Animating medieval manuscripts

Professor of Medieval Studies Anthony Bale discusses his work with Birkbeck’s artist in residence, animator Shay Hamias. Together, they are developing a new interface between contemporary digital animation and medieval studies.

This year Birkbeck received one of only 19 prestigious Leverhulme Trust Artist-in-Residence awards. The residency is supporting animation artist Shay Hamias to work with me in Birkbeck’s School of Arts. Hamias is an animation director, with experience working on short and feature films, advertisements, and the museum and heritage sectors. Hamias’ work creatively explores the visual possibilities of design, motion and narrative, seeking new ways to interpret the medium. Hamias had long been fascinated by the artistry of medieval manuscripts, their combination of the written word and visual effects, and their engagement with religious belief. So the Leverhulme Artist-in-Residence award provided a superb opportunity to develop a completely new interface between contemporary digital animation and medieval studies.

Hamias and I share an interest in the meanings of images and symbolism, in particular, the religious symbolism in Christianity and Judaism. Our project has sought to put modern design in conversation with medieval artefacts in a bold new way. We have tried to test that idea, proposed by many scholars of medieval culture, that the pages of medieval books are ‘alive’ and animate, full of ‘active’ visual and mnemonic effects for the reader. Can contemporary animation engage in a fruitful and stimulating encounter with the often perplexing but beautiful images we find in medieval manuscripts? In medieval manuscripts, design and illustration are provided as tools for the viewer/reader to enable them to decode biblical narratives, using a visual language that would resonate with them and locate them mentally.

In the creative process, the artist looks at a subject from a personal point of engagement with it, combined with established ways of seeing.  Animation lends itself to translating inner thought and inner states, in a creative process based on lateral approaches to thinking and the use of associative emotions and imagination. Hamias and I have been thinking about how parallels might be drawn between modern visual language and medieval visuals. Might traditional techniques be applied to modern narratives, in a creative anachronism?

Formally, medieval manuscripts have much in common with modern animation: both condense time and space, through discontinuous visual and verbal narrative; both can rapidly illustrate change over a long period and produce memorable narrative through a ‘familiar’ iconography and media in service of popularly-held or generally-endorsed views; both can reveal metamorphosis and sudden change, sudden effects which are accepted by audiences because of their familiarity with the world created by the medium.

The emphasis of the residency is on Hamias’ artistic and creative freedom to respond to medieval sources in his own distinctive way. Hamias and I have met at least weekly during the residency, sometimes in libraries and archives with medieval manuscripts in front of us. The first animation project we have produced focusses on pilgrimage and visual movement. We have taken the idea of ‘visual storytelling’ and given it a contemporary take. We feel that our methodology remains ‘medieval’: our project is constructed entirely from things we have read in medieval texts or found in medieval visual culture. Moreover, Hamias put himself in a similar position to the medieval artist, who was imagining things based largely on received stories and depictions. Our first short animated film is called ‘The Matter of Jerusalem’, after William Wey’s 1460s manuscript book which describes the journey from Venice to Jerusalem.

We now have plans to develop this film and to collaborate on an exhibition about Birkbeck’s own medieval books in summer 2018.

You can follow Anthony and Shay’s project on their Instagram page @animatedpage

 

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Verbal dynamite: how swearing differs between first and foreign language users

Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele from the Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication recalls his experience of learning the strength of swear words after moving to the UK, and his research on how the use and perceived offensiveness of words differs between first and foreign users of English. 

When I arrived in the French department at Birkbeck in October 1994, after having finished my PhD on French interlanguage at the Free University of Brussels, I was well aware of a number of aspects of the English language that I was still struggling with: prepositions, the pronunciation of certain words, some verbal constructions… I was unaware of gaps in my knowledge of taboo words, appropriate communication of emotion, the distance between British speakers (one arm length, rather than half an arm’s length like on the continent) and general avoidance of physical contact with interlocutors. I picked up most of these things gradually, through the observation of my colleagues and students.  My neighbour, a librarian at Senate House, was kind enough to proofread my papers until I became more sure-footed in academic English. I realised that I would never get rid of my French-Dutch accent in English and decided that I could live with that – even if it involves answering the regular and rather tedious question ‘where are you from?’ to which I invariably answer ‘London’ and then add ‘from Belgium originally’.  My English vocabulary grew, with the exception of words that were bleeped out on radio and television or censured in the newspapers.  I had no idea what was meant with b****, b******, c***, d***, though I guessed that f*** meant ‘fuck’.

My colleagues, students and friends were too well educated to use such words in conversation, the words were unprintable and they did not figure in the English word lists at my secondary school in Bruges.  How then, I wondered, was I, a foreign language user, supposed to learn these vibrant dark words? I asked a colleague in the Applied Linguistics department, Dr Macolm Edwards, what he considered to be the worst English taboo word.  He looked at me quizzically and remained silent. I encouraged him, telling him that we were applied linguists after all and that we could deal with the dark linguistic stuff.  He straightened his back, looked at me and said: ‘I couldn’t possibly tell you but I can spell it out: c – u – n- t’.  ‘Cunt?!’ I repeated.  He jumped back as stung by a wasp. ‘Wow,’ I thought, ‘mighty word indeed’.

I told him that French and Dutch have cognates ‘con’ and ‘kont’ that are not nearly as powerful and wondered why some words that share the same origin become taboo whereas others don’t quite manage to join that league.  This conversation happened in the mid-2000s when I was busy working on how multilinguals used their different languages to express particular emotions. One of the striking findings was that languages learnt later in life typically felt disembodied and that emotion words in these languages lacked the emotional force of equivalent words in multilinguals’ first language(s).

I decided then to focus on specific negative emotion-laden words in one language, English, and to invite first (L1) and foreign language (LX) users to rate their offensiveness and frequency of use. The aim was to have a wide range in offensiveness, from relatively mild words such as ‘fruitcake’ and ‘idiot’ to really taboo words and expressions such as ‘fucking hell’ and ‘cunt’. There are also questions about general frequency of swearing in English with various categories of interlocutor.  More than two thousand English L1 and LX users participated in the study. English LX users reported swearing significantly less in English than L1 users, possibly because of a lack of emotional resonance of the LX or because they had other languages to swear in. High levels of Psychoticism, Extraversion and Neuroticism were linked with more swearing in English among both L1 and LX users. The level of English proficiency, the frequency of use, early onset and context of the acquisition were linked to swearing among LX users.

The analysis of differences between L1 and LX users for the 30 words and expressions yielded some unexpected findings. As expected, L1 users reported more frequent use of the highly offensive words.  However, rather than underestimating offensiveness, LX users significantly overestimated the offensiveness of 29 out of the 30 words.  The only word they underestimated was ‘cunt’ – the most offensive word in the list. I have argued that the word is so offensive that it is invisible in the press and used quite rarely by L1 users which means that LX users have few opportunities to acquire a complete semantic and conceptual representation of the word. They may therefore wrongly believe that ‘cunt’ is just another swear word, not perceiving the second red flag known to all L1 users. Use of the word was found to be linked to personality with participants scoring high on Extraversion, Neuroticism and Psychoticism reporting more frequent use of the word.

To conclude, the dark side of English is a bit like the dark side of the moon to those who are not astronauts: full of fascinating, mysterious and potentially dangerous features.

Dewaele’s most recent research into swearing – “Cunt: On the perception and handling of verbal dynamite by L1 and LX users of English” is published by Multilingua. 

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Why looking for aliens is good for society (even if there aren’t any)

Professor Ian Crawford from the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences writes on the significance of astrobiology for the benefit of society. This article was originally published on The Conversation.

File 20170724 6656 bbzr2o
Shutterstock

The search for life elsewhere in the universe is one of the most compelling aspects of modern science. Given its scientific importance, significant resources are devoted to this young science of astrobiology, ranging from rovers on Mars to telescopic observations of planets orbiting other stars.

The holy grail of all this activity would be the actual discovery of alien life, and such a discovery would likely have profound scientific and philosophical implications. But extraterrestrial life has not yet been discovered, and for all we know may not even exist. Fortunately, even if alien life is never discovered, all is not lost: simply searching for it will yield valuable benefits for society.

Why is this the case?

First, astrobiology is inherently multidisciplinary. To search for aliens requires a grasp of, at least, astronomy, biology, geology, and planetary science. Undergraduate courses in astrobiology need to cover elements of all these different disciplines, and postgraduate and postdoctoral astrobiology researchers likewise need to be familiar with most or all of them.

By forcing multiple scientific disciplines to interact, astrobiology is stimulating a partial reunification of the sciences. It is helping to move 21st-century science away from the extreme specialisation of today and back towards the more interdisciplinary outlook that prevailed in earlier times.

Earth rising above the surface of the moon, as seen from Apollo 8 in December 1968.
NASA

By producing broadminded scientists, familiar with multiple aspects of the natural world, the study of astrobiology therefore enriches the whole scientific enterprise. It is from this cross-fertilization of ideas that future discoveries may be expected, and such discoveries will comprise a permanent legacy of astrobiology, even if they do not include the discovery of alien life.

It is also important to recognise that astrobiology is an incredibly open-ended endeavour. Searching for life in the universe takes us from extreme environments on Earth, to the plains and sub-surface of Mars, the icy satellites of the giant planets, and on to the all-but-infinite variety of planets orbiting other stars. And this search will continue regardless of whether life is actually discovered in any of these environments or not. The range of entirely novel environments opened to investigation will be essentially limitless, and so has the potential to be a never-ending source of scientific and intellectual stimulation.

Sand dunes near to Mars’ South Pole.
NASA

The cosmic perspective

Beyond the more narrowly intellectual benefits of astrobiology are a range of wider societal benefits. These arise from the kinds of perspectives – cosmic in scale – that the study of astrobiology naturally promotes.

It is simply not possible to consider searching for life on Mars, or on a planet orbiting a distant star, without moving away from the narrow Earth-centric perspectives that dominate the social and political lives of most people most of the time. Today, the Earth is faced with global challenges that can only be met by increased international cooperation. Yet around the world, nationalistic and religious ideologies are acting to fragment humanity. At such a time, the growth of a unifying cosmic perspective is potentially of enormous importance.

In the early years of the space age, the then US ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, said of the world: “We can never again be a squabbling band of nations before the awful majesty of outer space.” Unfortunately, this perspective is yet to sink deeply into the popular consciousness. On the other hand, the wide public interest in the search for life elsewhere means that astrobiology can act as a powerful educational vehicle for the popularisation of this perspective.

Indeed, it is only by sending spacecraft out to explore the solar system, in large part for astrobiological purposes, that we can obtain images of our own planet that show it in its true cosmic setting.

The Earth photographed from the surface of Mars by the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit, March 2004.
NASA/JPL/Cornell/Texas A&M

In addition, astrobiology provides an important evolutionary perspective on human affairs. It demands a sense of deep, or big, history. Because of this, many undergraduate astrobiology courses begin with an overview of the history of the universe. This begins with the Big Bang and moves successively through the origin of the chemical elements, the evolution of stars, galaxies, and planetary systems, the origin of life, and evolutionary history from the first cells to complex animals such as ourselves. Deep history like this helps us locate human affairs in the vastness of time, and therefore complements the cosmic perspective provided by space exploration.

Political implications

Alexander von Humboldt, 1843.

There is a well-known aphorism, widely attributed to the Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, to the effect that “the most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world”. Humboldt was presumably thinking about the mind-broadening potential of international travel. But familiarity with the cosmic and evolutionary perspectives provided by astrobiology, powerfully reinforced by actual views of the Earth from space, can surely also act to broaden minds in such a way as to make the world less fragmented and dangerous.

I think there is an important political implication inherent in this perspective: as an intelligent technological species, that now dominates the only known inhabited planet in the universe, humanity has a responsibility to develop international social and political institutions appropriate to managing the situation in which we find ourselves.

The ConversationIn concluding his monumental Outline of History in 1925, HG Wells famously observed: “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” Such an observation appears especially germane to the geopolitical situation today, where apparently irrational decisions, often made by governments (and indeed by entire populations) seemingly ignorant of broader perspectives, may indeed lead our planet to catastrophe.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Being at Bethlem

Olivia Bladen reports on her internship at the Bethlem Hospital Museum and Archives, offered as part of Birkbeck’s MA in Victorian Studies. During her time there, she looked into ‘over-study’ as a trigger for madness.On my first day at Bethlem Museum of the Mind archivist Colin Gale gives me a tour through the stacks, beginning with an important disclaimer. When I ask about personal ephemera left behind by former patients, such as letters – a common question, I later find out – he explains that this is not the nature of the records kept by the hospital, and that medical case-notes are about as personal as they get. I realise this makes sense: it would be invasive for the hospital systematically to collect personal affects in this way. But Colin understands why I asked. The history of Bethlem psychiatric hospital – or ‘Bedlam’, as it was notoriously known, giving us the colloquialism for ‘chaos’ still in use to this day – is sprawling, and often unsavoury. It brings to mind untold cruelties and tragedies, as we imagine the lost histories of misunderstood and mistreated residents. The desire to hear their stories, from their own points of view, is one most visitors to the museum and archives will feel.

However, as Colin pulls out Victorian admissions registers and case books, I realise that although I will have to do some reading between the lines, this may be a far more rewarding endeavour than I anticipated. Already, I can see stories unfolding in spidery handwriting, emerging through snippets of just a few sentences long. I’m particularly interested in a column in the general admission registers, the first recorded contact a patient would have with Bethlem, citing their ‘supposed cause of insanity’. This was to become the basis of my independent research, after I notice the term ‘over study’ crops up repeatedly. For the next six weeks, I go through every register from 1853 to 1888, noting down the details of each patient recorded with this given ‘cause’, then selecting specific case notes to explore further. I consult the writing of Dr George Savage, chief medical officer at Bethlem within my period, and many other Victorian psychiatrists, to try and understand how the term ‘over study’ was used. I even get to meet a current doctor from the hospital, Deji, who has been researching the same topic in his own time for twelve years. We are in agreement that concept of ‘over study’ was, even in the nineteenth century, not understood as an underlying cause of mental health issues, but as a trigger.  Nevertheless, the abundance of the term in the records speaks of the anxieties that existed in the popular imagination around the time of industrial revolution and education reform.     

In addition to its paper archive, the Bethlem also boasts an impressive material collection in the museum upstairs. I find out that in its current iteration, situated in what was formerly the hospital’s administration building, it is only a few years old. In 1970, ‘Bethlem Royal Hospital Archives and Museum’, as it was then known, was housed in a much smaller structure – and, to all intents and purposes, was an archive rather than a museum, since there was so little room for display. But in 2015, it moved to its more spacious home, and in an impressive feat that rewards its ambition, was shortlisted for Museum of the Year Award the very next year.

It doesn’t take long for me to meet the team, which is very small. Colin tells me that unlike larger organisations, here everybody does a bit of everything, and no day is ever the same. Although I can see this is hard, I am drawn to this way of working. I’m fascinated by the questions and problems each and everybody fields each day. The reading room, which also serves as Colin’s office, seems to be a hub of activity.  On Tuesdays, volunteer Charlotte deals with copyright issues, phoning round for permission to show artworks either in displays or on the website. Another volunteer, Barbara, helps Colin respond to archival enquiries by locating obscure references that may or may not exist somewhere within the pages of meeting minutes or case notes. She is trained in reading eighteenth and nineteenth-century handwriting, and often helps me decipher tricky passages that look like little more than inkblots to me.  Other days, I observe Learning Officer Caroline Smith deliver some public programming: a workshop around patient consent given to students on a psychology course; and the museum’s first audio-described tour of the collection for blind and partially-sighted visitors.

I’m keen to get more involved. I’ve arrived at the end of one exhibition and in time for the installation of Scaling the Citadel: The Art of Stanley Lench, which showcases his psychedelic, stained-glass influenced images that speak of beauty and celebrity. As part of the programming around the exhibition, Bethlem are running what they call ‘Fame and Misfortune’ tours, in which volunteers will give a five-minute talk about a famous resident or person associated with Bethlem. They’re looking for someone to give a talk on Charlotte Brontë – as a Victorian scholar, I feel I ought to step in. The talk is on a Saturday, given after a short tour of the museum by Colin. I explain how it’s thought that Brontë visited Bethlem when it was located in Lambeth, on one of her jaunts to London shortly before her death – but we can’t be sure, since she did not sign her name in the visitor book.

My talk leaves me feeling better prepared for the presentation I will give on my research this July, and it also reinforces my reluctance to leave Bethlem, as I’m caught up in the atmosphere of the Saturday opening. I bump into new director Suzie Walker-Millar, who offers me the opportunity to work on a project where I consult with volunteers about frequently-asked visitor questions to help improve training. I’m also looking forward to joining them as a front-of-house volunteer as soon as I can; and developing a learning resource with Caroline. My research project is over, but I’m not ready for my experience at Bethlem to end. I came there looking for its stories – now I hope I can be one of them.

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