Centre for Medieval & Early Modern Studies

Material Culture and Writing Practice from Antiquity to the Early Modern period: an interdisciplinary workshop

Organised by the Centre for Late Antique Archaeology, and Centre for Early Medieval and Modern Studies, University of Kent, and the Department of Archaeology, University of Reading,

Supported by the School of European Culture and Languages and School of English, University of Kent, the Roman Society, and the Department of Archaeology, University of Reading.


Dates: Thursday 25 May to Friday 26 May 2017

Literacy is a central aspect of society from antiquity to the present day, but there is often a disconnect between the study of written texts and the attention paid to the materiality of their production and consumption. This workshop aims to address the particular qualities of the materiality of writing in the pre-modern period, an era in which the technologies of writing by hand were paramount.
Scholars researching material aspects of writing exist within diverse disciplines (Archaeology, Art-history, Calligraphy, Classics, English, History, Papyrology and Palaeography). Methods and approaches are diverse, ranging from studies of writing form and style, to technologies of writing and the wider social context of literacy and cultural transmission. Within individual disciplines, there are established traditions of scholarship that tend to constrain how the material is approached, and there is little cross-fertilization between scholars working either in different periods, or from different disciplinary perspectives. The workshop brings together scholars and experts across a wide range of periods and disciplines to foster new perspectives and to explore future directions that encourage interdisciplinary collaboration. This will include a consideration of writing as a material practice, the subsequent treatment and curation of writing documents, and the relationship between writing equipment and written documents. We will provide a fresh exploration of writing practices from Antiquity to the Early Modern period and consider the interplay between practices of literacy and diverse aspects of social and cultural identities and experience. A practical calligraphy session and a trip to Canterbury Cathedral Archive are included in order to foster an awareness of the material processes and equipment of writing, enabling scholars to gain new perspectives on the historical material culture that they study.

The conference is the inaugural event of Kent’s ‘Material Web’ Research Group.


Thursday 25 May from 11 a.m. – 5.00 p.m.(Sibson Building, Seminar Room 6, University of Kent)
11.00 a.m. – 12.00 p.m. Coffee and registration (Foyer of Sibson Building)
Papers are 15 minutes long with 5 minutes for questions.
Session: Economy of Manuscripts
12.00- 12.20 p.m. Alison Wiggins: Material meanings and Tudor bookkeeping: the case of the production and reception of Bess of Hardwick's household financial accounts (c.1548-1608)​
12.20- 12.40 Julia Crick: Calligraphy and cursivity in Insular writing before 1050.
12.40 – 1.00 p.m. Ryan Perry: Utility Grade Scripts and Manuals of Religious Instruction
1.00 p.m. – 2.00 p.m. Lunch (Foyer of Sibson Building)
Session: Writing Equipment and Writing Practice
2.00 – 2.20 p.m. Peter Kruschwitz: Thinking about writing
2.20- 2.40 p.m. Ellen Swift: Investigating the relationship between writing equipment and writing practice: book hands and Roman and late antique reed pens
2.40- 3.00 p.m. Susan Moor:  Framing the Page: measurement and freedom in medieval manuscripts
3.00 – 3.30 p.m. Coffee  (Foyer of Sibson Building)
3.30-3.50 p.m. Hella Eckardt: Writing in ink – the archaeology of Roman inkwells
3.50- 4.10 p.m. Ewan Clayton:  A craftsman's perspective on scribal workplaces: ancient and modern (keynote)
4.10 – 5.00 p.m. Discussion

Friday 26 May from 10 a.m. – 4.00 p.m. (Woolf College, Seminar Room 6, University of Kent)
Session: Transmission of writing/circulation of texts
10.00  – 10.20 a.m. Matthew Nicholls: Libraries and writing in the Roman world
10.20 – 10.40 a.m. Simon Horobin:  "Go litel bok": The Manuscript Circulation of Chaucer's Works
10.40 – 11.00 a.m. Daniel Smith: Unfolding action: letters as props in the early modern theatre 
11.00 – 11.30 a.m. Coffee (Foyer of Woolf College)
11.30 – 12. 00 p.m. Discussion
12.00 pm. – 1.30 p.m. Lunch (Foyer of Woolf College)
1.30  – 2.00 p.m. Cherrell Avery, Calligraphy Drop-in session (Woolf Seminar Room 6)
2.00 – 4.00 p.m. Cherrell Avery, Calligraphy Workshop on Uncial Script (Woolf Seminar Room 6).
3.00 – 4.00 p.m. Cathedral Archive Tour  (Cathedral staff). Meet at the entrance to the Archives Reading Room, for a map see the following link here

We are pleased to confirm that we are able to accommodate everyone’s first choice for Friday afternoon activities. For those taking the archive tour, you may wish to attend the calligraphy drop-in session before leaving campus.

It takes about half an hour to walk into the centre of town from campus, or there are regular buses.

For a map of the University Campus, and directions, please see the following link https://www.kent.ac.uk/maps/canterbury/canterbury-campus



Ewan Clayton: A craftsman's perspective on scribal workplaces: ancient and modern.

Two experiences inform this talk: my working life as a calligrapher, writing using quill pens and reeds, on vellum and other substrates and working as a researcher at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Laboratory, the interdisciplinary centre where much of our modern digital information technology was developed. This experience has shaped my view of the context for writing, a perspective that links technology, human communities and documentary genre in a mutually constitutive matrix. My stress on the use of multiple technologies for writing (because of the nature of the task of writing itself) arose from my time at Xerox PARC.
I see writing as an embodied process, arising out of bodies and landing in them. At a practical level I will discuss the potential for movement that different tools and settings allow: writing desks and chairs predispose us to create stable platforms for movement in certain ways. Pen hold and cut have implications for the kinds of letterforms forms that emerged from gestural writing activity. I will discuss clothing, considerations of light and heat. I will conclude with a note about descriptive systems for scripts and its aesthetics arguing that the aesthetics are not add-on extras but fundamental parts of an evolved writing system. Furthermore they can represent challenges to the artist that have to be answered not only on a technical level but also in terms of capacities for hope and risk, intuition, sustained attention, receptivity and their opposites.

Julia Crick: Calligraphy and cursivity in Insular writing before 1050.

This paper will elaborate on an observation of Parkes' that the pressure to copy texts for the missionary field in Germany prompted the development of a new type of bookhand at Wearmouth-Jarrow in the first half of the eighth century.  In fact a number of innovations in Insular writing before 1050, especially in England, where scribes experimented with unusual freedom, can be understood as driven by Parkes' principle: the need to replicate texts quickly. Insular scribes reconciled the ostensibly opposing forces of calligraphy and cursivity often with brilliant results.

Hella Eckardt: Writing in ink – the archaeology of Roman inkwells
This paper examines the technology and practice of writing in ink in the Roman period. I will focus on a previously neglected artefact category, metal inkwells, and explore their context and use. The volume and design of inkwells changes throughout the Roman period, as does their use in burials, with a surprising number of women and children buried with inkwells.

Simon Horobin: "Go litel bok": The Manuscript Circulation of Chaucer's Works.

Despite knowing the name of the scribe of the earliest manuscripts of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, we still know relatively little about the process by which his works were edited, copied and circulated.  Since Mooney’s identification of the hand of the Hengwrt and Ellesmere Manuscripts as Adam Pinkhurst, scholars have returned to these two manuscripts in an effort to find evidence of the poet himself at work, carrying out the rubbing and scraping that he describes in his poem to Adam Scriveyn, assumed to be Adam Pinkhurst himself.  Since the Hg manuscript contains numerous erasures, gaps, later additions and reworkings of the text and the order of tales, scholars have wondered whether it could represent Chaucer’s work in progress, supervised by the poet himself.  In stark contrast, the Ellesmere manuscript presents the work as a unified and consistent whole, with many of the uncertainties apparent from the Hg manuscript resolved.  Do these differences reflect authorial changes of mind, or the invention of an editor?  If the latter, who was responsible for these revisions, and for the planning, supervising and commissioning of this landmark manuscript?  In this paper I will look closely at the Hg and Ellesmere MSS to try to answer these questions, to consider what they tell us about Chaucer’s role in the dissemination of his own verse, and the organisation of the London booktrade in this period.

Susan Moor: Framing the Page: measurement and freedom in medieval manuscripts

This paper explores the sizes, formats and proportions of medieval books, and how various craftsmen would have arrived at them.  We will look at how text area and page design were determined by tradition, practical constraints and the scribe's own design decisions.  My perspective is that of a practising professional calligrapher with a design education, currently doing doctoral research into measurement in medieval manuscripts.

Peter Kruschwitz: Thinking about writing

This paper will explore the discourse about, and imagery focusing on, writing processes in the Latin verse inscriptions, aiming to establish a clearer picture of how ancient writers conceptualised the complexities of actual writing processes as well as of modes in which language took shape and manifested itself.

Matthew Nicholls: Libraries and writing in the Roman world
Increasing interest is being paid to the materiality of book culture in the ancient world. This paper, drawing on archaeological material and a recently rediscovered text by the ancient medical writer Galen, will explore the architectural and practical context of reading and writing in the public libraries of Rome and the Roman world, and in some of the surrounding public, private, and commercial spaces that made up Rome’s ‘literary landscape’. What were the realia of Roman book use, and what do we know about how library spaces might have fitted into a literary landscape of book production, circulation, sale, consultation, and copying?

Ryan Perry: Utility Grade Scripts and Manuals of Religious Instruction
This paper will consider the kinds of scripts used within ‘pastoral manuals’, a class of English vernacular religious book that were largely produced in the fifteenth century, and that seemed to proliferate in extraordinary numbers. The scribes and the scripts they used will be set against some of the other significant contemporary productions of the corpora of the age, such as the metropolitan scribes involved in producing the era’s most widely copied non-religious work, the Middle English prose Brut. The paper will ask what the scripts and methods of these anonymous scribes tell us about their production rationale, and what is distinctive about this corpus in palaeographic and codicological terms.

Daniel Smith: Unfolding action: letters as props in the early modern theatre 

What did letters look like on the early modern stage? Letters are one of the most common forms of stage property alluded to in surviving plays from late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. They contain valuable information about plots and characters, summarise off-stage action, and can themselves operate as literary tropes. Lletters provide unique clues about cotemporary authorial and stage-house practice. But did letters also signify visually (and aurally) as they travelled across the stage? If so, how might we characterise their visual impact, and what kinds of evidence could we use, given that only one epistolary prop is known to have survived from the period? This paper draws on the insights of a new field of study, letterlocking, to try to advance these questions. Letterlocking examines the history of epistolary security and aesthetics. Before the invention of the envelope, letters were folded to become their own sending devices. Letters could not viably have been sent without letterlocking, yet it has only been discussed in the last few years, thanks to the Unlocking History research group (UH), led by Jana Dambrogio and myself. In 2016, UH consulted for a prodoction of The Merchant of Venice which took place in Venice's Ghetto, making letter-props based on close bibliographical analysis of early modern letters. This paper will comment on some of our findings. 

Ellen Swift: Investigating the relationship between writing equipment and writing practice: book hands and Roman and late antique reed pens

In studies of Roman writing and writing equipment, archaeologists researching pens have so far not examined manuscripts as part of their studies, and palaeographers have not examined pens in their studies of writing form. Calligraphy texts have also been less used than one might expect to inform the analysis of ancient lettering. This paper brings together these disparate sources of evidence to explore how a detailed study of writing equipment sheds light on script styles and their development during the Roman period. More widely, I explore  how considerations of aspects of design in material objects can help us to explore the role of functional artefacts in bringing about cultural change.

Alison Wiggins: Material meanings and Tudor bookkeeping: the case of the production and reception of Bess of Hardwick's household financial accounts (c.1548-1608)​

On 17 December 1551, Sir William Cavendish spent 3s 5d to replenish his wife Elizabeth’s ‘wryting deske’ with ink, paper, wax and a penknife to cut her quill. At the same time, he purchased for her the tools she would need for keeping financial accounts: a set of counters and a balance with weights; viz., ‘paid for a cast of countrs ^xijd^ & a penknyve iijd balance & weightes xxd paper iiijd waxe ob & an ynkhorne jd all this was to furnisshe my ladys wryting deske’. This talk considers the production and reception of the financial accounts that were kept by Elizabeth Cavendish. It takes as its focus the 28-folio book, still in its original soft cover, which is now Folger Shakespeare Library MS X.d.486. This slim paper volume was written mostly in the hands of Elizabeth Cavendish (known as Bess and also as 'Bess of Hardwick') and her husband Sir William Cavendish and records money coming into and going out of their household.This book does not conform to modern expectations of a set of financial accounts: sum totals are not always provided and, where they are, by Sir William, these are often not accurate. Such inconsistences – which have resulted in puzzlement over the logic of these accounts – are a reminder that this book did not seek the same kind of objectivity we typically expect of modern financial accounts or of double-entry style bookkeeping, which came later. This talk therefore seeks to comprehend the purpose of this book according to the terms and conditions of the culture within which it was produced. The talk is in three parts. Part 1 will point outu the book’s physical structure and its place within the processes of account keeping in the Cavendish household. The argument will be made that the book was a site where the household’s hierarchy of authority was inscribed and reiterated. Part 2 will give a summary overview of the book’s language, both its handwriting and linguistic scripts. The argument will be made that the book functioned as a site where the Cavendishes mediated and defined the boundaries of their marital partnership. In particular, for Elizabeth Cavendish, the book represented an opportunity to present – to her husband and to herself – a version of her household that was harmonious and that placed herself firmly at the centre. Part 3 concludes the talk by describing the archival afterlife of the book. The argument is made that the book functioned as one node within the extensive web of personal and familial memorializing activities overseen by Bess, from the death of Sir William in 1557 until her own death in 1608.

Conference fee £40 full price, £20 reduced rate (student/low income/Roman Society member)
Registration fee includes lunch, tea and coffee on both days and participation in either the calligraphy drop-in session and cathedral tour, or the calligraphy workshop.
Please note parking space on campus is very limited, we suggest that if at all possible you use alternative means of transport (there are regular buses from the city centre to campus). If you need to park on campus please let us know in advance.
Please book by clicking here

For Further Enquiries contact: E.V.Swift@kent.ac.uk

or please visit the Material Web at the following link







Centre for Medieval & Early Modern Studies, Rutherford College, University of Kent, Canterbury, CT2 7NX

Telephone +44 1227 823140. Fax +44 1227 827060

Last Updated: 18/05/2017