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The importance and appeal of the digital medieval manuscript

09 May 2022

What are the consequences of the digitization of medieval manuscripts? This was the research topic of PhD student Suzette van Haaren. She will gain her PhD degree from the University of Groningen on 9 May.

A selfie from your vacation destination, a picture of your lunch, or a gif of a cat crawling into a shoebox: sharing an image is very common and easy nowadays. Pictures of medieval manuscripts have also been eagerly shared on social media for a number of years, often accompanied by a text that ties the image to a current event or a particular state of mind.

Contrast between the old and the new

While that may not seem like an important cultural event, it most certainly is one, says PhD student Suzette van Haaren. ‘An image that dates back hundreds of years is suddenly connected to modern times. That way, an image that was initially far removed from us suddenly comes close in a modern form, because you can joke about it in the context of the present time. It is precisely this apparent contrast between the old and the new that appeals to us.’

Medieval meme
Medieval meme

The digitization of the medieval manuscript leads to new usage, new contexts, and a new, much larger, audience. Van Haaren: ‘For a long time, these images had only been on display in libraries and museums. People who wanted to see them had to make an effort to do so. Since the digitization, which started about 25 years ago, all these images are within arm’s reach for anyone with an internet connection.’

Medieval Meme Generator

First of all, that is convenient for academics who study the images, particularly in the past two years, when libraries and museums had to close their doors as a result of coronavirus restrictions. However, the images have also gained a new function as a result of digitization, namely the one of a meme on social media.

Van Haaren: ‘With digitization, many more people come in contact with medieval manuscripts, and by far the most people will only see these handwritten and beautifully decorated books as digital images on our computer screens, and never “in real life”. Cultural institutions, in turn, are responding to this. The National Library, for example, introduced the Medieval Meme Generator, where you can create medieval memes for online sharing, while learning something about the manuscript itself.’

New Contexts

Van Haaren concludes that a digital image of a medieval manuscript has to be considered as a cultural object that stands on its own, alongside the original, analogue manuscript, and that it has to be valued as such. ‘When using digital medieval manuscripts, the original context of the medieval book is sometimes hard to find. This gives room to see the manuscript in new contexts that might not have been available to people before. In other words, the digital image does not detract from the original, but rather adds to it.’

Suzette van Haaren
Suzette van Haaren
Last modified:09 May 2022 2.47 p.m.
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