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ASU researchers bring medieval manuscript to life

The Geese Book illustration
September 17, 2014

Imagine what it might be like for your favorite book to come alive. Detailed images of each scene appear before your eyes, with music to set the tone, or dialogue giving each character a unique voice. Perhaps there are even smells wafting through the air – the woody aroma of a log cabin or sterile scent of a hospital.

These types of multisensory features would certainly change the experience of reading a book. They might also allow us to understand and appreciate the story in new ways. For Arizona State University art historian Corine Schleif and musicologist Volker Schier, images and sound are paramount to their research. Together, they have used modern multimedia tools to bring a 500-year-old manuscript to life. The result is a first-of-its-kind international pilot project, called “Opening the Geese Book.”

The Geese Book is a two-volume liturgical manuscript, originally produced in Nuremberg, Germany, between the years 1503 and 1510. It contains the complete mass liturgy for the entire year, used at the parish church of St. Lorenz until 1525. Measuring 30 by 50 inches, the books are the largest on record at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. Their monumental size allowed for the entire church choir, made up of boys and young men, to gather around the only copy when it came time to sing.

All throughout the Geese Book, fanciful illustrations and designs are scattered among the pages of music. Animals, mythological creatures, dragons, hybrids and more are all depicted, as well as more traditional religious scenes. But the most famous painting shows a choir of geese with a wolf as their choirmaster.

Unraveling the manuscript

This historical work was once only accessible to a select few. Scholars could see it if they had a good reason, Schleif says, noting that she was able to view the book many years ago while working on her dissertation. But in 2012, she set out to make the Geese Book available to anyone, anywhere in the world, digitally.

Since then, Schleif and her partners from numerous disciplines and countries have collaborated to make this historical text come alive. The culmination of their work is a website including all 1,120 pages of the two-volume Geese Book, 23 recorded chants and nine videos providing background information about the people who originally created the manuscript.

Not only does digitizing the book help preserve it from being handled in person, it allows scholars and lay people alike to see the illustrations in extraordinary detail. Schleif says one of the most interesting parts of the project has been working to contextualize the illustrations – also known as illuminations – so that viewers of our time can come up with their own informed interpretations.

"What I notice in a lot of the illuminations is a kind of life and death struggle, but we don’t know who’s going to win,” Schleif says. “Here you’ve got a fox after these geese, but he doesn’t have them yet. We don’t know how it’s going to turn out.”

One detail that has influenced some interpretations of the famous geese choir drawing is that the wolf has an erection. “People look at this for a long time before they see it,” Schleif says. Scholars have suggested that perhaps the image is as much about power as it is about sex. It could be meant as a warning that those in power not take advantage of their charges, but also that the underlings maintain vigilance.

"I think the bottom line interpretation here is to be wary of authority,” Schleif says. The images can also offer colorful glimpses into the history of the Middle Ages. An illustration of men with mugs of beer may first appear simply as a happy drinking scene, but becomes more meaningful with historical context.

“We take freedom of assembly for granted, but the good people of Nuremburg couldn’t do that,” Schleif explains. The Patricians, who were at the top of society, had the right to hold social gatherings. But the lower and middle levels were forbidden from meeting each other on weekends or evenings. There were exceptions, however, like the feast of church dedication, which is being celebrated at the bottom of the page where the liturgy appears for that day. “Then those controls fell by the wayside,” Schleif says.

A multisensory experience

While the illustrations are fascinating and important in their own right, Schleif and her co-director Volker Schier felt that providing an audio component was just as essential.

“When this manuscript was made, it wasn’t just to be admired as pretty pictures and black dots on parchment. It was meant to be sung, and it was sung all year,” Schleif says. “We believe that music can’t be studied without hearing it.”

Working with the renowned choir Schola Hungarica of Budapest, the researchers recorded chants from the liturgy, providing transcriptions and translations for each. These recordings were also made available separately as a CD. The website also includes a series of video clips providing information about the historical characters who created the Geese Book – a cleric named Friedrich Rosendorn was responsible for the writing, and the artist Jakob Elsner, whom scholars believe provided the illuminations.

Using a web-based platform with audio and visual features has given the Geese Book a sort of modern revival. Schleif hopes the project will serve as a model for future explorations. Her next endeavor is a project called Extraordinary Sense Scapes, focusing on the late medieval Brigittine monastery in Sweden. Again, Schleif will work with collaborators to create a multisensory experience – the acoustic quality of the music in that particular monastery, the colors that were visible, even the smells that may have been present.

“It will be an architectural reconstruction, acoustic reconstruction and possibly getting into some olfactory things,” Schleif says. “We want to explore situated sensory experiences, knowing that the senses are not distinct but that the sensorium works together as a whole.” In recreating this setting, researchers hope to time travel, in a sense, and glean insights about social history, gender and class.

What if we really could go back in time? What questions would Schleif be most eager to have answered?

“I’d want to know what they had in mind with the illumination of the geese and the wolf and the fox,” she says. “Was it something current that had happened? Who did they want to see that, and didn’t they want to see it? What were they trying to communicate to the little boys who were going to look at it? I’d ask all those questions.”

But for now, that famous illustration remains a mystery, open to interpretation.

Corine Schleif is a professor in the School of Art, part of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. Volker Schier is a visiting scholar. The Geese Book project is sponsored by Samuel H. Kress Foundation; National Endowment for the Humanities; Sparda Bank Nürnberg; Zukunftsstiftung der Stadtsparkasse Nürnberg; Kulturfonds der Dr. Lorenz Tucher’schen Stiftung; Freiherr von Haller’sche Forschungsstiftung; Arizona State University - Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts - Institute for Humanities Research; Erzbistum Bamberg: Verlag Nürnberger Presse; Bezirk Mittelfranken, Stiftung “Natur-Kultur-Struktur”; Sigma (Deutschland) GmbH; and Wolf Photo Media, Fürth.

Written by Allie Nicodemo, Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development