Inaugural Lecture of the John Rylands Research Institute: Professor Ann Blair

Professor Ann Blair
Professor Ann Blair

Ann Blair, Henry Charles Lea Professor of History at Harvard University, delivered the inaugural John Rylands Research Institute Lecture, Script, Type, and Byte – Manuscripts after Gutenberg (reflections on technological continuities), on 31 March. The lecture, in the magnificent setting of the Historic Reading Room, was attended by over one hundred guests, including leading academics from across the country.

Professor Blair, who specialises in the cultural and intellectual history of early modern Europe, explored the continuities between manuscripts and printed books, from the fifteenth century to the eighteenth, drawing upon many examples from our own collections, which she had studied in the preceding few days.

Professor Blair describes her visit to Manchester:

“My first visit to Manchester on March 27-31 was wonderful, complete with some sun and only a little rain (and, as one of my hosts predicted, the rain was quite dry). I spent most of the time at the John Rylands Library where I thoroughly enjoyed meeting many scholars, including JRRI fellows and librarians, with a wide range of academic specialties. And I was very grateful to the café for having some delicious gluten-free scones for me!

“In the reading room I saw many remarkable manuscripts and early printed books, thanks to the generous help of the staff. I was especially interested in manuscripts from the handpress era some of which I discussed in my lecture. These manuscripts of the late 15th through the 18th centuries are of course each unique – many are beautifully illuminated and a good number were written on parchment, in many ways comparable to a medieval manuscript. But early modern manuscripts often also have elements like title pages and other front matter characteristic of printed books. One manuscript had been directly copied from a printed book to which I could compare it using the electronic copy on Early English Books Online – so it was invaluable to read at the same time from both old and new technologies.

Galen, Omnia Cl. Galeni Pergameni summi in arte medica viri opera... Tomus primus... [-secundus] (Basle: Hieronymus Froben and Nicolaus Bischoff, 1542)
Annotations in Galen, Omnia Cl. Galeni Pergameni summi in arte medica viri opera… Tomus primus… (Basle: Hieronymus Froben and Nicolaus Bischoff, 1542)

“On Saturday the workshop on Annotations in Early Printed Books at the John Rylands Library was a real treat. It drew over 30 scholars from around the UK and two speakers from Utrecht, and culminated in a handling session in the Bible Room featuring printed books in the collections with manuscript annotations. These ranged from the notes on a printed text of Horace which a student took in a classroom in Paris c.1570 to delicate drawings added by hand in the margins of an edition of Galen’s works.

“Annotated books were also the highlight of my visit on Monday morning to Chetham’s Library. Their holdings include a very heavily annotated copy of Hartman Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle (which I hope someone with lots of patience and paleography skills can study some day) and books annotated by such famous figures as Guillaume Budé and John Dee.

“Speaking in the Old Reading Room to a large and appreciative audience on Monday evening was a real honor. I was delighted to be able to meet audience members during the reception and to get such excellent feedback afterward. I look forward to being back in Manchester and the John Rylands Library to enjoy the excellent company of the books and the people there!”

Christianus Prolianus, Astronomia, c.1478, Latin MS 53, f.1r
Christianus Prolianus, Astronomia, c.1478, Latin MS 53, f.1r

Professor Peter Pormann, Director of the John Rylands Research Institute, comments: “The inaugural John Rylands Research Institute Lecture, delivered by Professor Blair, was a real tour de force. She took the audience on a journey of discovery that included printed books and manuscripts alike. She illustrated how the fault lines between manuscript and print remained fluid in the early modern period, with books imitating manuscripts, and manuscripts imitating print. She showed that the new technology (printing) owed much of there physical appearance to the old one (manuscript production), but that the old was not replaced by the new. In an age where online content seems to threaten the continuous existence of print, this is an important insight. She finally taught us all an crucial lesson: that libraries must, at all cost, preserve the outputs of the old technologies, since the transfer to new media – print, microfilm, digital image – always involves a loss of significant information, information that future researchers will explore in ways that we cannot yet imagine.”

An audio recording of Professor Blair’s lecture can be downloaded at

John Hodgson

4 comments on “Inaugural Lecture of the John Rylands Research Institute: Professor Ann Blair

  1. Reblogged this on Bibliodeviancy.

  2. Pingback: John Rylands Research Institute Annual Lecture: Professor Emile Schrijver | John Rylands Library Special Collections Blog

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