The art of reasoning

Startscreen "The art of reasoning" (screenprint)

In December 2020 the Huygens Institute / Institute for Dutch History in Amsterdam launched the virtual exhibit The Art of Reasoning in Medieval Manuscripts. For those familiar with medieval manuscripts and medieval scientific thought the juxtaposition of rational thought and the Middle Ages is hardly new, but alas many people still have a rather different idea of this period, summarized by the expression Dark Ages. The exhibit is an offspring of the research project The Art of Reasoning led by Mariken Teeuwen, working together with Irene O’Daly and Irene van Renswoude, running from 2016 to 2020. In this post I will look in particular at the sections on glosses and diagrams.

Glosses and diagrams

An example of a glossed manuscript

Three differently glossed manuscripts (Leiden, UB, VLF 48, f. 31r; Leiden, UB, BPL 1925, f. 139v; Paris, BnF, Lat. 17806, f. 164) – image: The Art of Reasoning,

Glosses and diagrams form the third section in this exhibit. The other sections focus on rhetoric and dialectic, teachers and students, debate and controversy, and medieval manuscripts. I cannot hide the fact glosses get less attention here than diagrams, but to be honest diagrams have too often been neglected. However, when you see the discussion of the role and use of glosses in the subsection ‘Techniques of reading’ you will with me applaud the way glosses are shown as an integral part of reading and learning. Teeuwen and her colleagues show six roles for glosses, each of them highlighted with telling images form well-chosen medieval manuscripts. Structuring a text is one of the roles of glosses less often mentioned. The variety of glossing comes superbly into view, although legal glosses are absent.

Among the sections about glosses and diagrams I looked also at the use of squares and trees. Medieval lawyers had to deal both with genealogical trees and with another kind of diagrams often dubbed trees, the Arbores affinitatis et consanguinitatis. The late Jean-Baptiste Piggin taught on his blog Macro-Typography and his website how one should be very careful in distinguishing trees from diagrams.

It is illuminating to see how illustrations supported forms of reasoning. Some illustrations received even a nickname, such as the Porphyrian tree. I leave it to your own interests to look at other sections of this exhibit. You should not miss the contribution by Irene van Renswoude on Women and disputation. The section on medieval manuscripts introduces you to fourteen selected manuscripts.

In my view this exhibit is very useful for introducing anyone, not just students and scholars, to medieval science and medieval book illustration. Things might look odd in modern eyes, but this exhibit shows the rationale behind presenting subjects and more particular forms of reasoning in often remarkable ways. The illustrations shown here give you a graphic idea of the ways texts, textual layout and images were fruitfully connected in medieval book production.


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