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Science and the Humanities

Analysis of Manuscript

Roughly eleven weeks ago we all sat down in Park Hall for our first class and ever since then we have been going non-stop, cramming as much information about medieval manuscripts into our college-student-sized brains as possible. While the syllabus initially excited me, I had no idea the extent of things I was going to learn. Eleven weeks later, and we have learned all about the process of making a medieval manuscript from start to finish, we have made our own manuscripts, we learned the cataloging process of medieval manuscripts and came up with our own suggestions for how to make that process more effective, we’ve researched different medieval pigments, and now, we are at the pinnacle of this class. A week ago, we were given a chance to use an XRF spectrometer to analyze paint pigments in our manuscripts. This part of the class has been the accumulation of everything we have learned so far. Not only that, but it is the perfect example of the intersection between science and the humanities. The interaction between the two fields of study has fascinated me since the beginning of this class.
It has been clear from the beginning that this not your ordinary English class. Whenever I would excitedly tell anyone about what we were planning on doing they would say things like, “And this is for an English Class?” or something to that effect. I just mentioned, at that point I still didn’t fully comprehend the relationship between science and the humanities. Because of that I wasn’t always able to do as good a job explaining the significance of what we were doing. I have always liked science because it tends to follow fairly strict guidelines, but at the same time I love the fine and liberal arts because they are subjective and that allows people to approach them from different angle and come away with different opinions and realizations. Because of these apparent differences (at least, apparent in my mind) I tend to keep the two things in very separate boxes and very rarely do I bring them out at the same time to interact. But this class would not allow for that. I was forced to take science out of its box full of equations, facts, and steadfast ways and put it in with my box of what I consider the finer things of life: books, art, historical scandals, loose leaf tea, monarchies, and all things shiny. And what I learned from seeing these two interact is that they are meant to go through life as friends who bring out the best in each other.
If history is a collection of stories, then science helps us to fill in the paragraphs that we are unsure of. Historians go through things that have been written down (papers, books, journals, etc.) and what has been painted, drawn, or photographed. From this data they attempt to answer the big questions: who, what, where, when, why, and how. Unfortunately, because of what the author/artist was interested in and what has not survived the test of time, there are some gaps in the story. This is where science comes in to play. Through scientific analysis we can fill in the gaps and complete the story. We can see what pigments were used most in which areas, which helps us not only to be able to pinpoint the location of source material, but also what trade routes that material would have taken. It helps us to better understand how wealthy the commissioner of a manuscript must have been to be able to afford certain pigments. And this is only a small glimpse of what science can help us understand about the humanities.
While thinking about how science has come into play in this class, I have also been able to see how advancements in science correlate with advancements in the humanities. I learned through researching for my color report that alchemy (the beginning of modern chemistry) allowed inorganic pigments to be reproduced all over the world, and that in turn made certain shades of reds more accessible to painters and illuminators worldwide, instead of limiting them to the rich or those close to the source. Science helps to make art and literature more accessible to the public. Think about the printing press. Its invention brought literature to the masses. I’ve only been thinking about science in the context of humanities for the past three months and my mind has been blown. Imagine how many possibilities I have not even considered yet. I am excited as we continue to see what other unexpected gaps in history science helps us fill as well as how new discoveries will change the way we view the humanities!

– Katie Knickerbocker