Theses Doctoral

Codex Theory: Codicology and the Aesthetics of Reading in Late Medieval England

Ma, Ruen-chuan

This dissertation is broadly concerned with the role of codices, or bound manuscript books, in the imagination of late medieval English authors. I am interested in exploring how the visual and physical features of medieval books inform the aesthetic vocabulary of reading and inspire a hermeneutic rooted in the sensory experience of reading. Reading a book in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries—the time of Geoffrey Chaucer and his contemporaries—demands that readers digest an array of information besides the written word: are the words placed in the center, in the margins, in a single column or in double columns? What colors of ink are used? How do illustrations and decoration—initials and borders in particular—guide the organization of the written word and engage readers in analyzing the contents? I use the term “codicology” to refer to such features as layout, page design, ink color, decoration, illustration, and the ordering of texts. Writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, and Thomas Hoccleve each draw attention to the physical and material properties of medieval books as part of their narratives, and all three writers acknowledge the bound codex as an operative concept by utilizing the networks of visual and semantic relationships orchestrated by the manuscript page to deepen the reader’s engagement with their respective works. Therefore, these visual and physical features generate what I call a “codicological aesthetic,” a device that uses the sensory experience of reading medieval books to frame and characterize encounters with literary texts. By situating reading practices within narratives, the codicological aesthetic gives readers greater purchase on texts, and it allows them to reflect on the nature and the consequences of the reading that they perform.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Baswell, Christopher C.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 29, 2017