Rethinking Royal Manuscripts in a Global Middle Ages

Jacopo Gnisci, University College London,

Umberto Bongianino, University of Oxford,

This panel sets out to examine and compare the impact of royal patronage on the visual, material, and textual features of manuscripts produced across Africa, Asia, Mesoamerica and Europe during the ‘Global Middle Ages.’ As polysemic and multi-technological objects, royal manuscripts were produced in different forms and sizes, and from a variety of materials that could vary according to the taste, wealth, ideology, religion, and connections of their patrons and makers. Their visual and textual content could conform or deviate from existing traditions to satisfy the needs and ambitions of those involved in their production and consumption. Finally, pre-existing manuscripts could be appropriated, restored, enhanced, gifted, and even worshipped by ruling elites for reasons connected with legitimacy and self-preservation, becoming powerful instruments of hegemony, or symbols of prestige and piety. Because of this semiotic versatility, written artifacts provide ideal vantage points for understanding the agency of material culture in the creation and perpetuation of political power.

To what extent do the materials, texts, and images of royal manuscripts reflect the integration of pre-modern courts in networks of patronage and exchange? In which ways were these features adapted for different audiences and for female, male, or genderqueer patrons? How did they inform local and transregional notions of power and authority? How did communities that opposed royal authority situate themselves in relation to the political agency of written texts and their illustrations? When and how did such artifacts become imperial relics to be displayed, or symbols of a contentious past to be concealed or destroyed? What can manuscripts tell us about the royal patronage of other artistic media, dynastic rivalries, political alliances, and state-endorsed religious phenomena?

In pursuing similar questions, we are particularly interested in multidisciplinary papers that move beyond a Eurocentric reading of material culture by considering royal manuscripts from pre-modern polities traditionally seen as ‘peripheral.’ We welcome proposals that apply innovative methodologies to the study of handwritten material and its circulation, questioning conventional assumptions about politics, culture, and religion, and privileging comparative approaches and transcultural artistic phenomena.




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