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BYU students explore 15th-century France during search through ancient manuscripts

Instead of reading a Middle Ages French language textbook or studying a grammar slideshow on campus, four Brigham Young University French language students traveled last summer to Lille, France, where they explored the nuances of 15th-century French life directly from 500-year-old manuscripts.

Jesse Hurlbut, associate professor of French literature and culture, along with students Kathryn Rimmasch, Anna Siebach, Anne Sumsion and Julie Nay, studied the Burgundian Court during a summer field study of financial account records from the 15th century.

“I was trying to find a project that would be a good mentored-learning experience for students, and I thought that working in a manuscript library would be a pretty extraordinary experience,” Hurlbut said. “Even though these students may not go on to pursue a career in a manuscript library, holding a book in their hands that is 500 years old is an experience they’ll never forget.”

“Exposure to this kind of material can’t happen in a lecture hall,” Hurlbut said. “I can show slides and explain the manuscripts of the Duke of Burgundy, but it’s totally different when the students open the book and see, smell and feel the pages written by the hand of scribes 500 years ago.”

The mentored-learning project involved photographing, transcribing, editing and publishing a selection of records from the 15th-century court of the Duke of Burgundy.

The Duke of Burgundy was one of the major brokers of art, culture, civilization and power in Western Europe in the 15th century. Having amassed huge territorial possessions and fortunes while the kingdoms of England and France were engaged in the Hundred Years War, the Duke of Burgundy attracted many of the finest painters, sculptors, musicians, authors and poets of the day to his court. His accounts provide a glimpse into European art history with a detailed description of items he purchased.

Hurlbut prepared his team with the academic and technical skills to help in all phases of the project, including a paleography course on reading the Middle Ages French and a Burgundian culture course.

They spent several weeks in the Departmental Archives in Lille, where the annual records of the Burgundian Court’s itemized expenses survive in 100 manuscripts, each representing a different year in the 15th century.

Hurlbut said this is the first time he has done this kind of mentored project, and he was impressed that in only six months the students learned to read Middle Ages French in an ancient handwriting and transcribed it from ancient manuscripts.

The final result of the project made a portion of these unedited records available to students and scholars. This data from the Duke of Burgundy’s accounts can be used by historians in many realms of research, studies and teaching. It provides an accessible, searchable and extractable compilation of data, which researchers formerly obtained by going to France, learning to read Middle Ages French characters and searching through the 100 volumes.

Kathryn Rimmasch, a master’s student in French studies from Laramie, Wyo., participated in the transcription in France.

“Not only did participating in this transcription project mean going to France, which is never a bad idea, but I also found it fascinating,” Rimmasch said. “The history of Europe was constantly changing and the map lines we see as so solid today weren’t always the same. Although Burgundy is nothing more than a region to us today, in the 1400s it was one of the driving forces of European economics and culture.”

As a result of studying and transcribing the Duke’s accounts, she said she can read 15th--century handwriting and better understand the role Burgundy played in European history.

“It seems like people interested in history are always visiting historic places hoping that some curtain will be drawn back and they’ll get a little peak at how things were in some distant past,” Rimmasch said.

“Seeing some of the important cities from the time period of the accounts we were transcribing tugged on the curtain strings a little, but the real magic was sitting down every day with a real person’s handwriting and reading that somebody was given money for a wedding, or a child was baptized or a horse was lost in some war. Those traces of ink on parchment brought to life the world of 1455.”

Hurlbut said if students continue to support this project, he would take future generations of students to transcribe more volumes and extract data.

Writer: Angela Fischer

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