Communicating Meaning in the Middle Ages: Writing, Symbol, and the Space Between

This collection of objects aims to examine how meaning was conveyed via writing and the use of symbols during the Middle Ages. A number of objects contain only symbols, others contain mostly writing, and many contain a mixture of both. We’ve concluded that an object has one of these forms, depending on the meaning it aims to construct. Some objects construct a religious meaning while others serve to construct a more secular or commercial meaning; yet all objects use some degree of symbolism or writing. More interesting, is that similar symbols are utilized to construct separate meanings. For example, the use of animals are found often in religious art, but also in objects used for purely commercial reasons.

The intersection of text and symbols in one object can influence the function and meaning of both forms.While some lack words, others use them sparsely and sometimes in tandem with a symbol or two. The significance of the intersection of meaning-generating forms in these objects is open to interpretation. The intentionality behind the use of either form to convey a specific message is up for speculation as well.

However, there are specific functions that these objects served in medieval society, and an understanding of these roles gives critical insight into the worldview of the Middle Ages. For example, the degree to which writing is used in an object can give insight into its intended audience’s socioeconomic status. Similarly, symbols were likely used to transmit meaning to a broader audience given that they drew upon a larger collective understanding. This exhibit looks for the commonalities among these objects to organization them into different categories, to demonstrate that objects and images encode meaningful information via text, symbols, and hybrid forms encompassing both forms.


This is an exhibit curated by the students in Kate Bush's section. Thurs 1-2 pm