22-24 February 2021
Course Convenor: Professor Michelle Brown


The period of folk migrations between the retraction of the Roman Empire’s frontiers in the early fifth century and the Viking raids, which commenced in 793 with the sack of Lindisfarne, is often inappropriately termed ‘the Dark Ages’. One of its major achievements was the construction of northern European successor states, underpinned by the zeal of the newly converted and a re-emerging stability of administration and social structure based upon effective collaboration between Church and State. Crucial in this was the dissemination and reception of the Word (Logos), and with it the book.

The pagan Celtic and Germanic peoples had already developed proto-writing systems of their own – ogham / ogam and runes, and rich visual imagery and orality – but only came to embrace full written literacy as an adjunct to their conversion to Christianity. Faced with the challenges of learning Latin as a foreign language, they made major contributions to book production. An omnivorous approach to learning blossomed into a desire to understand and master written language. This did not stop at the ancient sacred languages of the Mediterranean and the development of a rich Hiberno-Latin tradition, but extended into the written vernacular in the process. Insular scribes evolved their own distinctive system of script, promoted decoration to help navigate, memorise and understand the text, and integrated their indigenous styles of art and poetry. Due largely to their enthusiastic espousal of its potential, the medieval codex assumed much of its distinctive appearance and apparatus.

This course takes as its basis an investigation of the materiality of the book and what individual items or groupings of materials can tell us, widening this into considerations of historical and artefactual context (looking at other related media and archaeological settings), social impact, perceptions of word and image and their interaction. It also examines the complex nature of the relationship between written and visual literacy and orality.

Courses fees are £175 (standard) and £100 (student).

Course Format and Schedule

The course format consists of illustrated zoom lectures followed by interactive discussions, plus a page-by-page group tour of the Lindisfarne Gospels online as part of a session devoted to a case study of this pivotal manuscript. An introductory reading list will be made available to students in advance of the course.

Monday 22 February, 1400-1700 GMT ‘From Roman frontier province to Christian successor state: Word and Image in post-Roman Britain and Northumbria’.
Tuesday 23 February, 1400-1700 GMT

‘Excavating’ an Insular Masterpiece: The Lindisfarne Gospels Revealed’.

An illustrated lecture followed by a guided page by page tour of the manuscript, online, with questions and discussion.

Wednesday 24 February, 1400-1700 GMT

‘Consolidation and Resistance: Mercian hegemony and Viking impact’.

Followed by a concluding discussion.

Course Convenor

Professor Michelle Brown

Michelle Brown


Michelle Brown is Senior Research Fellow and Professor Emerita of Medieval Manuscript Studies at the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Studies, University of London. She is a Visiting Fellow at St Chad’s College, University of Durham, a Fellow of the Courtauld Institute and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. She was formerly the Curator of Medieval and Illuminated Manuscripts at the British Library and a Visiting Professor at the Institute of Medieval Studies, University of Leeds. She has published, lectured and broadcast widely on the cultural history of the Middle Ages. Her publications include ‘A Guide to Western Historical Scripts from Antiquity to 1600’, ‘Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts: a Glossary of Technical Terms’, ‘The Book of Cerne’, ‘The British Library Guide to Writing and Scripts’, ‘The Lindisfarne Gospels: Society, Spirituality and the Scribe’, ‘The Lindisfarne Gospels and the Early Medieval World’, ‘The Holkham Bible’ and ‘The Luttrell Psalter’. The exhibitions she has curated include ‘Painted Labyrinth: the World of the Lindisfarne Gospels’ (BL, 2003) and ‘In the Beginning: Bibles Before the Year 1000’ (Smithsonian Inst., 2006-7).