Tag Archives: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

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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Filed under Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Uncategorized, Voynich Manuscript

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: 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: (Re)introducing the Gottschalk Antiphonal!

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

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

A few months ago, I wrote about the potential of Fragmentarium for cataloguing fragments and digitally reconstructing dismembered manuscripts. I concluded that post with the  aspirational note, “I really do think it’s time for Gottschalk to go digital,” in reference to the manuscript I reconstructed as part of my PhD dissertation at Yale in the early 1990s. That work was done using black-and-white photocopies, and, when published by Cambridge University Press in the year 2000, black-and-white photographs. Now, 750 years after the manuscript was written, the Gottschalk Antiphonal has finally gone digital! I am very pleased to introduce my Fragmentarium reconstruction of the Gottschalk Antiphonal, in glorious IIIF-compliant interoperable color:



Hello, Gottschalk!

I was inspired to add Gottschalk to Fragmentarium by my students’ work reconstructing other manuscripts and motivated to actually do it by my participation in a Fragmentology session at the recent International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. Thousands of medievalists from all over the world flock to Kalamazoo every May for this annual conference, listening to and learning from one another, greeting old friends, conferring with colleagues. My session was chaired by Elizabeth Hebbard (Indiana Univ.) and included fragmentology presentations by Julia King (Univ. of Toronto), Kayla Lunt (Indiana Univ.), Dana Kovarik (Univ. College London), and Elena Iourtaeva (Harvard Univ.). All six of us are working on fragmentology projects. I noted in my presentation that the Swiss-German word for “fragmentology” is “Schnipseljagd” (fragment hunting), which makes all six of us Schnipseljägerinnen (“Fragment huntresses”). That might just be my new favorite word.


The Schnipseljägerinnen of Kalamazoo

In my presentation I discussed the fragmentology projects completed by my students at the Simmons School of Library and Information Science, and I debuted my digital reconstruction of the Gottschalk Antiphonal.


The Gottschalk Antiphonal, with Gottschalk’s distinctive script, neumatic notation, marginal tonary-letters, and purple-and-red penwork initials (BRBL MS 481.51.6v)

The Gottschalk Antiphonal was written and illustrated in the late twelfth century by the scribe/artist/monk Gottschalk of Lambach and was used at the Lambach abbey for several centuries. The manuscript is a choirbook for the Divine Offices recited throughout the day, preserving liturgy for specific days throughout the year. Because it is a choirbook, it includes interlinear musical notation: predating the development of the four-line-staff and Gregorian notation, the Antiphonal uses unheightened neumes in the St. Gall style, with tonary-letters (indicating something akin to the “key” of each chant) in the margins. Gottschalk’s distinctive artistic style permeates the manuscript, with penwork initials in purple and red.

By the fifteenth century, the musical notation and liturgy were centuries out-of-date, and, along with many other manuscripts, the obsolete antiphonal was dismembered to be used as binding scrap at the Lambach Abbey bindery. During World War II, the monks found themselves in need of a new wood lathe. To raise money for the purchase, they removed the antiphonal leaves and dozens of other fragments from the later bindings in which they had been repurposed, and sold them.

The fragments made their way en masse via a Swiss bookdealer to the New York firm of Hans P. Kraus, and from there to Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (BRBL) in 1965. By the time the leaves had been acquired by Kraus, however, the original provenance of the group had been forgotten. Fortunately, a scholar by the name of Kurt Holter had studied and described the fragments in situ at Lambach before the war. It was thanks to his published descriptions of the leaves that then-curator Robert G. Babcock and a team of graduate students (including myself) were, in the early 1990s, able to identify the Beinecke collection as having originated at Lambach. I was particularly intrigued by the seventeen antiphonal leaves and decided to make the manuscript the subject of my dissertation. In addition to the seventeen Gottschalk Antiphonal leaves at Yale (BRBL MS 481.51), there are two at Harvard’s Houghton Library (MS Typ 704 (5) and 704 (6)). We have already seen the leaf that toured the midwestern United States in an aluminum trailer before settling down at the St. Louis Public Library, and there are a few still in Austria (at a hotel in Badgastein, in the abbey of St. Paul im Lavanttal, and in Lambach itself, although the incunable flyleaves observed there as recently as 1998 have since vanished and are represented in the online reconstruction by my old black-and-white photographs).


Offset of a Gottschalk Antiphonal leaf (BRBL Zi +1525, inner rear cover) (image rotated and inverted)

In 2016, an offset of a leaf of the Gottschalk Antiphonal was found in an incunable belonging to the Beinecke Library. The mirror-image remnant was left behind when the actual leaf was peeled off of the wooden board, where it had been used to secure the leather turn-ins on the back cover. Ironically, the volume had been at the Beinecke for decades by the time I wrote my thesis there, but it was only during a recent survey of the bindings by Elizabeth Hebbard (Indiana Univ.) that the offset was photographed and identified. The leaf was originally consecutive with one of the leaves at Harvard, and I have added an inverted and rotated image of the offset to my Fragmentarium reconstruction. I hope that more leaves will come to light someday. If they do, they can easily be added to the twenty-nine leaves currently appearing in the Fragmentarium shared canvas.

And here’s a sidenote for the liturgists among you (if you’re not interested in a deep dive into the structure of medieval liturgical manuscripts, you should skip the next few paragraphs). Every time I’ve returned to the Gottschalk Antiphonal over the years, I’ve found myself wondering if I really did put the leaves in the right order. There are no folio numbers, after all, so only the content can determine the correct sequence. In the case of the Gottschalk Antiphonal, the correct order of leaves isn’t always obvious.

The order of the leaves is debatable because in the early Middle Ages, there was no consistent organizational system for liturgical manuscripts. They tended to be organized calendrically, but some manuscripts intermingled the movable feasts like Easter with the dated feasts like Saints’ days (see Hughes, p. 243, ms B60 for one such example). This system was a bit messy, since it necessitated interspersing set feasts with those that could move. In the later Middle Ages (starting in the thirteenth century or so), a more orderly system developed that untangled the two types of feastdays. As a result, later liturgical manuscripts are almost always divided into two sections known as the Temporale (the movable feasts whose dates are set relative to Easter, plus a few set feasts like Christmas and Epiphany) and the Sanctorale (saints’ feasts in calendrical order, e.g. St. Valentine on February 14). Both sections usually begin in late November, with the beginning of Advent for the Temporale and Saint Andrew (30 November) for the Sanctorale. The Sanctorale is usually followed by the Commons, generic liturgy for particular classes of saints like Virgin Martyrs or Popes.

BRBL 481.51.8r

Initial Q in Gottschalk’s distinctive style (BRBL MS 481.51.8r)

The Gottschalk Antiphonal is of the earlier variety that mingles Temporale and Sanctorale. For example, a now-lost leaf that was formerly bound into an incunable in the Lambach Abbey library includes liturgy for the Sunday during the Octave of Epiphany (part of the Temporale, even though Epiphany has a fixed date) as well as the liturgy for St. Paul the First Hermit (a Sanctorale feast on January 10) and St. Hilary of Poitiers (January 13). Depending on the day of week on which Epiphany fell in a given year, St. Paul or St. Hilary’s feastdays might have landed before, on, or after the Sunday that occurs during the eight days following Epiphany. This intermigling of Temporale and Sanctorale means that it’s not entirely obvious where in the year the manuscript begins or how leaves with Sanctorale feasts relate to calendrically-nearby Temporale feasts. But you have to start somewhere, and because most manuscripts begin with the first Sunday of Advent, it seemed logical to begin the Gottschalk Antiphonal there. And so BRBL MS 481.51.1, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, begins my reconstruction (Sundays 1-3 are not extant). From that point, the leaves are in roughly calendrical order, from Advent to Christmas (December), Epiphany season through Lent (January – March), Easter season (March – April), the Summer Sundays and autumn feasts (May – November), ending with St. Lucy (13 December) and St. Thomas the Apostle (21 December). I feel confident about this sequence in part because the office of St. Thomas is immediately followed by the first Common office, for Evangelists (BRBL MS 481.51.17).

Typ 704 6r

Virgin Saint (Harvard Univ., Houghton Library, MS Typ 704 (6) recto)

This placement suggests that the calendrical sequence ends in December and supports the idea that it began with Advent season. However, this theory is complicated by the fact that Advent season itself would have encompassed the Saints of December such as Lucy and Thomas. Gottschalk’s solution to this complexity appears to have been to simply avoid mingling the Sanctorale with Advent. For example, BRBL MS 481.51.2, liturgy for the week after the Fourth Sunday of Advent, provides ONLY Temporale liturgy and does not give any hint of Sanctorale feasts, even though that week could have included Saints from late December such as Lucy or Thomas. Instead, Gottschalk inserted the Saints of Advent season at the end of the manuscript, when the calendar circled back around to December. With only 29 leaves recovered out of perhaps as many as one hundred, however, it is certainly possible that additional evidence may result in adjustments to this sequence. Because Fragmentarium uses a drag-and-drop feature to sequence images, it will be quite simple to add or re-order leaves if necessary. The clip below demonstrates this backend functionality.


It is worth noting that images of the two leaves at Harvard were imported directly into the Fragmentarium reconstruction using a persistent IIIF url. The other images were uploaded to the Fragmentarium server as individual JPGs. That’s part of the magic of both Fragmentarium and of IIIF, the International Image Interoperability Framework.

Typ 704 5v

Angel of the Annunciation (Harvard Univ., Houghton Library MS Typ 704 (5) verso)

IIIF is the key to fragmentology. If an institutional repository serves its images using IIIF, each individual imagefile will have a persistent IIIF url that can be used to mirror the image directly into a shared-canvas viewer such as Mirador or, in the case of Fragmentarium, Open Sea Dragon. This means that the images are truly open access and can be shared, imported, and manipulated without duplicating, downloading, or uploading the imagefile itself. When the Fragmentarium shared canvas is opened or refreshed, the IIIF images are “mirrored” into the canvas directly from the host server, freed from the host’s viewer or database. The image also has its own metadata established by the home institution that “travels” with it into the shared canvas. If you want to learn more about IIIF and the Mirador viewer, by the way, check out the three-day workshop at the Beinecke Library on 10-12 July 2018 that I will be co-teaching with Stanford University’s Ben Albritton. The deadline to apply is June 1, and more information is available here.

Gottschalk AntiphonaryWhen I first studied the Gottschalk Antiphonal in the early 1990s, I did it with scissors and paste and black-and-white photocopies on the floor of my living room. It is truly thrilling to see it in glorious IIIF-compliant interoperable color in Fragmentarium. I hope that the reconstruction will complement the liturgical, art historical, and musicological study in my book, bringing this beautiful example of twelfth-century music, liturgy, and decoration to a new generation of students and scholars.



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

Davis, Lisa Fagin. Fragmentarium. Multiple, Dispersed Virtual Reconstructions, Gottschalk Antiphonal <http://fragmentarium.ms/overview/F-75ud> (accessed 21 May 2018)

Hughes, Andrew. Medieval Manuscripts for Mass and Office: A Guide to their Organization and Terminology (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995)


Filed under Fragmentology, Medieval Manuscripts

Manuscript Road Trip: The World’s Most Mysterious Manuscript

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

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

We can’t leave New Haven until I introduce you to The World’s Most Mysterious Manuscript.

voynich detailI won’t deny it. I have been captivated by Beinecke MS 408 since I first laid eyes on it in my “Introduction to Latin Paleography” class at Yale in the fall of 1988. It has been called “The World’s Most Mysterious Manuscript,” “The Roger Bacon Cipher,” a Sphinx, a hoax, a conspiracy, the work of a madman, the work of a genius.

It is The Voynich Manuscript.

f. 75r detail

f. 75r detail

If you Google the words “Voynich Manuscript,” you will tumble down a rabbit hole into a dark scary corner of the internet full of alien abductions, seances, conspiracy theories, and secrets. You will stumble into heated debates between fellow obsessives who have devoted their lives to this codex. You will discover sub-specialties you didn’t know existed. Follow an innocuous-looking link and you may find yourself face-to-face with William Shatner or Noah Wyle’s Librarian. You will also find, if you sift through the static, complex linguistic studies, mathematically sophisticated cryptology, relatively conclusive carbon-dating analyses, and a surprisingly interesting bit of botany.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. For those of you who aren’t already steeped in Voynich lore, here are the basics.

The Voynich Manuscript – a medieval codex named for its early twentieth-century owner Wilfrid Voynich – is written in an unknown alphabet apparently encoding an unidentified language, embellished with astonishing botanical, astronomical, and biological illustrations. Cryptologists and mathematicians and linguists worldwide have been studying this manuscript for hundreds of years, and no one has ever offered a satisfactory solution to the enigma that is the Voynich.

f. 70r detail

f. 70r detail

Measuring 225 x 160 mm, the manuscript currently comprises 102 leaves (at least a dozen are missing), including several multi-page fold-outs. The limp-vellum binding is early, but probably not original. For a complete description and details about accompanying ephemera, see Barbara Shailor’s description here.

The codex begins with with 66 folios of botanical illustrations and accompanying texts. The fantastic and impossibly elaborate plants have resisted any attempts to fully identify them.

f. 3r

f. 3r

f. 16v

f. 16v

The next section is comprised of a series of astrological and astronomical diagrams, including ten circular diagrams surrounding signs of the zodiac (two are missing). The miniature naked women standing in baskets who populate the rest of the manuscript make their first appearance in this section.

f. 67r (fold-out)

f. 67r (fold-out)

f. 68v (fold-out)

f. 68v (fold-out)

f. 70r (Pisces)

f. 70r (Pisces)

The next section of the manuscript is filled with what appear to be biological illustrations, such as this detail that seems to depict a uterus,  fallopian tubes, and ovaries:

f. 77v detail

f. 77v detail

f. 75r

f. 75r

f. 83r

f. 83r

A series of diagrams that resist characterization follow, including an elaborate (and fragile) fold-out of six leaves:

f. 86v (fold-out)

f. 86v (fold-out)

The remainder of the manuscript is traditionally thought to contain recipes or medicinal instructions, with additional botanical illustrations.

f. 88v (fold-out)

f. 88v (fold-out)

f. 106v detail

f. 106v detail

The cipher-text uses twenty-five distinct letterforms, some of which seem to have majuscule forms as well. There are no cross-outs or corrections, and each grapheme is always written using the same ductus, or sequence of penstrokes. Ligatures between particular graphemic pairs are consistent and even. This suggests that the codex was written by scribes who had written the script before or were copying an exemplar. In order to facilitate transcriptions and computer-aided linguistic analyses of the text, “Voynichologists” use a Voynich font and a not-entirely arbitrary substitution system of Roman letters known as the European Voynich Alphabet (EVA for short):

European Voynich Alphabet, showing accepted substitutions of Roman for "Voynichese" graphemes

European Voynich Alphabet, showing accepted substitutions of Roman for “Voynichese” graphemes

For example, the following “Voynichese” word is a common root found throughout the astronomical section:

67r detail

Using EVA, it transcribes to “okal.” The entire manuscript has been transcribed in this way and can be accessed here.

Over the years, some have suggested that the manuscript is a forgery perpetrated by Voynich himself, or that it is gibberish, an elaborate hoax. However, recent computational and statistical analyses of the text suggest that the manuscript is not comprised of random scribblings, and that it encodes a natural, rather than an invented, language. Linguists have identified prefixes and suffixes, and have zeroed in on what seem to be rootwords as well. It would certainly help if we knew exactly what language was being encoded, and to help answer that question, we turn to the topic of provenance.

Here’s what we know about the Voynich Manuscript. Most of this comes from Shailor’s description or from documents on file at the Beinecke.

Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II, by Joseph Heintz the Elder

Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II, by Joseph Heintz the Elder

The first confirmed sighting of the Voynich occurs in the late sixteenth century. Emperor Rudolph II of Germany (Holy Roman Emperor, 1576-1612) purchased the manuscript for 600 gold ducats and believed that it was the work of the English scientist Roger Bacon. We know this based on a letter written by a seventeenth-century owner (see below). Rudolph may have purchased it from English astrologer John Dee (1527-1608), whose son noted that Dee, while in Bohemia, owned “a booke…containing nothing butt Hieroglyphicks, which booke his father bestowed much time upon: but I could not heare that hee could make it out.” Emperor Rudolph seems to have given the manuscript to botanist Jacobus Horcicky de Tepenecz (a.k.a. Jacobus Sinapius, d. 1622), who signed the first leaf of the manuscript. The signature has been  scraped away and is fully legible only under ultraviolet light.

f. 1r detail, under ultraviolet light

f. 1r detail, under ultraviolet light

The next known owner was Georg Baresch, an obscure alchemist from Prague. Baresch apparently was just as puzzled as modern scientists about what he called a “Sphynx” that was “taking up space uselessly” in his library. On learning that Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit scholar from Rome, had recently published a Egyptian dictionary in which he deciphered hieroglyphics, Baresch sent a sample of the script to Kircher in Rome in 1637, asking for his opinion. We don’t know if Kircher ever wrote back. But the next owner, Johannes Marcus Marci of Prague, who was friend and heir of Baresch, actually gave the book to Kircher as a gift in 1665 or  1666, accompanied by this Latin letter (translation from H. P. Kraus, A Rare Book Saga, p. 221):

[Autograph letter signed] 1666 [or 1665?] August 19, Prague [to Athanasius Kircher, Rome]

[Autograph letter signed] 1666 [or 1665?] August 19, Prague [to Athanasius Kircher, Rome]

“Reverend and Distinguished Sir, Father in Christ: This book, bequeathed to me by an intimate friend, I destined for you, my very dear Athanasius, as soon as it came into my possession, for I was convinced that it could be read by no one except yourself. The former owner of this book asked your opinion by letter, copying and sending you a portion of the book from which he believed you would be able to read the remainder, but he at that time refused to send the book itself. To its deciphering he devoted unflagging toil, as is apparent from attempts of his which I send you herewith, and he relinquished hope only with his life. But his toil was in vain, for such Sphinxes as these obey no one but their master, Kircher. Accept now this token, such as it is and long overdue though it be, of my affection for you, and burst through its bars, if there are any, with your wonted success. Dr. Raphael, a tutor in the Bohemian language to Ferdinand III, then King of Bohemia, told me the said book belonged to the Emperor Rudolph and that he presented to the bearer who brought him the book 600 ducats. He believed the author was Roger Bacon, the Englishman. On this point I suspend judgement; it is your place to define for us what view we should take thereon, to whose favor and kindness I unreservedly commit myself and remain,

Joannes Marcus Marci of Cronland Prague, 19th August, 1666″ [or 1665]

The manuscript doesn’t surface again for 250 years

We don’t know for certain what happened to the manuscript between the 17th and early 20th centuries, but it has been postulated that it was stored with the rest of Kircher’s correspondence in the library of the Collegio Romano (now the Pontifical Gregorian University) in Rome. It probably remained there until the troops of Victor Emmanuel II of Italy captured the city in 1870. The new Italian government decided to confiscate many properties of the Church, including the library of the Collegio. Just before the confiscation was enacted, many books were transferred from the Collegio library to private faculty libraries to protect them, including Kircher’s correspondence and, presumably, the Voynich Manuscript, since among the material that accompanies the manuscript is the loose bookplate of Petrus Beckx, who was the head of the Jesuit order and the University rector.

Villa Mondragone (photo by Renato Clementi, 2006)

Villa Mondragone (photo by Renato Clementi, 2006)

Beckx’s  library was eventually moved to the Villa Mondragone, a large country palace near Rome that had been bought by the Jesuits four years earlier. In the early twentieth century, the Collegio Romano was short of money and decided to sell some of its valuables. London (later New York) collector/bookdealer Wilfrid Voynich (1865 – 1930) bought the manuscript along with about thirty others in 1912. The manuscript is No. 8 in Voynich’s collection as described in Seymour de Ricci’s Census of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the United States and Canada (II:1846-7), where it is titled “Cipher ms.” During his lifetime, Voynich refused to reveal the collection from which he had acquired the manuscript, leaving some to speculate that he himself had written it.

Wilfrid Voynich

Wilfrid Voynich

When Voynich died, the manuscript passed to his widow Ethel, who revealed that Voynich had purchased it from the Jesuits in Rome. After her death, she bequeathed it to her friend Ann Nill, who in turn sold it to bookdealer Hans P. Kraus in 1961 for $24,500. In his 1978 biography A Rare Book Saga, Kraus described his attempts to sell the manuscript:

H. P. Kraus Catalogue 100, in which the Voynich Manuscript was item no. 20.

H. P. Kraus Catalogue 100, in which the Voynich Manuscript was item no. 20.

“In [Catalogue 100] it was offered for $160,000, the same price Voynich had asked 50 years earlier. Miss Nill was to get one half of the amount above the price I had paid her. Many clients, mostly scholars, expressed great interest, but nobody bought…Dozens of scholars wanted to see it, others asked for photos. Institutions asked to have it on loan. I had to decline all such requests, to preserve its commercial value. There were no buyers. After seven years of happy ownership we felt that the right thing to do was to turn it over to an institution where it could be freely studied. We chose the Beinecke Library at Yale as the recipient.” (p. 222)

At Yale, it was given the shelfmark MS 408.

Since 1969, the Voynich Manuscript has lived in a vault at the Beinecke Library accompanied by a growing archive of documents and correspondence. The manuscript has been newly imaged in high-resolution color, and a full digital facsimile can be studied and downloaded here.

Over the years, scholars and cryptologists and conspiracy theorists have posed dozens of solutions. The first was that it was written by Roger Bacon, a thirteenth-century English Franciscan and scientist. Others have credited it to Leonardo da Vinci, or claimed that it is a modern forgery. Proposed solutions are as varied as an Egyptian sex manual, a message from outer space, a botanical and astrological treatise hiding radical ideas. Some think it’s a hoax, a forgery perpetrated by Voynich himself. But as of 2013, when the results of carbon dating tests at the University of Arizona were released, we know that the parchment dates from between 1404-1435. In addition, chemical analyses concluded that the inks and pigments were consistent with medieval recipes. That rules out modern forgery. That also rules out Roger Bacon, since he died around 1292, as well as da Vinci, who wasn’t born until 1452.

f. 78r

f. 78r

The best guess for a date and place of origin, then? Central Europe, early fifteenth century. This proposed origin, based on stylistic evidence as well as the manuscript’s first known location, suggests that the manuscript isn’t necessarily encoding a western European language such as Latin or Italian. It could be Hungarian, or Roma, or Bulgarian. We simply don’t know.

Needless to say, the Voynich Manuscript doesn’t come out of the vault very often. If you live in the DC area and would like to see the manuscript in person, however, you are in luck, because for the first time ever, the Voynich is on loan and on display. You can see it at The Folger Library until February 26 2015, where it is part of the exhibition Decoding the Renaissance. The Washington Post ran this feature on the manuscript in November 2014, focusing on attempts to decode it made by famed U.S. WWII cryptologist William Friedman in the years before his death.

If you still want to know more, the best places to start are the Beinecke site and the 1978 volume The Most Mysterious Manuscript: The Voynich “Roger Bacon” Cipher Manuscript by R. S. Brumbaugh. Online, René Zandbergen’s Voynich Manuscript site includes a detailed survey of every aspect of the manuscript, a lengthy and up-to-date bibliography, and lots of theories and proposed solutions. Cryptologist Nick Pelling’s blog includes current research and discussion. And of course there’s always the Wiki and the online Journal of Voynich Studies.

Paul Tobin and Ig Guara, Marvel Adventures: Black Widow and The Avengers, #18,

Paul Tobin and Ig Guara, Marvel Adventures: Black Widow and The Avengers, #18.

The manuscript continues to capture the public imagination in various formats and media, including comic books and video games. Try #Voynich on Twitter, or “Voynich Manuscript” on YouTube, just for starters. William Shatner devoted an episode of his “Weird or What?” TV series to the Voynich (yes, you can watch it online and thank me later). In one of Noah Wyle’s Librarian films, the Voynich makes a brief throw-away appearance when the title character is told, “Yale wants it decoded by Monday.” Search “Voynich Manuscript” on Amazon.com and you will discover an entire Voynich-fiction sub-genre. And now that you’re familiar with the manuscript, you can join the club of humans who understand these Voynich-inspired comics.

Of all of the works that have been inspired by the Voynich, only one is auditory. Recently, the Beinecke Library celebrated its 50th anniversary with a series of special lectures and events. Composer Stephen Gorbos was commissioned to write a piece inspired by the Voynich manuscript. “Such Sphinxes as These Obey No One but Their Master” premiered at the Beinecke in 2013 performed by the extraordinary vocal group, Roomful of Teeth. It is a haunting and evocative tribute.

I gave up trying to decipher the Voynich Manuscript a long time ago. But I keep the PDF on my tablet and visit it from time to time. I collect terrible and not-so-terrible Voynich fiction. I scour the internet for new, credible discoveries. I marvel at indecipherable words, tiny women in wicker baskets, unidentified plants, and uncharted constellations.

voynich detailI kind of hope The World’s Most Mysterious Manuscript stays that way.


Filed under Medieval Manuscripts

Manuscript Road Trip: A New Year in New Haven

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

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

The history of medieval manuscripts in the United States begins in New Haven, Connecticut, at Yale University. Beinecke MS 27 is not only the  first medieval manuscript recorded in the Yale collection but is thought to have been the first illuminated manuscript brought to the New World. The manuscript – an illustrated copy of Vincent of Beauvais’ Speculum humanae salvationis – was given to Yale in 1714 by none other than Eli Yale himself. In the three centuries since, the Yale collection has grown into one of the largest in the U.S. Today, the luminous Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library holds more than 1,500 pre-1600 manuscripts in four main collections: the Beinecke MS series (a growing collection currently comprising 1,162 manuscripts) and the Marston, Mellon, and Osborn collections (three private collections that were later acquired by the library). In addition, Japanese collector Toshiyuki Takamiya has recently deposited his important collection of Middle English manuscripts at the Beinecke. Keep an eye on curator Ray Clemens’ blog for news and updates.

working map

The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, from the outside...

The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, from the outside…

Many of the Beinecke manuscripts are described in detail in the four-volume Catalogue of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University (Binghamton, N.Y. : Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1984-2004) by Barbara Shailor et al. Shailor’s work has served as a model for manuscript scholars world-wide. In much the same way, the Beinecke’s electronic records are models for institutions seeking to make their collections available in a digital format.

There are three access points for each manuscript on the Yale site, all of which are linked to one another:

...and inside.

…and inside.

1) Descriptions: Shailor’s descriptions can be keyword-searched here.

2) Digital surrogates: Complete digital surrogates can be accessed here and downloaded as PDFs.

3) MARC records: a complete list of MARC records for early manuscripts can be retrieved in ORBIS, Yale’s library database, by using the subject heading “Manuscripts, Medieval–Connecticut–New Haven.

Finally, most of the manuscripts can be found in Digital Scriptorium, with more being added to the database regularly.

A note about the MARC records (feel free to skip the next two paragraphs if MARC-speak puts you to sleep). If you’ve been reading my blog for any amount of time, you’ll know that I have strong opinions about how best to use MARC for early manuscripts, and how NOT to. In my virtual travels around the country, I’ve spent a lot of time exploring local OPACs and have learned a lot about best-practices. Yale’s MARC records have been carefully crafted by database specialists, MARC technicians, and manuscript scholars working together to design modified AMREMM records that are clear, thorough, discoverable, and exportable. The 650 field “|a Manuscripts, Medieval  |z Connecticut  |z New Haven,” a custom field whose use in this way may be anathema to some MARC cataloguers, is in fact the key to discoverability, as it allows users to easily retrieve a complete list of early manuscripts. I highly recommend using something similar for your own records.

At the same time, Yale’s MARC records have been designed to cross-walk smoothly into Digital Scriptorium’s hierarchically-structured database, allowing Yale (and others following this model) to export records to Digital Scriptorium with minimal re-keying. In addition to a 1-to-1 relationship between certain MARC and DS fields (e.g. MARC 245 = DS “Title”), the real key to this process is the consistent use and formatting of MARC’s catch-all 500 fields. Working with Digital Scriptorium, Yale’s database gurus have established a closed set of trigger-words (Binding, Watermark, Ownership, Script, etc.) that, when used in a 500 field and immediately followed by a colon, tell the Digital Scriptorium cross-walk algorithm what to do with the metadata that follows. If you are interested in learning more about synching your MARC records and images with the DS database and becoming part of Digital Scriptorium, read these guidelines and contact Digital Scriptorium Executive Director Consuelo Dutschke.

Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University

Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University

But back to New Haven. It wouldn’t be right to sing the praises of the Beinecke’s collection without sharing some of its treasures. I was a graduate student at Yale from 1988 – 1993 in the Medieval Studies program and worked for several years as the Assistant to the Curator of Pre-1600 Manuscripts, at the time Robert G. Babcock. This is where I developed my love for manuscript fragments, as I was given the job of cataloguing and conserving several hundred of these little wanderers. The project turned into Volume IV of the Beinecke Catalogue and led to the discovery with Dr. Babcock that many of the leaves in the collection had originally come from the Benedictine Abbey of St. Kilian in Lambach, Austria.

Lambach Abbey

Lambach Abbey

This discovery provided me with a dissertation topic as well as the opportunity to assist with an exhibition and the accompanying catalogue. Needless to say, I feel very fortunate to have had such a splendid introduction to the world of medieval manuscripts. The Beinecke collection is varied and extraordinary, with ancient fragments perfect for teaching paleography, mysterious codices whose secrets are yet to be unraveled, important and rare literary exempla, and stunning works of art.

BRBL MS 404, f. 7r

BRBL MS 404, f. 7r

Here are a few highlights from the Beinecke collection. I have to lead with MS 404, otherwise known as The Rothschild Canticles.

BRBL MS 404, f. 44r

BRBL MS 404, f. 44r

This spectacular manuscript, written in France at the turn of the fourteenth century, illustrates the Song of Songs and other texts with mystical and complex full-page illustrations. It has been reproduced in facsimile and studied by several scholars, most notably Jeffrey Hamburger.

Another notable late thirteenth-century French manuscript is BRBL MS 229, an Arthurian romance in Old French. In the detail below, we see Sir Lancelot riding off with “The Damsel” in the upper compartment of the miniature, while the Knights of the Round Table do battle below.

BRBL MS 299, f. 75r

BRBL MS 229, f. 75r

BRBL 229 f. 75 detail

Lancelot and the damsel leave the hermitage; the knights of the Round Table in battle with the knights of Baudemagus (BRBL MS 229, f. 75 detail)

MS 425 is a gorgeously illustrated Missal from France, ca. 1470. It was illuminated, at least in part, by the great Jean Colombe and three other artists. After the calendar, the manuscript opens with the Masses for Advent, illustrated by a half-page miniature of The Entry into Jerusalem with smaller miniatures in the margins depicting a priest saying Mass and various scenes from the life of Christ.

BRBL MS 425, f. 6r

BRBL MS 425, f. 6r

MS 375, an early sixteenth-century Book of Hours, is also sumptuously illustrated, with full gilt borders on every page, fifteen full-page miniatures, and twelve calendrical illustrations. The letters E, F and G appear in the margins throughout, presumably initials related to the original (and still unidentified) owner. The manuscript has a noble provenance, having passed through the hands of Marie-Caroline de Bourbon, Duchesse de Berry (1798-1870) as well as Baron Edmond de Rothschild (1845 – 1934). 

BRBL MS 375, f. 51v/52

BRBL MS 375, f. 51v/52

The Beinecke also holds hundreds of single leaves and fragments. I’ve written quite a lot in this blog about the practice of twentieth-century American bookdealers breaking manuscripts apart to increase their profit margins. But thousands of manuscripts were broken up centuries ago in Europe, not for resale but for reuse. Parchment was a valuable resource, requiring the slaughter of livestock and the subsequent loss of future income and resources. When possible, bookbinders would repurpose old, obsolete, or imperfect manuscripts by taking them apart to use their leaves as binding structures (palimpsests as well, but that’s another story). These stowaways traveled across the Atlantic tucked safely inside their new homes. Many of these binding fragments were later removed to be preserved as worthy collectibles in their own right. Untold numbers are still hiding in early bindings.

The story of Beinecke MS 481.51 and its journey to the United States is the story of North American manuscript fragments in microcosm. These seventeen leaves belong to the Gottschalk Antiphonal, the subject of my dissertation. Gottschalk, whom we met a few weeks ago at Princeton, wrote and illustrated his eponymous antiphonal at the Lambach abbey in the fourth quarter of the twelfth century. By the fifteenth century, the musical notation and liturgy were centuries out-of-date, and, along with many other manuscripts, the obsolete antiphonal was dismembered to be used as binding scrap. During World War II, the monks found themselves in need of a new wood lathe. To raise money for the purchase, they removed the antiphonal leaves and dozens of other fragments from the later bindings in which they had been repurposed, and sold them.

The Gottschalk Antiphonal (BRBL MS 481.51 8r, detail)

The Gottschalk Antiphonal (BRBL MS 481.51 8r, detail)

The fragments made their way en masse via a Swiss bookdealer to the New York firm of Hans P. Kraus, and from there to Yale in 1965. By the time the leaves had been acquired by Kraus, however, the original provenance of the group had been lost. Fortunately, a scholar by the name of Kurt Holter had studied and described the fragments in situ at Lambach before the war. It was thanks to his published descriptions of the leaves that Babcock and I were able to identify the Beinecke collection as having originated at Lambach. In addition to the seventeen Gottschalk Antiphonal leaves at Yale, there are two at Harvard’s Houghton Library (MS Typ 704 5 and 704 6). We have already seen the leaf that toured the midwestern United States in an aluminum trailer before settling down at the St. Louis Public Library, and a few others leaves can be found in Austrian collections. Altogether, I know of about two dozen leaves of the Gottschalk Antiphonal.

But the story doesn’t end there. Currently, Liz Hebbard, a PhD student at Yale, is working at the Beinecke conducting a survey of its incunable binding fragments. She has already found dozens of early leaves being used as covers, pastedowns, and binding stays. Other bindings show evidence of early leaves having been  removed, as in the image below from incunable Zi +1525 in which a leaf was pasted inside the back cover to secure the leather cover’s turn-ins. The leaf was peeled off at a later date, leaving behind an upside-down inverted offset. Based on my recent examination of the offset, I have identified the missing fragment as a previously unknown (and currently untraced) leaf of the Gottschalk Antiphonal. It is an extraordinary co-incidence that this incunable should have once housed a paste-down Antiphonal leaf, as it arrived at Yale by a completely different path than did the other leaves.

BRBL Zi +1525 (inner back cover)

BRBL Zi +1525 (inner back cover)

The same image, inverted and rotated

Detail. Compare this script with Gottschalk's, above.

Detail, inverted and rotated. Compare this script with Gottschalk’s, above.

Those of you who are familiar with the Beinecke collection may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned what is perhaps the most (in)famous manuscript of all. Just wait ’til next week…

voynich detail

See you next time…


Filed under Medieval Manuscripts, Uncategorized