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MA Medieval and Early Modern Studies / Course details

Year of entry: 2020

Course unit details:
From Papyrus to Print: The History of the Book

Unit code SALC72111
Credit rating 15
Unit level FHEQ level 7 – master's degree or fourth year of an integrated master's degree
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Offered by School of Arts, Languages and Cultures
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


This course investigates one of the principal surviving artefacts from the medieval and early modern period: the book. Taught by a number of specialists drawn from across the School, and from the John Rylands Research Institute and Library, the course examines the book as a bearer of cultural residue, a pivotal resource for understanding the development of writing and reading from late antiquity to the dawn of print. From papyrus to parchment, pigment to printing press, students shall investigate the historical and cultural dynamics that lead to innovation in book production, such as the rise of commercialism, the changing nature of literacy patterns, and transformations in secular, religious, and political life. Using the world-renowned collections of the John Rylands Library, students shall examine the interrelated material, textual, and visual aspects of books, and will have the opportunity to conduct an independent research project based on an item in the collection.


The unit aims to:

- Familiarise students with the mechanisms of manuscript and printed book production;

- Permit a critical assessment of the cultural dynamics that affected book production, and their contribution to the history of communication;

- Contextualise textual and visual material in terms of its producer, audience, and later reception;

- Facilitate an understanding of the diversity of genres of text produced in the medieval and early modern periods, through hands-on contact with material at the John Rylands Library


To be confirmed

Teaching and learning methods

11 x 2 hour seminars, utilising the manuscript and early printed book holdings at the John Rylands Library, Deansgate.


Selected readings will be placed on Blackboard, which will also contain further relevant course information and links to relevant websites. The course shall also make use of the digital resources of the John Rylands Library, notably LUNA. Assignments will be submitted online, via Turnitin on Blackboard.


Knowledge and understanding

- Assess the contribution of manuscript production, and developments in printing to the history of communication;

- Develop a critical understanding of the interaction between the form of the book, its function, and genre;

- Demonstrate an awareness of the variety of contexts within which book production occurred;

- Analyse the audiences for which books were produced, eg. private and public, religious and secular

Intellectual skills

- Analyse textual material in terms of its context of production;

- Gain experience in primary source analysis, including identification of relevant material;

- Assess critically modifications and continuities in the history of the book, across genre and time;

- Devise research questions and engage with existing scholarship

Practical skills

- Handle medieval and early modern manuscripts and printed material according to standards of best practice;

- Sustain intellectual debate, informed by current scholarship on the history of the book, and the history of reading;

- Develop research and essay writing techniques, appropriate to the required assessment;

- Understand the application of general course themes to specific objects and case studies examined in the class.

Transferable skills and personal qualities

- Develop oral presentation skills through participation in class discussions;

- Manage time through preparation of assignments;

- Use ICT resources for programme support;

- Write fluent prose

Assessment methods


Short account of item selected (500 words) (Formative)


Essay contextualising an item of the Rylands Collection, with reference to the themes covered in the class (3000 words) (100%)

Recommended reading

Blair, A., Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age (New Haven, 2010)

- Clanchy, M., From Memory to Written Record, England 1066-1307 (Oxford, 1993)

- Clemens, R. and T. Graham. Introduction to Manuscript Studies (Ithaca, 2007)

- Duffy, E., Marking the Hours: English People and their Prayers 1240-1570 (New Haven, 2006)

- Illich, I., In the Vineyard of the Text (Chicago, 1993)

- McKitterick, R., The Carolingians and the Written Word (Cambridge, 1989)

- Petegree, A., The Book in the Renaissance (New Haven, 2010)

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Seminars 22
Independent study hours
Independent study 128

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
David Matthews Unit coordinator

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