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Family Day!

Dragons. So many dragons. Who doesn’t like dragons? I mean really, they fly, they breathe fire, they hoard gold – they’re fantastic.

A medieval manuscript page with an initial showing a dragon
Historiated initial with a dragon in TM 789, a German Psalter from 1240-60
An angel with a spear stabs a dragon in a medieval manuscript page
St Michael slaying a dragon as a historiated initial in TM 789

And we have so many dragons in the borrowed manuscripts. There’s the zoomorphic initial dragons in the Psalter, the Psalter initial of St Michael slaying the dragon, the historiated initial of St George slaying the dragon in the Book of Hours, the other Book of Hours initial showing St Michael again, slaying … well this time he’s slaying a demon. But it could have been a dragon.

Part of a page, highly decorated, from a medieval book. On the page is a picture of a knight stabbing a dragon
Historiated initial showing St. George slaying a dragon. BOH 159, a Book of Hours from Ghent or Bruges, c. 1480
Another decorated manuscript page showing an angel, in armor, battling with a horned demon figure.
Historiated initial of St Michael slaying a demon, also from BOH 159.

The Special Collections Libraries had already planned to run a medieval-themed Family Day in conjunction with the manuscripts borrowed from Les Enluminures, so we didn’t do it because of the dragons. But the dragons capture one reason why medieval manuscripts and small kids go together: manuscripts activate that sense of wonder that comes easily to young children, but that we adults sometimes find hard to recover. These books’ glorious colors, their worn pages, their blinged-out covers, their individuality, and (of course) their dragons — all get kids big and small curious about their creation and their lives.

A Family Day centered around medieval manuscripts seemed a no-brainer. Every semester, the Special Collections Library hosts a Family Day on a Saturday afternoon for the wider Athens community. Parents bring their elementary-aged children to the Special Collections Library for a series of age-appropriate activities that revolve around a current exhibition. In the spring, for example, they ran a Frankie Welsh’s Americana Family Day in conjunction with an exhibit on the 20th-century Georgia designer‘s textiles and business. Their late summer Family Day coordinated with their current exhibit on Georgia’s rich music history (which is running through December 2022 – you don’t want to miss this one!)

For our Medieval Manuscripts Family Day, the Special Collections librarians went all out. They contacted Ken Johnston of History Now to demo medieval armor and weapons on the lawn in front of Special Collections.

Two men in medieval clothing stand under a canopy in front of a table holding medieval weapons and shields. They point medieval weapons at each other.
Ken Johnston and his assistant Mufasa demonstrate with medieval weapons at Family Day.

They brought in other weapons experts who demoed swordcraft in the library’s second-floor hallway

Three men in padded jerkins stand in a modern indoor space, holding swords.
Medieval re-enactors show off their weapons on the second floor of the Special Collections Library
Two men, holding swords and wearing padded jerkins and face protectors, pose in a modern indoor setting. Other people watch.
Swinging steel in the library

They brought in folks from Classic City Shakespeare with craft activities for young people. They had ring pops and dragon tattoos (temporary!) as prizes. But most importantly, they had my students, who helped with the majority of the activities that centered around medieval manuscripts.

My students in one class had spent part of the semester getting ready to help run this Family Day as our service-learning project. They learned how to make inks and pigments so they could show the community how it was done, letting them handle raw materials like parchment, oak galls, and goose quills. Kids of all ages also painted with authentic medieval paints (non-toxic division only), and we let the adults write with a quill and ink my students made.

two students stand in front of a table outside. on the table sits an array of natural materials and implements.
Students stand in front of the “manuscript materials petting zoo” with the raw materials that would be turned into medieval ink and pigments
A row of children stand in front of a table outside, holding paintbrushes and painting. Student helpers stand in the background.
Painting with medieval paints

They also helped in the craft room, where children could decorate their own shield and crown. My students created bookmarks and lots of coloring sheets from medieval manuscripts, tracing images from the borrowed manuscripts as well as digitizations from elsewhere to create beautiful, detailed coloring sheets from authentic medieval images. Feel free to follow the links and download your own coloring sheets! They also ran the photo booth at the end, letting kids pose for the camera with their crafts and treasures.

The centerpiece of the day was, of course, the manuscripts themselves. We selected five to be installed in a single case, and I wrote age-appropriate labels for them. The visitors were enthralled by the ancient books, asking smart and sometimes unexpected questions that my students ably fielded.

open and closed medieval manuscripts, with caption labels, in a museum display case
Medieval manuscripts from Les Enluminures and the Special Collections Library on display for Family Day

Storytime tied the day together. The story was, of course, Marguerite Makes a Book, a gloriously illustrated children’s book that follows Marguerite, the daughter of a master illuminator in Paris, as she gathers the ingredients and makes the paints to help her father.

One student reads from a book while parents and children sit on the floor and listen.
Parents and children listen to storytime at Family Day

It’s worth your time to read along in the video below.

So many thanks go out to Jess Brown and Jan Levinson at Special Collections for organizing Family Day, to all the library staff who helped run it, and especially to my students who put so much creativity, effort, and energy into making sure everyone who came had a great time. Families who came, thanks for showing my students how exciting medieval manuscripts are to the general public! Your energy and enthusiasm made all their efforts worth it.

Featured image created by a student in the class as a logo for Family Day.