by Aylin Malcolm
The first time that I handled medieval manuscripts was nearly the last time. It was the final semester of my undergraduate degree, and my Middle English class was visiting Rare Books. After viewing a selection of Islamic and of Christian manuscripts, we concluded the class by passing a hefty facsimile of the Rothschild Miscellany around the room. Just as I was handed the facsimile, my professor announced that it had cost over $10 000, and I nearly dropped it in shock. It was probably for the best that I did not learn the value of original manuscript codices until I was a graduate student.
The Rothschild Miscellany (Jerusalem, Israel Museum MS 180/51).
The wonder that I felt that day, both at the manuscripts (and facsimiles) themselves and at being permitted to touch such precious objects, highlights one of the dilemmas of this field, which we might frame as a conflict between the present and past uses of manuscripts. Today, premodern manuscripts are valuable, irreplaceable objects, and every opportunity to handle them must be weighed against the risk of degradation. Yet while some manuscripts were created for display purposes, many others were designed to be annotated and manipulated by generations of readers. Understanding these objects often requires us to engage with them in the personal, tactile ways that their creators intended, a privilege generally reserved for those with institutional access and specialized training.
The recent proliferation of manuscript images and metadata has therefore both raised questions and created opportunities for new types of work. Digital facsimiles cannot replicate the experience of viewing original manuscripts, nor fully capture their smells, sizes, or textures. Yet digital resources can prompt us to ask new kinds of questions before we settle down with the objects themselves, and can allow for more extensive research on texts too brittle for frequent viewing. Moreover, digital tools can offer us new ways of combining and annotating manuscripts. Examples include the Fragmentarium project and the Mirador viewer, both of which allow users to assemble and compare manuscripts from different repositories.
Inspired by resources like these, I set out this summer to create two digital tools based on late medieval manuscripts in the Kislak Center’s collections. The first, a series of interactive diagrams from a copy of Johannes de Sacrobosco’s De sphaera mundi (MS Codex 1881, fols. 15r-36v), is designed for students and specialists who are interested in premodern astronomy and scientific illustrations. The second project, an edition of an astronomical miscellany (LJS 445) that is intended for a broader audience, places the emphasis on how readers through the centuries altered this manuscript by annotating, cutting, and rebinding its pages.
UPenn LJS 445, endpaper stub and fol. 1r.
As Nicholas Herman writes in his Manuscript Monday blog post, MS Codex 1881 contains several Latin texts that were central to the basic astronomy curriculum of later medieval Europe. These include the Theorica planetarum attributed to Gerard of Cremona and Johannes de Sacrobosco’s De sphaera mundi, both of which had appeared in print before this manuscript was copied. Yet the most striking feature of MS Codex 1881 may be its numerous, intricate, and text-heavy images, such as its fascinating diagram of the seven climes.
Climata diagram from fol. 33v of MS Codex 1881.