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

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My Virtual Classroom Visit: One Professor’s Experience

Today we welcome Dr. Megan Cook, Assistant Professor of English at Colby College, to talk about her experience bringing SIMS into her classroom through a Virtual Classroom Visit. We offer VCV’s for instructors an institutions that don’t have their own strong special collections holdings. If you’re interested in a VCV please contact us, but be sure to check with your local librarians first! You might be surprised by what’s available on your own campus.

I teach in the English department of a small liberal arts college in rural Maine. As a medievalist and a book historian, I consider myself hugely fortunate to be teaching at a moment when increasingly large numbers of medieval manuscripts are being digitized and made available online, but even these have their limitations.

Until some friendly donor buys us our own medieval codex, I’m looking for ways to give my students a better sense of the materiality of early books: not only what they look like in a two-dimensional photograph, but how ink sits on parchment, how bindings fall open to a frequently referenced page, how a manuscript sits in the hands.

In the past, I’ve made use of the video introductions to some of the University of Pennsylvania manuscripts available online. This semester, I took things a step farther, and arranged for a virtual visit to Penn’s collections with Dot Porter, a Curator at the Kislak Center for Special Collections at Penn, for my class on the Global Middle Ages. This visit would allow my students to see, up close and in real time, some manuscripts related to our work in the class.

In my class on the global middle ages, we study travel literature from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish traditions. Through texts like Marco Polo’s Book of Wonders of the World, Ibn Battutah’s Travels, and the account of Benjamin of Tudela, students come to understand that a significant body of shared knowledge and ideas about the shape of the world circulated among writers of diverse backgrounds in the later Middle Ages. We note, for example, how often discussions of Gog and Magog appear in travel writing when it turns its attention toward central Asia, and trace a fondness for the Alexander stories shared by writers from all three traditions.

Although Penn does not have manuscripts of any of the texts we were reading in class, their collection includes numerous titles in Latin, Arabic, and Hebrew. Dot helped me plan the class by identifying several texts (mostly of the scientific variety) that Penn has copies of in all three languages. A complete list of the manuscripts we looked at is appended to this post.

A note on the tech side of things: at Colby, I’m fortunate to have access to an “experimental” classroom with a series of flat screens mounted on the walls (in addition to the standard LED projector) that can be paired with laptops or other devices using AirMedia. Dot and I wound up using Zoom, which we both found to be a more stable alternative to Skype that offered a higher quality of video connection. We created a group meeting on Zoom, and connected a series of laptops to individual screens in my classroom. With the laptops and their paired screens connected to the group meeting, Dot’s feed was broadcast to four screens around the classroom. Students could gather around individual in groups of four or five, so that no one was more than a few feet away from a screen and could see the details over the feed.

For many of my students, this was the first time they had seen a medieval book being manipulated in real time. Because of the high quality of the connection, they were able to observe small details like the grain of the parchment and the mark where the point of a compass had been placed to make a diagram showing the movement of the stars. We also discussed some of the paratextual elements and signs of use and ownership that accompany almost all medieval books, and which can be minimized or omitted entirely in some digital facsimiles– end papers and binding, as well as marginalia and visible wear on particularly interesting or important pages.

Though my students did not necessarily connect what we were looking at with our reading, this small exercise has allowed them to treat the other evidence we’ve looked at with a more critical and informed eye. As we close the semester, we are reading Mandeville’s Travels, the great and highly fictionalized account of a (probably fictional) Englishman’s travels throughout the known world. Mandeville’s Travels was a medieval bestseller, and translated into a wide array of languages. Having seen the manuscripts we looked at with Dot, my students are able to ask smarter questions about what the manuscript evidence can tell us: they want to know if a particular book is illustrated, what other kinds of texts it appears alongside, and even what kind of material it was written on.

Book historians know that these questions matter and these non-textual clues often unlock big mysteries about a work’s origins and circulation. Although our visit with Dot in some ways raised more questions than answers, it certainly piqued students’ curiosity and appetite for more encounters with medieval books.

Manuscripts we looked at during the visit (Penn in Hand is a page-turning view, while OPenn contains data suitable for download and reuse):

The first two manuscripts contain versions of the same text, written in different parts of the world and almost 300 years apart.


LJS 459, fol. 1v

LJS 459 Sirr al-asrar

Language: Arabic

Origin: Probably written in Mosul, Iraq, between 1193 and 1211 (reign of owner named on f. 1r).

Date: between 1193 and 1211

Place: Mosul?, Iraq

Summary: Early copy of the long form of this popular treatise presented as a letter from Aristotle to Alexander the Great on statecraft, astronomy, astrology, magic, and medicine. The ending of the manuscript is missing; the text breaks off during a discussion of magical alphabets.



Ms. Codex 864, fol. 1r

Ms. Codex 864 – [Extract from Secretum secretorum]

 Language: Latin

Origin: Written in Germany, 1450-1499 (Zacour-Hirsch).

Date: 1450-1499

Place: Germany

Summary: A portion of a work purporting to be a letter of advice from Aristotle to Alexander the Great.


The next four manuscripts illustrate the popularity of the astronomical works of Johannes de Sacro Bosco and Georg von Peuerbach over time and across geographical areas.


LJS 42, fol. 31v

LJS 42 – Bet Elohim

Language: Hebrew

Origin: Written in Thessalonikē (Salonika), Greece, 1551 (f. 76r, 168r).

Date: 1551

Place: Thessalonikē

Summary: Commentary on Solomon ben Abraham Avigdor’s Hebrew translation of Joannes de Sacro Bosco’s Sphaera mundi, followed by a commentary on a Hebrew translation, possibly by Almosnino himself, of Georg von Peurbach’s Theoricae novae planetarum, with the assistance of Aharon Afia. This copy was made 5 years after the works were composed in 1546 (f. 168r). Almosnino’s commentary on Sacro Bosco includes the earliest reference in Jewish literature to Amerigo Vespucci and America (f. 23v), among discussion of other geographical discoveries.



LJS 26, fol. 10r

LJS 26 – Algorismus : Tractatum de sphaera [aka Sacro Bosco]

Language: Latin

Origin: Written in Italy in the mid-13th century.

Date: between 1225 and 1275

Place: Italy

Summary: Treatise on the fundamentals of arithmetic (Algorismus), followed by a treatise on cosmography that describes and illustrates the Ptolemaic model of a spherical earth divided into climactic zones at the center of the concentric spheres of the universe. The second treatise has marginal notes in the same ink and possibly hand as the text, as well as notes in a later cursive hand in faint ink and a bifolium written in this later hand bound in (f. 23-24).



LJS 494, fol. 1v

LJS 494:  [Marʼeh ha-ofanim]

Language: Hebrew

Origin: Written in northern Italy in the second quarter of the 15th century (based on watermark information).

Date: between 1425 and 1450

Place: Italy

Summary: Hebrew translation of a fundamental treatise on medieval astronomy and cosmology [ed. Sacro Bosco] that describes and illustrates the Ptolemaic model of a spherical earth divided into climactic zones at the center of the concentric spheres of the universe. Followed by Ruaḥ ha-ḥen, a 13th-century philosophical work that was a popular introduction to science, here attributed to Yehudah ibn Tibon. It has also been attributed to Jacob ben Abba Mari ben Samson Anatoli and Zeraḥyah ha-Yeṿani. Occasional marginal notes. Final page contains Hebrew notes and pen trials by various hands (f. 22v).



Animated gif of diagram Theorica motuum et orbium spherae solis, LJS 64, p. 8

LJS 64: [Illustrations to Georg von Peurbach’s Novae theoricae planetarum]

Language: Latin

Origin: Written in northern Italy, probably Padua, in the mid-16th century.

Date: between 1525 and 1575

Place: Padua?, Italy

Summary: Diagrams, many with moving parts, designed to accompany the work Theoricae novae planetarum by 15th-century Austrian astronomer Georg von Peurbach, who taught at the universities in Padua and Ferrara. The diagrams demonstrate increasingly complex planetary motion. An early 17th-century inscription on the first flyleaf refers to an edition of Peurbach published in Venice in 1616.


Who wrote Penn MS Codex 1070?

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Megan Cook, an Assistant Professor of English at Colby College, spent a week in July at the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies as one of the students in The Medieval Manuscript in the Twenty-First Century, a course under the auspices of Rare Book School, headquartered at the University of Virginia.  Here she shares her experience of that week, working with Penn Ms. Codex 1070.

Although it might be considered cheating, given the theme of the course, during my week as a student in Will Noel and Dot Porter’s Rare Book School class, the Medieval Manuscript in the Twenty-first Century, I spent most of my time working on a sixteenth-century heraldic manuscript. While Penn Ms. Codex 1070, isn’t medieval, my experiences with it show how open access to digital images of early books can facilitate new answers to old questions.

Penn MS Codex 1070 is a small manuscript on paper, bound in vellum, written in the 1570s. Its front leaf summarizes its contents:

The Genelogies of the Erles of Lecestre & Chester wherein is briefly shewed som part of their deedes and actes with the tyme of their raignes in their Erldoms, and in what order the saide Erldoms did rightfully descend to the crowne, and in the same is also conteyned a lineall descent shewing how the right honorable Robert Erle Lecestre and Baron of Denbigh knight of [th]e Garter and Chamberlen of Chester is trewly descended of Margaret second sister and one of the heires of Robert fitz Pernell the first Erle of Lecestre and of Maude and Agnes the first and third doughters to hugh keuelock the fifte Erle of Chester, sisters and coheirs to Randolf Blondeuile the sixt Erle of Chester. Note that the lynes and descent[es] come from those rondells in the margent which be stayed by two leaues, and the other rondells that are stayed but by one leafe are the colaterall children.

Portrait of Robert Dudley with the collar of the Order of St. Michael and the Garter. Via Wikimedia Commons

This passage tells us that the book describes the ancestry of Robert Dudley (1532-1588), the first Earl of Leicester. It was created in 1571 or 1572, perhaps in honor of Dudley’s appointment to the Order of the Garter in that year. Dudley was a favorite of Elizabeth’s and, although he was no longer a contender for Elizabeth’s hand by the 1570s, he remained an important political figure until the end of his life. While the book is a fine production, it contains several factual errors, and Robert Dudley himself does not appear in the genealogy alongside his siblings—a strange error that was noted by one later reader.

Robert Dudley afterwards Erle of Leycester is strangely left of here, so as wth him there should be 9. sonns

Robert Dudley afterwards Erle of Leycester is strangely left of here, so as wth him there should be 9. sonns

Deluxe heraldic manuscripts like this were a way for families and individuals to both assert and display their pedigree by documenting the complex maneuvers by which titles (and the land and wealth associated them) were transferred over the generations through inheritance and marriage. Genealogy was just one way of using heraldry (the collection and display of coats of arms): the 2014 Folger Shakespeare Library exhibit Symbols of Honor explores the range of contexts and uses for heraldic display in early modern England.

Detail of fol. 2r

Detail of fol. 2r

After looking through Penn MS Codex 1070 and admiring its elegant design and naturalistic depiction of the eleventh century earls (complete with period-appropriate armor), I wondered: who created this book?

A production like MS Codex 1070 would require a combination of artistic skill and access to the historical sources necessary to trace five centuries of Leicester ancestors. There were only so many people living in England in the 1570s with the requisite background; many would have been professional heralds associated with the College of Arms who, in addition to researching and adjudicating official grants of titles, undertook deluxe manuscript productions for wealthy patrons.

Penn Codex 1070 tells us nothing about who made it, or to whom it was originally presented, but it is clearly is a professional production, not the work of an amateur. Flipping through its pages (see for yourself here), it is easy to appreciate how much careful planning the manuscript would have required: whoever created the manuscript had to arrange his pages so that there was sufficient room for both the text and the accompanying roundels. The roundels needed to be appropriately sized for the text they contain, but also leave room for the carefully detailed shields and the branches that link them. At certain points, branches merge with, or diverge from, one another, and getting this right would have required special attention when the pages were laid out.

Codex 1070 is unusual in that the branches extend all the way into the upper and lower margins, creating them impression of vertical continuity from page to page. By doing so, I think whoever created the manuscript meant to take a well-established format for displaying genealogical information—the armorial roll, or scroll (see, for example, Penn MS 1066)—and adapt it to the codex format, which would have allowed for easier reading, storage, and transportation.

The image below shows how the maker of this book worked in stages, assembling each page in layers: First, he ruled the page using plumb line; then he wrote the text. Next, he added illustrative details, including the naturalistic branches and leaves, and the more formalized depictions of coats of arms. Finally, he added decorative red lining around the margins.

Fol. 11v

Fol. 11v

The completed manuscript tells the story of Leicester’s ancestors in a number of distinct and reinforcing ways: there is the explanatory text itself; the abbreviated version of that text found in the roundels; the visual connections created by the branches and leaves (which, as the opening note tells us, reflect the status of the branch of the family being depicted); and finally the more standardized and stylized coats of arms which, as they are impaled and quartered over many generations, become increasingly complex. Much of what is described verbally in the text could be extrapolated from the last, largest and most intricate coat of arms displayed in the manuscript:

Fol. 17v

Fol. 17v

In my quest to learn more about this manuscript, I needed to go beyond what the book alone could tell me, so I turned to its provenance. Before the manuscript came to Penn, it was owned by Madeline Pelner Cosman, who was a medievalist, medical lawyer, and anti-immigration activist, as well as book and gun collector. The last lines of her 2006 New York Times obituary state, “Ms. Cosman also leaves behind a vast library of illuminated manuscripts and a large collection of handguns.”

While the manuscript was in her possession, Barbara McGeogh, a graduate student at CUNY, wrote a masters thesis about the manuscript in 1974. McGeogh suggests three candidates for authorship:

  • Robert Cooke, Chester herald and later the Clarenceax King of Arms
  • John Cocke, a Dudley family servant
  • Edmund Knight, who succeeded Cooke as Chester herald

I wanted to see if I could test McGeogh’s hypotheses by looking for manuscripts created by Cooke, Cocke, and Knight and determining whether they looked anything like the Penn manuscript. I began by looking at digital images from archives that I knew held heraldic manuscripts, including the Folger Shakespeare Library and the British Library. Neither contained any materials associated with John Cocke or Edmund Knight.

At the Folger Shakespeare Library, I found Folger MS V.b.76. This is a copy of a text written by Robert Cooke, but the hand doesn’t match the one in the Penn manuscript. It is not an autograph manuscript.

At the British Library, however, I found several images from MS King’s 396, a genealogy of Queen Elizabeth I on vellum, created around 1567.

British Library MS King's 396 f. 24v

British Library MS King’s 396 f. 24v

Like the book at Penn, this manuscript doesn’t explicitly say anything about the people involved in its production. But a comparison of some key features across the books leads me to conclude that both were made and illustrated by the same person or persons.


We can see this when it comes to:

The similarity of specific letter-forms in frequently used words like “doughter”:
        Kings 396 fol 24v

As well as words like “maried” and “Erle”:
Maried and Erle           Kings 396 Maried and Erle f24v

We can also see the similarity in the appearance of the leaves.
flourishes             Kings 396 heraldic flourishes f20v

And even in the line fillers that the scribe uses to use up extra space.
Line fillers             Kings 396 Line fillers 24v

Now, as the British Library catalogue of Western manuscripts notes, there is no evidence of authorship in this manuscript either, but the New Year’s Gift Roll for 1567 (London, British Library, Additional MS 9772) includes a description of a manuscript that matches King’s 396. (On this point I am grateful to Sonja Drimmer for sharing her recent and fascinating essay, “Questionable Contexts: A Pedigree Book and Queen Elizabeth’s Teeth,” in Scholars and Poets Talk About Queens, ed. Carole Levin and Christine Stewart-Nuñez [New York: Palgrave, 2015], 203-24.)

Since they are housed in archives on opposite sides of the Atlantic, it is unlikely that I will ever get to Penn MS Codex 1070 and British Library MS King’s 396 side-by-side. Nonetheless, thanks to the British Library’s recent decision to make thousands images of their holdings freely available online, I was able to perform research from my desk in Philadelphia that affirms the hypothesis offered up by Barbara McGeogh more than forty years ago. An even larger archive of heraldic images, including the ones mentioned in the British Library catalogue and held at the Bodleian, might have allowed for an even more concrete answer.

This exercise shows that quite a lot might be learned from even a simple comparison that might never have been possible without digital images. The power of visual comparison on a larger scale is demonstrated in projects like Late Medieval English Scribes, which allows users to compare samples of all scribal hands that appear in the manuscripts of major Middle English authors and, in so doing, to produce new knowledge about the circulation of vernacular texts in late medieval England. A larger database of images from heraldic manuscripts might, similarly, offer new insight into the development, usage, and propagation of a highly codified system of genealogy and heraldry in the sixteenth century and beyond.