Manuscript Road Trip: Visiting Voynich

The Flight into Egypt, Walters Art Museum, MS W.188, f.112r

As we begin to make our way out of the COVID-19 pandemic, it isn’t only restaurants and theaters that are opening up. Libraries, too, are reopening to the public, and Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library is no exception. After several years of restricted access and closures, the Beinecke is now open for outside researchers, albeit with masks and proof of vaccination required. The Beinecke is one of my favorite places to visit, and when I heard that the Library would be welcoming outside researchers as of April 11, I made my plans right away, securing authorization to visit the campus and permission to spend April 22 with none other than MS 408, a.k.a. The Voynich Manuscript.

Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, MS 408 (“The Voynich Manuscript”), f. 77v detail
On my way!

It’s a two-and-a-half hour train ride from my Boston home to New Haven, Connecticut. A 6 AM train would ensure that I reached the Library right when it opened, giving me as much time as possible with the manuscript. After arriving in New Haven and Ubering to the Library, it took just a few minutes to confirm my authorization with the Library guard, put my bag away, and check in with the service desk. And then I could get to work.

You might be wondering why I felt I needed to see the Voynich Manuscript in person, since the Beinecke’s website provides hundreds of high-resolution images in an open-access environment. For most purposes, the online images are more than sufficient. And as thrilling as it is to handle such an important and ancient object, there are lots of reasons NOT to, including the need to protect it from over-handling and environmental exposure. That’s why I’ve had to get special permission to see the manuscript each time I’ve studied it in person (and if you want to know why I’m not wearing white cotton gloves, check out this blogpost from the experts at the British Library).

Photo by Michael Morand

This is my sixth time studying the Voynich Manuscript in person, and I feel very fortunate to have had those opportunities. For the work I’m doing – studying the relationship between the work of each of the five scribes and the codicological features of the manuscript – in-person examination is critical. I need to study the quire structure, the binding, and the sewing – the three-dimensional components of the manuscript. By exploring the collaborative nature of the crafting and writing of this manuscript, we come one step closer to understanding its origins. These codicological features can’t always be discerned in digital images; hence, my visit to the Library.

Folio 42r, line 1, detail

The high-resolution images on the Library’s website are also critically important for my work, as they facilitate a detailed examination of this unique writing system. But even images like these don’t always capture the paleographic features I’m looking for. For example, it’s hard to tell for sure the sequence of writing for the complex glyph found on the first line of folio 42 recto (shown at left). Looking at it in person, though, I can tell that the dark curved line was clearly written on top of the vertical line, rather than the other way around. This tells me something interesting about what’s happening here. After the original glyph was written, someone – probably one of the scribes – amended or corrected the glyph by adding the curving stroke. This, in turn, sheds light on the process of writing the manuscript. If someone was correcting or editing the text after it was written, that adds to the evidence that there is in fact meaningful text underlying these mysterious glyphs – text that several people (at least five by my count) knew how to read and write – and that one of those people had editorial authority.

Here’s another example. The gutter of the fold-out that comprises folios 71 and 72 (above) is fragile and has been re-enforced by a strip of modern vellum to protect it from tearing (red arrows above). Unfortunately, that strip obscures some of the text in the online image of f. 71v (detail below left, rotated 90° counter-clockwise). I was able to image a bit more of the hidden text yesterday (detail below right).

Folio 102r, detail (photo by LFD)

The same is true on f. 102r (left), where a crease in the parchment has obscured some of the glyphs in the online image. My image captures some of the hidden glyphs.

These images represent just a few of the outcomes of yesterday’s research trip. I took hundreds of high-magnification images that will help me further understand the writing system and the distinctive characteristics of the various scribes.

Why should those few extra glyphs matter? And why does it matter how many scribes there are and how they collaborate across the manuscript? Because in order to make any progress understanding what (if anything) this manuscript has to say, linguists, cryptologists, and computational analysts need data, and every bit of data helps. I’m not trying to “decode” the manuscript myself – I am not a linguist, or a cryptologist, or a data analyst. I am a paleographer and a codicologist, applying my thirty-years of experience studying hundreds of medieval manuscripts to the conundrum that is the Voynich Manuscript. I hope that my work will help facilitate the work of others and that interdisciplinary collaboration will eventually lead to understanding.

In that spirit of interdisciplinarity, I’ve been collaborating for more than a year with a group of linguists, cryptologists, and experts in computational analytics – most of whom are affiliated with the University of Malta – all of us bringing our particular skillsets to the problem of making sense out of the Voynich Manuscript. As the only humanist in the Zoom Room, my role in this working group is to represent the manuscript itself, to advocate for the object and its objective reality. As a paleographer, my expertise is in the graphic properties of Voynichese. As a codicologist, I’m there to remind my colleagues about the unusual structure of the manuscript and ensure that they take into account the implications of both structure and writing system in their linguistic and computational analyses (for an introduction to these properties and some basic linguistic analyses, see this video interview with myself and Yale University Professor of Linguistics Claire Bowern, or read my recent article in Manuscript Studies).

Several members of this working group (including myself) will be presenting new research at an upcoming Voynich conference, taking place online from 30 November to 1 December, 2022. For more information and to attend (or to submit an abstract for consideration), click here.

We hope to “see” you there!

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Fragmentology in the COVID-era Classroom

The Flight into Egypt, Walters Art Museum, MS W.188, f.112r

It’s been a rough few years, friends. We have all been through so much during the pandemic, and for students and teachers the pivots and policies have been particularly difficult and frustrating. Trying to stay safe, learning to teach online, dealing with trauma and loss, getting used to social-distanced and masked pedagogy, in addition to the usual pressures of teaching and learning. It was a particular delight, then, to see my extraordinary Simmons University School of Library Science students here in Boston make their way through this semester’s course “The Medieval Manuscript from Charlemagne to Gutenberg” not only with resilience and steadfastness, but with enthusiasm, intellectual curiosity, and the joy of discovery.

Stony Brook University, “Fifty Original Leaves from Medieval Manuscripts,” no. 31

As always, the final project for my class this semester was a digital reconstruction of one of the Books of Hours dismembered by Otto Ege in the first half of the twentieth century. This year, we chose the lovely ca. 1430 Book of Hours from France whose leaves became no. 31 in the Ege portfolio, “Fifty Original Leaves from Medieval Manuscripts.” Each of my fourteen students was assigned one leaf from one of the known portfolios (such as the leaf at Stony Brook University, shown at right) to research and catalogue. They had to use online resources such as the Hypertext Book of Hours to identify the text on their leaf, and then catalogue the leaf using the Fragmentarium database. Some of the students were so enthusiastic about the project that they catalogued more than the one leaf originally assigned to them. I did some as well, so that we could work with as many leaves as possible.

One of my students took extraordinary initiative and spent hours searching the internet to try to find more leaves. She found several, including a calendar page at Dartmouth College and a miniature that was recently sold by the Manhattan Rare Book Company. Both of these are rare and important finds for an Ege manuscript. Generally, it is very difficult to definitively identify miniatures from the Ege manuscripts, since they were sold separately from the text leaves that are found in portfolios and often are framed so that the text side is not visible, making it quite difficult to determine if the miniature came from the target manuscript. In this case, however, the bookseller had reproduced the text side as well, so we could tell for sure that this miniature was from our manuscript. The miniature (below) was a depiction of King David at prayer, the opening of the Penitential Psalms section of the Book of Hours. The gold ring surrounding the vines in the lower margin is a motif that appears in other leaves, and may suggest that the book was commissioned to commemorate a marriage.

I wrote to the bookseller to ask for more information, and he informed me that the miniature had just been sold to a private collector in New York City. He contacted the owner on my behalf, and the new owner emailed me directly to let me know that he in fact owned THREE miniatures from this manuscript! In addition to David at Prayer, he had acquired miniatures of the Annunciation (Matins, Hours of the Virgin) and the Nativity (Prime, Hours of the Virgin).

In the meantime, following the trail left by Scott Gwara in his entry for this manuscript from his monograph, Otto Ege’s Manuscripts ((Cayce, SC : De Brailes Publishing, 2013), pp. 128-129), the same student tracked down a copy of Judith Oliver’s catalogue of a now-defunct collection formerly belonging to the Boston University School of Theology, where four miniatures, including the Annunciation and the Nativity, were illustrated.

Judith Oliver, Manuscripts Sacred and Secular (Boston: Endowment for Biblical Research, 1985), pp. 58-59 (no. 97, figs. 20-23).
Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Acc. 56.27

Gwara recorded a miniature as well, this burial scene belonging to the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art that was purchased from Ege’s widow Louise in 1956. Now we had SIX miniatures to work with, two of which are untraced (the Annunciation to the Shepherds and the Adoration of the Magi, shown at right above). There are almost certainly several more miniatures that have not been located, completing the series for the Hours of the Virgin (the Visitation, the Presentation, the Flight into Egypt, and the Coronation of Virgin). There may also have been one or more miniatures illustrating the Gospel Readings that would have followed the calendar. With so much evidence, an art-historical analysis was possible. A group of students worked together to craft this stylistic description:

“Marginal rinceaux and painted line fillers, smallish acanthus leaves on miniature pages only. Margins also include gold trefoil and red, blue, and green flowers growing on the rinceaux. Rinceaux often seems to “sprout” out of the text, usually from a single gold initial or line-filler. Borders on recto and verso are mirrored for efficiency. Some leaves show a gold ring motif among the rinceaux. Miniatures with gold U-borders with flowers/ leaves in red and blue. Continental color palette: Blues, purples, jewel tone & continental design: botanical, leafy, organic. Miniature composition similar to Bedford Master Workshop (see Oliver, pp. 58-59), Dunois Master Workshop, and occasionally elements of Boucicaut Master Workshop (as suggested by Sotheby’s).”

[it is important to note that of the five other non-portfolio leaves identified by Gwara as coming from this manuscript, upon inspection only the Memphis leaf could be affiliated with Ege 31; the other four are from a different manuscript entirely]

In the end, we identified a total of thirty-seven leaves of this manuscript. After each student had catalogued their leaf/leaves in Fragmentarium, we then worked together in class to use Fragmentarium’s IIIF-sequencing functionality to digitally recreate the manuscript:

While some students were scouring the internet for additional leaves, others were conducting codicological research. One student selected two leaves at random to catalogue – from Massey College at the University of Toronto and the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Connecticut – that turned out to be consecutive. Several other students identified formerly-consecutive leaves, and we even found eight leaves in a row. These consecutive runs, combined with evidence such as surviving catchwords on several leaves, allowed us to partially reconstruct several quires (using an innovative and intuitive resource called VisColl). In those three quires, we identified four pairs of formerly-conjoint bifolia, highlighted in green above. Yale University’s Beinecke Library preserves a still-conjoint consecutive bifolium from the manuscript in its portfolio. Other pairs were reconstructed using textual and codicological evidence. The catchword on the verso of the leaf at Harvard University’s Houghton Library, for example (below left), indicates that this bifolium was the outermost of its quire (L9/L16 in the diagram above). In other words, each of these pairs of leaves were once attached to one another at the gutter as a single sheet of parchment, folded in half and sewn into the quire. When Ege dismembered the manuscript, he disbound the quires and split the conjoints. These pairs of leaves haven’t seen each other in nearly a century. Below, the leaf at Harvard University’s Houghton Library is virtually reunited with its former conjoint, now at the University of Saskatchewan, nearly 2,300 miles away.

We have analyzed art historical evidence and codicological evidence. What about the contents? The surviving leaves preserve portions of several sections of the manuscript: the Calendar, Hours of the Virgin, Hours of the Cross, Penitential Psalms, and the Office of the Dead. While we did not recover the critical pieces of liturgy that are usually used to determine Use (the antiphon and chapter reading for Prime and None of the Hours of the Virgin, as well as the Matins Responsories of the Office of the Dead), independent research by several students helped identify the origins of the manuscript. One student determined that the particular hymn used on the page she had been assigned seemed to indicate that the manuscript was for the Use of Paris. Another found that an atypical Psalm used at Vespers for the Office of Dead was also suggestive of Use of Paris. The few Matins responsories recovered for the Office of the Dead were consistent with Paris Use and, after a careful in-class analysis of the saints named on the calendar page, we felt we could confidently identify this manuscript as made for the Use of Paris.

That’s as far as we’ve gone so far. We spent several hours conducting provenance research in the Schoenberg Database of Manuscripts, trying to identify any pre-Ege sales of this manuscript (with help from provenance-researcher-extraordinaire Laura Cleaver and the always-helpful reference librarians at The Grolier Club Library), but we haven’t found it yet. The dimensions of the manuscript (190 x 160 (107 x 68) mm) are fairly typical, as is the number of lines (15), making it difficult to definitively identify this manuscript in an early sales record.

The semester is over, but the work continues. The linked-open data model and interoperable image sequencing reflect best digital practices. This means that if more leaves are identified, they can easily be added to the reconstruction, and if I ever do manage to find a sales record that seems to represent this manuscript when it was whole, I can update the Fragmentarium record accordingly.

This annual project accomplishes many of my goals for my students, all of whom are pursuing a Masters of Library Science: craft clean, consistent, linked data; work with digital images in a IIIF environment; analyze paleographical, art historical, and codicological evidence to determine the date and place of origin of a medieval manuscript; understand how to research and work with Books of Hours, which are among the most common genres of medieval manuscripts in North American collections; and work collaboratively. Each student’s record has its own persistent and citable URL, as does the reconstruction. The work of previous years can be found here, and for more information about other scholars who are doing reconstructions and studies of other Ege manuscripts, see this blogpost.

I hope to take on another reconstruction with Simmons students next fall, hopefully in a post-pandemic world. In the meantime, I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy, and Healthy, New Year.

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Filed under Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Books of Hours, Codicology, Fragmentology, Houghton Library, Medieval Manuscripts, Otto F. Ege, Paleography, Uncategorized

Manuscript Road Trip: Reverse-Engineering the Codex

The Flight into Egypt, Walters Art Museum, MS W.188, f.112r

Like all of us, I’ve been working and teaching from home for nearly a year, waiting with bated breath for the vaccine distribution, wearing my mask to keep myself and my community safe, and working exclusively from digital images of medieval manuscripts. My recent appointment as a lecturer in Latin Paleography at Yale meant that when libraries on campus opened to faculty and students I was allowed to, at long last, visit an actual library to do some research with real, not digital, medieval manuscripts. And not just any library, but the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale, where I first catalogued and studied medieval manuscripts in earnest while in graduate school there in the early 1990s.

At the Beinecke Library on January 19, 2021
(action photo by Michael Morand)

Because the pandemic is still raging in the U.S., my class meets remotely, like most university classes in the U.S. this semester. Since the Beinecke has digitized hundreds of manuscripts in recent years, I am able to teach a survey of Latin Paleography with reference to those images. And with the launch just last week of a new IIIF-compliant digital viewer at Yale, discovering, browsing, and sharing those images just got a whole lot easier. But digital images, while extremely useful for paleographers thanks to deep zoom and interoperability, aren’t sufficient if you also want to study codicology, that is, the structure of medieval manuscripts. You have to get your hands on the books. Paleography isn’t just about the letters written on the paper or parchment. It’s also about context, what Leonard Boyle called “integral paleography.” It’s about the substrate, the ink and pigments, the decoration, the format, the construction of bifolia, quires, and binding and, ultimately, the institutional context within which the manuscript was written and read, whether monastic, secular, or professional, and its journey from there-and-then to here-and-now. And so I wanted to find a way to give my students, some of whom are Zooming in from overseas, a way to engage with the three-dimensional multi-sensory experience of the medieval codex. Hence my day at the Beinecke, surveying manuscripts that will be made available to my students, on appointment, to study onsite (for my overseas students, I’ve found local collections for them to visit).

I spent time with an old friend that day, MS 699, the fifth of a five-volume set recording Augustine’s Enarrationes in Psalmos, written in Lambach, Austria, in the third-quarter of the twelfth century. Why is it an old friend? Because it played a significant role in my PhD thesis and first book, The Gottschalk Antiphonary: Music and Liturgy in Twelfth-Century Lambach. MS 699 was illustrated by the same Gottschalk who illustrated, wrote, and notated the eponymous antiphonal (a manuscript that was recycled for binding use at Lambach in the fifteenth century and that I recently reconstructed online here). Multiple scribes worked on these Augustine volumes, but the four extant volumes of the set were all illustrated by Gottschalk of Lambach:

Clockwise from top: initials by Gottschalk of Lambach in Vol. I, Vol. II, Vol. IV, and Vol. V (i.e. Beinecke MS 699) of Augustine’s Ennarationes in Psalmos (Vol. III is lost. Image from Vol. I taken from Holter 1993, p. 435, fig. 19)

MS 699 is a perfect example of a typical 12th-c. monastic manuscript in its size, layout, script, decoration, use of signatures (at the end of each quire in Roman numerals), the original incised pigskin binding, and the quality of the parchment. Don’t get me wrong, the Lambach monks were very skilled when it came to making parchment. You can easily distinguish hair-side from flesh-side, both by color and by texture. The quires are arranged according to “Gregory’s Rule,” with hair-side facing hair-side and flesh-side facing flesh-side, giving a consistent color and texture across each opening. The parchment is supple and smooth, perfectly prepared to receive the iron gall ink. But the monks were frugal. Instead of cutting around flaws in the skin to create blemish-free bifolia, they used all of the skin available to them, flaws and all. The leaves are full of holes, tears, and slits, whether from natural processes like bug bites or scarring from when the animal (presumably a sheep) was still alive, or tears inflicted by the parchmenter during scudding or stretching. These flaws are why I wanted my students to see this manuscript in person.

Parchment flaws in MS 699

One of the things I find most engaging about working with medieval manuscripts is the palpable connection they provide to the past. When I’m turning the pages of a manuscript like MS 699, I’m imagining the butcher, the parchmenter, the scribe, the artist, the binder, and hundreds of years of readers and owners who’ve handled and read the codex. I’m walking its path from 12th-century Lambach to 21st-century New Haven. While studying the manuscript in person this time, though, I was able to take it back another step, to literally start piecing together the manuscript’s first journey, from sheep to parchment to bifolia, by reverse-engineering the codex.

It’s sometimes easy to forget that parchment is an animal’s skin. It has an outside (the hair side, yellowed and rough) and an inside (the flesh side, light and smooth). The size of the codex depends on the size of the bifolia cut from the skin, which in turn depends on the size of the skin itself, which in turn depends on the size of the animal. I’ve seen giant choirbooks in which each folio is an entire skin, with the spinal column running vertically down the middle. That skin-sized single sheet might be folded in half to create one bifolium. During the 12th century, when monastic textual manuscripts tend to be around 350 x 250 mm, it was typical for a skin to be cut into four bifolia. This diagram shows how that might happen, using the bibliographic terms folio, quarto, and octavo (two sheets, four sheets, and eight sheets):

Diagram from D. S. Farnsworth,
Handmade Paper Method Cinquecento:
Renaissance Paper Textures
 (Oakland, CA: Magnolia Editions, 2018),
p. 20, fig. 2

Because there are so many flaws in these leaves, I had hoped that I might be able to find evidence of how the bifolia were cut from the skin. After carefully scanning the outer edges of each leaf, I found two whose edges fit together perfectly, showing exactly how the knife cut them from the skin. The edges of f. 110 and f. 115 fit together like puzzle pieces, which is exactly what they are.

The two bifolia (ff. 105/110 and ff. 115/116) were originally connected at their short edges, as shown below.

When together, they must have spanned the length of the skin. This means that the monks who cut the skin into bifolia were cutting four bifolia from each skin. Each leaf is 195 x 227 mm. Each bifolium is 390 x 227. The usable portion of the skin, then, measured around 780 x 454 mm, or 30 3/4 x 18 3/4 inches, a fairly typical size for a sheepskin. And now we can even partially reconstruct the very sheepskin from which these two bifolia were cut:

I haven’t yet been able to find evidence of the other two bifolia cut from this skin. Because I haven’t found the missing lower part of the hole in any other bifolium of the manuscript, I’ve oriented the two bifolia so that the flaw was close to the outer edge of the skin rather than the spine.

So now we’ve made our way backwards from 21st-century New Haven to 12th-century Lambach, all the way back to the parchmenter’s workspace at the Lambach Abbey. Now let’s see what else we can learn about book production in Lambach by moving forward in time just a bit.

The five-volume set of Augustine’s Enarrationes in Psalmos was an enormous project, requiring hundreds of bifolia in all:

Volume I (Psalms 1-50): Codex membranaceus lambacensis XVII (now Leutkirch, Fürstlich Waldburgschen Gesamtarchivs MS 5). 216 leaves = 108 bifolia = 27 skins

Volume II (Psalms 51-100): CML XVIII (sold at Christie’s in 2000, then by Les Enluminures to a private European collection). 279 leaves = 140 bifolia = 35 skins

Volume III (Psalms 101-117): CML IX (lost, number of leaves unknown)

Volume IV (Psalms 118-133): CML LXV (now Frankfurt, Stadt- und Universitätsbibliothek Lat. qu. 64). 192 leaves = 96 bifolia = 24 skins

Volume V (Psalms 134-150): CML LXIV (now Beinecke MS 699). 141 leaves = 71 bifolia = 18 skins

In all, well over 100 sheepskins. That’s a lot of sheep and a lot of labor.

These volumes are constructed like most 12th-century Germanic monastic manuscripts, in quires of four nested bifolia. The bifolia were assembled and slip-stitched together to make a quire for writing. After the manuscript was written and illustrated, the quires were stacked in order, sewn together on cords perpendicular to the spine, and secured between wooden boards covered with leather. The first step in the writing process is for a scribe to walk over to the pile of prepared parchment and pick out four bifolia to work with. You might assume that two bifolia cut from the same skin would end up together in the pile. They might, then, be grabbed by our monk as he assembled his quire and end up close together, if not consecutive, in the final codex. In this case, however, the bifolia are separated by several sheets:

Bifolium 105/110 is the second bifolium (i.e. the 2nd and 7th leaves) of the fourteenth quire of MS 699. Bifolium 115/116 is the central bifolium (i.e. the 4th and 5th leaves) of the next quire, the fifteenth. These two bifolia, cut from the same skin, ended up near one another in the codex, but in different quires. This suggests either that somewhere in the process the bifolia were separated in the pile, or that the monk who chose the parchment for his work put some judgement into selecting bifolia for each quire, rather than just grabbing the four at the top.

Reverse-engineering the codex has brought us from my hand turning the leaves in New Haven in the year 2021 past 850 years of readers to the Lambach bindery, scribe, artist, parchmenter, and butcher, all the way back to a lone sheep grazing along the River Traun near the Lambach Abbey around the year 1175.

Thanks, sheep.


Holter, K. “Initialen aus einer Lambacher Handschrift des 12. Jahrhundert (Ms. 5 des Fürstlich Waldburgschen Gesamtarchivs in Schloß Zeil in Leutkirch)” Wiener Jahrbuch für Kunstgeschichte 46-47 (1993-4): 255-265, 443-436.

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Filed under Codicology, Medieval Manuscripts, Paleography, Uncategorized

Manuscript Road Trip: Otto Ege, St. Margaret, and Digital Fragmentology, Part 2

The Flight into Egypt, Walters Art Museum, MS W.188, f.112r

The Flight into Egypt, Walters Art Museum, MS W.188, f.112r

Back in 2014, I wrote about a lovely Book of Hours from late-fifteenth-century France that was dismembered by Otto Ege in the 1940s and whose leaves became number 48 in his “Fifty Original Leaves from Medieval Manuscripts” portfolios. I demonstrated how the contents of that manuscript identified it as having been made for the liturgical use of Châlons-sur-Marne (now Châlons-en-Champagne), near Reims in Northeast France, in the Champagne-Ardenne region. The manuscript included a lengthy versified Life of St. Margaret, patron of pregnant women, suggesting that it had been made for a woman. Today, I’m revisiting that manuscript to show you what she looked like.

20200414_175108As many of you will know by now, Ege and his wife Louise assembled forty “Fifty Original Leaves” (FOL) portfolios in the late 1940s (Louise continued the project after Otto’s death in 1951). Each portfolio contains fifty leaves, one from each of the same group of fifty manuscripts. Leaf 1 in one portfolio, for example, always comes from the same manuscript as Leaf 1 in every other portfolio of that name. Of the original forty, only twenty-eight have been found. Until now.

A few weeks ago, I was contacted by a gentleman from Ohio who had found my name and email address after searching online for information about Otto Ege. He was writing with very exciting news; in cleaning out his recently-deceased uncle’s home, he had found a box in a basement closet with a label reading “Fifty Original Leaves from Medieval Manuscripts” and Otto Ege’s name inside. 20180331_150603 (2)Given the state of his uncle’s home (left), it’s somewhat of a miracle that the box was recovered at all!

This portfolio was Set no. 1, long declared missing and never-before studied. 20200414_175326His uncle had purchased it in the 1970s from dealer Bruce Ferrini, but its location since then had been unknown. I was, as you can imagine, stunned. Not only a previously-unknown Beauvais Missal leaf (no. 15 in the box), but an entirely unknown “Fifty Original Leaves” set! Fifty “new” leaves to examine, to add to the corpus of Ege leaves, to contribute to burgeoning scholarship on these manuscripts.

I spoke with the owner several times by phone, and he was quite happy to share images with me and other fragmentologists. It had been his uncle’s wish that his collection not be hidden away but be used for scholarship and teaching, and I am exceedingly grateful for his generosity.

The images arrived by mail a few days ago and I eagerly opened the thumbdrive and began looking through the scans. I’ve now shared images of particular leaves with scholars working on those manuscripts (as detailed here) and have added the new Beauvais Missal leaf to my own website and to my Fragmentarium-based reconstruction. I’ll be adding the new leaves of no. 29 and no. 30 to the Fragmentarium reconstructions of those manuscripts, projects undertaken by my students at the Simmons School of Library and Information Science over the past few years. My Simmons students reconstructed and studied FOL.48 in 2016 using Omeka, before Fragmentarium was up and running; their work can be found here.

No. 48 in the new portfolio is something particularly special. I’ve noted before that these portfolios almost always contain only text pages, not miniatures, because they were assembled as paleographical specimens. Ege and his sometime-partner Philip Duschnes would have sold the miniatures from these manuscripts separately. But set no. 1 is unusual, perhaps because it is in fact the first set; in this box, leaf 48 is a miniature.

FOL 48aAnd what a miniature! Originally found at the beginning of the Office of the Dead, this painting shows a woman in a maroon gown, with gold highlights illuminating the draped folds, standing before an arched facade (perhaps a church). She holds her left hand up in a defensive posture, because she is under attack. Death, as a decomposing corpse, has pulled a lengthy arrow from his quiver and is about to stab her in the heart. Death, we learn, comes for us all.

She is, almost certainly, the original owner of this Book of Hours.

The other identified miniature from this manuscript (currently in a private collection in New Zealand) is female-centered as well. Together, they would have served the same function as most miniatures in Books of Hours during this period: inspiring contemplation and prayer, piety and humility.

SL 21b recto

Sotheby’s London, 3 December 2013, Lot 21b

The other miniature (at right), illustrates the French verse Life of St. Margaret known as “Apres la sainte passion.” St. Margaret is shown in her standard iconographical setting, bursting from the belly of a dragon, crucifix in hand and her gown trailing from the dragon’s mouth. It is no wonder that she was the patroness of pregnant women. Margaret herself, in lines 535-549 of the poem, tells the pregnant reader that if she reads or listens to or even rests beneath the book in which Margaret’s life is recorded, she will deliver her child “without peril.” Imagine the emotional impact of these miniatures upon the pregnant reader: Death a terror, St. Margaret a comfort.

We may never know who this woman was. There simply isn’t enough evidence in the recovered part of the manuscript to identify her. But we know this much; she was a woman of child-bearing age who lived near Châlons-sur-Marne in the late 1400s.

FOL 48aAnd we know that she owned a book.




Filed under Fragmentology, Medieval Manuscripts, Otto F. Ege, St. Margaret, Uncategorized

Manuscript Road Trip: Fragmentology under Quarantine

The Flight into Egypt, Walters Art Museum, MS W.188, f.112r

The Flight into Egypt, Walters Art Museum, MS W.188, f.112r

For the last few weeks, working from home as the world faces the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve been Tweeting long threads about different manuscript-related subjects. But while following up on the latest thread, I made a discovery that is worth blogging about.

The thread was a brief tour of a fabulous  manuscript, Berlin, Staatsbibliothek MS Theol. Lat. Qu. 140, written and illustrated by Gottschalk of Lambach in the late twelfth century.


Berlin, Staatsbibliothek MS Theol. Lat. Qu. 140 (Lambach, s. XII ex)

At the end of the thread, I showed one of my favorite types of material evidence in medieval manuscripts: offsets left by manuscript fragments that were adhered to the binding structure and were later peeled away. I promised to follow up, so here goes.


Corpus juris civilis: Institutiones Justiniani, with gloss (Oxford, Bodleian Library, A 1.11 Art. Seld.)

It was quite common in the late medieval and early modern period for binders to dismantle older or damaged manuscripts and recycle their parchment leaves for use as binding structures – covers, flyleaves, pastedowns, stays, or spine liners. These binding fragments can still be found hiding in their bindings, just waiting to be discovered. Sometimes they are  removed from the binding and circulated separately, still bearing the scars of that use. The binding from which the fragment is removed can also bear the scars.

When a fragment pasted into a binding (like this one shown at the left, from Oxford) is peeled off, it may leave behind an inverted ghost-text. We have just such a situation inside the front and back covers of the Berlin manuscript.

You really can’t help but wonder about the missing fragments. When were they written? What text did they preserve? When were they peeled off? Where are they now? These are the fundamental questions a Fragmentologist asks, and I didn’t know the answers until today.


Front and Back boards, Berlin Staatsbibliothek MS Theol. Lat. Qu. 140

When faced with offsets like these, the first step is to invert the image so you can actually read the text. Here’s the front offset, inverted and in detail:

00000002 reverse detail

It’s actually quite legible!

Question No. 1: When and where was the fragment written? The script appears to be late tenth or early eleventh century (key features include the pointed minims of [m] and a long-[s] that drops slightly below the line of writing). These are eleventh-century fragments in a fifteenth-century binding of a twelfth-century manuscript. The binding and the manuscript are both from Lambach. What about the fragments? They are Germanic in style, but because they predate the 1056 foundation of the Lambach Abbey they must have been written elsewhere, perhaps brought to the Abbey at its foundation to stock the library.

Question No. 2: What text does it preserve? A good bit of the text is legible in the above detail: “factum est iam in illo” on the first line, “hominum” below, “ideo sunt homines” on line 3, and more. If you have access to one of the subscription collections of Latin texts, you need only plug in a few words and see what happens. During the pandemic, I’m working from home (like the rest of you), so all I’ve got is whatever is open access. Google is usually a good place to start, and, in this case, I was immediately successful in identifying the text! The phrase “factum est iam in illo” followed soon after by “hominum” and “ideo sunt homines” comes from Book IV:i of Augustine’s De Trinitate (online here):

De Trinitate

Questions no. 3 and 4: When were they removed, and where are they now? Because I spent five years cataloguing manuscript fragments at the Beinecke Library at Yale University, I happen to know that lots of binding fragments from Lambach ended up in that collection (including seventeen leaves of the Gottschalk Antiphonal, the subject of my dissertation and first book). The Beinecke is the first place to go for anything Lambach-related, so I started there by searching for keywords “Augustine” and “Trinitate.” Bingo! Three leaves from this same manuscript are now Beinecke MS 481.20, catalogued in part by yours truly thirty years ago!

The description of the leaves, completed by curator Robert G. Babcock after I had finished my PhD in 1993, notes 1996 correspondence from paleographer Hartmut Hoffmann in which he writes that these leaves do indeed come from the same manuscript as those that were removed from the Berlin binding. What Hoffmann couldn’t have known (because he didn’t have the images), and what I just discovered TODAY, is that MS 481.20.3 isn’t just from the same MANUSCRIPT as the missing leaves, it is in fact ONE OF THEM! Folio 481.20.3 can be shown to have been pasted down inside the front cover of the Berlin manuscript. The leaf and the offset are mirror images, and f. 3r matches the visible text offset on the front board:

Beinecke MS 481.20 3r and front board, Berlin Staatsbib. MS Theol. Lat. Qu. 140

The leaf that was pasted down inside the back board is NOT at Yale, though. Hoffmann’s letter (summarized here) records that another leaf of this manuscript is still in Lambach, where it is Fragment 8/11. No images of this fragment are available, so we can’t say for sure if that’s the other missing leaf. However, using the same technique as above the offset can be identified as De Trinitate IV:v-vi, and Hoffmann identifies the text on the Lambach fragment as preserving the same section. So it seems almost certain that the leaf removed from the lower board is indeed still in Lambach.


Beinecke MS 481.20.3r overlaid on the inner front board of Berlin, Staatsbibliothek MS Theol. Lat. Qu. 140 (inverted for legibility; image by Mike Toth)

As for WHEN the binding fragments were removed, I do know that part of the story because it played an important part in my dissertation research. In the 1930s, a scholar named Kurt Holter visited the Lambach library and made detailed and extensive notes about fragments in fifteenth-century bindings. When he returned to Lambach after WWII, the manuscripts were still there, but nearly all of the binding fragments were gone, most having been sold by the Abbey during the war to raise funds for necessary woodworking equipment. The Berlin manuscript was still in Lambach at that time, but the fragments had been removed and sold. From Lambach, the fragment collection made its way to Switzerland, where it was acquired in the 1950s by a dealer named Franz Zinniker. He sold the collection to NYC dealer Hans Kraus, who sold part of it to Yale in 1965 and donated the other half later that same year. By that time, the Lambach origin of the fragments had been forgotten. The story of how Robert Babcock, myself, and two other graduate students (Philip Rusche and Nancy Seybold) traced the fragments back to Lambach has been told elsewhere. This identification of 481.20.3 as having been removed from the Berlin manuscript is a poignant epilogue.00000005Gottschalk

Stay safe, friends.


Babcock, Robert Gary. Reconstructing a Medieval Library: Fragments from Lambach (New Haven, 1993)

Babcock, Robert Gary, Lisa Fagin Davis, and Philip Rusche. Catalogue of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Volume IV, MSS 481-485 (Tempe, 2004)

Davis, Lisa Fagin. The Gottschalk Antiphonary: Music and Liturgy in Twelfth-Century Lambach (Cambridge, 2000)


Filed under Fragmentology, Uncategorized

Manuscript Road Trip: Linked Data, Library Science, and Medieval Manuscripts

The Flight into Egypt, Walters Art Museum, MS W.188, f.112r

The Flight into Egypt, Walters Art Museum, MS W.188, f.112r

Greetings, readers! In today’s post, we’re doing some library science and getting our hands dirty by digging into online cataloguing and data models. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

I’ve just returned from the annual Schoenberg Symposium on Manuscript Studies in the Digital Age at the University of Pennsylvania. It was an inspiring gathering of manuscript scholars and digital humanists, thinking about how we can collaborate and facilitate each others’ work.

The theme of this year’s symposium was “Hooking Up” – in the context of the symposium, the term refers to the concept and practice of “linked data.”

Some of you may know that in addition to my work as Executive Director of the Medieval Academy of America and my manuscript research, I am a Professor of Library Science at the Simmons University School of Library and Information Science in Boston. In my annual class, “The Medieval Manuscript from Charlemagne to Gutenberg,” we spend a lot of time discussing the history of cataloguing and classification theory and thinking about how to apply those concepts to the modern digitization and cataloguing of medieval material. In the context of Library Science, “linked data” means forging digital connections between standardized referents in order to 1) avoid inefficient duplication of data entry and 2) ensure consistency.

For example, if you are cataloguing a manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (lucky you!), you have to make a choice about how to refer to the author. Are you going to call him “Chaucer,” “Geoffrey Chaucer,” or “Chaucer, Geoffrey”? The choice you make will have important implications for your library patrons. To make your online record “discoverable,” or easily find-able by users, you have to use what are called “authorities,” standardized names and titles that are established, in the US, by the Library of Congress. There are several international authority files as well, brought together in a meta-authority file known as VIAF.


That’s a major oversimplification of the concept of authorities, but it’s important background for what I really wanted to write about.

When I started this blog back in 2013, I wanted to use this space to explore the burgeoning world of online access to medieval manuscripts in North America. Back in 2013, if manuscripts were being catalogued online at all, it was almost always as part of the library’s general online catalogue (known as an OPAC (Online Public Access Catalogue)) using the standard data model (also established by the Library of Congress) called MARC (MAchine-Readable Cataloging – check out the Wikipedia entry for a brief introduction). MARC was developed in the 1960s specifically for printed books, NOT for handwritten documents and other unique materials. And so it doesn’t work very well for those rare, unique objects.

There are lots of reasons why MARC is problematic for cataloguing unique objects, but here’s one of the most important: the structure of a MARC record is incompatible with a unique object such as a medieval manuscript.

511VWIezTWL._SX303_BO1,204,203,200_ The conceptual framework underlying a MARC record is replication. If you’ve just purchased a paperback copy of the third edition of the Norton Critical Edition of Moby Dick, you’ll want to input it into your library’s OPAC. This paperback edition has 736 pages and measures 5.6 x 9.3 inches. A different edition of the work will have a different number of pages and different measurements, but EVERY copy of THIS edition will have the same number of pages and the same dimensions. So to input this edition into your database, all you have to do is visit the Library of Congress backend database and import the correct “Bibliographic Record” (“Bib Record” for short – the metadata for a particular edition of a particular work) into your OPAC. Once you’ve added your Bib Record, you then indicate how many copies of that edition are in your library and their call numbers (in “Item” records hanging off the Bib Record), and you’re done! Here’s an example of the third edition in the Yale University OPAC (called Orbis).

A Bib Record is by definition NOT unique. The Item in your library might have unique features (a bookplate or autograph, for example), but the Bib Record that holds that Item Record is not. It applies to every copy of that edition, not matter where those copies live. This is why the MARC structure is fundamentally at odds with manuscript cataloguing: every manuscript is unique. Each manuscript of The Canterbury Tales has a different number of leaves and different measurements from every other manuscript of the text (among other unique features). A Bib Record for a medieval manuscript can therefore only have one Item Record associated with it, which defeats the purpose of MARC architecture.

Because of this reproduce-ability, the central aggregator for MARC records, OCLC, automates the creation of lists of locations for each Item associated with a particular Bib Record in the aggregated catalogue, WorldCat. The WorldCat record for our edition of Moby Dick, for example, lists 108 locations in the Boston area. That’s super-helpful…if you or someone in your family happens to need this exact edition, you can easily find a copy at a library near you. However, this automation is a real problem where medieval manuscripts are concerned. For any particular manuscript, there simply cannot be more than one location. And yet, we find records like this one for a Book of Hours, listing FIFTY-NINE locations! This is an impossibility – the Bib Record represents a specific manuscript in a specific location, but the aggregator has mistakenly associated dozens of other Books of Hours with this one, because they have the same title. As a result, there is no way to know which actual manuscript this record represents. This record – which had ONE JOB TO DO – has failed. It has not allowed me to locate the manuscript.

It occurred to me today, though, that there is one situation where the MARC structure might be quite helpful for dealing with manuscripts: single leaves in different collections that were originally part of the same manuscript. I’ll use the Beauvais Missal as an example.


A Digital Selection of Beauvais Missal Leaves

There are many Beauvais Missal leaves to be found in WorldCat. The problem is that you can’t easily find them. A search for “Beauvais Missal” and “Latin” retrieves nine records, one of which is a printed book. The eight remaining records are indeed Beauvais Missal leaves. They have eight different titles and six different dates, ranging from 1150 to 1450 (spoiler alert: it’s actually ca. 1290). Because I happen to know that Otto Ege assigned to this manuscript the exact date of 1285, I know that a record with the title “Missal” and the date “1285” is pretty likely to be from this manuscript as well: a search for “missal,” “Latin,” and “1285” finds ten records, nine of which are Beauvais Missal leaves (and one of which, at Loyola University Chicago, I didn’t know about until today! That makes 108…). A search for “Otto F. Ege” and “missal” retrieves additional records, including a few records for Ege’s “Fifty Original Leaves of Medieval Manuscripts” portfolios, in which Beauvais Missal leaves are no. 15. Finally, a search on THAT title finds even MORE records. Many of these results are duplicates, appearing in multiple results lists. It shouldn’t be this difficult. You see where I’m going with this: if each Beauvais Missal leaf shared a common Bib Record, you, as the cataloguer, could import that Bib Record into your OPAC and hang your own Item (that is, your Beauvais Missal leaf) off of that Bib Record. But that would only be possible if someone somewhere was creating those standardized Bib Records in the Library of Congress database so that local OPAC cataloguers could find and import them. That seems an unlikely prospect.

All of this doesn’t mean you CAN’T use MARC for manuscripts, especially if you don’t have any other options. But you have to be aware of the limitations of the data model and the square-peg-round-hole-ness of stuffing manuscripts into MARC. In other words, proceed with caution. If you MUST put your manuscripts in your MARC-based OPAC, I recommend following the model developed by Yale University, whose records are also designed to be ingestible by Digital Scriptorium. Here’s a good example, chosen COMPLETELY at random (for the MARC cataloguers out there, the secret to discoverability and this jury-rigged interoperability has to do with the 500s, 650, and 690 fields – select MARC View for details).

The good news is that new models have developed in the years since I started this Manuscript Road Trip and are catching on. Many collections now use integrative systems such as CONTENTdm or LUNA, systems that integrate digital images with data models that are flexible and more appropriate for unique material like medieval manuscripts. Such systems may also be compatible with IIIF functionality, enabling image as well as linked-data interoperability. The records can also be ingested by WorldCat, as with this Beauvais Missal leaf belonging to Western Michigan University. The institutional LUNA-based record is here. Even though such records can be ingested by OCLC, they use a different architecture than MARC records, resolving the Bib/Item problem.

As more and more institutions migrate to image/data systems, especially those with IIIF functionality, we will see vast improvements in discoverability, access, and interoperability of online medieval and otherwise-unique material. Let’s get to work!

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Filed under Medieval Manuscripts, Uncategorized

Manuscript Road Trip: You Can’t Argue with Science!

The Flight into Egypt, Walters Art Museum, MS W.188, f.112r

The Flight into Egypt, Walters Art Museum, MS W.188, f.112r

This is a story about how science and forensics can help translate a question of subjective connoisseurship into one of objective certainty. In other words, you can’t argue with science.

Back in 2001, I was hired by the Department of Special Collections at Wellesley College (in Wellesley, Mass.) to catalogue their very fine collection of pre-1600 manuscripts. I spent several years working my way through the collection, researching contents, origin, provenance, and physical characteristics of the codices, cuttings, and single leaves, eventually producing a 91-page document that became the source for the library’s MARC records. Some of manuscripts have been digitized and are online here. Five were included in the Beyond Words exhibition in 2016; those records are here.


Wellesley College, MS 29, f. 14v (St. Christopher)

Today, I want to focus on one manuscript in particular, Wellesley MS 29. MS 29 is a late-fifteenth/early-sixteenth-century Book of Hours for the Use of Utrecht, written and decorated in the Northern Netherlands. The full-page miniatures in the manuscript have recently been attributed by James Marrow to the “Masters of the Dark Eyes” (see Hamburger, et al., Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts in Boston Collections (Chestnut Hill: McMullen Museum of Art, 2016), Cat. 128 (p. 163) – you can download Marrow’s entry and description of the manuscript from the Beyond Words website). Artistic attribution is a tricky and often somewhat subjective business. This is particularly true when dealing with medieval manuscripts, whose artists are rarely named and may instead be identified as the Master of This or the School of That. That kind of connoisseurship is beyond the scope of my training and expertise – I can tell that MS 29 is Netherlandish from the general style, but I leave such specific attributions to expert art historians like James Marrow.

Another such expert with an impressive visual memory and a long track record of artistic attribution is Peter Kidd, a British manuscript consultant whom I have mentioned before. Several months ago, he wrote to Ruth Rogers, the Curator of Special Collections at Wellesley, with some questions about MS 29. In particular, he thought that while the full-page miniatures seemed appropriately dated and attributed, something seemed “wrong” about the small historiated initials, a selection of which are seen below.


A trio of suspicious miniatures…

Kidd wrote about his suspicions on his blog, Medieval Manuscripts Provenance, in May 2019 (he also had concerns about Wellesley MS 27, but I’m going to focus on MS 29 today). By “wrong,” he meant that he suspected the historiated initials may have been later additions, nineteenth-century forgeries added to increase the value of the manuscript. Kidd argued that the initials may even have been produced by the Spanish Forger (about whom more here). They seemed all right to me when I catalogued the manuscript in 2001, but as I’ve said, I’m no art historian. Previous studies hadn’t expressed suspicion about the initials, but Kidd thought they might be forged. It’s a classic art historian standoff, one opinion vs. another. Fortunately, science can help turn opinion into fact. In this case, the question was settled by the application of X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF).

X-Ray Fluorescence uses an x-ray beam to produce a chemical signature, identifying the elements that make up the sample being tested. In the case of a medieval manuscript, XRF testing can determine the chemical composition of mineral-based pigments. Because some chemical signatures can be identified as artificial man-made pigments, as opposed to the simple mineral pigments used in the Middle Ages, XRF testing can help determine whether pigments are authentic or are later additions. For example, the “Paris Green” that gave the Spanish Forger away, also known as “Scheele’s Green,” is a man-made pigment first synthesized in 1775 whose chemical signature shows a distinctive arsenic spike in addition to the expected, and perfectly normal, copper signature.

After hearing from Peter Kidd, Ruth Rogers decided to investigate further. She invited me to join her and Wellesley book conservator Emily Bell on a field trip to the Boston Museum of Fine Art’s digital lab to observe as they conducted XRF testing on MS 29. Testing was conducted by Michele Derrick and Richard Newman using a Bruker Artax open architecture spectrometer for 120 seconds at 40 kV and 700 microamps. I am very grateful to both of these skilled technicians for their careful testing and thorough reporting. It was a fascinating and truly educational afternoon.


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Together, Ruth and I selected pages and specific targets, focusing on reds, blues, and greens. Miniatures that were likely original were scanned as a baseline and those that were suspect were scanned for comparison. The results could not have been more clear.

The green pigment in the full-page miniatures that were tested (St. Christopher (see above) and The Man of Sorrows, f. 78v) was defined by a spike in copper only, no arsenic. So nothing suspicious there.


Screenshot (830)

Chemical signature of the green pigment on the king’s robe in the upper right corner of f. 78v: the combination of chemical elements (with a spike in [Cu], copper) suggests that the pigment was ground from malachite, perfectly normal for a medieval green.

But the historiated initials that felt “wrong” to Peter Kidd? His “wrong” instincts turned out to be absolutely right. The green in the three historiated initials that were tested (ff. 21, 40, and 79) showed a clear and dramatic spike in the arsenic [As] signature in addition to copper. The pigment was copper-acetoarsenite, also known as Paris Green. As Kidd suspected, they were all nineteenth-century forgeries. You can’t argue with science.

Screenshot (827)

Chemical signatures for the green pigment in three of the suspect historiated initials (top to bottom, ff. 79r, 21r, and 40r). The arsenic spike is outlined in black.

The evidence suggests that the spaces for these initials were originally left blank, that is, they were planned but never painted. In other words, there was no evidence of scraping or overpainting. Our forger, whoever s/he was, added the historiated initials to the blank spaces in the nineteenth century, probably to add value to the manuscript. There are certainly many other manuscripts out there that have been supplemented in this way but haven’t yet been studied carefully enough to arouse suspicion. Unfortunately, not everyone has access to an XRF lab, and so such suspicions usually must go untested. But there are professional labs that can do this work along with other kinds of material testing, and the results are almost always worthwhile, adding scientific evidence to artistic judgement. Even the Voynich Manuscript (you knew I’d bring that up, didn’t you?) has been subjected to material testing, to determine whether it might be a modern forgery. The results of testing on Voynich ink and pigments showed nothing to indicate that the manuscript ISN’T medieval, and carbon-14 testing dated the manuscript’s parchment to the early fifteenth century.


“Paris Green” can’t hide from XRF

Given the clear results of the XRF testing, Wellesley will need to update the manuscript’s digital records to indicate that some of the initials are nineteenth-century forgeries, adding a fascinating additional chapter to the history of this already-intriguing manuscript. The story of Wellesley MS 29 shows how manuscript studies can benefit from the combination of modern forensics and knowledgeable connoisseurship. There is always room for new understanding of old books.

Also, trust your gut.

And never argue with science.


Filed under Books of Hours, Medieval Manuscripts, Uncategorized

Manuscript Road Trip: Fragmentology in the Wild

The Flight into Egypt, Walters Art Museum, MS W.188, f.112r

The Flight into Egypt, Walters Art Museum, MS W.188, f.112r

*Updated as noted below*

A recent blogpost by tenacious and brilliant manuscript researcher Peter Kidd inspired me to write this post, on a topic I’ve been meaning to write about for some time: an update on digital reconstructions of manuscripts dismembered and/or scattered by Otto Ege. If that name is new to you, take a look at this site, my blogposts here and here, and search Peter Kidd’s blog, to get the basics. If you happen to own any leaves that came through Ege’s hands, you’ll also want to find a copy of Scott Gwara’s seminal reference work Otto Ege’s Manuscripts (in what follows, the FOL and HL designations refer to Gwara’s handlist).

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Wadsworth Athenaeum (Hartford, Connecticut), “Fifty Original Leaves” no. 4

Peter Kidd recently made significant discoveries about the provenance of the codex that became Ege FOL 4 (i.e. no. 4 in the “Fifty Original Leaves from Medieval Manuscripts” portfolios), discoveries that were quickly supplemented on Twitter by University of Notre Dame curator David Gura’s realization that UND manuscript Lat. b. 11 is in fact a portion of the manuscript that became Ege FOL 4. I then contacted Dr. Yin Liu, a professor in the English Department at the University of Saskatchewan who is supervising a Master’s Thesis on this very manuscript, to tell her of Kidd and Gura’s discoveries. This is just one example of how networks of scholars are using social media to make discoveries and share information about fragments and fragmentology. Search #fragmentology or #OttoEge to see more such networks at work.

The potential for digital reconstruction of Ege manuscripts was first noted by Barbara Shailor in her 2003 article, “Otto Ege: His Manuscript Fragment Collection and the Opportunities Presented by Electronic Technology” (The Journal of the Rutgers University Libraries 60 (2003), 1-22). “For Otto Ege fragments now dispersed around the world,” she wrote, “the possibilities presented by modern technology are fascinating. It is only a matter of time, financial resources, and scholarly communication and perseverance before significant portions of Ege’s intriguing collection will be reassembled and made available electronically.” (p. 22) Since the advent of Digital Fragmentology as a methodological framework a few years ago, the number of digital reconstructions of dismembered medieval manuscripts has multiplied and continues to grow as more scholars see the potential of such research and engage with interoperable images to conduct their work. In particular, several projects are underway that take advantage of the coherent collections of leaves assembled by biblioclast Otto Ege and his wife Louise in the mid-twentieth century.

In the wake of the expanding universe of Digital Fragmentology, I thought it might be useful to gather in one place the current work being done by different scholars on Ege manuscripts, so that curators and collectors will know whom they should contact if they come across these leaves. All of these scholars will already be familiar with the leaves in the known “Fifty Original Leaves” portfolios, but if you come across examples that aren’t in portfolios, please let them know! Here are the projects of which I am aware:

Ege FOL 1: A twelfth-century glossed Bible. There is a large portion of this manuscript at Stanford University, and the curator of manuscripts there, Benjamin L Albritton, is working on a digital reconstruction. This was the first use-case employing IIIF-compliance in a shared-canvas environment, demonstrating how this technology could be used to digitally reconstruct dismembered manuscripts.

Ege FOL 3: A twelfth-century lectionary from Italy. Peter Kidd has blogged about this manuscript here, here, and here. (UPDATED 29 May 2021)

Ege FOL 4: This is the so-called Chain Psalter that is the subject of Ariel Brecht’s Master’s thesis at the University of Saskatchewan. If you find a leaf that isn’t in an Ege portfolio, please contact her.

Ege Fol 6: Hannah Goeselt (one of my former students at Simmons University) is studying this manuscript, known as the Cambridge Bible. If you find a leaf that isn’t in an Ege portfolio, please let me know and I will contact her.

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Kent State University (Kent, Ohio), “Fifty Original Leaves,” no. 7

Ege FOL 7: This thirteenth-century copy of Peter Riga’s Aurora is being reconstructed by incoming Columbia University Freshman Sindhu Krishnamurthy, under my guidance. If you find a leaf, please let me know and I will contact her.

Ege FOL 8: The “Wilton Processional” is the subject of extensive study and publication by Alison Altstatt at the University of Northern Iowa. In particular, see “Re-membering the Wilton Processional” in Notes: the Quarterly Journal of the Music Library Association 72, no. 4 (June 2016), 690-732.

Ege FOL 14: A beautiful fourteenth-century French lectern Bible that is being studied by Mildred Budny. She has written about it extensively here.

Ege FOL 15: The Beauvais Missal, my own project. I’ve located 109 out of 309 leaves so far, but I’m always looking for more! This reconstruction is available in Fragmentarium. [UPDATED 12/26/20]

Ege FOL 20: A fifteen-line Psalter from the 14th century that is being studied by Judith Oliver. [UPDATED 5/19/21]

Ege FOL 28: A lovely Book of Hours for the Use of Metz studied and reconstructed by Simmons University students in the fall of 2019. [UPDATED 12/26/20]

Ege FOL 29: A Book of Hours reconstructed by students in my Introduction to Medieval Manuscripts class at the Simmons University School of Library and Information Science (Boston, Massachusetts) in the fall of 2018, using the Fragmentarium interface. More on Fragmentarium here.

Ege FOL 30: Another Book of Hours rebuilt in Fragmentarium, this one undertaken by my Simmons students in the fall of 2017.

Ege FOL 31: This Book of Hours was studied by my Simmons students in the fall of 2021 and is online in Fragmentarium as well. For this Book of Hours, Use of Paris is indicated by the Calendar and liturgical variants in Matins of the Hours of the Virgin, and Vespers and Matins in the Office of the Dead. Several of the full-page miniatures from this manuscript have been identified in addition to those used as no. 31 in Ege’s “Fifty Original Leaves” sets.

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University of South Carolina (Columbia , South Carolina), “Fifty Original Leaves,” no. 31

Ege FOL 41: Mildred Budny has written about this manuscript here.

Ege FOL 45: A Book of Hours reconstructed by my Simmons University students in the fall of 2022, using Fragmentarium. By analyzing the recovered portion of the manuscript they discovered that the manuscript was likely made for the Use of Paris or Arras, and may have been sold by Sotheby’s in 1948.

Ege FOL 46: This Book of Hours was reconstructed by Simmons University students in the fall of 2020, using Fragmentarium. By analyzing the recovered portion of the manuscript, they determined that the manuscript was likely made for the Use of Rouen or Coutances. [UPDATED 12/26/20]

Ege FOL 47: Another Book of Hours reconstructed by Simmons students, this one using Omeka in 2015 (as Fragmentarium hadn’t yet been launched).

Ege FOL 48: Yet ANOTHER Book of Hours reconstructed by yet MORE Simmons students, using Omeka in the fall of 2016.

Ege HL 51: This complex Aristotelian manuscript from Erfurt is being studied by Prof.  Riccardo Strobino at Tufts University. Leaves of this manuscript are no. 2 in Ege’s “Original Leaves from Famous Books, Eight Centuries” and no. 3 in the “Original Leaves from Famous Books, Nine Centuries” portfolios. These portfolios are numerous, and Gwara identifies several dozen locations (Gwara, pp. 100-102).

Ege HL 53: This Quran (no. 1 in two different portfolios: “Famous Books: Nine Centuries” and “Fifteen Leaves from Oriental Manuscripts”) is being studied by Maroun El Houkayem from Duke University. He is also tracking other Qurans dispered by Ege: HL 62, HL 70, and HL 71 (“Fifteen Leaves from Oriental Manuscripts” nos. 2, 11, and 12 respectively). His work is ongoing, so please do reach out to him if you identify leaves from any of these manuscripts.

Ege HL 61: Mildred Budny’s work on this tiny thirteenth-century Bible can be found here.

Ege HL 64: Andy Patton (Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts) has published a significant study of this fragmentary Greek Gospel book. See Andrew J. Patton, “The Fragmentation and Digital Reconstruction of Lectionary 2434,” in That Nothing May Be Lost: Fragments and the New Testament Text: Papers from the Twelfth Birmingham Colloquium on the Textual Criticism of the New Testament, Texts and Studies 29 (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias, 2022), 39–68. <> [UPDATE as of 11 March 2023]

Ege HL 79: This manuscript isn’t the subject of a reconstruction (yet), but since it was written by the well-known humanistic scribe Bartolomeo Sanvito, it may be worth someone’s attention! More about this manuscript here (by Peter Kidd).

Ege HL 80: Although he isn’t working on a formal reconstruction of this humanistic Book of Hours, Peter Kidd has written about its history and dispersal here. It’s worth noting that the University of Colorado at Boulder owns several leaves, including a bifolium and two that are illuminated.

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Garden of roses by Saadi: Persia, late 18th century (Brooklyn Museum, Z109_Eg7_p10_recto)

To help identify Ege leaves in your own collection, or if you want to work on any of the other Ege manuscripts, start your search with this selection of “Fifty Original Leaves” sets, beautifully digitized in open-access environments:

Other sets are posted on Denison’s Ege site, but these images are not always high quality. For other Ege-related leaves, you’ll want to refer to the indices in Gwara’s book. To help with these identifications, I’ve created a shared Dropbox folder with images and metadata for more than 100 different manuscripts dismembered by Ege. Check out my “Ege Field Guide” here.

If you do happen to find any of the above-mentioned leaves in your own collection, please contact the relevant scholars (or you can always reach out to me and I’ll pass the news along to the appropriate person). If I’ve missed any Ege-based reconstruction projects, please let me know and I’ll work to keep this list updated. In the meantime, follow #fragmentology and #OttoEge on Twitter to stay on top of breaking fragmentology news!


Filed under Fragmentology, Medieval Manuscripts, Otto F. Ege, Uncategorized

Manuscript Road Trip: A Little Bit of Voynich on the Side

The Flight into Egypt, Walters Art Museum, MS W.188, f.112r

The Flight into Egypt, Walters Art Museum, MS W.188, f.112r

If you read my blog, or follow me on Twitter, or have spent five minutes talking to me at a conference, you will know that I am – to put it mildly – fascinated by the Voynich Manuscript, also known as Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library MS 408 (Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut). For the uninitiated, take a minute to read this blogpost so you’ll be caught up.

[n.b.: I am not here to decode or read or translate or otherwise interpret the contents of the manuscript. I am not a linguist, cryptologist, or conspiracy-theorist. I am a medievalist specializing in the materiality of medieval manuscripts…what they are, how they’re made, who owned them, how they got from there and then to here and now, and how they can help us understand book culture in the Middle Ages, later collecting and connoisseurship, and modern engagement with the medieval era. I am particularly interested in Pre-1600 manuscripts in North American collections, an intersection in which the Voynich Manuscript at the Beinecke Library solidly stands]

70r detail

f. 70r detail

As I write this, I am in Philadelphia attending the annual conference of the organization I run, the Medieval Academy of America. Meeting at the University of Pennsylvania is a homecoming of sorts for me, since my first job after completing my PhD was in the Rare Book Room at the Van Pelt Library, where I was hired to catalogue medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. In the brief calm between my arrival in Philadelphia and the two days I spent in pre-meeting meetings, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to spend a few hours at the library, Voynich-ing (yes, that’s a verb, at least it is at my house).

This part of the story begins back in 1912, when Wilfrid Voynich purchased the manuscript from the Jesuits at Villa Mondragone near Rome. Upon his return to the United States, he began promoting his mysterious acquisition, boasting to friends and colleagues about the book no one could read. Cryptologists, linguists, and statisticians were intrigued, and several came to study the manuscript in hopes of solving the puzzle. The most intrepid of these was William Romaine Newbold (1865-1926), a professor of Latin and Philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. Newbold died before completing his study, but in 1928 his friend and colleague Roland Grubb Kent edited his work and published it posthumously under the title The Cipher of Roger Bacon.

Screenshot (689)The Cipher of Roger Bacon is, quite frankly, a terrible piece of research. Presented as a formal and detailed linguistic and historical analysis, his logic is flawed and circular and his historical discussions are often not only bizarre but also anachronistic. The crux of his “solution” is the theory that each Voynich letter (or “grapheme,” more appropriately, since we don’t know for sure that they ARE letters…each character, for example, could be a phoneme) is actually a connected series of microscopic Latin letters strung together, written by none other than the thirteenth-century scholar and scientist Roger Bacon using an extraordinarily high-powered microscope, apparently of his own invention. There is absolutely no material forensic evidence to support this theory, which Newbold bases not only on his own microscopic investigations but on a lengthy and equally improbable argument claiming that Bacon had the knowledge, skill, and equipment to create a powerful microscope. And that’s just the first of a series of increasingly unlikely claims.

Screenshot (696)

The Cipher of Roger Bacon, plate XIIIa and b, demonstrating Newbold’s micrographic method

Newbold announced his solution in a lecture titled “The Voynich Roger Bacon Manuscript” delivered at the April 1921 meeting of the American Philosophical Society and the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

f. 68

The “Nebula” page (f. 68r, leftmost panel)

His work focused on the “Nebula” page (folio 68r), which he claimed represented Bacon’s (and thus the earliest known) drawing of the Andromeda Nebula as seen through a telescope. He also used his method to interpret several of the illustrations in the biological section of the manuscript. Newbold’s conclusion that the Voynich Manuscript demonstrated Bacon’s (hitherto unknown) advanced understanding of science, astronomy, and biology immediately propelled him to national, albeit short-lived, fame, with articles in outlets as varied as Bookman’s Journal and The New York Times trumpeting the news. Screenshot (688)Montrose J. Moses’ “A Cinderella in Parchment: The Romance of the New 600 Year-Old Bacon Manuscript” in Hearst’s International (June 1921, pp.16-17, 75) is a typical example. [These pieces are among the first of a genre of breathless and premature announcements that still appear with shocking regularity today, in which someone claims to have “solved” the Voynich, the claim is published online, and the news spreads virally across the globe before it can be critically reviewed.]

If I’m not here to tell you how to read the Voynich Manuscript,  I am also not here to tear down Newbold’s work. That task was taken up quite effectively in the 1931 issue of Speculum, the renowned journal of Medieval Studies published, in fact, by the very same Medieval Academy of America of which I am Executive Director. John Manfred Manly’s article “Roger Bacon and Voynich Manuscript” (Speculum VI (1931), 345-391) is a savage takedown of Newbold’s research.

IMG_20190311_125634290It was precisely because of Newbold’s widespread fame that Manly felt a moral imperative to publicly denounce his work, in the “interests of scientific truth.” “In my opinion,” he wrote, “the Newbold claims are entirely baseless and should be definitely and absolutely rejected” (Manly, p. 347). He goes on to spend fifty pages dismantling Newbold’s argument and methodology.

Regarding Newbold’s attribution of the manuscript’s authorship to Bacon, Manly has this to say: “[Newbold] credited [Bacon] with palaeographical knowledge of the most recondite sort and asserted that the MS was a document in which this thirteenth century friar, to avoid the dangers then awaiting the unconventional thinker, had secretly recorded discoveries made with a compound microscope – constructed centuries before its known invention – discoveries in which this unparalleled genius had anticipated the theories of twentieth century biologists and histologists concerning germ cells, ova, spermatozoa, and the general mechanism of organic life.” (Manly, p. 346)

Manly’s critiques go much further than a simple accusation of anachronism, however. He follows Newbold’s decryption step by step, pointing out numerous flaws and transcription errors, noting at one point that “The correct conclusion undoubtedly is that the ‘microscopic shorthand signs’ have, as such, no objective existence, but are the creatures of Professor Newbold’s imagination.” (Manly, p. 354).

Manly’s criticism of Newbold’s interpretation of the biological illustration on folio 78 questions not only his decryption method but his biological reading of the scene:

“…[Newbold’s] interpretation of the drawings (shown in his Plate V) is very puzzling. One might accept ‘the schematized ovaries,’ and the Fallopian tubes, but why are there streams of ova descending into the uterus? Why are there two connected uteri? And why seven or eight’ souls (spermatozoa)’ and eight ova in a uterus? As to the legend itself, I might be less skeptical of the reading but for the fact that in this, as in many similar cases, I cannot find the shorthand signs shown at the foot of page 48 in the legend shown in Plate V. In fact, this legend, like the rest of the groups of symbols in the manuscript, seems to me to have been written with free hand strokes, not built up…” (Manly, p. 390). I’ll let you judge for yourself both the interpretation of the image and Newbold’s micrographic reading of the word in the upper right corner:


Newbold, p. 48 detail (decoding the word in the upper right corner of f. 78r)

And on and on it goes.

As a result of Manly’s article, Newbold was posthumously and utterly discredited.

So what does any of this have to do with the Kislak Center for Special Collections at the University of Pennsylvania? Because Newbold was a professor at Penn, the Library owns at least a part of his papers, including several folders of annotated and sometimes handcolored proofs of illustrations from the 1928 book. The plates themselves are not particularly interesting, but I did find something else. I decided to see if the main library had a copy of Newbold’s book so that I could compare the final printed version with the proofs. Turns out they have a copy in the rare book room (RBR) itself, so I could easily compare them side-by-side. Unfortunately, that comparison was not very enlightening. But I did find another something-else.

When I had the  RBR copy of Newbold’s book on my research desk, I noticed that it had been signed by an early owner, cryptologist and mathematician Charles J. Mendelsohn.  Mendelsohn ran in the same cryptoanalytical circles as Manly and famed WWII US Army cryptologist William F. Friedman, and, early Voynichologists all, they had been quite critical of Newbold at one point or another. Friedman and his wife, US Navy cryptologist Elizebeth Smith Friedman, devoted four decades of fruitless study to the Voynich, and it was Manly who wrote the devastating takedown of The Cipher of Roger Bacon in Speculum (for more on these early efforts to make sense out of the Voynich Manuscript, see William Sherman’s essay “Cryptographic Attempts” in Raymond Clemens, ed., The Voynich Manuscript (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), pp. 39-43).

Until now, it has never been noted that Mendelsohn annotated his copy of Newbold’s book. The margins are full of rather snarky comments alongside detailed criticisms of the argument, methodology, and results. These critiques mirror Manly’s, and the two cryptologists likely corresponded about Newbold’s work.

Screenshot (691)

“Usually, the decipherment reveals the sense; here the sense dictates the decipherment!” (Mendelsohn annotation, p. 60)


Above, a Selection of Mendelsohn Annotations…

Manly concludes his Speculum article somewhat more gently and with regret for his role in discrediting a man he clearly considered a friend and colleague: “That [this] judgment must be passed upon the work of so learned and brilliant scholar and so sincere and attractive a personality as Professor Newbold is almost tragic. I say, ‘almost,’ for after all, this record of defeat is none the less a record of scholastic heroism. Confronted with a manuscript, which, though obviously interesting and important for the history of science, had baffled experts of the twentieth century as it had those of the sixteenth and seventeenth, he refused to admit that it could not be read. Eight months he labored before he obtained what he regarded as the first verification of his theories; and eight years – the whole remainder, indeed, of his all too brief life – he devoted with feverish energy to the application of them…He was of the stuff of which heroes and martyrs are made.” (Manly, p. 391)

I am in full enthusiastic agreement with Manly when he concludes, “We can only hope that some one with equal courage and devotion but with a sounder method will be found to renew the attack upon the mysterious cipher of the Voynich manuscript…It is greatly to be desired that…scholars equipped with the necessary armament of knowledge and ingenuity and patience should renew the attack upon the mysterious manuscript.” (Manly, p. 391)

Both critics justifiably accuse Newbold of the same flaws in methodology that afflict many would-be Voynich-solvers today: wishful thinking and inverted logic. To those of you out there in Voynich-land who are even now working on decrypting or deciphering this “elegant enigma,” please take heed of Manly and Mendelsohn’s words of caution: in order to be accepted as legitimate, your solution must be logical, repeatable, take into account the verifiable published scientific analyses, and result in a reading that makes sense both intellectually and chronologically.

voynich detail

Bona fortuna, my fellow Voynichologists!


Filed under Medieval Manuscripts, Uncategorized

Manuscript Road Trip: Ege and Phillipps in Saskatchewan

The Flight into Egypt, Walters Art Museum, MS W.188, f.112r

The Flight into Egypt, Walters Art Museum, MS W.188, f.112r

Most of the time, this road trip is virtual, an exploration of digitized manuscripts and their associated metadata and platforms in collections throughout North America. But sometimes I take an actual road trip, visiting medievalists at institutions and heritage sites far from my home in Boston to study their manuscripts in the flesh, as it were. Last week was one of those times. I spent two delightful days in Canada, visiting the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon and collection in a small private school three hours from there. These are among the northernmost pre-1600 European manuscripts in North America and, in the case of the school, some of the most remote.


Saskatchewan is the prairie of Canada, much like my home state of Oklahoma. Flat, big sky, beautiful serene scenery, windy, with glorious sunsets. Everyone I met was friendly and curious and eager to talk about and learn about the province’s medieval manuscripts. I was invited to Saskatchewan by Prof. Yin Liu and the University’s Classical, Medieval, and Renaissance Studies program, and I am very grateful to Yin and CMRS for the invitation and for the warm welcome.


Prof. Liu discussing Ege leaves with University of Saskatchewan students

My first stop was, of course, Special Collections at the University, where curator David Bindle had laid out a selection of manuscripts, early printed books, and facsimiles for a visiting class in Bibliography taught by English professor Lisa Vargo. The room was full of old friends (by which I mean VERY old), including the University of Saskatchewan’s Otto Ege portfolio, one of the rare and extraordinary “Fifty Original Leaves of Medieval Manuscripts” sets of which forty were produced and only twenty-eight have been located. No. 15 in the set is a leaf from my old and dear friend, the Beauvais Missal. It was a great joy for me to have the opportunity to speak to the students about Otto Ege and his impact on the American market in single leaves in the first half of the twentieth century (if Ege is new to you, you can read about him in several of my blogposts).


U. Saskatchewan students getting to know the Voynich Manuscript

And guess what I saw nestled among the shiny golden facsimiles of glorious late fifteenth-century French manuscripts made for nobility: the shy and smudgy and outwardly humble but extremely detailed and accurate Siloé facsimile of the Voynich Manuscript! Naturally, I had to invite the students to come over and take a look as I walked them through the mysterious manuscript’s history and contents. An added and unexpected treat!

After the class, I had lunch with a group of faculty and students, mostly from the English department, many of whom were working with Profs. Barbara Bordalejo and Peter Robinson on the massive and long-term Canterbury Tales project. Robinson has been working on the project for decades with the goal of transcribing all of the known manuscripts of the Canterbury Tales and using computer algorithms to analyze the variants among the manuscripts to refine the received wisdom about the transmission of Chaucer’s work. Hundreds of students have worked on the transcriptions over the years as the project has migrated through various formats. Currently, the transcriptions are encoded using the Text-Encoding Initiative, with customized tags and a custom backend that uses IIIF-compliance to display images alongside the TEI transcription. Check out the project website for more details!

The original plan had been for me to head back to Special Collections after lunch to spend some time with the Library’s codices, but after Prof. Robinson and Prof. Bordalejo invited me to visit the Canterbury Tales Project workroom, I couldn’t resist the chance to be in the room where it happens. They even went so far as to set up an account for me so that I can participate in the transcription and encoding.


Univ. of Saskatchewan MSS 14.1 (the “Brendan Missal”), f. 98v. The red circle circumscribing a Greek cross is an “osculatory target.”

My time was limited, so after an hour or so Yin walked me over to Special Collections where I spent some time with this early fifteenth-century Missal recently purchased by the University. Although the codex is lacking several dozen leaves, it includes enough evidence to provide a rough localization to the Low Countries. One piece of this evidence is a fascinating later addition on the opening leaf, an inventory of the treasures of an “Altar of St. Brendan” written in Dutch and Latin that is most definitely worthy of further study. Line 5 of the inventory records a “Misboeck op perghemynte ghescreven” (“a Massbook written on parchment”) that may refer to this very codex. The inventory is witnessed by the notary Bernardus tor Schuren and is dated 1532. In the original portion of the manuscript, the Canon and the mass for Easter each include a fascinating detail, roundels in the bottom margin in red and orange encircling a Greek cross. These are almost certainly “osculatory targets,” meant to be kissed by the Priest as a sign of veneration.

But I wasn’t in Saskatchewan just to look at the books. That evening, I delivered the opening lecture of the CMRS annual colloquium series. The title of my presentation was “Scattered Leaves and Virtual Manuscripts: The Promise of Digital Fragmentology,” essentially a history of the study of fragments and the development of efforts to digitally reconstruct dismembered manuscripts. The lecture was well-attended with a lively discussion afterwards and a show-and-tell of Otto Ege leaves on display. My thanks to curator David Bindle for facilitating the display of Ege leaves.


Off on a road trip with Yin at the wheel!

The highlight of my trip took place the following day when I embarked on the ultimate manuscript road trip, driving deep into the plains of Saskatchewan to visit a small private collection of rare books and manuscripts at Athol Murray College of Notre Dame in Wilcox. This was, without doubt, the most remote collection I have visited in North America. We were two carloads of eager explorers: Yin and myself, Prof. Courtnay Konshuh, and three students (Tristan, Amanda, and Chloe). We drove through the rural towns of Craink, Moose Jaw, and Rouleau (familiar to Canadians, I’m told, as the fictional town of Dog River in the popular Canadian television show “Corner Gas”) before reaching our destination, the small railside town of Wilcox three hours from Saskatoon. The collection belongs to a small Catholic boys’ school founded in 1920 and now best known for its hockey team, although its extraordinary rare book collection should certainly put it on the map.

When we arrived, we were greeted by the archivist, who gave us a brief tour and introduction. The rare book collection is part of a museum dedicated to the history of the school and its founder, Father Athol Murray. Several relics of Father Murray’s life are part of the collection, including his old suitcase and scarlet vestments. The books came to Father Murray from several different sources; some were bequeathed by his father or other family members, others were gifted by friends or devoted students. For example, his copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle


The Nuremberg Chronicle

was a gift from a group of former students. According to the story, Father Murray – a Catholic Priest – had been saving his money to buy the volume but when he learned that a student was in need, he used that money to help the student instead, in what was clearly a typical act of generosity for the man commonly and lovingly known as Père. When the word spread of his decision to reallocate the money he had saved, a group of former students banded together to buy the Chronicle for him.

The collection was catalogued in 2003 by University of Saskatchewan student Michael Santer, as his Master’s thesis. The catalogue’s introduction serves as a biography of Father Murray, while the catalogue is focused on the printed books and their provenance. It was the appendix that caught my eye: the manuscripts. Santer worked with several University of Saskatchewan professors to create a handlist of the handful of manuscripts in the collection. In addition to several documents, the collection includes three incomplete but interesting codices: a thirteenth-century manuscript of the Legenda Aurea (Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend, a lengthy collection of saints’ lives that was extremely popular throughout the Middle Ages); a late thirteenth-century collection of the Decretals of Pope Gregory X; and what appeared at first glance to be a late-twelfth or early-thirteenth-century fragmentary manuscript of several saints’ lives.

IMG_20180928_154831967In its current state, the latter codex includes extracts from the Life and Miracles of St. Martin of Tours (attributed to the fourth-century French chronicler Sulpicius Severus) and the Lives of the Seven Sleepers (a Rip van Winkle-esque saga spuriously attributed to Gregory, Bishop of Tours) (Bibliotheca Hagiographica Latina no. 2320; for the full text, see Patrologia Latina 71:1107B-1110C). The manuscript has an esteemed provenance: at the bottom of the first flyleaf is the signature and shelfmark of none other than Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792 –1872), arguably the most prolific collector of all time, a man who has made his way into this blog several times. IMG_20180928_144201372 This is Phillipps MS 22049, acquired by Phillipps in the late 1860s (see Munby, A. N. L., The Formation of the Phillipps Library Between 1841 and 1872 (Phillipps Studies No. IV), p. 208) and sold from the collection at Sotheby’s on 6 June 1898, lot 841. It’s not clear when Father Murray acquired the manuscript, but it was likely in the early decades of the twentieth century.

At first sight, I ascribed the manuscript to early thirteenth-century France based on the style of the script and the gorgeous, elaborate red and purple penwork.


Initial [T], The Lives of the Seven Sleepers (f. 21)

I say “at first sight” because after a more careful examination, several features of the manuscript struck all of us as unusual: the form of the [g], the complete lack of ampersands (“et” is not abbreviated in the manuscript, which is nearly unheard of), the occasional (i.e. inconsistent) appearance of biting bows, the use of a Romanesque-style script with Gothic features such as below-top-line formatting, the overly-elaborate penwork historiated initials, and, as Tristan and I discovered during our examination of the structure of the codex, the unusual collation.

The manuscript is fragmentary, currently consisting of only twenty-two leaves. A French manuscript from the thirteenth-century should be constructed of quaternions, signatures made up of four nested bifolia, i.e. eight leaves. These twenty-two-leaves, however, are comprised of a quire of twelve (with at least one bifolium missing, so originally at least fourteen) and a quire of ten. This format is EXREMELY unusual in northern Europe, especially in the thirteenth century. So I did what I always do when I have a difficult manuscript problem. I turn to Twitter, #MedievalTwitter in particular. I posted an image of the manuscript and within minutes was engaged in a conversation with paleographers from both sides of the Atlantic. In the end, expert paleographer Erik Kwakkel suggested that the manuscript was likely written in the fourteenth-century by a scribe attempting to imitate an earlier script, something that, while not exactly common, is not unheard of. We cannot know if the archaizing script was intended to deceive or to pay homage. Modern forgers, such as the Spanish Forger, are usually in it for the money. Our late-medieval scribe, on the other hand, may have been copying an older manuscript or simply practicing a different kind of script than the one he was used to. There is much more to learn about this lovely manuscript, including piecing together its journey from France to Phillipps to Sotheby’s to Saskatchewan.

IMG_20180928_185007834 As we drove back to Saskatoon, dazzled by a blazing prairie sunset, we found ourselves wondering what Sir Thomas Phillipps would have thought about the fate of his MS 22049. I suspect he would have been puzzled at first (after all, the province of Saskatchewan didn’t exist until just a few years before his death). But as a collector himself, Phillipps would certainly have appreciated that the manuscript had found a happy home, first in the hands of the students’ beloved Père and now in the collection of the school he loved.

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Filed under Medieval Manuscripts, Otto F. Ege, Uncategorized