Books have their own special quality. They thrill you to the marrow, they talk to you, counsel you, admit you to their living, speaking friendship. And they introduce you to other books, their friends.
—Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch), Italian poet, from a letter written between 1345-1347
In the Middle Ages, reading was thought to change you, physically and spiritually. Medieval people believed that words written and read, spoken and heard, could imprint on the brain, heart, and soul. The senses mediated the reception of these words. The artworks from WCMA’s collection and manuscripts from the Chapin Library in this exhibition demonstrate the embodied nature of reading in Christian Europe from the twelfth through the sixteenth centuries.
Text at that time was not confined to the pages of books but could be found everywhere in homes and public spaces: on paintings, architectural decoration, sculpture, furniture, clothing, jewelry, and bodies. How artists combined text and image informed the reading practices of medieval people. Despite the pervasiveness of text, societal norms around gender, class, and education determined whose words could be read. Women were considered readers, and certain men were thought of as readers, writers, and creators.
As visitors “read” the objects on view, they may reflect on how medieval reading practices shape how, what, and where they read today, even in digital formats. Whether we are turning the pages of a codex or scrolling down a screen, reading is an embodied act.
Elizabeth Sandoval, Curatorial Assistant, with Claire L’Heureux, MA ‘22, and Nicholas Liou, Mellon Curatorial Fellow and MA ’24. Elizabeth offers gratitude to individuals who shared their expertise, critical eye, and time: Roisin Astell, Anna de Bruyn, Julia Faiers, Marie Hartmann, Kristen Herdman, Cecilia Mazzocchio, Anne Peale, Molly Proud, and Kathryn Rudy.
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