Old books, new stories: encounters with medieval manuscripts and the making of history

Monday 8 November 2021

The world of rare books is often seen as the preserve of an exclusive circle of collectors, dealers, and connoisseurs. But what impact has this trade had on how we understand both remarkable old books and our history?

These questions will be explored in ‘A Night at the Rare Books Auction’, an event organised by the Institute of English Studies at the School of Advanced Study (SAS), University of London, as part of Being Human – the annual UK-wide celebration of the humanities led by SAS, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the British Academy. 

Taking place on 17 November, 6–7pm, ‘A Night at the Rare Books Auction’ is an immersive theatre performance that recreates the sale of two of Britain’s most famous medieval manuscripts: the Luttrell Psalter and the Bedford Psalter and Hours. The performance brings this story to life and illuminates the complex processes undertaken by public institutions when trying to secure historical works for the nation. 

Participants will be invited to engage with past dealers and collectors, to ‘bid’ on their favourite manuscripts, and to reflect on the importance of historical auctions as a moment in which cultural heritage gains a new meaning. After the auction, which will take place on Zoom and will be live-captioned, there will be a short conversation between historians and actors and the launch of a virtual exhibition and podcast on the history of book collecting.

‘A Night at the Rare Books Auction’ is a collaboration between the actor and playwright Jack Tarlton, and the research team behind the Institute of English Studies’ CULTIVATE MSS project, an ongoing focus on the rare book trade and its impact on European society in the first half of the 20th century. 

In keeping with the 2021 festival theme of ‘renewal’, the event aims to spark conversations about the importance of the rare book trade in shaping the way these objects were received in the early 20th century and are understood today. Starting with medieval manuscripts, it speaks to wider issues regarding the preservation of cultural heritage and the afterlives of historical objects.

As part of Being Human’s ten-day national programme of big ideas, big debates and engaging activities for people of all ages, it will champion the excellence of humanities research, demonstrate the vitality and relevance of contemporary research and showcase how the humanities help us understand ourselves, our relationships with others, and the challenges we face in the changing world. 

In 2020, Being Human encompassed a largely digital and online programme of 300 events and activities in 54 towns and cities across the UK, with a total estimated audience of 30,000. The 2021 programme promises to be exciting, entertaining, and thought-provoking, with something for everyone in our diverse communities. 

Reserve your place at ‘A Night at the Rare Books Auction’ and be part of this conversation. You can also learn more about CULTIVATE MSS at https://ies.sas.ac.uk/research-projects/cultivate-mss-project


Notes to Editors:

  1. For all enquiries, please contact: ana.dias@sas.ac.uk
  2. The Institute of English Studies (IES) is an internationally renowned research centre specialising in the history of the book, manuscript and print studies, textual scholarship, digital editing and new critical approaches to literary history.  We offer postgraduate programmes, summer schools, and short courses. We host major collaborative research projects, provide research training in book history and palaeography; and facilitate new and emerging research in all areas of English studies. IES is one of nine member institutes of the School of Advanced Study of the University of London. Find out more at https://ies.sas.ac.uk
  3. Being Human: a festival of the humanities, 11–20 November 2021. Led by the School of Advanced Study, University of London, in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the British Academy, Being Human is a national forum for public engagement with humanities research. The festival highlights the ways in which the humanities can inspire and enrich our everyday lives. For more information, please visit www.beinghumanfestival.org or follow the festival on social media at @BeingHumanFest.
  4. The School of Advanced Study (SAS), University of London, is the UK’s national centre for the promotion and support of research in the humanities. SAS and its member institutes offer unparalleled resources, facilities and academic opportunities across a wide range of subject areas for the benefit of the national and international scholarly community. Last year SAS welcomed 996 research fellows and associates, held 1,500 events highlighting the latest research in the humanities, received 31.6 million online visits to its research resources and platforms, and hosted 100,119 visits to its specialist libraries and collections. The School also leads Being Human, the UK’s only nationwide festival of the humanities. Find out more at www.sas.ac.uk or follow SAS on Twitter at @SASNews.
  5. The Arts and Humanities Research Council is part of UK Research and Innovation. We’re the UK’s largest funder of arts and humanities research and training, investing over £100 million every year. We fund independent researchers in a wide range of subjects, including history, archaeology, digital content, philosophy, languages, design, heritage, area studies, the creative and performing arts, and many more. The research we fund provides social and cultural benefits that contribute to the economic success of the UK, as well as to the culture and welfare of societies around the world. Find out more about us at ahrc.ukri.org, or on Twitter at @ahrcpress.
  6. The British Academy is the UK’s national academy for the humanities and social sciences. We mobilise these disciplines to understand the world and shape a brighter future. We invest in researchers and projects across the UK and overseas, engage the public with fresh thinking and debates, and bring together scholars, government, business and civil society to influence policy for the benefit of everyone. www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk @BritishAcademy_. For further information please contact Sean Canty at the British Academy Press Office on s.canty@thebritishacademy.ac.uk or +44 (0)20 7969 5273.