Manuscript workshop and The Secret of Kells

Anna Turner from Leeds University’s Medieval Society takes a look back at the first event at the Hyde Park Picture House as part of their International Medieval Film Festival

The Secret of Kells

Rainy Saturday mornings have a way of slipping away from you – lost somewhere between the duvet and the television. However, on this dull and grey Saturday morning a group of University of Leeds students gathered in Hyde Park Picture House to hold a small but effective protest against waste weekends. It’s not often that a revolution comes along in the form of a Medieval workshop and film screening – but there you have it. What could be more revolutionary than succeeding in getting a group of kids to part with their bed, teaching them about medieval print culture and having them sit silently through a beautifully animated movie about a unique artefact from Irish history, all before lunchtime?

I was one of three University of Leeds students lucky enough to be invited to lead a workshop about ‘The Book of Kells’, and medieval manuscripts more generally, as a sort of interactive introduction to their screening of The Secret of Kells. The event took place as part of the LUU Medieval Soc’s ‘International Medieval Film Festival’ – an offshoot of this year’s International Medieval Congress. The words ‘International Medieval Film Festival’ seem to conjure up images of stiff men in tweed jackets lamenting the lack of period-accurate armour in the latest Crusades docu-drama. Far from it!

If you’d have peeked through the doors of the Hyde Park Picture House this Saturday you’d have spied crayons, creative calligraphy and some questionable crocodile illustrations from the middle-ages. This hour-long romp through the highs and lows (honestly, who thought crocodiles looked like that?) of medieval print was set off perfectly by the stunning imagery of The Secret of Kells. Children (and adults!) were given the chance to get hands on with some authentic parchment paper, as well as illuminating their own initials and attempting to put themselves into the shoes of medieval monks by drawing strange, exotic animals from description alone. Rose left no grizzly stone unturned in her account of how medieval craftsmen turned living calves and lambs into smooth, white parchment. Likewise, Shonagh amused and confused with her bizarre bestiary of medieval animal illustrations. I got the chance to demonstrate the differences between “illuminated” and “inhabited” initials and invited guests to create their own intricate designs, populated with their favourite animals.

Though The Secret of Kells really did steal the show; Tomm Moore’s ethereal tribute to one of Ireland’s most famous treasures proves that there was very little darkness to the so-called “Dark Ages”. The Secret of Kells brings the mesmerizing and mystifying art of The Book of Kells to life on the screen. While The Secret of Kells can be enjoyed as a child-friendly tale of friendship, creativity and imagination – it can be also be experienced as a moving love-song to Ireland’s unique history and heritage.

I felt incredibly privileged to have the chance share some of my own knowledge about medieval manuscripts and Celtic artwork as a prologue to this truly moving motion-picture; and I’m sure I wouldn’t be stepping out-of-line if I say the other girls responsible for this workshop felt the same way. Rose Alice Sawyer and Shonagh Lowerson-Head have also done fantastic work bringing this event to life. Unique events like this remind us all why Leeds is such a great city for medievalists – and I can only hope that today may have inspired a few bright young minds to one day join our ranks.

I’d like to say a big thank you to the Hyde Park Picture House for collaborating with us on this event. Of course, Rose and Shonagh also deserve immense thanks for bringing their unique knowledge, skills and ideas with them when they left the house this morning.

Anna Turner

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