For about a month every other year, graduate students from across the United States come to The University of New Mexico to learn about thousand-year-old manuscripts from the other side of the world.

The class, Paleography & Codicology: A Seminar in Medieval Manuscript Studies, offers students a rare opportunity to gain in-depth knowledge from an internationally recognized expert on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

“There are very few places in North America that offer this kind of training in manuscript studies to graduate students,” said Timothy Graham, professor in UNM’s Department of History and the seminar’s instructor. “The main reason for that is because most professors in medieval literature or medieval history, in North America, have not had a chance to work first hand with these kinds of materials for any extended period of time.”

Professor Timothy Graham
UNM Professor Timothy Graham's biennial seminar on medieval manuscripts is one of only a few like it in North America. 

And that’s exactly the kind of expertise Graham brings to the Southwest after holding a research position at the University of Cambridge in his home country of England before moving to the U.S. in 1995.

The biennial seminar is one of only about a half dozen like it offered in North America, according to Graham. Its rarity attracts top-ranked graduate students from institutions like UNM, Yale University, the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Missouri, Arizona State University and the University of Oregon, just to name a few.

“It’s really good for our UNM students to get a look at these students from peer institutions and measure up against them,” Graham said. “And I’m really happy that very often our best UNM students have done as well as the best students from other programs.”

“Professor Graham is one of the only people in the United States who has the expertise in teaching, not only paleography but also codicology,” said Joe Genens, a visiting Ph.D. candidate from the University of Missouri. “Dr. Graham and this seminar offer a lot to students who don’t necessarily have those kinds of programs or classes at home institutions.”

The seminar focuses on two major parts of manuscript studies: paleography and codicology. Paleography is the study of ancient and medieval handwriting. For the purposes of the seminar, much of the material covered is written in Latin, a language class participants are able to speak and read. Students go through a variety of ancient texts, decoding the meanings and dating the material using different techniques.

“In Europe in particular, paleography skills are pretty highly coveted for graduate students, so it was worth my while to stick around and take this seminar,” said Bryna Milligan, a recent UNM graduate who will be moving to Ireland to continue her studies.

Facsimile of a Medieval Manuscript
Students have access to a replica manuscript first written in A.D. 786 by the Spanish monk and theologian Beatus of Liébana. This facsimile, a Commentary on the Apocalypse, is based off a copy of the original completed in A.D. 970 with  460 pages and over 80 illustrations. 

Students also get the opportunity to work with replica medieval manuscripts owned by the University. These facsimiles, which can cost thousands of dollars, are typically only found in special collections libraries and at some universities. They are the closest examples of actual manuscripts available to scholars who are unable to travel overseas and study with the real thing.

The facsimiles provide an opportunity for students to see how manuscripts were traditionally bound and give them the chance to learn proper handling of ancient materials. It’s a hands-on experience many students never get.

“It’s really nice to be able to have a close examination of something that is a pretty accurate representation of the actual manuscript,” Genens said.

“To really get to the bottom of what your text is, you need to be able to work with manuscripts. It’s really just an essential skill and there aren’t many opportunities to learn it,” said Jerry Lavin, a UNM Ph.D. candidate in English. “Everything I had heard about this course was that it was not to be missed.”

“This seminar is definitely a hidden gem and I wish that more people knew about it,” said Milligan. “And I hope that through the years UNM will become a big hub for historians and medievalists to come and study because we have a really great faculty here to work with. We’re very blessed here.”

For more information on The University of New Mexico’s Institute for Medieval Studies, click here