, New York City

Activity: Talk or presentation typesPublic lecture/debate/seminar


As literacy grew during the three centuries before the printing press, people learned not only how to read but also how to handle their manuscripts. Certain physical gestures that readers enacted with illuminated manuscripts—including kissing or laying hands on certain images, and rubbing out the faces of others—imparted a ritual significance to books. Just as our twenty-first-century culture of ever-smaller screens has created a set of gestures and habits that had not previously existed (typing with two thumbs, scrolling, clicking, tapping), reading manuscripts, which were increasingly available in the late middle ages, also gave people a new set of gestures as physical as today’s. Many of these rituals damaged the book.

Art historians have failed to acknowledge this damage to images, in order to see through it to style. To understand the fears, hopes, desires, habits, and structures of authority from the past this talk will consider deliberate destruction of book images. Despite a growing interest in recent years in the material history of the book, the larger project from which this talk is drawn is the first to reconstruct social rituals out of the physical damage done to books by their users.

The talk will analyse the physical rituals that votaries adopted with their books via the traces of use and wear in the books themselves. Questions include: Where is the wear in the book? What kind of book is it? Who handled it? Who formed the audience? Is there a discernible pattern of wear within a single volume? Across related groups of books? Were the marks formed by love? Desire? Hatred? Habit? How did people behave with their books, both publicly and privately? How are the gestures of reading culturally shaped? To what degree did private reading exist, or was reading even ‘private’ prayer books a performance for display? The talk will consider many kinds of book, including service books for the clergy, romances for courtiers, and prayer books for both religious and secular lay owners. The material is organized around the (semi)-public places in which authority figures demonstrate the use of books: altar, shrine, court, cloister, nave and guildhall.

Kathryn M. Rudy is a senior lecturer at the University of St Andrews and a Getty Scholar (2015). She earned her Ph.D. from Columbia University in Art History and also holds a Licentiate in Mediaeval Studies from the University of Toronto. Before going to St. Andrews, she was Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts at the National Library of The Netherlands (The Hague). Her research focuses on the reception and original function of manuscripts, especially those manufactured in the Low Countries. She has pioneered the use of the densitometer to measure the grime that original readers deposited in their books. On this topic she gave a TED talk. Her publications include: Weaving, veiling, and dressing: cultural approaches to textiles and their religious functions in the Middle Ages (ed., Brepols, 2009), Virtual Pilgrimages in the Convent: Imagining Jerusalem in the Late Middle Ages (Brepols, 2011), and Postcards on Parchment. The Social Lives of Medieval books (Yale, 2015). She also has a book manuscript under review, provisionally titled The Circular Economy of Manuscripts: Resisting Obsolescence in the Parchment Era, which was the product of a Research Fellowship from the Leverhulme Foundation.
Period4 Nov 2015
Held atBard College, United States, New York
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • Medieval manuscripts
  • Material culture