What does the word ‘medieval’ make you think of? Comics?

What happens when you ask a group of thirteen-year-olds about the Middle Ages? Well, their answers include a lot of peasants, castles, and a fair amount of plague and death.

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What if you ask a group of medievalists (academics who study the Middle Ages)?

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Unsurprisingly, these answers include manuscripts, Beowulf, Chaucer, saints, etc. (Disclaimer: I was asking people I knew and most of them work in English departments. You’d get a completely different set of answers if you asked, say, a group of medieval historians, archaeologists or art historians.)

Neither group mentioned comics.

If you’ve been following the Medieval Comics blog, you’re already aware of the many connections between comics and the Middle Ages. Now that the Medieval Comics workshops and exhibition are past, I’ll show you the masterpieces that Karrie and two groups of Year Nines created. You’ll see new ways of ‘getting medieval’ with comics.*

First of all, what are the similarities between modern comics and medieval storytelling (art/literature)?

Panels tell a story by dividing it up moment by moment.

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Scenes from the Passion from the St Augustine Gospels (6th century);
Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 286, fol. 125r [commons.wikimedia.org]. Adoration of the Magi in the Berthold Sacramentary; Germany (Weingarten Abbey), c. 1215; The Morgan Library & Museum, MS M.710, fol. 19v [themorgan.org].

Captions give you more information.

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Apocalypse; England/France, between 1255 and 1260; The Morgan Library & Museum, MS M.524, fol. 13v [ica.themorgan.org]. Oxford-Paris-London Bible moralisée; France (Paris), second quarter of the 13th century; British Library, Harley MS 1527, fol. 4v [bl.uk].

Speech bubbles in medieval manuscripts look like ribbons or scrolls. Sometimes they are as simple as some words connected to the speaker’s hand or mouth with a line.

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Thomasin von Zerclaere’s Der Wälsche GastGermany (Trier), c. 1380; The Morgan Library & Museum, MS G.54, fol. 10v [ica.themorgan.org]. Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda aurea, or The Golden Legend (c. 1300); British Library, Stowe MS 49, fol. 122r [bl.uk].

Lettering in comics is never random — it’s designed to invoke particular feelings, atmospheres, settings and moods. It tells a story of its own.

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An historiated initial ‘M’ of St Nicholas passing gold through the window to the poor man and his three daughters; Wauchier de Denain’s Lives of the Saints; France (Paris), 2nd quarter of the 13th century; Royal MS 20 D. vi, fol. 144r [blogs.bl.uk].

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Lindisfarne Gospels, made by Eadfrith, 715-725, monastery of Lindisfarne; British Library, Cotton MS Nero D.IV [bl.uk].

Have you read Japanese comics (manga)? Japan has multiple writing systems. Kana is the easier one, with only 46 symbols. To read kanji you have to memorise more than 2,000 characters by the time you finish school! Because kanji can be difficult for children or beginners in Japanese, comics sometimes have kana translations above or beside the kanji. (This is ruby text.)

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In medieval England most people would have spoken English, but the language of the Church (where most books came from) was Latin. Sometimes you’ll find a translation in English above or beside the Latin text. These translations are called glosses.

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Comics are known for their superheroes. Medieval texts have their own superheroes, but they’re called saints. (More on this in Super saints and holy heroes.)

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Modern and medieval comics share storytelling tools.

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This is what I talked about in our medieval comics workshops at the British Library.

The kids did a scavenger hunt in the Treasures Gallery, and then comic artist Karrie Fransman gave them a brief: Create a comic for one of three bizarre medieval stories.

More on this next time!


*I borrow this phrase from Carolyn Dinshaw’s Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern (Duke University Press, 1999). Dinshaw defines ‘getting medieval’ as ‘[t]he process of touching, of making partial connections between incommensurate entities’ (p. 54). In this case those entities are modern comics and medieval storytelling.

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One thought on “What does the word ‘medieval’ make you think of? Comics?

  1. Pingback: Medieval Comics workshops at the British Library | Medieval Comics

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