What was the 11th century Uta Codex, and how was it used? Prof. Andrew Irving (Ph.D. '12) offers some answers.

Author: Lucy Grinnan

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Andrew Irving Headshot 2022
Prof. Andrew Irving (Ph.D. '12)

On Thursday, February 22, Prof. Andrew Irving (Ph.D. '12) visited the Medieval Institute to present his work on the Uta Codex, an eleventh-century gospel lectionary produced for Uda, Abbess of Niedermünster. 

Scholars have given the manuscript's complex series of illuminations and much-reworked treasure box extensive attention; however, they have little considered the holistic purpose of the book. When Irving first saw it and its ornate box at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek as an MI Ph.D. student, he was struck by two questions: “what is this thing and what does one do with it?”

Close material analysis and Gibson's affordance theory allowed Irving to consider what functions the book and its form afforded users beyond reading. 

First, he found, the liturgical Gospel pericopes (selections of text from the Gospels) could have been used for Sunday Mass, solemn feasts, and the night office. Based on equivalent local sources, it is possible that Abbess Uta herself might have used the book during the night office for certain feasts.

The unusual organization of the book also struck him. The pericopes are grouped not according to the liturgical cycle, but by individual Gospel, and are written in liturgical rather than Biblical order. The lack of line breaks or headings, and the addition of transition words, cause the text to appear like a coherent, complete Gospel, rather than a list of selected readings. This arrangement implies a deliberate effort to fit the book to the material and visual language not of an evangelistary (a book of liturgical pericopes) but an evangeliary (the complete text of the four Gospels).

Uta Codex Box
The outer case of the 11th-century Uta Codex

The golden relief of Christ in Majesty on the case's cover is also unusual, resembling a reliquary or icon rather than simply a protective case. 

Although it is impossible to determine the uses of the box from material traces, evidence suggests it might have formed part of Palm Sunday processions, which required, in that region of Bavaria, two Gospel books: one to accompany the altar party and one to travel with the monastic community. The performative aspects of the book and box—their ability to resemble what they are not, whether evangeliary, icon, or reliquary—could have made this possible.

This lecture was the second in the MI’s 75th anniversary alumni lecture series. Professor Leslie Lockett (Ph.D. '04) visited the MI in September to talk about her work on Augustine’s Soliloquia, and Professor Rachel Koopmans (Ph.D. '01) will present her work on the stained glass of Canterbury Cathedral on March 17th. Please plan to join us, in person or virtually!