This week the Classics department had the privilege of hosting a talk by Princeton scholar and academic entrepreneur Dr. Mildred Budny, who braved the remains of Hurricane Sandy to fly in and educate us on the intricacies of knotwork in illumination. The head of the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence and former president of the Societas Magica, Milly’s academic interest in knotwork begins with a paper she published in 2001, and has persisted since. 

Traditional methods of understanding interlacing in manuscripts, she argues are wrong. They trace individual strands around each page attempting to decipher the meaning, while she strives to understand the piece as it was created from top to bottom. Using unfinished illuminations as an example, she notes how scribes worked from top to bottom, completing each design in turn, rather than weaving each line slowly about the page. While her work focuses on knotwork and interlace that comes from the British Isles, she points out that interlace as decoration exists in cultures the world over, and can be found on Latin and Greek manuscripts alike. It might come from weaving patterns,for baskets, something which ancient cultures depended on, or even from the designs such baskets would make on clay pots later, the pots set in baskets in order to retain their shape. We often think of decorative knots as Celtic in origin, but the Armenians, Anglo-Saxons, and Norse all produced beautiful pieces of knotwork as well.

She also notices that the scholarship of interlace is in itself interlaced. Archaeologists have found the meaning of knots in books on knotwork written by knot enthusiasts and sailors, and even mathematicians have used similar knotbooks as the root for knot theory, the study of mathematical knots in three dimensional space. Knots appear in all kinds of forms of media, from tattoos to literature. James Joyce repeatedly consulted a version of the book of Kells while writing Finnegan’s Wake, (which you’ve never read. I get it. You’re totally forgiven), and spoke about how he wanted to weave knots from words themselves.

But the most interesting part was when she showed images (sadly unavailable here) where the interlacing was actually intertwined with the text. It crosses the line between illumination and text, and there are a wealth of examples that illustrate the fact that this wasn’t as uncommon as we might believe. All in all, it was quite a knotty lecture, and a testament to the lengthy body of work on such a tangled problem.

Jim Tigwell has a deep love for puns. He can’t talk long, as he’s a bit tied up at the moment. Leave a message on his Twitter.

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