The Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies at Penn brings manuscript culture, modern technology and people together.

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Volvelles: LJS 64, Illustrations to Peurbach, p. 4, Theorica motus orbis supremi super cetero mundi

Over the next several months, we’ll be creating Vines (short six-second videos) and animated gifs of all the moving volvelles in our copy of Illustrations to Georg von Peurbach’s Novae theoricae planetarum, LJS 64. This project has a few different aims. First, we’d like to show off one of the gems of our collection. This mid-16th century manuscript was created entirely by hand, to illustrate the theories of planetary motion described in Peurbach’s work. Volvelles are rotating diagrams that illustrate motion through the use of rotating circles. Although the volvelles in LJS 64 start out fairly simply (the volvelle shown in this post is a single piece of paper) as the book progresses they become more complex, and include layered circles, some of those layers having varied rotation points, and some with cut-outs that show the layers underneath. A facsimile of the manuscript is online at Penn in Hand, so you can page through a get a sense of what the volvelles look like – but those volvelles won’t move.

To get a sense of how the volvelles function, we’re creating two different virtual versions of each. One is an animated gif, created by layering and animating still images of the volvelle in Photoshop. The second is a short video, created using the Vine app, which shows a hand moving the pieces of the volvelle in real time. The more complex diagrams may require multiple Vines to show the complete movement. This leads us to the final aim of this project: to illustrate how different a fully virtual, contrived interaction with a physical object (an animated gif) is different from a hands-on interaction with that same object. Although the animated gif and the video ostensibly show the same thing, they are substantially different. And although the video supposes to show “here is how it looks in real life,” it still isn’t the same experience that you would have if you were sitting at the table moving the volvelle yourself.

Without further ado, here are our first virtual volvelles. This volvelle is captioned Theorica motus orbis supremi super cetero mundi (Theory/observations of the motion of the highest orb/body above the rest of the world.)

Animated gif, Theorica motus orbis supremi super cetero mundi, p. 4

Theorica motus orbis supremi super cetero mundi, p. 4

Theorica motus orbis supremi super cetero mundi, p. 4

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Manuscripts: The Archaeolozoology of Animal Skin, April 10, NOON

Please mark your calendars for this upcoming lecture on Thursday, April 10, at NOON in the Class of ’78 Pavilion, Kislak Center, 6th Floor Van Pelt Library. The presenter is Matthew Collins, professor of bioarchaeology at the University of York and PI on a project to use collagen samples to identify species of animals used for parchment, a project that Penn has been collaborating on since last year. It should be an interesting talk, hope you can make it. Please share this announcement widely!


Manuscripts: The Archaeolozoology of Animal Skin

As Peter Tiersma has argued, writing made it possible to begin distinguishing myth from history. If we were able to capture and map the path of each and every written idea it would look like a fractal tree, with branches expanding as concepts are developed, refined and dissected. Historians try to reconstruct the diversification of these ideas and many see parallels with our planets other great writing schema, the chemical language of DNA.  The rules of DNA are simpler (although this simplicity is nuanced by new discoveries). DNA is the book of life and most geneticists at some point try to recapitulate the history of a population or group, by identifying errors in DNA transcription, missing or newly incorporated text found in different populations or organisms.  The sheer quantity of dated animals skins held in archives across Europe is staggering.  We estimate that in the UK there are more skins (as parchment) from the last 800 years held in libraries and archives than there are sheep living in the island today.

More than a decade ago researchers revealed that the genetic code of the animal was not destroyed when its skin was used for parchment production. However the last year has been a tipping point for parchment research as a consequence of the ability to use the waste from conventional conservation treatment for protein and DNA sequencing.  We will overview results coming out from the EU funded CodeX and Palimpsest projects and consider a change in the landscape of codicology, both in terms of the balance of the relationships between science and the humanities, but also in the scale and scope of questions that can now be addressed.

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The Dispersal of the Medieval Libraries of Great Britain

(Reblogging from Mapping Books)

“Today I’m teaching a workshop on using “screen scraping” in the digital humanities. No workshop is really useful without practical examples so last week I decided to try out my screen scraping chops on an exciting  new database of book history data. The Kislak Center at Penn (where I’m Scholar in Residence) is quickly becoming one of the most important sites for book and manuscript provenance research and I wanted to see what I could do to highlight the potential for making extant provenance data more useful through new visualizations.

Several years ago, a few of the scholars behind the monumental Corpus of British medieval library catalogues project (now at fifteen volumes) led by Richard Sharpe began working on an online database to update and provide access to the wealth of information on medieval manuscripts contained in Neil Ker’s Medieval Libraries of Great Britain (1941, 1964, and 1987). These volumes include accounts of books and manuscripts known to survive today which once were owned within Great Britain before the mid-16th century. Recently, through grants from the Mellon foundation and others, the team has taken much of this information and made it available online in the MLGB3 searchable database. The site appears to be in beta mode at the moment and intermittently accessible but when it launches fully it will be an amazing resource and the culmination of a good deal of work by Sharpe and others. Looking through the database I was especially intrigued by the wealth of data on the current location of many of these medieval books and manuscripts. Given how comprehensive and detailed the project data is, even at this stage, I wanted to get a sense of what kind of picture would develop if we looked at the points of origin and current location of all these manuscripts in aggregate.”

For the full post visit

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Penn Parchment Project: Sampling Process

Since the summer, the University of Pennsylvania library has been taking samples of many of its manuscripts to send to the University of York for collagen analysis. By analyzing the collagen in the samples, the team at York can determine what type of animal the parchment is from (typically goat, sheep, or cow, less commonly however other animals, even rabbit). Over the summer, we published a series of videos inviting people to guess what animals our manuscripts were made from. In the brief video below Kevin Lee, Rare Book Cataloging Assistant, demonstrates for Dot Porter, Curator for Digital Research Services, the process for taking non-invasive samples from the parchment.

Unfortunately, the University of York has not received continued funding for this project, so the University of Pennsylvania will not be sending more samples at this time. However, we do look forward to the analysis of those samples we have already sent. We will share the findings here as soon as we have them!

Previous Penn Parchment Project posts:

Manuscript Monday: Introducing the Penn Parchment Project

Manuscript Monday: Penn MS Codex 1065

Manuscript Monday: Penn MS Codex 1329

Manuscript Monday: LJS 204

Manuscript Monday: Penn MS Codex 236

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Pergamena Presentations at SIMS

On September 11, 2013, the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies welcomed Stephen Meyer from Pergamena parchment makers ( The Meyer family has been making leather and parchment since the sixteenth century. Stephen came to SIMS to present on his family’s work and to demonstrate how parchment is made. Following the formal presentation he led a hands-on demonstration which included sheets of parchment made from several different animals, large and small.

The presentation announcement read:

Hailing from 16th-century Germany, the Meyer family stems from a 500-year history of working in the tanning industry.  20 years ago, Jesse Meyer rediscovered the all but forgotten material, parchment, while experimenting with different uses and production methods for the animal skins used to make leather.  After finding that this material was not only still useful for many applications, but also in demand by the conservation, restoration, binding, and calligraphic arts communities, he set about refining and expanding his parchment production, starting Pergamena in the process.  Today, Pergamena produces many different types of parchment for dozens of niche industries that still utilize the versatile material.  And while times and technology may have changed from when its early days, our parchment production methods remain largely similar, with much of the process still being done by hand with basic chemicals, simple but elegant tools, and a little mechanical ingenuity.

Thank you to Stephen for coming to present and for agreeing to let us post recordings of his presentation and demonstration online!

Video from the presentation:

Part 1: Introduction

Part 2: Slide presentation

Part 3: Parchment creation demonstration

Part 4: Post-presentation parchment demonstration

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18th Century Mss at Penn: MS Coll 624

In this video, Schoenberg Institute Scholar in Residence Mitch Fraas discusses several manuscript petitions from Penn Manuscript Collection 624. The finding aid for the collection is available online at, however the collection has not been digitized.

This collection consists of papers relating to the governorship of George Macartney (1737-1806) at Madras on the southeastern coast of what is now India (modern-day Chennai). The documents discussed in the video come from box 22 of the collection which houses a number of petitions and other ephemeral correspondence with Macartney. The petitions in the video include ones from a guild of local barbers, a group of European officers, and a mixed assortment of Madras residents. Documents like these petitions help give us a glimpse of how everyday residents of colonial cities like Madras interacted with governmental bodies like the East India Company administration led by Macartney. The material form of petitions also provides clues about their production – whether copied and composed by a professional scribe, scrawled by a petitioner herself, or filled out in templated fashion.