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Elizabeth Bowser

Elizabeth Bowser, a University graduate student in medieval studies, speaks to fourth-graders at Randolph Heights School on February 1.

Medieval Studies scholars bind schoolchildren for a spell

By Rick Moore

February 3, 2006

The world of higher education reached out to the students at the little desks of Randolph Heights School this week, and the children were all ears and raised hands.

Two scholars from the U's Center for Medieval Studies (CMS) made the visit on Wednesday as part of an ongoing project to teach elementary students about the invention of the bound book in the Middle Ages. Through the program, costumed scholars from CMS present a history on the evolution of books, and the students are later given the chance to create their own books using vellum, quills, gold leaf, and ink donated to the program.

Wednesday's visit in St. Paul was to a classroom of about 40 children, mostly fourth-graders, who have been studying medieval history--along with art--as part of their core knowledge curriculum. They eagerly absorbed the presentation by graduate students Elizabeth Bowser and Philip Grace, and answered a host of questions tossed their way with some insightful answers.

"When you try to make the medieval period in Europe come alive, it's really good to have multiple sources of information," Schalk said. "Seeing an actual document that they can look at and touch is very exciting."

The students were asked why it might make more sense to use paper for making books, rather than using tablets (made out of ivory or wood) or parchment or vellum (made out of animal skins).

"If you had to make a hundred pages out of tablets, it would be like that," said one girl, holding her hands about three feet off the ground. "Paper seems like it would be easier to make, and you wouldn't be killing animals," offered another.

The students learned about the folding of sheets into folios, quartos, and octavos, and how quires (now 25-page segments) were sewn together to make books. They also learned about the ruling of pages and the use of initial letters and illustrations. Finally, they were able to look at and touch an actual medieval manuscript page.

For the children, the event wasn't without distractions; namely three photographers from various media milling around the room and a couple of scribes (pardon the historical reference) making notes in their lined tablets. Hence, there were a lot of swiveling heads and questions afterward about where they might see their photos.

The students' place in the 21st century was also evident. In addition to a computer projecting Web images of Middle Age transcripts, there was a comment on Bowser's question, "What is a stylus?" (referring, of course, to a type of pencil or crayon with a point). "You can use it on a Palm Pilot to draw," said one boy.

This is the first year of the CMS outreach program, which is funded by a COPE (Council on Public Engagement) grant. CMS scholars will visit five other Twin Cities classrooms between now and April.

According to Jean Schalk, an art teacher at Randolph Heights, the program helps make classroom teaching more relevant, and her students were still talking about the visit two days later. "When you try to make the medieval period in Europe come alive, it's really good to have multiple sources of information," she said. "Seeing an actual document that they can look at and touch is very exciting."

The costumes sported by Bowser and Grace seemed to help, as well, and the black garment worn by Grace underneath his handmade cloak caught the fancy of one boy in the classroom.

"Do you have to wear tights?" he asked. "No," said Grace.

And then a follow-up question: "Are you a superhero?" "No," Grace answered. "But not for lack of trying."