University News

University Historical Society Visits "Beyond Words" Exhibit

By: By freshman Marissa Pappas | Published: December 09, 2016 | Categories: Arts and Sciences, All News

"...a rare opportunity to see an exhibit so rich in medieval books”

Group photo of University Historical Society in Boston

Students and faculty from the Western New England University Historical Society visited Harvard University’s Houghton Library and the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College to view and discuss a special exhibit of illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages, as part of Boston’s Beyond Words event. About 15 University students joined the excursion, many enrolled as History majors or minors, organized by history professors Theodore South and Jonathan Beagle.

Illuminated manuscripts are handwritten books with elaborate painted decorations or illustrations, that generally includes precious metals such as gold or silver. The pages were made from animal skin, commonly calf, sheep, or goat. Illuminated manuscripts were produced primarily between 1100 and 1600, with medieval monasteries as their earliest creators.

The Houghton Library at Harvard University featured some books from the ninth century, but most of the works in the exhibit came from the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. While at the McMullen Museum of Art, the group saw similar works, but were most interested in the small, lavishly decorated prayer books called the books of hours. 

Professor South facilitated the experience, explaining how scholars can identify when and where books were produced by examining the style of the handwriting and the decorative illustrations. Dr. South is an expert in English Middle Age history. During graduate school, he studied under an art historian who taught codicology (the study of medieval books) and a paleographer (a specialist in medieval handwriting). His own field of research was medieval monasticism. Most medieval books were produced in medevieval monasteries. “I was thrilled to lead the trip and share my passion with the students, because it’s a rare opportunity to see an exhibit so rich in medieval books,” Dr. South noted.

Associate Professor Beagle gave a brief walking tour of Harvard, showing them the current archaeological dig site on campus as well as the statue of John Harvard, also known as the Statue of Three Lies. Students were given time to explore the famous Harvard University bookstore as well as other nearby parts of Cambridge and Boston.

The Historical Society at Western New England encourages students’ interests in history by traveling to historical sites in Massachusetts and surrounding states as well as viewing movies or other media art that have extensive historical references.

To learn more about the illuminated manuscripts and Boston’s Beyond Words event, visit