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

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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.

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Students Meeting Manuscripts

Julia Perratore is a recent graduate of Penn’s doctoral program in the History of Art and a lecturer in Penn’s Critical Writing Program.  This summer she taught an introductory course on medieval art, and she describes here how she incorporated manuscripts into her curriculum.

July calendar page (f. 7r), Rouen book of hours (Ms. Codex 1056)

July calendar page (f. 7r), Rouen book of hours (Ms. Codex 1056)

In my view, it is essential for those coming to the study of medieval art history for the first time to experience medieval art objects first-hand. In an effort to bring my small group of students into contact with primary materials, I had them visit the Special Collections Center on two separate occasions. First, I sent them on their own to view the Legacy Inscribed exhibition of manuscripts from the collection of Lawrence Schoenberg. I assigned each student a different manuscript to study closely, and their observations formed the basis of their first written assignment, a formal analysis focused on illuminated initials and their part in the overall mise-en-page. I also had them do a small amount of research on their assigned manuscript to learn more about its background. There is no substitute for having the entire manuscript, offering the entire page layout, available to you – issues of scale and proportion that are otherwise meaningless really come to the fore when you have the actual object before you.

This independent exploration was followed by a group visit to the Special Collections Center during one of our class sessions, when Lynn Ransom treated us to a tour of books of hours in the always-impressive Lea Library. My students were thrilled to get a sense, not only of how these books are decorated, but how they were organized and used. They confided to me that it was much easier to understand how such books could structure and impact a person’s entire life when they had the chance to go through the pages themselves. They were also particularly thrilled to touch the parchment of one manuscript, and they were soon keen to determine when a given text was written on the “hair side” or “flesh side” of the parchment – something they would never have observed, and perhaps never have even comprehended, if they had only read about it. One student was so enthusiastic about his encounter with books of hours that he looked into buying one for himself! He went straight to the internet to investigate specimens currently on auction. Alas, everything was far too expensive, but it seems a new generation of enthusiasts – and perhaps even collectors – is born with every visit to Special Collections.


13th Century Entanglements, Part 1

Charles H. Manekin, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Maryland, held the Ellie and Herbert D. Katz Distinguished Fellowship at the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies in Spring 2013.  The 2012-2013 Fellows contributed to a new web exhibit titled 13th Century Entanglements:  Judaism, Christianity & Islam, in which each Fellow presented a manuscript or printed work used in research during the year.  Professor Manekin chose LJS 229, and his text from the exhibit follows.

Commentary on Averroes’ Middle Commentaries on the Isagoge of Porphyry, the Categories and De Interpretatione of Aristotle
LJS 229

LJS 229

It is hard to overestimate the importance of the first three books of the logical canon known as the Organon—the Isagoge (Introduction) of Porphyry of Tyre, and the Categories and the De Interpretatione of Aristotle—for medieval intellectual life. Already in late antiquity these books were an essential part of the medical curriculum, and all medieval physicians, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian, were expected to have mastered their comments. Students of scientific subjects commenced their studies with either these particular books, or at least their subject-matter, e.g., how we categorize the world we experience, what sorts of properties distinguish natural kinds from each other, and how we combine our concepts to form judgments about the world.

The first three books of the Organon were never translated into Hebrew. Instead, paraphrases of them by the 12th century Muslim philosopher Averroes (Ibn Rushd) were translated from the original Arabic into Hebrew in Naples by Jacob Anatoli in 1232 (together with the next two books of the Organon, the Prior and Posterior Analytics, on syllogistic inference and scientific demonstration, respectively.) Averroes’ paraphrases or “Middle Commentaries” of the first three works are extant in over eighty Hebrew manuscripts (and likely more), making them, according to the great literary historian and bibliographer, Moritz Steinschneider, the most popular works in Hebrew written by a non-Jew. They were commented upon by Jewish savants such as Levi Gersonides in the fourteenth century, and Judah Messer Leon in the fifteenth century.

The particular commentary found in the Schoenberg Collection (LJS 229) is anonymous and has not yet been studied. No other copy of it exists, to my knowledge, but the section on the De Interpretatione is found in Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cod. hebr. 46. The commentator refers often to the logical writings of the 10th century Muslim philosopher, Alfarabi, some of which were translated into Hebrew in the late 12th and early 13th century. He also refers to the Arabic version of Averroes’ text. But, most interestingly, he cites and criticizes at least once the interpretation of “my teacher, R. Levi,” which a cursory comparison of the manuscripts reveals to be Gersonides. If this is correct, then the author of the commentary in LJS 229 was another member of Gersonides’ “school,” where students read texts with Gersonides and occasionally wrote their own glosses as comments, as has recently been studied by Prof. Ruth Glasner of Hebrew University. Since Gersonides also refers to the Arabic version of Averroes, this manuscript sheds additional light on the methodology employed by members of Gersonides’ circle.

As interesting as the anonymous commentary is in itself, the physical codex sheds light on the intellectual life of Provence in the second half of the 15th century. One finds the following statement of ownership in Latin: “Iste liber est meus mestre Benustruc[?] Avidor.” This individual may be identified with the 15th century ProvenC’al savant, Avigdor Benastruc, who translated into Hebrew around 1490 the anonymous French Romance of Belle Maguelone, and who wrote a manuscript that included works by the Provencal Jewish scholar, Isaac Nathan, the composer of the first Hebrew concordance of the Bible. If that is the case, it shows that as late as the late fifteenth century, if not later, basic works in Aristotelian logic were studied in Provence, and the influence of Gersonides and his students was still very much felt.

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Manuscript Road Trip: The Granite State

The next entry from Lisa Fagin Davis’ tour of medieval manuscripts in the USA!

Manuscript Road Trip

If you’ve ever tried to drive across Maine from east to west, you’ll understand when I tell you that this virtual road trip will be taking some liberties with the U.S. highway system. But nonetheless, heading west from Brunswick, Maine, we now find ourselves crossing the White Mountains of New Hampshire and driving up to the main green of Dartmouth College in Hanover. Blog map

The green is dominated by the spire of Baker Library, to the right of which you will find the new Rauner Special Collections Library.

Dartmouth College is the smallest of the Ivy League institutions, an idyllic New England campus that occupies a special place in the hearts of its graduates. It is also the largest repository of pre-1600 manuscripts in New Hampshire, with nearly 150 codices and two dozen leaves. Most of the manuscripts have been digitized and catalogued, and are available online here. It’s a…

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Manuscript Road Trip: Day 1

First in a new series by Lisa Fagin Davis, introducing collections of medieval manuscripts from across the United States.

Manuscript Road Trip

There has been increasing interest in recent years in identifying, classifying and cataloguing medieval manuscripts in North American collections. With my friend and colleague Melissa Conway (Head of Special Collections at UC-Riverside), I have been working for nearly twenty years on this very topic. Our preliminary Directory of collections in the United States and Canada with pre-1600 manuscript holdings is available as a searchable PDF through the Bibliographical Society of America, at  It’s a great place to start if you’re looking for manuscripts in North American collections.

Over the course of our work, Melissa and I (with the help of more than 200 contributing curators and scholars) have identified 20,000 codices and 25,000 leaves in nearly 500 collections. Many of these have not been catalogued in any significant way; students, take note, there is a lot of cataloguing work to be done! On the other hand, an increasing number…

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Pomponius Mela in manuscript and print

In July, the Penn Special Collections Center hosted the Rare Book School course on 15th-Century Books in Print & Manuscript, taught by Paul Needham, Scheide Librarian at Princeton, and Will Noel, Director of the Schoenberg Institute.  On the first morning, the students looked at matched pairs of incunables and manuscripts from the Penn collections to consider how manuscript formats shaped expectations for early printed books.  One of the most pleasing pairs was the Schoenberg mid-15th-century manuscript of Pomponius Mela’s 1st-century geographical treatise Cosmographia (LJS 60) and Penn’s copy of the edition of the same text printed in Milan in 1471 by Pamfilo Castaldi (M-447).

The two books offer several nice points of comparison:  M-447’s leaves of 18.5 x 12.8 cm (a trimmed chancery quarto) are only slightly larger than LJS 60’s parchment leaves of 17 x 11 cm, although the difference would have been greater before the printed book was trimmed and rebound.  The printed text on the page is 22 lines in 12.5 x 8.1 cm, written text on the page is 23 lines in 11.9 x 6.7 cm.  LJS 60’s humanist bookhand is not so far from M-447’s Roman type.  The most striking match, however, was the way in which both these books were annotated, with proper names of places and peoples being pulled from the text and written in the margins.  Not all the same names are chosen, but the method of annotation has survived the transition of the main text to print.  Here are overlapping pages from the pair, both with the names of two Scythian tribes, Agatirsi (the Agathyrsi) and Sarthe/Sarte (the Satarchae), written in the margin.


LJS 60, f. 28v


Inc M-447, p. 46

An added benefit of the use of this manuscript for the course was that Paul Needham suggested that the date previously assigned to this manuscript (late 14th/early 15th century) was too early, and that it was probably copied not so long before the ownership inscription at the end of the manuscript, dated 1450.


LJS 60, f. 70v, with ownership inscription

The closest comparisons in the Manoscritti datati d’Italia were indeed from the 1440s, so the date in the catalog record is now between 1440 and 1450.

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Cataloging Conversations

[One of the delights of being the manuscripts cataloging librarian for the Schoenberg Institute is hearing from researchers and scholars who use the collection and and updating our catalog to reflect the new information we receive.  ~Amey Hutchins]

Earlier this year, the digitization of the Schoenberg copy of William de Conches’ Philosophia mundi and Hugh of Saint-Victor’s Didascalicon (LJS 384) caught the eye of Erik Kwakkel, a member of the faculty at Leiden University who teaches paleography and codicology.  He thought our date for it (2nd half of the 12th century) was too late.  He recently followed up with a terrific analysis of the manuscript.  To start with, he identified three contemporary hands in the manuscript.  Here is an image of the page where the second hand begins:

Based on the characteristics of the three hands, he dated the manuscript to circa 1150, the very beginning of the range we had given.  The hands are archaic, with features that are more typical up to 1100, but it can’t be much earlier than 1150 because of the dates of the author.  Erik’s analysis also led to a change in the place of origin for the manuscript.  When Larry Schoenberg purchased the manuscript at auction at Christie’s in 2000, Christie’s was offering it as a French manuscript.  Erik, looking at letter forms such as e with flag at the tongue and the curved foot of the tironian note for et, concluded that all three of the scribes (and therefore the manuscript) were German.  In addition to improving our knowledge and description of the manuscript, the change in location adds interest to this item, because the new, more specific date is more significantly early for a copy written outside of France.  Many thanks to Erik!