Medieval Manuscripts Fragments as Binding Materials, a New Project at the Harry Ransom Center

A medieval manuscript text used as the binding material of a 1561 copy of Aesop’s Fables. Image from the Ransom Center Fragments Project’s Flickr.

Medieval and early modern people were great re-users.  The concept of processing used materials into new products to prevent the waste of expensive materials wasn’t an unusual or extraordinary idea to them: times were tough and in the business of manuscripts and books, materials were expensive and could be hard to come by.  There wasn’t a sense of uniqueness or the desperate need to preserve for future generations, as there is today, so parchment manuscripts that we might consider priceless today were scraped clean to have new manuscripts written upon them.

As horrifying as it sounds to us postmodern peoples, for whom any scrap of medieval manuscript text has enormous value, in the early modern period medieval parchment manuscripts were unbound, sliced, diced, chopped, and julienned to be re-used in the bindings of newer, “better” printed books.  Parchment was an ideal material for strengthening a book’s spine as a liner, or for use as an easy, cheap cover or endpaper.  Indeed, some scholars believe it was common practice to dismantle a manuscript book into such “manuscript waste” fragments once the book had been set out in type and printed.  We can be thankful the Winchester Malory manuscript of Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur did not meet this fate, as it spent several years sitting around William Caxton’s printing shop while he worked on his printed edition.

Since the practice of using and re-using manuscript waste was so prevalent, it’s not all that surprising to find bits and pieces of medieval manuscripts tucked into early modern books held by research libraries around the world, and it seems like cataloguing, describing, digitizing and exhibiting such finds is becoming more and more popular: two years ago, the Yale Law Library created an exhibit around 150 medieval manuscript fragments in early modern law books in their collections, called Reused, Rebound, Recovered: Medieval Manuscript Fragments in Law Book Bindings.

Closer to home (and my heart), the Harry Ransom Center is beginning a project of cataloguing, describing, and digitizing the medieval manuscript fragments in their collections.  Conducted by Micah Erwin (who recently discovered the impression of a pair of medieval spectacles on such a fragment, as I mentioned here on my blog), the project aims to survey the fragments and share  knowledge and awareness of them with other medieval manuscript scholars and librarians:

The Harry Ransom Center’s on going project to survey manuscript waste in their book collections. It is managed by Micah Erwin, Project Archivist, and supervised by Joan Sibley, Senior Archivist in the Archives and Visual Materials Cataloging Department.  The Harry Ransom Center is currently conducting a survey of medieval manuscript fragments and binder’s waste found in the Book Collection. We are posting low resolution images of some of these fragments on Flickr and Facebook to share with others. We would be grateful for any comments and/or additional information that you would like to contribute about these items.

It’s an exciting project to me, personally, as it draws on both my love of medieval manuscripts and my dream of using the resources made available to scholars and librarians by social media sites such as Flickr and Facebook to connect researchers to materials so that knowledge and understanding can grow out of such connections.  It’s the perfect example of my idea of book archaeology in the digital age!  By working collaboratively to identify the fragments, we can possibly learn more about early modern bookbinders and the spread of early modern books.

The first step, of course, is getting awareness of the project out there, and that’s what I’m hoping to help with!  Please consider liking the project’s Facebook page and sharing it on your timeline, or tweeting and retweeting the link to the project’s Flickr page!

The Kraus Maps Database Project

In addition to my job at the Physics, Maths & Astronomy Library at UT, I’ve spent my first year of library school volunteering at the Harry Ransom Center (HRC) completing a “boutique” digitization project to make images of the Kraus Map Collection available online.  The database’s website is up and running now, so you can all see the maps and globes here.

The Kraus Maps Collection features a wide range of individual maps of Europe and America, a few atlases, and a group of manuscript letters by Abraham Ortelius, as well as celestial and terrestrial globes by Vincenzo Coronelli and a 1541 Mercator globe.  The maps are all stunningly beautiful, and every detail can be seen in the zoomable viewers.  My favourite part of the project was being taken through the HRC stacks to see some of the maps in person—the c. 1610 manuscript map of Virginia is thrilling to behold, but my personal favourite was seeing the 1472 printing of Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae with its beautiful T-shaped world map, the first printed map of the world anywhere.

My role in the project was very small: I standardized the print and digital metadata and entered all of it into the database; I made minor image edits to remove colour bars from the scanned images; and I copyedited the text of the 1969 Catalogue 124: Monumenta Cartographica from the New York antiquarian dealer Hans P. Kraus for inclusion in the database as short “notes.”

Even though I didn’t have a hand in the initial planning, ditigization, or database creation, my work on the project gave me a lot of insight into what the “tail” of a digitization project involves.  I got to see the librarian managing the project discuss databse build problems with the systems librarian and hear anecdotes about the planning, permission and staffing problems the project had encountered.  This experience has fed into my awareness of how important digitization and digital humanities projects are for special collections and rare books librarians, and will help me as I begin to think about what I want to do in these areas as I plan my master’s capstone project experience.

Happiness Is

Today I had orientation training at the Harry Ransom Center, where I will be volunteering this semester and inputting metadata into a new website database showcasing the Kraus collection of Renaissance maps. This entailed a trip into the bowels of the Ransom Center and the chance to see an early 17th century manuscript map of Virginia and a 16th century printed map of America.

I also walked past the shelves holding the manuscripts of T H White, and I’m sure those of you who know my almost fanatical devotion to The Once and Future King will not be surprised to ear about the squeak of joy I let out.

The day ended with an hour in the HRC Reading Room cozied up with HRC 143 and practicing my palaeography and transcription skills on “The Prologue to the Summoner’s Tale” — because yes, HRC 143 is one of the Ransom’s two copies of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales from the mid-1400s. Oh, Anglicana script, how I have missed you.

So that, fair readers, is what, to me, happiness is. :)

Looking To The Future

On Facebook, my Aunt Gwen asked,

“Will archivists of the future still have copies of hard copy books and manuscripts or only electronic files or chips or wave surfaces?”

My response was,

If I have anything to say about it, the books and manuscripts of the world will survive well into the future! Digitisation is a hot topic right now, but I don’t think having a digital copy means the “real” thing is obsolete or that it should be locked up and kept away from people.

This is something friends and family have asked me about quite often. I have complex feelings about digitisation that I hope to fuss out over the next two years. On the one hand, I think digitisation is great. It can allow you to preserve and make available a copy of a fragile or unique manuscript on CD, as in the example of the Electronic Beowulf. These can give students and researches access to materials that are too vulnerable to be made available to the general public.

On the other hand, I think too often there is a feeling of “well, if you have it on CD, why do you need to see the real thing?” I have heard researchers complaining for years that the availability of manuscripts on CD has negatively affected their ability to get funding to travel and view these manuscripts in person. I’ve also encountered people who are reluctant to let me view a manuscript because “isn’t the CD good enough?”

No, in fact, it’s not. There are things that cannot be learned from looking at digitised images. Things like the texture difference between the hair side and skin side of vellum. Maybe you can see watermarks better when they’re digitised, but I found that half the fun was trying to puzzle out whether that was a star above that deer’s head or some kind of palm tree (it was a star). Or things like the fineness of laid gold leaf. Things like the simple extraordinary reality of holding a 600 year old book in your hand or placing your finger on the fingerprint of a medieval man’s.

Here we are back at this same image of a smear. Sure I can look at this on a computer screen and think, “Golly, how amazing.” But that doesn’t give me the breathless thrill of connecting with a medieval life across the ages, and that’s why I say no, for me, access to a digitised manuscript is not “good enough.” There has to be a balance where digitisation doesn’t mean a book is suddenly obsolete or that there is no value in helping a researcher travel to see it, while making the most of the wider availability of resources that digitisation facilitates. Finding that balance is something I hope to work on in the next two years.

A Promise To Myself

When I set out to make this manuscript, I laid out some ground rules for myself.

Rule Number One is to accept that this will not be perfect and forgive it its flaws.  Try to love it even if your lines are uneven, and remember that even Adam Pynkhurst, “thorowe… necligence and rape,” messed up sometimes.

And remember this picture every time you pick up your mould and deckle or pen:

This is my favorite manuscript picture ever.  This is folio 132v from Bodleian Library MS Rawlinson B 214.  That smudge of red ink and that little fingerprint were made by  John Wilde in the 15th century.  The day I found this, I was working on my palaeography essay during my year at Oxford University.  The effect it had on me was instantaneous and electrifying — here is the fingerprint, so much like my own, of a man who lived over five hundred years ago.  A man who lived and breathed, studied and wrote in a way so much like myself.  A man, perhaps, with hopes and dreams and loves like mine.

A man who probably had some very choice words to say when he smudged the ink in his pretty book.  I know I would, and probably will.