A leaf fragment from a medieval missal, Loyola University Chicago. Image courtesy of David Orr
Medieval manuscripts awaken awe within the viewer. Ornamental scallops and borders, illuminated letters, and precision handwriting inspire wonder. Aged papers and petite drawings elicit questions: Who made this? What is this paper made from? Where are such treasures kept?
For the past three years,the Peripheral Manuscripts team has been working together to capture the beauty of these medieval texts and make them discoverable and accessible to audiences around the world, a task that goes far beyond what any single team member could accomplish working alone.
In January 2020, the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) awarded Peripheral Manuscripts: Digitizing Medieval Manuscript Collections in the Midwest $281,936 to digitize and create item-level metadata for medieval manuscripts from twenty-two Midwestern institutions, focusing on smaller colleges, libraries, and museums that may not have the resources to provide digital access to their holdings. The project, which is part of CLIR’s “Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives” awards, is led by faculty and staff from Indiana University Bloomington, Saint Mary’s College, and Loyola University Chicago. Though the original project deadline is May 2023, the team will be asking for an extension due to the pandemic delaying their start.
In fall 2022, Dr. Elizabeth Hebbard – faculty member of IU’s Institute of Medieval Studies, co-director of IU’s Book Lab, and assistant professor in the department of French and Italian – prepared manuscripts from Loyola University Chicago to be picked up. Aiding Hebbard were Michelle Dalmau, IU Libraries’ head of digital collections services and co-director of The Institute for Digital Arts & Humanities(IDAH), along with Kara Alexander, IU Libraries’ digital media specialist. Hebbard and Dalmau are co-Primary Investigators (PI) along with Ian Cornelius, Edward L. Surtz, S. J., associate professor of English at Loyola University Chicago, and Sarah Noonan, associate professor of English, Saint Mary’s College.
Unwrapping the precious books and manuscripts from white papers, Hebbard, Dalmau, and Alexander discussed the project.
Stewarding the Items
Dalmau explained, “When partners pick up their items, we make sure everything is as expected because they do leave them with us for a few months. That’s big trust.” The grant team takes this responsibility seriously; when a partner institution leaves its materials, the IU team checks their delivery manifest against a project database and takes condition photos of each item. To protect items proposed for digitization, the project started withvisits to each site to estimate not only the number of volumes and fragments but to note their condition. If something was too fragile to be handled or photographed, it was not included.
The grant originally proposed to capture and describe 78 volumes or codices, and 406 medieval manuscript fragments. Today, however, the number of fragments has grown to 615. “Even as early as our initial partner meeting in summer 2020, partners watched one another present their collections,” Hebbard shared, “and some partners realized they could perhaps include something else in the project.” Dalmau added, “By the time we had finished our all-partner kick-off meetings, the partners themselves uncovered additional items, and site visits also upped the numbers with the PIs identifying additional candidates for the project.”
Whereas a codex is a book (as opposed to, say a scroll), a fragment is any part of a larger work that has been damaged, intentionally or unintentionally, and can include one or more leaves of paper or parchment. Hebbard pointed to a paper fragment. “If you illuminate it from the back, you can see the watermark, which is a branding tool for the papermaker. The horizontal and vertical lines come from paper pulp settling over the paper mold, and the watermark is a piece of twisted wire added on top of the mold, so fewer fibers accumulate there.”
Hebbard explained the history of paper, which can be helpful in generally dating an item. “The technology of papermaking was known but not widespread in Europe until the 14th century.” Before that, parchment was utilized. “Parchment refers to any kind of animal skin, and that could be deer, goat, cow, sheep,” she said. The entire animal was used to meet the needs of people, and the skin, once properly prepared, made an excellent and durable writing surface.
The manuscript documents, fragments, and codices in the Peripheral Medieval Manuscript Project originated in Europe, mostly from Italy and France, between the 10th and 16th centuries. A few are in vernacular languages, but the vast majority were written in Latin. The manuscripts range in size from mammoth to tiny. Spines are bedraggled. Some have hinges or other hardware. Pages, too, present in a variety of quality and condition, from vibrant colors popping off the page, to the sheet being blotchy, sallow, and difficult to read.