One object, many stories: medieval flea

  • Date recorded: 31 May 2017

  • Duration: 57:05

'[The flea] is part of a whole cast of characters that were found inside the manuscript – and all of them have more to tell us about where it's been.' 

 – Anna Welch

About this video

Enjoy an enthralling panel discussion about a medieval prayer book in the Library's care, and how the discovery of a flea trapped within its pages threw new light on its provenance.

Librarian Dr Anna Welch introduces the Codex Sancti Paschalis, a missal used by Italian priests to perform the Mass for their community in Perugia, Umbria in the 13th century. She also outlines the founding of the Franciscan order during this period.

Conservator Katrina Ben joins Anna to talk about the critical roles of scribes and illuminators in creating medieval missals, the pages of which were made from animal skin and inscribed with inks derived from minerals.

Anna and Katrina interpret some of the physical marks on the book, for example, rust marks on its pages indicating that the missal used to have a different binding, and blobs of wax that show it was illuminated by candlelight during the Mass.

Katrina talks about removing debris from the missal's pages during conservation work, and how, among the debris trapped within its pages, she discovered an Oriental rat flea – the same type that carried the Bubonic Plague which killed one-third of Europe's population in the 14th century, and precipitated enormous social change. 

Anna and Katrina answer questions from the audience. 

Speakers

  • Bernard Caleo (chair) is a performer, author, illustrator, comic book maker and was a 2013 Library Creative Fellow
  • Katrina Ben is a book conservator at State Library Victoria
  • Dr Anna Welch is a History of the Book librarian at State Library Victoria.