Medieval Manuscripts Project—part two

Medieval Manuscripts Project—part two
Thank you for your support
1 May 2015

Since our last blog post, digitisation of the Library’s medieval manuscripts has been advancing apace, with more than 65 per cent of the collection now captured and stored in our digital object storage system.

Medieval secrets revealed

Project staff have been captivated by the clarity of the images obtained, and delighted by the detail revealed when using zoom technology to inspect the manuscripts more closely. Here is a colourful border from the first folio of a fifteenth-century English Book of Hours (MS 1097/2).

Latin Book of Hours (detail),  1400, England MS1097-2

Scrolling across the pages, features such as hair follicles on the animal parchments can easily be seen, as can other marks and components associated with the construction, decoration, and use of the manuscripts. This close-up is taken from the Chertsey Cartulary (MS 1097/65), a fourteenth-century compendium of charters and deeds from the English Benedictine abbey at Chertsey in Surrey. 

Chertsey Cartulary of Chertsey Abbey (detail)  c. 1400, Surrey, England, ink and pigment on parchment in a modern binding, MS1097-65

Understanding the collection

Signs of former ownership, and stories of the manuscripts as they have passed through the centuries are also being told.  The 16th century annotations added to this late-13th century English Bible (MS 1097/3) suggest that the text was still being methodically used some 250 years later, as the later owner has marked the location of verses missing from the Book of Exodus.

Latin Bible (detail)  c. 1400,  MS 1097-3

The digital visualisations can also tell us much about the structure and mechanics of our medieval volumes.  These clues from a late 14th century French Book of Hours (MS 1097/5) show the line rulings which were drawn on the page to guide the scribe when adding the text, and evidence of extensive water damage sustained to part of the manuscript’s calendar at an earlier point in its history.

Latin Book of Hours, (detail)  c. 1400, France, MS1097-5

New discoveries

In addition to providing fresh interpretations of previously recorded features, the digitisation process is revealing new insights not yet documented by researchers.  For instance, an unrecorded watermark of a unicorn has been found on a page of the Regulations of the Cistercian Monastery in Alcobaça, Portugal (MS 4346, c. 1400).  In medieval art the unicorn is a symbol of Christ and the virtues of purity and chastity, and the watermark may provide clues to the origin of the paper from which the manuscript was made.

Regulations of the Cistercian Monastery Alcobaça, Portugal, MS 4346

This iterative process of discovery and rediscovery is assisting staff to better understand the significance of the manuscripts, many of which have sat safely on our shelves, in a kind of undisturbed cloistered silence, for more than three decades.  Using scholarly descriptions and information available online, connections are being made between the manuscripts and their original makers and owners, which include several important centres of religion and learning in England, Portugal, Germany and Italy.  The Alcobaça Monastery, for example, was the pre-eminent Portuguese medieval monastic school and is today a world heritage listed site.

When can I view the images online?

It is anticipated that the first of the medieval manuscripts will be viewable online in later this year.  Once the digitised versions are publicly available, researchers will be able to closely study the histories of the manuscripts in a non-invasive way, protecting the originals from further use and exposure to light.

In the meantime, the project team is progressively quality assessing the images and adding descriptive metadata to our online delivery system.   We are also enhancing the description and discovery of the manuscripts in our catalogue, and improving access to the images through a single medieval manuscripts finding aid.

We look forward to sharing more stories and discoveries with you in our next post – please come back to join us again soon!

Take a look at the March issue of the National Library Magazine for an article on the mid-fifteenth-century Italian Book of Hours from the Clifford Collection, MS 1097/6.

How does one learn the art of conservation of these sort of documents? It has always interested me.