By Mathilde Mioche

The Oxford Medieval Manuscripts Group (OMMG) is a collective of eight postgraduate students and early-career researchers who bonded in Oxford over their passion for medieval manuscripts. We host a seminar series through which we hope to gather a community of emerging scholars, from the University of Oxford and beyond, around the study of medieval books and the art of illumination.

Starting in Hilary Term 2024, OMMG seminars will take place twice monthly on Friday afternoons. We will discuss the most exciting recent research; share our own projects and ideas in a supportive environment; learn from lectures and tutorials given by experienced colleagues; and examine medieval manuscripts together during library visits.

By promoting exchange between scholars with diverse specialisms and different levels of experience, OMMG aims to turn the study of medieval books and illuminations into a more collaborative pursuit. We know that working with manuscripts is often a solitary business, where knowledge is acquired over silent and cautious one-on-one meetings with a delicate object. We want to share the wonder we experience before the material, visual and textual complexity of illuminated codices, as well as the interrogations or frustrations we have as we encounter obstacles in our research. The OMMG seminar series will provide manuscript enthusiasts with a stimulating platform for learning practical and analytical skills from peers as well as experts. We would love you to join us!

To subscribe to our mailing list, participate in library visits, propose a presentation of your research for work-in-progress meetings, or submit any queries, please write to:

You can find our schedule here:

About Us

Irina Boeru is a third-year DPhil student with a background in Medieval and Modern Languages and Medieval Studies. Her research analyses travel narratives in French and Latin illuminated manuscripts, specifically chronicles of the fifteenth-century conquest of the Canary Islands.

Fergus Bovill graduated with a BA in History of Art from the University of York. He is currently pursuing an MSt in Medieval Studies, with a dissertation on the assemblage of medieval manuscript cuttings into albums by nineteenth-century bibliophiles and connoisseurs.

Charly Driscoll completed an MSc in Book History and Material Culture at the University of Edinburgh and is now studying for a DPhil in Medieval English. Her project investigates how the material features of medieval manuscripts reveal their individual histories.

Elena Lichmanova is a third-year DPhil student with a background in History of Art and Medieval Studies. Her research examines the origins and early history of marginalia in medieval manuscripts, focusing on illuminated English Psalters of the thirteenth century.

Mathilde Mioche completed an MSt in History of Art and Visual Culture with a dissertation on illuminated Insular Gospels. She is currently preparing a doctoral project on the formal and medial mutations of the Dance of Death since its emergence in the fifteenth century.

Ana de Oliveira Dias is a historian of early medieval visual and intellectual culture with a specialisation in manuscript studies. She received a PhD in Medieval History from Durham University in 2019 and is now a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the project Crafting Documents, c. 500—c. 800 CE at the University of Oxford.

Celeste Pan is a third-year DPhil student with a background in English and Medieval Studies. Her research considers the production of illuminated Hebrew manuscripts in medieval northern Europe, specifically a group of liturgical Bibles from the Rheno-Mosan region.

Klara Zhao is a first-year MPhil student in Egyptology preparing a dissertation inspired by Umberto Eco’s Infinity of Lists. She developed a special interest in medieval French poetry during her BA in French and Linguistics, which she continues to nurture.

Image: Saint Augustine teaching. Paris, Bibl. Mazarine, MS 616, fol. 1r.

Scales of Governance: Local Agency and Political Authority in Eurasia, 1000-1500

Worcester College, Oxford – 12th and 13th January 2024

by Annabel Hancock, Bee Jones, James Cogbill, and Susannah Bain

This workshop grew out of a discussion group the four of us started in Michaelmas term 2022 on ‘Governability across the Medieval Globe’. By ‘governability’ we meant why and how certain people and societies were more or less easily governed, although we had several big discussions about the usefulness of the term. Our conversations kept coming back to the utility of thinking from localities when trying to conceptualise how governance functioned in the central and later Middle Ages, and to how both medieval governance and our analysis of it had to operate across large differences in scale – from local officials and forms to (often unsubstantiated) claims of regional or even universal hegemony.

These questions relate to a great deal of cutting-edge work in medieval history, particularly in terms of new ‘global’ approaches and how we read sources to get at political culture. As a result, we decided to organise a workshop to bring together scholars pushing our understanding forward to assess where we are as a field and where we are going.

We were very fortunate to be offered funding from the Past & Present Society, the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research, and the Oxford Medieval Studies Network. This funding allowed us to bring a fantastic set of speakers and respondents to Oxford, including a mix of established, early-career, and doctoral scholars. We wanted to centre discussion and use our eight papers and four responses to stimulate broader conversations on governance in this period. The papers were pre-circulated and speakers summarised their thoughts on the day, which afforded us more time for discussion. Our contributions covered Iberia, France, Germany, China, Egypt, Byzantium, Italy, and north Africa from the eleventh to fifteenth centuries, which provided some range in our coverage even though we could not possibly do justice to the entirety of Eurasia across five centuries.

The workshop went absolutely brilliantly: we were delighted with the papers and responses, and we thought that the discussion was stimulating, wide-ranging, and very fruitful. Although not without important questions and possible issues, ‘scales of governance’ emerged as a useful conceptual lens to cut across ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ models of political organisation, drawing attention to sets of local and bureaucratic knowledges and highlighting the critical importance of varied social relationships to governance, both within a given locality and as an imposition upon it by rulers and/or bureaucracies. Governance was also closely related to the socialisation of elite men into certain kinds of authoritative masculinity, and to gendered social relationships between individuals and families. These dynamics are more difficult to access in most of the sources available to us for this period, but they enrich our understanding of how people and communities were actually governed.

Many of the papers highlighted the roles of different kinds of intermediaries situated between their communities and regional rulers. These figures, mediating and translating between knowledges at different scales, in many cases actually did most of the governing in a given locality. In some cases, local players seem to have been torn between evading oversight and control by rulers or larger political units on the one hand, and maintaining and strengthening their own power and position in their community on the other, including in some cases by steepening local hierarchies in their own favour. Recognising this led us to a discussion of how important it is to consider how formal or informal governance in a particular locality was, and hence the importance of processes of ‘formalisation’ of power through bureaucracies, regulations, and the imposition of officials.

Through the papers and discussions, we gained glimpses of medieval people of all social strata operating across different scales to get things done, such as Arabic-speakers leveraging their expertise in privileged documentary practices in twelfth-century Toledo or non-noble property-owners in thirteenth-century Carcassonne appropriating the language and frameworks of royal justice and official historical memory. Medieval people were in many cases capable of appropriating the language of their rulers and the procedures of governing institutions, and were not afraid to buy into the claims of rulers where it suited their own purposes, even while avoiding control from above in other ways.

We would like to extend our heartfelt thanks to the funders of the workshop, as well as to all the speakers, respondents, and other participants.

Völuspá: a performative journey

To herald the new year, poet and DPhil student, Clare Mulley, recounts her experience of interpreting, translating and performing one of the most famous poems in the Old Norse canon for the Old Norse Poetry in Performance Conference 2023.

When I walk, barefoot, to centre stage from the shadowed doorway, the silence of the wood-panelled room is an excruciatingly loud one; loud in a way that can only come from a lot of bodies keeping themselves deliberately suppressed, but still shifting and audibly breathing. Under the lip of my hood, I can just make out the shadowy faces of the front rows, many of whom are friends and colleagues. They know there will be a performance of sorts, and many of them know more than I do the poem I am interpreting, but it is in these couple of seconds where anything could happen. This is, perhaps, the most exciting part of all.

I wait just long enough to feel their anticipation – the space between us is electric, humming with charge and stretched to full tension. A metre away, someone else is waiting: my co-performer, Norwegian musician and sound engineer Kjell Braaten, is poised over his sound system and various gorgeous wooden instruments, completely attuned to my every movement. Aside from his work for film and television, he has been performing at festivals and concert venues for years, and knows exactly what he is doing in building an atmosphere. In a few seconds, the pure gut surge of sound he is about to create will reverberate off the walls like echoes in a cave, and make itself felt in the bellies of all present. 

In the darkness, I can practically see the poem stretching out in front of me, a long, luminous thread whose tail-end I must grasp, or a path I must follow without stumbling, treading down to make the way clearer for future walkers. But first, I have to step into the shoes of the seeress (or völva, as she is known in Old Norse) using the words that have identified her for centuries.

I grip the staff in my hand and begin, reciting the first and foremost line in Old Norse: ‘Hljóðs bið ek allar helgar kindir…’ Give me a hearing.

For the next half hour, I will exist in another space outside of time: the space of ritual time.


Völuspá, the opening poem of the Poetic Edda,was my introduction to Old Norse poetry, and from the first time I read it (on a train journey between Manchester and Bradford) I was spellbound. Everything about it – its combination of slow-building tension and fast-moving scenery, mystic tonality and hypnotic refrains – suggested a vast, echoing space, evocative in turn of the mythical Ginnungagap in which the Old Norse cosmos has its origin story. Within that space, the female narrative voice itself remains an enigma, and is a presence which commands absolute attention. Interpreted sometimes as a resurrected völva or elemental being, sometimes as a human woman performing seiðr who has become a mouthpiece for an older consciousness, her voice not only hovers somewhere between the corporeal and supernatural, but speaks to an audience (the so-called helgar kindir ‘holy kindred’) which is itself situated in a poetic present that spans generations. Any audience experiencing the poem may automatically count themselves as part of the crowd she addresses, adding to its immediacy in effect.

A year after first reading the poem, I arrived in Oxford to begin another journey into the study of Old Norse receptions, but all the time I was settling into my studies, Völuspá stayed on the margins of my consciousness. It was an insistent, probing voice that would not go away. Each time I read or heard later translations and performances, I couldn’t help fixating on what I would have done differently, or on how certain word choices might sit in various settings. Eventually, I gave in to the urge to play with it: I sat down very late one night and began a poetic translation, which allowed for some leeway in expression and for some opening up of the mythology for audiences who did not have contextual knowledge. After some time working on the piece, and especially after studying Terry Gunnell’s work on performance archaeology, I finally realised that I was writing according to how my own speaking voice worked, and that I was saying phrases aloud as part of the selective process. Clearly writing the poem down wasn’t enough for the storyteller bone in the back of my skull; I wanted to work my way through a performance. 

I have always been fascinated by the idea of oral poetry as a cross-temporal process, or moving body; one made up of performance, memory (both living and cultural) and textual records, spanning generations with some level of consistency and yet inevitably received in and affected by what Carolyn Dinshaw aptly terms the ‘hermeneutic now.’ Drawing a venn diagram between the spheres of textual study and practical experience, I reasoned, would not only help me to investigate how certain textual material can have performative implications, and how those might practically play out on a stage, but, on another level, would also allow me to experiment with the blank margins outside the text that depend upon personal interpretation (such as tone of voice, settings, speed, musical accompaniment or other voices etc). While certain questions around how Medieval Scandinavians might have worked with or presented the poem will always remain unsolved, having to tackle certain practicalities would perhaps provide further insight into what might have been possible for readers or performers in a medieval context. Icelanders had always been famed and sought out in Medieval Scandinavian courts for their incredible narrative memories; could I now recreate something of the process by which they remembered longer works and captured their audiences? The upcoming Old Norse Poetry in Performance Conference 2023 provided the perfect setting (and excuse) for the experiment, and my storyteller bone thrilled at the thought.

One key decision I made was to do with setting; when performed with one voice, the poem is so unrelenting in its intensity that there seemed a real risk of not being able to sustain its energy unsupported for more than half an hour without boring an audience (I often wonder, incidentally, if any medieval performers might have been faced with the same dilemma, or if this might strengthen any theoretical arguments for multiple voices.) Music seemed the natural answer in my case, as I find it far easier to hold space with accompaniment, and this was where Kjell came in. I had watched him perform his new album Blóta the previous summer at Midgardsblót, a festival held among the burial mounds in Børre, and had seen nearly the whole room cry in response to his music. Some internet searches revealed that he had also participated in sound work on The Northman – one of my favourite ever film soundtracks, and a pleasing aesthetic match to what I considered Völuspá’s naturally dark quality. Luckily for me, Kjell loved my idea and generously consented to take part in the experiment, accordingly transporting several cases’ worth of nordic instruments from Bergen and risking his spine in the process. 


It would require a great deal more space than I presently have to detail all the theory, planning and sources that went into the project in full, and, as I intend to write more formally about those in future, I’m not going to do that here. Suffice to say that, after two performances, performing any oral medieval work (even a more loosely-interpreted one)teaches you a lot more than you bargained for, and is an absolutely terrifying and sublime experience all by itself. The intensity magnifies tenfold when done in the dark, in proper stage lighting and with body-shuddering music at your back. It didn’t take much effort to evoke ritual time, or pretend that my memories went back to the creation of the world – while the text on its own makes you feel like you are seeing creation happen, I felt like I was actively making creation happen.

 Perhaps the most intense part of the experience, however (aside from worrying about forgetting your lines, or about which academic interpretations you tend towards in your writing), is the sheer viscerality of the onstage experience due to energy exchange, and how quickly this affects what you considered fixed or rehearsed. What Ursula Le Guin terms ‘primary orality’ – in other words, the unique and powerful symbiotic relationship between a live performer and their audience that has no equivalent in other media – is blank margins territory; something that is almost impossible to communicate in a regular poetic structure, although the sense of the narrator commanding rapt attention is, again, palpable in the text. Onstage, this energy is practically solid, and rushes to meet you in staggering fashion. As though you had two, parallel brains, you are aware throughout of the delicate balance between holding onto deep memory while existing in the sharp, present consciousness of the room. If there is the slightest flicker of a face within your eyeline, the slightest sigh, jump or intake of breath, you are immediately aware of it and seeking to react in a way compatible with the energy directed at you. This weird dual consciousness can cause the most surprising changes to vocabulary you have rehearsed for hours, and to smaller actions to do with movement, volume and even facial expression.

In the second performance Kjell and I did at the Aarhus Old Norse Mythology Conference in November 2023, I decided to increase my involvement in the soundscape, and played a bone rattle and a skin drum at key moments in the narrative. The drum especially can be felt throughout the body as you play it and inspires an almost trancelike state, giving weight to your words and transmitting a physical sensation to your listeners; considering its history in Sami shamanistic practices, and the taboo surrounding it in the time of witch hunts, its cultural weight and physical effects added another, holistic layer to the work. From these experiences, I now have fresh awareness that no two performances can ever be the same, as every new context and audience forces a different synergy, and that in itself bears thinking about in an academic context; while we are left with the ‘bones’ of the poem in manuscript form, and the idea that a consistent memory of the structure is definitely there, how many forms might have been laid across similar skeletons in an oral context? How many people worked with the consistencies we know today to make their own work? The possibilities are endless. 

To me, one thing is for certain. As simplistic as it sounds, whatever the end result of a performance on a received text, there is nothing quite like the deafening silence at the end of it all, right before the applause hits, to remind you why such texts were probably written down in the first place: because someone, somewhere, had exactly the same reaction to something they heard, and wanted to capture the moment. Putting that text back into the voice felt like completing a circle.

For a review of the performance, see:

For a poem on the Old Norse cosmos by the author, see:

Lucy Pick

Lucy Pick in Oxford

Report on Lucy Pick’s Lecture for OMS: A Guest Blog by Pilar Bertuzzi Rivett

Watch Lucy Pick’s OMS Lecture 2022 here:

The Oxford Medieval Studies Lecture for Hilary Term 2022 was delivered on 8 February by Professor Lucy Pick, historian of medieval thought and culture, author of Her Father’s Daughter: Gender, Power, and Religion in Early the Spanish Kingdoms (Cornell 2017), Pilgrimage (Cuidono 2014) and Conflict and Coexistence: Archbishop Rodrigo and the Muslims and Jews of Thirteenth-Century Spain (University of Michigan 2004). Professor Pick is a visiting scholar at the Center for Hebrew and Jewish Studies in Oxford, researching the earliest Latin translation of Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed.

As a Hebraist and fellow historian of medieval thought, I looked forward to Professor Pick’s take on what Jewish-Christian relationships meant in the case of Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed. It is a treat to be able to read a Jewish Medieval author in Latin and since instances of actual intellectual cooperation (especially in the early Middle Ages, which is what I focus on) are very few and far between, I am always curious to learn about them. I was particularly interested in how Professor Pick discovered this cooperation and what method she was going to use in order to flesh it out.

I found that Professor Pick set the scene very aptly when she opened her presentation mentioning that the Guide to the Perplexed “landed in the Latin scholastic world of the thirteenth century like a stick of dynamite.” Maimonides’ synthesis of science, the Law, Greek physics and metaphysics through the lens of the Hebrew Bible was nothing short of “explosive”. He offered a method for assimilating and interpreting the new Aristotle that flooded the schools of the thirteenth century. Did he inspire part of that flood? Did the Guide open up new avenues of thought for Christian readers that could be used as tools in their polemics against the Jews? These were some of the questions that were addressed in her presentation.

In what to me was reminiscent of the Italian school of microhistory, Professor Pick set aside the Christian scholastics of the mid to late thirteenth century, (whose study “used up most of the scholarly oxygen dedicated to Maimonides Latinus”) to focus on a much earlier community of readers of the Guide, one composed of both Jewish and Christians in the city of Toledo. At the heart of her project is the Liber de Parabola (witnessed in only one manuscript, Paris Sorbonne MS 601), the earliest Latin translation of the Guide (Part III, chapters 29-49 in which Maimonides discusses the reasons for commandments). According to Professor Pick, the Liber has not received the attention it deserves, neither as a witness to the Guide nor for its additional content which bears witness to the earliest reception to the ideas of the Guide. She therefore traced these individuals’ contact with the Liber de Parabola to shed light on both positive and negative aspects of its reception by Christians.

The key characters in this “textual community” are Samuel ibn Tibbon, who translated Maimonides’ Guide from Judeo-Arabic into Hebrew; Michael Scot, court astrologer to Frederick II who began his career as a master in Toledo, translating scientific texts from Arabic into Latin and Rodrigo Jiménez de Rada, Archbishop of Toledo, in whose cathedral Michael and Samuel may have met and in whose writings we can trace the earliest evidence of Maimonides’ impact on the Latin world.

Samuel’s contribution to the Liber is easiest to identify: he used his Hebrew translation for the base texts; he drew on his interpretation of Maimonides’ ideas about philosophical and Biblical exegesis and illustrated it with examples from his commentary on Ecclesiastics. He is cited by name at least six times in connection with the readings of the Hebrew Bible and interpretation of Jewish law. Pick believes that these passages reflect oral communication between Samuel Ibn Tabbon and the translator.

Michael Scot’s identity is more difficult to establish and rests on substantial circumstantial evidence. Michael Scot knew the work of Maimonides as he cited him in his “De physionomiae”; he was in Rome at the same time as the Liber de Parabola was dedicated to Cardinal Romanus and first appeared on the historical record in 1215 in Rome, accompanying the entourage of the Archbishop of Toledo at the Fourth Lateran Council. Pick notes that Samuel consulted books by Aristoteles meteorology (some of which Scot translated into Latin) in Toledo at some point between 1204 and 1210, thus Michael and Samuel could plausibly have met and worked together.

Pick also described how Michael Scot became a close associate of Jacob Anatoli while at Frederick II’s court in Naples. Anatoli was Samuel’s son in law, whose philosophical sermons (Malmad ha-Talmidim) recounted conversations with Michael Scot and his knowledge of Maimonides’ work. In one of his sermons on Parshat Nitzavim, Anatoli showed awareness of the Liber de Parabola, inclusive of its structure and introduction and associates it with Michael Scot. Pick very ably showed parallels between Anatoli’s interpretation of Deuteronomy 4:6 with the opening of the Liber de Parabola which contrasts the interpretation of a commandment with the allegory of a parable.    

By means of a venn diagram, Pick highlighted the interpenetration of ideas amongst the translators of key works in Toledo, Naples and Provence all of whom were engaged in a parallel set of translations and commentaries on Aristotle’s Meteorology inspired by Part II Chapter 30 of Maimonides’ Guide. Since Part II was not available in the Liber, this suggests a wider diffusion of the Guide in Toledo.  

The presentation concluded by showing the “polemical” potential to Christian borrowing of Maimonides’ ideas. The Archbishop of Toledo reacted to Part II Chapter 30 in his Breviarium in which he used Maimonides’ ideas of “principle” and “spirit” to argue for the Christian Trinity. This is an example of how the section of the Guide in the Liber de Parabola was used by later Christians in support of a doctrine of “supersession” rather than fostering a more positive understanding of those who follow God’s commandments, as Jacob Anatoli would have hoped for.

This conclusion was what surprised me most about the presentation. I suppose I approached the topic with the eyes of someone accustomed to the interpenetration of ideas between Christians and Jews of Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages when it comes to mysticism. However, Professor Pick’s paper showed that by the thirteenth century intellectual cooperation could be both a tool and a weapon. In her own words, “textual community did not mean safety and an exchange of texts could provide ammunition as well as understanding.” In the period of history I focus on, between the ninth and eleventh centuries, both Christian and Jewish polemical tools were still in their pre-scholastic phase; Peter Damian’s work only really impacted Jewish-Christian relations towards the end of my “horizon.” However, the fact that Dante Alighieri put Pater Damian in the highest circles of Paradise, whereas Michael Scot was relegated to the malebolgie of Hell should have alerted me to the fact that there was not going to be a “happy ending” to Professor Pick’s textual community.

Still, any kind of inter-faith intellectual cooperation in the Middle Ages is worth researching because it demystifies some of the myths that surround the history of Christian and Jewish communities. When genuine, as in the case of Pick’s “textual community” or in the case of the Victorines in Paris, cooperation challenges the narrative of Jews and Christians as distinct cultures in “conversation and conflict.” The key takeaway from this paper for my dissertation is that we are better served to approach the history of Jews and Christians in the Middle Ages from an organic model of culture rather than who influenced whom, to borrow from David Biale and Michael Satlow. I admire the way in which Pick focuses on people and their agency and how comfortable she was with admitting that sometimes, as in the case of Michael Scot’s identity, one has to rely on somewhat circumstantial evidence. As medievalists, we do not always find “the silver bullet”; we are dealing with people and sources that existed nearly two thousand years ago. Even the most refined sleuths sometimes build cases on indirect evidence. If we wanted simple, straightforward, direct evidence, we would be statisticians or, worse still, modern historians.

I found that the interdisciplinary, multi-lingual approach in Pick’s presentation fit very well with the remit of the OMS and with our own identity as medieval historians. In Professor Pick’s words, “life is best viewed through more than one window.”

Pick reminded the audience that.

“It has been corrected from my own book. I am Moses son of Rabbi Maimon, the Righteous, of Blessed Memory”
Egypt, 1170–80
Handwritten in ink on paper
Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, MS. Huntington 80