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COURSE TUTOR: Professor Charles Burnett

The aim of this course is to introduce students to the very texts that medieval readers had in front of them, i.e. to bypass modern printed editions and go straight to the manuscripts in which texts were set out in different ways according to the subject matter, and according to whether they were written as notebooks for the scholar or as textbooks for the student. Examples will include poetry, the scholastic argument (complete with tree diagrams), picture-narrative, anatomy, arithmetic, astronomy, alchemy and magic. 

In each case the task of the student will be to decipher the text, and to translate or summarize it in English (much as the medieval student in Oxford would have done), and to notice the functions used to facilitate the understanding of the text: punctuation, paragraphs, letters of different sizes and colours, diagrams, pointing fingers etc. In the course of this exercise the student will get to know the medieval forms of letters and numerals, the standard abbreviations and the recurring symbols. They will experience the satisfaction of realizing the meaning of what at first may look like an indecipherable muddle. At the end of the course they will be much more confident in approaching a medieval manuscript of any age and concerning any subject. 

No previous experience with manuscripts is required, but the student must have a basic knowledge of Latin and, preferably, access to Adriano Cappelli’s Dizionario di Abbreviature latine ed italiane (or one of its translations).  


  • Standard £165
  • Warburg Staff & Fellows/external students/unwaged £155
  • SAS & LAHP-funded students £135
  • Warburg Students £95

Day 1. April 17.
First session: 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The quadrivium: calculating ‘the Indian way’, the theorems of geometry, the cosmic proportions in music, and the construction of the cosmos.
Second session: 2.00 p.m. to 4.00 p.m. poetry and music: the notation of rhythm and melody.

Day 2. April 18.
First Session: 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Medicine and alchemy, texts and illustrations.
Second session: 2.00 p.m. to 4.00 p.m. Astrology, talismans and spirits.

Day 3. April 19.
Session from 10a.m. to 12 p.m. Philosophy and Theology: tree diagrams and picture-narrative. 

Image: Constantine the African, Pantegni Theorica in MS Cambridge, Trinity College, 906, fol. 1r.