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What was the world like from 500 to 1500 CE? This period, often called medieval or the Middle Ages in European history, saw the rise and fall of empires and the expansion of cross-cultural exchange. Getty curator Bryan C. Keene argues that illuminated manuscripts and decorated texts from Africa, Asia, Australasia, the Americas, and Europe are windows through which we can view the interconnected history of humanity. In this episode, he discusses his recent book Toward a Global Middle Ages: Encountering the World through Illuminated Manuscripts, highlighting the challenges and opportunities of the emerging discipline known as the Global Middle Ages.

Cover of a book, showcasing four images from different cultures in a kind of grid, with the title in the center.

More to explore:

Toward a Global Middle Ages: Encountering the World through Illuminated Manuscripts
Explore a Global Middle Ages through the Pages of Decorated Books
Medieval Manuscripts Alive


JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
BRYAN KEENE: Books contain stories and information about people, places, and ideas. And in my mind, they’re the best kinds of objects for telling any history, but a global history especially.
JAMES CUNO: In this episode, I speak with Bryan Keene about his new book Toward a Global Middle Ages.
Bryan Keene is associate curator in the Getty Museum’s Department of Manuscripts. He recently edited an original and important book, Toward a Global Middle Ages: Encountering the World through Illuminated Manuscripts. Over twenty-six essays, Bryan and his fellow authors explore the complex history of books in motion around the world between 500 and 1500 and critique the Eurocentric narratives and periodization of that history. To discuss the rich and provocative contents of his book, I recently met with Bryan in our podcast studio at the Getty.
Bryan, thanks so much for speaking with me on this podcast this morning. Let’s start from the beginning. What was the inspiration that led to the publication of Toward a Global Middle Ages?
BRYAN KEENE: Jim, thank you for having me. I wanted to begin, in fact, by acknowledging that the land and the waters around the Getty Center and the Villa are the traditional ancestral and unceded territory of the Tongva-Gabrielino, Tataviam, and Chumash peoples, and to humbly pay respects to the Ancestors, Elders, and relatives of these groups, past, present, and emerging. I felt that this is an important place to begin, because later in our conversation, I hope we can talk about future projects that evolve from this publication, and ways that our department of manuscripts is involving Indigenous communities to tell a broader story of the global Middle Ages than we were able to do even in this book.
But to answer your question, Toward a Global Middle Ages, as with most projects here at the Getty and in manuscripts more specifically, began by thinking about ways to make the past relevant to our audiences today. So in the basic sense, this publication was an outgrowth of a series of exhibitions, public programs, and scholarly convenings.
In fact, the kernel for this larger series emerged in a job talk that I gave for the position in the manuscripts department. At that time, I pitched a very small exhibition that looked at the permanent collection and the ways in which Europeans imagined the world and their place in it. But I’m really grateful that Elizabeth Morrison, senior curator in my department, and Kara Kirk in publications encouraged me to think bigger, to include more aspects of world history. And really, through a collaboration with local colleagues, we were able to tell a truly global history of the medieval period of 500 to 1500, with loans from local museums that included works from Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Americas.
CUNO: So this was an interest of yours that you brought with you to the Getty.
KEENE: It is. I have two different histories with the Getty. I began here as an educator. And at that time, I was really fortunate, under the encouragement of Elliott Kai-Kee and Clare Kunny, to conceive and teach a gallery course with a colleague of mine, Jennifer Li. And we titled it Global Connections in the Getty Collections. And we looked for ways in which a collection that is largely the history of Western European art, that we can think about broader connection to the world.
We had a session on textiles from the Islamic world that find their way into Italian gold-ground pictures, the influence of ceramics and glassworks from the Islamic world on similar production in Europe. We focused also on Chinoiserie and Japonisme decorative arts. So that was an interest I had coming out of my early art historical training, but then also through work here in the museum.
CUNO: Yeah. Tell us about your early training. And when in your training did you come across the concept of a global history?
KEENE: It would’ve been during my undergraduate coursework. The very first art historical seminar I took was with Dr. Cynthia Colburn. And she introduced the class to the art and architecture of the Abrahamic faiths of the Iberian Peninsula. That course was both intimidating and inspiring. It sparked an interest to connect with my family’s heritage in Spain and in Central America. So I traveled and studied abroad in Spain; specifically, spent a lot of time in Cordoba, looking at the architecture of the cathedral, the great mosque.
And it was the capaciousness of Islamic art that would allow connections between Southern Spain, Southern Iberian Peninsula, and the vast Umayyad world of North Africa and the Middle East. So that was really the earliest introduction. I think one of the most important works was reading Deepesh Chakraborty’s book on Provincializing Europe. That certainly, since most of my training was in European history and art, provided another optic for thinking about the past that didn’t have to end up in Europe or revolve around European history or events at all.
CUNO: I’m interested, when you were talking about how you first thought of an exhibition that might take place here at the Getty that you could organize that would reveal these relationships between different cultures, because we often think of the Getty as having little access to them, because we are a European-centric collection at the Getty Museum. But you’re talking about where the imprints of these other cultures are, you know, are felt or made in the works of European artists.
KEENE: That’s right. There are certainly, in the manuscripts department especially, a number of objects that were produced either on the peripheries of Europe or from worlds entirely distant from Europe.
I’m fortunate to work with a permanent collection of manuscripts that has objects from Tunisia, Egypt, Ethiopia, post-conquest Peru, the greater Byzantine world, Armenia, Safavid Persia. So already, that portion of our permanent collection has allowed for broader global explorations.
We have a manuscript in the collection that has rare— had rarely been shown until a few years ago, that tells the story of a Christian prince in the land of India. And I became sort of wrapped up in that textual history, reading as many translations of this text as possible, and was excited to learn that the tale of this prince called Josaphat derives from Indian sources. The tale speaks of a prince who was isolated in a palace all of his youth, but eventually encounters old-age, sickness, and death and converts to Christianity. And that tale was presented for European Christian readers; but the name of the protagonist, Josaphat, is a transliteration of Bodhisattva in Sanskrit.
So there are so many opportunities, I think, through the pages of books or even through collections of European art, to begin to think about broader networks, connections, comparisons.
CUNO: I wanna get back to the concept of the global history itself. There are various ways, I think, of approaching this concept of global history. The global history of a particular phenomenon, for example—the history of tea or of cotton; or the global history of a particular time period—what happened, for example, everywhere in the world in the sixteenth century or the nineteenth century. You’ve chosen a hybrid. You say, what happened in illuminated manuscripts in the Middle Ages. Is that a fair way to put it?
KEENE: That is. And to follow up your discussion of tea, there’s a wonderful recent study about the medieval history of tea and the words that we use for tea, in fact, that Those communities that had water route connections to China use the word tea, and those communities that were connected over land use the word cha or chai. So chai in Iran and tea in England. It’s a wonderful study. And manuscripts, in fact, reveal those histories.
With Toward a Global Middle Ages, the author team was really interested in a twofold approach that sought connections, on the one hand—physical connections between people, ideas, and places—but that also explored comparisons, on the other. So a hybrid methodology, indeed, that on the one hand, addresses the styles, structures, and supports of manuscripts; but on the other hand, thinking about the bound, rolled, and folded textual objects and visual history. We needed to focus on some aspect of the vast medieval period, and I think the pages of books allowed us to do that.
CUNO: Mm-hm. How does one train to write such a history? That is, in your training as an art historian, especially as a typical training for such a history would take a command of multiple languages and histories. I’m assuming you were trained as an medievalist with a specialty in illuminated manuscripts, but maybe I’m wrong.
KEENE: There’s many different pathways one can take, I think, to begin to write such a history. My background is indeed in art history, but also in Romance linguistics. And so I was drawn, from a very early period, to books because they contain the visual images that I love so much, but also texts in a range of languages.
My dissertation, though, concerned illuminated manuscripts in fourteenth century Tuscany, choir books specifically, in the city of Florence. So a very sort of isolated study. But even within that study, there were opportunities to explore the trade in textiles. Many of the books include textiles from Mamluk Egypt or that have bindings inspired by book bindings in Coptic Egypt, as well. So even with sort of very specific studies, one can, I hope, with a little bit of creativity or digging, think more globally.
Fortunately, at the moment, there are a number of graduate programs that are thinking about teaching and preparing students to work in global medieval history, which does, as you say, require a considerable number of languages beyond the Latin, German, French, and Italian that a Western European medievalist would need, but also thinking about the possibilities of studying Arabic and Persian. Or if you’re studying Ethiopian languages and histories, to think about Ge‘ez.
You know, I’m thinking specifically of the work of the scholar Geraldine Heng at the University of Texas at Austin, who says if any of us who work in the periods covered by the medieval want to think globally, we need to be constant collaborators, working across disciplinary, curatorial boundaries; but also autodidacts, being willing to read broadly. And I think that’s the only way that a project that Toward a Global Middle Ages was possible.
There were a number of colleagues, both here at the Getty, across Los Angeles, and then around the world, as it turned out, that were willing to work with me and the team of authors, in recommending bibliographies and readings. It’s been a learning opportunity, one that you don’t necessarily go into with a sort of clear guide of pathway, and you find your way, as it were.
CUNO: Yeah. So your book is a result of multiple authors. Is that the way to do it, because then you’re bringing multiple expertise into a single volume, as opposed to a single author trying to sort of embrace the entire history of some phenomenon happening in the world at some time?
KEENE: Yes, in fact, I think that is one way to do it. With Toward a Global Middle Ages, I will say it was our research assistant in the department, Morgan Conger who throughout the entire process, worked with me to ensure that we had a range of perspectives in the volume—men and women, queer-identifying individuals, people of color, scholars at all ranges of their academic careers—junior and early-career researchers, as well as senior as established scholars—affiliated and unaffiliated scholars.
I think it’s that range of perspectives that allows us to think very broadly, openly, to have debate about the concepts. I won’t say that we all came away with a consensus about what a global Middle Ages is. And I’m very open to that debate, debate in dating conventions, debate in naming, debate in terminology. I think that’s healthy and necessary for the field, in order to move all of these disciplines forward.
CUNO: How did you bring all the authors together?
KEENE: I’m grateful to the education department, who allowed me to host a series of symposia, also study days, sessions with graduate and undergraduate students, also high school students. And it was through those gatherings that an author list was determined, and other authors recommended to me. Some of the authors who are in the volume are individuals whose work I’ve known for many years, and was really excited and eager to work with. There are few individuals whom I’ve never met, and look forward to meeting still in the future. And then there were a number of other names that were presented to me.
We had the time to think creatively about the project; we weren’t bounded by an exhibition opening, as other catalogs or publications may be.
CUNO: Mm-hm. Now, books are portable objects, of course. And therefore, they’re likely to offer traces of contact between different cultures through their texts, as you point out so admirably in the book. But images and materials, too. So are book especially fruitful as the sources for writing a global history because of their portability?
KEENE: Absolutely. And I’m thinking even about the title of this podcast, Art and Ideas. Book contain stories and information about people, places, and ideas. And in my mind, they’re the best kinds of objects for telling any history, but a global history especially. When the protagonists or the supporting characters travel or when the resulting manuscript itself moves, I think we as readers are inspired. I think the encounter with books presents us with new perspectives, new ideas, and in the best sense, would encourage us to travel when possible.
I’d always loved telling stories and hearing stories from other peoples. And for me, it is looking at the stories within books and what they meant for a people and a place at a time, and how those stories and ideas change over time. Books allow us to think about place and space, to think about issues of race and gender and sexuality, issues that we care very deeply about today, I think, as humans, whether we agree or disagree. And looking to the past, we can see that people have thinking about these ideas for quite a long time. And even though the ideas might’ve changed over time, people are grappling with the same issues across time. And the books preserve those traditions.
CUNO: Yeah. Now, you point out that one of the great challenges of telling a global history is determining its chronological and geographic scope. How did you determine the scope of your project?
KEENE: The scope came about really in looking at the list of contributors. And in sort of finalizing the contents of the volume, I continued to push further, beyond the world as it was shaping up. So geographically, I really wanted to traverse the globe, as many places as possible. In order to maintain a focus, though, we decided to look at regions of the world that have written traditions, which of course, excludes a number of parts of the world, just by the nature of the history of writing or literacy. Or through the fact that many traditions around the world have lost their written records through terrorism or global climate change and so forth.
At one stage, the volume was only going to look at Africa, Europe, and Asia, and primarily the northern portion of the hemisphere, not the southern. That didn’t feel right. It felt like there were plenty of other traditions that needed to be included. And from the beginning, I wanted the Americas to be present. There was no reason in my mind that the Americas should always be seen as something distant and separate, or only included after 1492 or the moments of transatlantic contact in the sixteenth century.
We, I think as a editorial team, working with the Getty Publications department, wanted to push the boundaries of readers’ expectations of the Middle Ages. The title includes a term that I hope we can discuss, medieval and Middle Ages, that is really outdated and is Eurocentric, and is problematic for a number of reasons; but that people encountering the book on the shelves of bookstores or libraries would see a familiar idea, but with a range of images that might not be as familiar, and might be curious about the Ethiopian and the Chinese and the Byzantine, Indian images on the cover.
For Europe, the chronology of the Middle Ages is often 500 to 1500, bounded by Rome and Renaissance or the emergence of Christianity as a global faith, at times, including broader Christianities in Ethiopia and Armenia, the vast Byzantine world of the Eastern Roman Empire. But because we’re thinking globally, we had to then come to some consensus. We could’ve moved even earlier in our dating—so before 500 would’ve allowed us to look at other emerging forms of writing—or shift the chronology slightly later, as we’ve done.
The Africanists in the volume and those that advised the publication have said, you know, 500 to 1500 works for the history of parts of Africa—the fifth century of the Garamantian and Saharan Empires, to the institution of enslavement in the fifteenth century. So that felt comfortable.
The Islamicists had other concerns in the volume. You know, with Islam rising in the seventh century, spreading very quickly across Africa, Europe, and Asia, the history of Islam is a global history. And so to bound it within a European chronology didn’t feel fair in every way. So for the Islamicists in the volume, the chronology shifts into the sixteenth and seventeenth century.
And then for the Americas, as well, my colleagues were talking quite a bit in their contributions about periodization and the problems of periodization and dating conventions. So for me as a Western European medievalist, to hear the terms post-classic for Mesoamerica or middle horizon and late intermediate for the Central Andes, it’s a constant reframing or reorientation, repositioning to think about what was happening in Europe or the Mediterranean at the same moment, and how might these other chronologies or modes of mapping and charting history inform or counter our thinking of the past?
The East Asian and South Asian histories then include any number of dynasties and empires. And for me, it was really an introduction to the great empires of East Asia, histories that I’m still very excited to learn about, have not mastered in any way. But certainly, thinking about the cotemporality of Tang, Song, and Qing China or Heian and Kamakura and Muromachi Japan, Unified Silla and Joseon Korea, we needed to constantly move the timelines and the geographic points on the compass to many parts of the globe, without a consistent or single center.
And it’s for that reason I felt it was important that we have a timeline in the volume, so that readers who might be expecting some sort of signposting would have that mechanism.
CUNO: I’ve asked this question once before in a slightly different way, but is there something particularly fruitful about books that makes this, writing this history, more possible, richer, more exciting? Because any kind of object of trade, whether it’s ceramics or metalwork or something, equally has a global history. But what is it about books that make it so much more interesting?
KEENE: I think with a number of the books that are addressed in the volume, they’re produced in a specific time and place, and then over time, they often will include glosses or accounts from other authors. They change hands frequently. When they’re collected in libraries, that’s then yet another context. So books provide us a kind of window onto the past, as one of the authors said; a view of a single place in time, but also of broader geographies.
I think with books, we’re able to, because of the range of disciplines and specializations at work on the history of the book, address a broader swath of human history. So this volume includes specialists of art, of history, language, literature, philosophy; codicology, the sort of making of books; paleography, the history of handwriting; the archaeology of the book, or conservation of the book. So the book as an object allows for the study of so many different disciplines. And I think it’s through that cross-disciplinary perspective we’re able to glean a sort of richer perspective of the past.
CUNO: Yeah. Now, you say that a truly global account of the Middle Ages must acknowledge the place and contribution of confessional communities. Why is that necessary to say, and how do you define Middle Ages?
KEENE: In thinking about confessional communities, religious groups—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, and many others—I was reminded of a phrase that I saw in the history museum in Sweden that is, “If you don’t know you have a history, it can be hard to believe you have a future.”
I love that idea, because so much of my early training in Mediterranean history was about Christianity and Islam. And it was only later, in graduate coursework, that I was presented with the histories of the Jewish communities and the Jewish diaspora. For a number of confessional groups across Africa, Europe, and Asia, there are histories of migration, of enslavement, of persecution, that I feel are really important to bring to the front of medieval studies. Which is why the history of Judaism and Hebrew book illumination is important, as is the history of Hindu and Jain illumination in India, for example.
Gerry Heng at UT Austin has said that our field of medieval studies speaks to the urgencies of the present. So in a time when communities are often cast as having longstanding historical conflict, I think it’s important as a field that we trace those lineages. Why is it that, for example, there’s this constant idea or stereotype that communities in the Middle East have been fighting for centuries? A number of the authors in the volume counter that idea.
The director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, Gus Casely-Hayford, has said that one reason that we embark on writing global histories, especially in the medieval period, is to ensure that counternarratives become the countervailing narratives, so narratives about marginalized people or communities would then come to the fore and hopefully, inform a new understanding of the past that’s not then centered on dominant forms of maybe oppressive or hegemonic histories.
CUNO: Yeah. The term Middle Ages. You defined it for us, but why is it meaningful anymore? Why are we using it?
KEENE: Well, it’s interesting. I’m very pleased that our director, Timothy Potts, at the museum, used the term Illuminated Ages in his preface. This is a term that we’ve talked about in the department. You know, while the Middle Ages is problematic, an even more problematic term is Dark Ages, which we never want to use.
It’s problematic, as I’ve said, because for Chinese history, we might look at an Imperial past; or for Islamic history, a Golden Age that is not bounded by the term medieval. Jill Caskey, one of the contributors to the volume, reminds readers that medieval is not only an eighteenth and nineteenth century term, but is in its origin a Tuscan fourteenth century term. We can go back to Petrarch, looking at this moment of awakening, a middle period.
And there have been a number of individuals in the volume and that we cite in the volume that have asked that we throw out the term entirely. Gerry Heng, whose work I’ll continue to praise, has said we should speak of early globalities that are not bounded by periodization, titling, and so forth. But at the moment, we don’t have a better term. And so I think there are those that still hold onto it because it’s recognizable, it suggests something. And even if that something that it evokes is not what we truly believe it is or want to counter, it is a starting point, nonetheless.
So when my parents and family picked up the volume, they were really excited to learn about castles, cathedrals, and crusades. But I think that by encountering the Aztec, the Maya, and Austronesia, the Indonesian book traditions, I think they were pleasantly surprised, and I hope, inspired to continue to rethink it. So I would argue that we should do away with the term; but until we have a better term, I’m not advocating for another naming convention.
CUNO: Well, let me ask a question, which is why should we care about the Middle Ages?
KEENE: The Middle Ages continues to be leveraged quite a bit in the present. One of the most important dialogues that I’ve seen among medievalist colleagues is the ways in which white nationalists, for example, or other radicalized groups are leveraging ideas, outdated and racist ideas about the past, in the present.
A number of the authors referred to the events in Charlottesville from 2017, where a number of individuals brandished Crusader era shields and chanted mottos of antisemitism and racism. Through film, through social media, through even news media, we’re seeing medieval imagery coming to the fore. A few years ago, we welcomed Sara Lipton and Hussein Fancy to the Getty to talk about the parallel histories of antisemitism and Islamophobia. And both of the speakers, specialists in their respective fields, were able to talk about political cartoons from World War II to the present that drew upon medieval Christian European ideas about Jews and Muslims, and perpetuated those stereotypes in very painful and violent ways for communities.
As a queer individual, I see this happening, as well, where communities—academic, religious, and others—continue to ascribe to the idea that, you know, we need to return to a medieval idea of gender or marriage or sexuality. And yet I think a number of the authors challenge those ideas, whether in the Christian world, the Islamic world, across the African continent, and so forth.
So it’s not only the Middle Ages that’s relevant today; but we keep seeing the medieval being re-presented for the present. I’ll think most recently about the HBO series Game of Thrones, which is, of course, a fictional world; and yet it was because my department received years of emails from the public asking, what’s medieval about Game of Thrones, why does it feel medieval, what’s real or true about that, that we embarked on a massive social media campaign to try to tease out those aspects of the series and the book on which it’s based that are true to history, others that are purely fantasy, and then to try whenever possible to counter what we feel are these problematic stereotypes or prejudices that emerge from a sort of Eurocentric idea of the medieval world.
CUNO: You write about the intermediality of the book. What do you mean by that?
KEENE: That was a term I was pleased to learn through the peer review process. I had heard the term sort of batted around. And we know about materiality, sort of the physical study of objects. Intermediality refers to the relationship between media or mediums, the interconnectedness of forms of communication. I was really pleased that a number of the authors were thinking beyond the pages of the book. And in fact, we almost called the publication, Beyond the Pages of the Book.
So one of the authors is looking at the relationship between painted and printed books in East Asia, Sören Edgren. Or Eyob Derillo is looking at decorated and carved amuletic textual objects, those objects that you could hold, also those objects that you wear around the body, and the relationship between holding, handling, and wearing objects. Megan E. O’Neil really beautifully writes about the relationship between the unfortunately few surviving Maya codices, the four that survive, and the sheer number of ceramic vessels that have painted decoration, we think similar to Maya codices that were lost in the conquest.
And in the essays that were written by Sussan Babaie and Sylvie Merian form a pendant in this intermediality section, in that both of the authors are looking at books or images that were produced in medieval Europe, and the way in which those books or images impacted, or didn’t impact in some cases, the arts of Safavid Iran and the Armenian diaspora in the sixteenth and seventeenth century.
I think the intermediality of the book in the medieval world has a number of sort of modern counterparts. Amuletic portable objects are a kind of sort of social media for the present, things that could be exchanged very easily. You give your amulet that has healed or given your comfort in some way to someone else who’s ailing, as you would sort of tweet to someone today.
It’s a section that I had a lot of fun working with, and encouraged, as the book was coming together, when the sections were identified—intermediality, identity, and itineraries—I then asked each of the authors if there were opportunities for them to reference other themes in the volume. And I’m very pleased to say that everyone was really game and onboard. So even though there’s a single section on intermediality, a number of the authors are thinking about those various relationships between text, image, other media.
CUNO: It makes me wanna ask a question about the book itself, because you’ve written a book about the intermediality of books, and that book has been printed as a bound paper object. Did you ever give thought to, or have you got other thoughts about, how you might have written an electronic version or published an electronic version of the book?
KEENE: Absolutely. What I was really thrilled about was, once the volume was in arrival here at the Getty, I was asked by our communications team to write a post for the Iris that would include other resources that we weren’t able to include in the print volume. The resource I’m proudest of is a list of hyperlinks to all of the digitized manuscript. Every object that’s in the volume has been digitized in some capacity—in some cases, in entirety—so a reader of that post on the Getty Iris will be able to look not only at the image that we reproduced from the single object in the volume, but turn the pages and see the text and images. That gives you a sense of what it’s like to then scroll through a manuscript, and I hope, encourage people around the world to then travel to their local libraries and archives and museums to encounter firsthand, the objects.
Another initiative that launched a few years ago on the Getty Iris, but then also I’ve used in the galleries, was called Medieval Manuscripts Alive. It was for the exhibition Traversing the Globe, where I brought twelve to fifteen specialists from area to read from the manuscripts in the languages of the Middle Ages, with the medieval pronunciation. And that was so popular, not only in the galleries, but online. And for me, it was an incredible learning opportunity to, as someone who’s trained in Romance languages and has lived abroad, to hear medieval Spanish, the Navarro-Aragonese dialect of Northeastern Spain, for example. We included hyperlinks to those initiatives in the volume.
One of the other encouragements that a number of the authors asked about was, you know, what if we created videos in some of the libraries, how one might access libraries if they’re not familiar, since libraries can at times be off-putting spaces nervous-making experiences. And so a colleague of mine who’s not in the volume, Sonja Drimmer, has begun making a series of introductory videos. How one approaches a library, requests to study historic manuscripts. So it would’ve looked very different in other forms.
CUNO: Good. Now, I may have missed it in the book itself, but among all the different kinds of evidence that you and your colleagues considered in your accounts of the global Middle Ages, there wasn’t DNA evidence, which is of such great interest today, as you know, in helping us trace patterns of migration, for example. I assume there’s residue of DNA on the books, is that subject of interest to you as a historian?
KEENE: The field that you’re referencing, we refer to as the archaeology of the book or the biology of the book. And I think these are the most exciting fields within the history of the book. I will say that our conservator at the museum, Nancy Turner, has been at the vanguard of these studies for decades, and she’s really advanced a global understanding of the book here in Los Angeles and around the world. Most recently, in terms of your question about DNA, she’s looked at medieval animal husbandry in the Iberian Peninsula, in relation to a legal manuscript in our collection.
What did the movement of herds mean for the production of books, and what communities oversaw the movement of herds of animals? That’s a story that involves the Jewish community really heavily in the Iberian Peninsula, as well as the enslaved Africans who were working for the Spanish Christian court. Nancy has also worked on zooarchaeology, that is the sort of archaeology of animal remains in burial settings. So bones, skin, residue, et cetera. It’s a burgeoning field. There’s lots that can be gleaned.
Stella Panayotova, who’s the keeper of the royal manuscripts at Windsor, and Paola Ricciardi, a scientist at Cambridge, have produced a multivolume publication about the art and science of illuminated manuscripts. So with this volume, I certainly include their citations in the bibliography, but didn’t want to in any way try to rival the good work that they have long been doing.
I would also point listeners and readers to The Care and Conservation of Manuscripts publication series, which has for decades looked historically at the so-called archaeology of the book. That is, every aspect of the book—its pages, its materials, its supports and so forth.
One of the methods that I know conservators use is an approach whereby one gently rubs the animal-skin parchment or leather binding with a polyvinylchloride eraser, as I’ve learned, which carefully pulls very small fibers from the surface. And these once-living residues can then be studied using forms of spectrometry, which can identify the species, or DNA to identify the exact kind of animal it was. There’s also been a number of studies looking at DNA of books around, let’s say, the year 1348, one of the high mortality points during the Black Death or Great Pestilence, looking at the effect of plague on cattle.
I remember a really harrowing experience in Nuremburg looking at manuscripts, where I was asked to wear a mask because the book that I was going to be looking at had been exposed to and interred in, for a time, a cemetery that had plague rats and plague vermin in them, and so for my own protection, was asked to wear a mask. So it is alarming, you know?
And for my dissertation work, even on choir books, a number of the monasteries that worked with asked me to count the number of insects that were squished within the pages of books. I remember in one instance, there were seventeen fruit flies, something like six to ten mosquitoes. And I’d be really excited to learn, what are the possibilities of looking at the insects within manuscripts, what they might reveal about the book specifically.
And then just to pique the interest of listeners, we had a guest scholar here years ago in our department called Kathryn, Kate, Rudy, up at the University of St. Andrews. She has what she calls the Dirty Books project, where she uses a densitometer to measure the darkness of the reflecting surfaces of parchment. And she’s proposed and is creating a database, really, of which texts in medieval books were the most popular, based on, you know, residue of the oils from one’s skin, the pages that were often turned, or maybe not turned or handled at all. We have some books in our collection that seem to be pristine, some pages that may have never been turned, or very little turned. Kate is also looking recently at bodily fluids in manuscripts—saliva, blood, and so forth.
CUNO: Now, you and your Getty colleague Kristen Collins wrote about teaching the medieval canon with museum objects. Tell us what you mean by that and how the two of you are doing this at the Getty.
KEENE: Since the inception of the manuscripts collection here at the Getty, it’s had a global scope, as I mentioned, with key examples of decorated book traditions from the Byzantine world, including greater Armenia, codices produced for the Armenian diaspora in Safavid Persia; as well as objects from Tunisia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Peru; and after thirty-five years, we’ve just added our first Hebrew illuminated manuscript. What Kristen and I and my colleagues Elizabeth Morrison and Larisa Grollemond are interested in doing is teaching beyond the medieval canon, with museum objects.
We feel that for many visitors, they will expect to encounter European objects here at the Getty, and in the medieval context, expect to encounter Christian objects. So we are hoping, with our exhibition and acquisition program, to continue expanding that scope. I should mention that Kristen has also said that global approaches to history are methodologies of inclusion. And the history of globalization or globality allows us to think from other perspectives and possibilities.
And we’ve just, as a department, reread and been discussing the writings of Toni Morrison, who cautions against histories of globalization because in flattening boundaries and suppressing borders, we may then inadvertently overlook the sort of harsher, difficult, painful histories that have occurred because of borders, barriers, and boundaries. I think what we’ve been attempting from, let’s say, the last decade or so has been to situate the masterpieces of European art in a global context. And that’s really for the benefit for all of us around the world. But especially here in Los Angeles.
It’s been remarkable, if I can say, on a very personal level. There are a number of security officers of Armenian descent who ask our department constantly when Armenian objects are on display. And they work with their supervisors to be on rotation in our galleries to speak about the objects. And I’ve heard on a number of occasions, these officers reading from the books. That is one of the greatest joys, I think, as a curator or museum worker.
My first encounter with any manuscript was here at the Getty as an educator, where I presented our very first Ethiopian book to a public gathering. And afterwards, a family stayed behind, was looking at the object. I had heard them reading, but also the patriarch of the family was crying. And I spoke with them about this and they said they were Ethiopian, from Ethiopia, and had never seen Ethiopian art in an American museum. And they were so moved and touched that an institution like the Getty was preserving and presenting that history.
There’s so much that we can then learn from our communities about the objects in our collection and about the past, the many pasts and histories. And so I think that’s really the work that we’re trying to do: to make the collection more accessible and meaningful to our communities, and to then listen. And so I want to make the strongest thanks that I can to everyone that comes into our galleries and that speaks with us and responds to our collection online.
CUNO: And do you have another global history project in mind?
KEENE: There’re a number that are in the works. I’m pleased to say that with my colleague Larisa Grollemond, we’ve been meeting with members of the Tongva, Chumash, and Tataviam communities to think about an exhibition project that we’re tentatively calling Stories of These Lands. What would it look like if we, in collaboration with Elders in communities in our area, told the history of the past, about 1000 to 1800 or so, that looked at the vast networks of trade here in Southern California and across the Pacific Southwest, leading up to the moments of conquest, but also the establishment of the mission system here?
What I’ve been impressed by as a book scholar are the libraries of the California missions. And these libraries are part of the colonial enterprise. A number of them, the books that are in the libraries include inscriptions that were written by Indigenous converts, or that provide insights into Indigenous histories of the past.
We were inspired, learning from Neville Agnew and his colleagues at the GCI, the Getty Conservation Institute, about the longstanding rock art initiatives. For the last four years, I’ve been taking road trips with my family across the US, and have visited now something like sixty petroglyph and pictograph sites and met with communities. A number of these sites are, of course, very ancient, far more ancient than the medieval period. But there are a significant number of sites that date to the medieval period.
I was most inspired then, hearing a lecture by Ed Krupp at the Griffith Observatory talking about this supernova that was witnessed in the year 1054, that formed the so-called Crab Nebula, that was witnessed around the world. And of course, we have medieval textual traditions that describe the supernova in Latin, in Arabic, in Chinese, Japanese, and so forth. But remarkably, there’re a number of stories that are told by Indigenous communities across the Pacific Southwest, and pictographs and petroglyphs that may have recorded that event.
And so thinking broadly about these ideas, we don’t need to only seek physical evidence of contact between people, places, and ideas across hemispheres or continents or regions, but that people around the world were looking at the same astronomical phenomena.
I will say also, Morgan Conger put me onto the work of Mike McCormick. The Harvard Ice Core Project has really blown my mind in every way. There are two remarkable Excel databases on the website that list phenomena that had been recorded in the ice cores, corroborated with evidence from manuscripts. And one of the manuscripts in the fourteenth century, that appears quite frequently on that ice core database, is Giovanni Villani’s Cronica Nuova, which is a history of Italy that is today preserved in the Vatican Library, in which I’ve had the opportunity to study and which formed a core of my dissertation work. And yet his chronical of the fourteenth century in Italy describes so many phenomena that were happening in Tuscany—floods, fires, famine, and so forth. All of these are used as potential evidence to corroborate the findings in the ice core. So I’m really excited that there are possibilities again to think about climate change, as well. So absolutely, there are future projects, not just here at the Getty, but I hope beyond, in the field of medieval studies.
CUNO: Well, Bryan, thanks so much for joining me on the podcast this morning. The book, Toward a Global Middle Ages, is, as you articulated so beautifully, a very rich and compelling book, and we’re grateful to have a chance to talk about it on the podcast.
KEENE: Thank you.
CUNO: This episode was produced by Zoe Goldman with audio production by Gideon Brower and mixing by Myke Dodge Weiskopf.
Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music.
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JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
BRYAN KEENE: Books contain stories and information about people, places, and ideas. And in my min...

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This post is part of Art + Ideas, a podcast in which Getty president Jim Cuno talks with artists, writers, curators, and scholars about their work.
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