Rare Books and Special Collections exhibit manifests Medieval maps

Author: Becky Malewitz

Even at 1,000 years old, manuscripts have new secrets to share and stories to tell. Just ask David T. Gura Ph.D., curator of ancient and medieval manuscripts, about the latest exhibit for Rare Books and Special Collections at Notre Dame’s Hesburgh Library.

Gura’s exhibit, Mapping the Middle Ages: Marking Time, Space, and Knowledge, features primary source materials from Notre Dame’s Medieval manuscript collection.

Inspired by one of the three themes for the 99th Annual Meeting of the Medieval Academy of America, which will be held on campus March 14–17, the exhibit explores the tension between literal and figurative arrangements of space, time, and knowledge during the Middle Ages.

Starting Logically

An example of a  T and O map sits on display as part of the Rare Books and Special Collections exhibit, Mapping the Middle Ages: Marking Time, Space, and Knowledge.

Gura started in the most logical place to curate an exhibit about medieval mapping by searching the collection for maps from the Middle Ages.

“We have one book that has a map in it, and even that is a figurative map,” he said. “I guarantee if you saw it without context, you may not even know it is a map.”

The lone map Gura found and included in the exhibit is a T and O map. The O represents the earth, and the T symbolizes the Mediterranean Sea, Nile River, and Don River and marks the three divisions of the world. The map depicts bodies of water and the cardinal directions with their corresponding classical compass winds. It was drawn in a manuscript of Lucan's Bellum Ciuile near a section that discusses North Africa.

Shifting Direction

To complete the exhibit, Gura decided to take a less literal approach to the topic and look at the subject matter figuratively. He selected materials from the collection that dealt with the concept of mapping in some way, then worked with his team to design and print physical maps from the information. These maps are displayed in the exhibit cases alongside the materials.

“What do the objects tell us, and what can we then create?” he said about creating maps using the artifacts and studying their contents, composition, usage and physical movement. “What can we then imagine to show people?”

Left: A page from a Christian prayer book called a "book of hours."  Right: A map created for the exhibit.

While Gura says that the exhibit was inspired by the themes of the Medieval conference and will appeal to its attendees, the displays are curated to interest Notre Dame students and faculty across various disciplines, as well as the general public.

“I'm trying to pick items to tell a story that viewers can appreciate on different levels at the same time,” he said.

To tell that story, Gura decided to give each of the seven cases housing this exhibit a theme.

“I think it's an exciting way to create a journey through time and space using the objects themselves as the primary storyteller,” he said. “They will drive the narrative from case to case. You can be exposed to different things that the average person never really thought about.”

For one of those themes, Marking Time and Place, Gura examined a book's physical features and script, as well as the colophons, or annotations that contain bibliographic information like dates and places, to infer geographic information about each manuscript.

Another theme, Biblioclasty, the practice of dismantling a book and selling its individual pieces, is depicted using another book from the collection. Called a “book of hours,” the Christian prayer book was used to pray the canonical hours, which are divisions of the day with fixed times of prayer. Gura has been working for more than a decade to locate the book's 129 pieces and put them back together.

“I started with 12 leaves. I now have 95,” he said, noting that the book can be mapped in multiple ways. “You have the physical diaspora of pages. They were sold and ended up all over the world, but then you have the contents of this devotional manuscript. You can tell a lot about the specific area where people were using it to celebrate the divine office or pray for the intercession of the Virgin Mary in an area of France called Brittany.”

Other themes include Imagining Geography, where Gura studies places that are both real and imagined as described in ancient travel narratives; Traveling the Road, where he displays guidebooks and itineraries created to aid pilgrims in the spiritual journey; and Diasporic and Peripatetic Movements, where the curator maps the journey of the medieval users of the manuscripts.

Centuries-Old and New

David T. Gura Ph.D., curator of ancient and medieval manuscripts at the Hesburgh Libraries sets up the latest exhibit in Rare Books and Special Collections.

Mapping the Middle Ages combines centuries-old materials with maps made in the 21st century to give visitors a new perspective on the past. This perspective may have remained hidden if Gura had only approached the exhibit through a literal interpretation.

“We can do so many things with the collections. They extend beyond traditional means of thinking,” said Gura. “We have the ability to tell a new story even though some of the collection is 1,000 years old.”

Mapping the Middle Ages: Marking Time, Space, and Knowledge is generously supported by the McBrien Special Collections Endowment. The exhibition is open to the public and will remain on display in 102 Hesburgh Library, Rare Books and Special Collections, through July.