A tweeting medievalist
Dr Erik Kwakkel, Leiden specialist on medieval manuscripts, has one foot in the world of medieval book production and the other firmly planted in the modern environment of social media. He is co-editor of Author, Reader, Book aimed at specialists in medieval authorship, and tweets daily to bring the subject to a wider audience. ‘I feel responsible for promoting these beautiful books.’
‘I feel like an ambassador for the medieval book,’ Kwakkel explains. ‘These are such beautiful documents that I feel it’s my responsibility to share them not just with other researchers, but also with the general public. If I can compose a tweet about an image in a manuscript, for example, that shows people one of these intricate and beautifully constructed illustrations, and at the same time tells them something about the book, the author, the subject matter or some aspect of the period in which they were written, I really feel I’ve done something to promote the subject. And the readers have learned something, too.’
Kwakkel is a firm believer in the importance of outreach activities. As well as the more formal activities related to his NWO project (teaching, giving papers at conferences, carrying out research) he is a regular contributor to national newspapers and radio programmes and public lectures. His aim: to show just how normal medieval manuscripts are. ‘I want to bring the medieval period to life for people today by putting images from the middle ages into a modern-day context. Twitter and the project blog are ideal ways of getting that message across to a wider public.’
The most recent of Kwakkel’s specialist publications is Author, Reader, Book; Medieval Authorship in Theory and Practice, that he edited together with Stephen Partridge from the University of British Columbia. The book examines the relationship between authors and readers and the effect of this relationship on the physical presentation of texts. The authors have adopted a novel approach: by taking a multidisciplinary perspective and spanning a period of some four centuries, they show that literary concerns remained the same throughout different periods, languages and cultural contexts. Kwakkel: ‘We wanted to show that time and location didn’t really matter.’
Kwakkel's own contribution to the volume discusses single-author manuscripts, a rare phenomenon in medieval literature. ‘Most medieval publications are a composite of inputs by different authors, written in different places and at different times. On the few occasions that you do have a book filled with works from a single, known author, new avenues can be explored, such as the interests and background of the reader and the purpose for which the book was made.'
(21 August 2012 / MLH)