The Cambridge Exhibition

Posted by: MFLC Team 10 years, 8 months ago

By Nicola Morato and Bill Burgwinkle

One major output of our project will be an exhibition in Cambridge’s University Library ("The Moving Word: French Medieval Manuscripts in Cambridge"), which will open in January 2014. One of the sessions of our next and final project conference (to be held in Cambridge, April 10-12, 2014) will take place in the University Library, and will focus on the objects on display.

The exhibition, prepared by an international research team mainly comprised of young scholars (Tim Atkin, Bill Burgwinkle, Sara Harris, Nicola Morato, David Murray, Natalia Petrovskaia, Helena Phillips-Robins, Maria Teresa Rachetta and Alex Stuart) is closely connected to our main research themes, but differs in scope, as its main goal is to highlight the importance of the Cambridge collections for our research work.

In addition to some of the most famous treasures of the University and College Libraries, we intend to draw attention to other items which, although less famous, are no less important from the cultural point of view. We are particularly interested in providing a larger public with access not only to the visual splendour of the items on show, but also to the vital importance of others which are no less spectacular when considered as part of powerful historical dynamics.

Items will be organised by research themes: "Latin Treasures", "The importance of fragments", "The quest for medieval texts", "Book collections and their catalogues", "Margaret Beaufort", "Learning French in Late Medieval England", "Imagining the world: knowledge and science","The Roman de la rose", "Arthurian romances", "Chronicles, stories and myths". Clearly the list does not cover all the richness and variety of French Medieval Manuscripts in Cambridge collections, being rather a choice of some of the most fascinating and culturally relevant itineraries that they offer to modern Library users. Let's consider briefly, for instance, the display case "Learning French in Late Medieval England".

Its curator, Sarah Harris (Junior Research Fellow at Magdalene College, Cambridge), summarises the many recent contributions on that topic by pointing out that learning French in Medieval England meant, among many other things:

  1. learning a language for practical purposes (chiefly for administrative tasks); and/or

  2. learning the French of Paris, a fashionable and literary language.

The first pole is stronger in Walter de Bibbesworth’s Tretiz (1235), which was commissioned by Dionysia de Munchensi (the foundress of Waterbeach Abbey) in order to provide her children with a necessary tool for the governance and preservation of the family’s country estates. The second motive, that of learning a fashionable language, is implicit from the beginning, but emerges more and more clearly with the growing prestige of the French Kingdom. About a century later, in his Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer still writes of his upwardly-mobile Prioress:

And French she spoke full fair and fetisly,
After the school of Stratford atte Bowe
For French of Paris was to her unknowe.

One of the items which will be on display in the exhibition, University Library Dd.12.23, is a copy of an intriguing conversation manual for travellers: the 1396 version of the Manière de Langage. Its stated purpose is to help its reader "learn to speak, pronounce properly and write perfectly in sweet French, which is the most beautiful and gracious language and the most noble after Latin anywhere in the world."