Translating material and visual culture

Public understanding and appreciation of medieval texts has been significantly improved, thanks to research led by Professor Emma Cayley.

Professor Cayley, Head of Modern Languages, has translated medieval material culture through modern media, thanks to her iPad App – developed in association with Antenna International. Professor Cayley’s research was born out of an Open Innovation seedcorn fund to support building a relationship with Antenna International, a global leader in handheld audio and multimedia tours that help museums, historic and cultural sites and national parks shape and enrich their visitors’ experiences.

This seedcorn funding led to funding from REACT to develop a prototype app to reveal the secrets of medieval literature to a new audience of school age pupils; as well as introducing young people to medieval manuscript culture, the app also introduced them to the celebrated Exeter Book (housed in Exeter Cathedral, this tenth century book contains the world’s largest collection of Old English poetry).

Texts of this age would not accessible for school children, so to be able to interact with the real thing via the Exeter Manuscripts App brought the medieval manuscripts to life for the children; it also inspired a series of events put on by Exeter Cathedral.


Schools have benefited from workshops with leading researchers and designers from Antenna to learn more about the Exeter Book and to help design the app. Working with schools continues to be a large part of the Exeter Manuscripts project’s impacts. Professor Cayley explained why bringing the Manuscripts App to schools is such an important part of the project; ”The app has introduced a lot of younger people to manuscripts and manuscript culture – which are normally invisible to the general public. It raises awareness of aspects of culture which are really important but not accessible.”

The relationship between University of Exeter and Exeter Cathedral has flourished, thanks to Professor Cayley’s research. She explained the effect that her work is having on collaboration: “The project is helping to bring together local institutions and the University. Since the project began, the Cathedral and the University have been a lot closer; there’s been a lot more cooperation, working together and joint events.”

Events at the Cathedral included public workshops and lectures, involving Exeter Library Special Collections’ Head, Christine Faunch, two ‘calligraffiti’ workshops for kids and a public lecture on the Exeter Book.

The key impacts of this project lie in the novel way that members of the public will be connected to an area of culture that is rarely seen. The manuscripts you can access on Professor Cayley’s app are mostly kept in secure storage, where they rarely get to be seen. The Exeter Manuscripts Project is reversing the invisibility of these historically and culturally significant texts, to help Devon and the South West rediscover its written heritage.

This relationship with one of the world’s leading cultural app developers is at an early stage, and already bringing about major changes and benefits.

Professor Cayley was interviewed about the Exeter Manuscripts App for ITV West Country Tonight as well as for BBC Radio Devon. She also presented her research at AHRC’s Creative Economies workshop in March 2014 and featured in their video showcase series.

Digital media

Professor Cayley’s research was complemented by the works of Professor Hugh Roberts and Professor David Jones who both use digital media to convey historical views and engage with the public.

Professor Roberts’ Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded ‘Gossip and Nonsense: Excessive Language in Renaissance France’ project, publicised via a popular online blog, involves an online database of obscenities and collaboration with a local artist who is reimagining French Renaissance double-entendres in the form of animated and interactive prints.

Research by Professor Jones into how the intersection of theatre, prose fiction and the visual has led to public events that focus on the ways in which these media are changing directly influenced the Winter Warmed theatre festival (January to February 2013). The festival successfully engaged with the local community; by collaborating with a range of external community groups, including Clyst Vale Community College, Exeter College and Uncommon Players, and running two public discussion seminars at Exeter’s Bike Shed Theatre. Professor Jones helped steer this festival by engaging with practitioners in the lead up to the event and acting as an academic advisor to the festival director.