Medieval Comics workshops at the British Library

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The British Library on a sunny March morning

The British Library hosted two workshops co-taught by Karrie Fransman (a comic artist) and myself (a medievalist). These workshops were attended by year nines (13- and 14-year-olds) from two different schools, one in Gloucestershire and a local school in Camden.

I spoke about medieval comics (more on this here) and took the students on a scavenger hunt in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery. Karrie talked about her career as a comic artist and showed how she drew inspiration from medieval artwork for the Medieval Comics project.

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Then Karrie gave the students an artist’s brief. They had only a couple hours to create a comic of a medieval story. The students were to work in teams of 4 or 5 and choose one of three stories to tell:

  • Mélusine the half-serpent woman, about a beautiful noblewoman who is cursed to transform into a half-serpent every Saturday;
  • The Amazons: warrior queens, about warrior women who sear off their right breasts so they can shoot better and exclude men from their matriarchal society;
  • The green knight, about a mysterious green warrior who proposes a deadly game at King Arthur’s New Year’s party.

Karrie explained that she always researches her topic before starting to sketch out her comics, so the students did some of their own research using the British Library’s catalogue and Google Images. Then they got to work.

Here are some pictures of the workshop with the Gloucestershire school [1]

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…and here are some from the workshop with the Camden school. [2]

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Karrie showed the students how to use gold leaf, which was used in the most costly and highly valued medieval manuscripts.

The students did amazing work in a very short amount of time, and their projects were exhibited alongside Karrie’s artwork at a launch event hosted by the British Library. [3]

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Mélusine’s story was especially popular. Did you know this half-serpent woman is on the Starbucks logo? Inspired by this idea, one group created their Mélusine comic on a coffee cup.

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Here are some other interpretations of the Mélusine story…

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…including one you read by opening the windows of a castle. (If you’re familiar with Mélusine’s story, you’ll know that peeping through windows is quite appropriate.)

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The Amazons were popular as well. (A matriarchal society with lots of blood and violence? How can you go wrong?) Futuristic Amazons even make an appearance…

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Only one group did a comic about the Green Knight, which is probably the best known story of the three.

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Before the workshops, the students answered some questions: What do the words ‘medieval’ or ‘Middle Ages’ make you think of? What are comics? Here’s what they said.

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Overall, their answers did not offer a very favourable view of medieval times–although I do love that someone said ‘pooing outside windows’. Perhaps they’d visited a real-life medieval castle like this one?

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St Andrews Castle, Fife. Credit: Son of Groucho, CC-BY-2.0. [exploring-castles.com]

After the workshops the students answered some follow-up questions: What did you learn about the Middle Ages? What did you learn about comics? Here are some of their answers.

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My personal favourite is ‘they had a bit of an obsession with tiny bibles’. (See ‘Teeny Tiny Medieval Books!’ by Jenny Weston and the reason for this observation becomes apparent.)

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Book of Hours (Horae beatae Mariae virginis ad usum Romanum). Italy (Florence), late 15th century. Rauner Special Collections Library, Codex Manuscript 001054. © Rauner Special Collections Library [raunerlibrary.blogspot.co.uk]

However, what really pleases me is that the next time someone asks these students about the Middle Ages, they may talk about beautiful manuscripts and bizarre legends and 1000-year-old comics. As one student observed, the medieval period ‘was full of art’, and comics are far older and more diverse than Marvel and DC.

Coming soon: Karrie Fransman’s own original series of medieval comics!


Notes:

Photos of the British Library workshops and events were taken by Hana Videen, Karrie Fransman and Ryan Lintott.

[1]

See more images from the March 6 workshop on Flickr. [back]

[2]

See more images from the March 8 workshop on Flickr. [back]

[3]

See more images from the March 15 launch event on Flickr. [back]

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