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

Leave a comment

Sacred Texts: Codices Far, Far Away – Episode 3, LJS 102

On October 8, 2018, Dr. Brandon Hawk and curator Dot Porter met to talk about these ancient books, and to compare them with manuscripts from the collection of the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania. This series is a record of those discussions.

LJS 102 –Zena nagaromu and hymns

The very first manuscript we discussed is LJS 102, which isn’t medieval at all. Rather it’s an early 20th century manuscript from Ethiopia that represents a very long and established manuscript culture – similar in some ways, we think, to the manuscript culture being shown in The Last Jedi.

Screenshots from the film and images from The Art of Star Wars are used under the Fair Use doctrine described in Section 107 of the Copyright Act (

Leave a comment

Sacred Texts: Codices Far, Far Away

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Luke Skywalker gathered a small library of ancient Jedi texts and placed them in an uneti tree on Ahch-To.

Ancient Jedi Texts

On October 8, 2018, Dr. Brandon Hawk and curator Dot Porter met to talk about these ancient books, and to compare them with manuscripts from the collection of the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania.

We’re publishing our conversations as a series of video clips, which we’ll publish on the YouTube Channel of the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies. You can subscribe to the series here:

We’ll release a new clip every couple of weeks until Star Wars Episode 9 is released on December 20th, 2019. We hope you’ll come along for our journey!

Six leaves as illustrated in the The Art of Star Wars: The Last Jedi by Phil Szostak

Folio 11v in University of Pennsylvania LJS 449

Screenshots from the film and images from The Art of Star Wars are used under the Fair Use doctrine described in Section 107 of the Copyright Act (

1 Comment

Making Iron Gall Ink

Many thanks to Sara Charles, an editor at the Institute of Historical Research and researcher of medieval manuscripts, for this guest post, which is based on a Twitter thread originally published here



I’m not artistic, crafty or very in tune with nature, but as someone who researches medieval manuscripts, I wanted to experience the process. And surprisingly (or unsurprisingly, give their nature), so did my cat. There is some open ground behind my house, so I went for a forage for some oak galls. I didn’t really know if I would be able to recognise what I was looking for, and it took me a while to find any. But, once I had spotted one, I got my eye in:




Based on my vast experience of one foraging trip, I found them much easier to spot on smaller, younger oak trees. This little one in particular had loads – I got about twelve from it. In less than an hour, I had collected this lot – 123 grams:




At first I was terrified that a wasp would emerge as I was separating a gall from a branch, or I would get swarmed by angry wasp parents, but after a while it all felt lovely and I felt tuned-in to nature and the past. Although I did scream when a dragonfly flew near my face.



I loosely followed the recipe from Patricia Lovett’s book ‘Tools and Materials for Calligraphy’ (but there are plenty of other recipes – the Iron Gall Ink website is very useful ).

First, the fun part – smashing up the galls. I weighed out 80 grams:




I put them in a clear plastic bag rather than a newspaper, mainly because I wanted to see what was happening. I was still a bit worried about baby wasps, but apparently this did not bother medievalists, they actually preferred the grub still inside:





So, after some cathartic smashing and freeing of small insects that crawled out (no grubs, just earwigs) in 5/10 minutes I had this bag of small chunks. I liked Patricia’s recipe because you didn’t have to grind them down into a powder. Then I poured them into a jam-jar:




Most recipes recommend rain water, but it’s been a long dry summer and I think our rainwater is probably more polluted than medieval rain, so I used distilled water (about 300ml). Gave it a quick stir with a lolly stick and then left it on a sunny windowsill for three days:




It went such a lovely deep brown. Next step was adding the ferrous sulphate (50 grams). Also known as copperas or green vitriol. I found this easily on Ebay. Apparently you can make your own with rusty nails, but I really wouldn’t recommend that




The video shows how instantaneous the colour change is. At this stage my cat decided to get involved. NB – now the mixture stains, so mind your fingers. And your cats:




We don’t want a repeat of this: Photo: Emir O. Filipović



The mixture went a really intense black. Almost blue-black. The cat was forbidden to go near the windowsill. The lolly stick was stained beyond redemption:




Let’s take a moment to stare into the abyss…



After a few more days, the next step was to grind up 25 grams of gum arabic into powder. Chloe was now fully onboard with the ink-making process:




The gum arabic was beautiful and sparkled like jewels. Chloe approved. Gum arabic thickens ink and enables to it adhere to the writing surface:




After I had ground it down to a powder, I added it to the mixture of oak galls and ferrous sulphate. Once again Chloe photobombed the video. Not sure that I could see that much difference in the mixture, but left again for a day on the windowsill:




Luna was sad she’d missed all the fun:



Last stage! (Thanks for sticking with me.) I strained the mixture through a muslin cloth using a funnel. More sensible people would probably use gloves for this part. I left it for a while to let gravity do its thing. Chloe stealthily checked my progress:




After about an hour I gave the muslin a final squeeze. I ended up with about 125ml of ink:




Time to test – and … success! The ink was a lovely black, and it seemed to flow nicely. I unashamedly used a quill pen I bought from Harry Potter world to write the labels. Calligraphers will probably be horrified:




So now I have lots of ink and some lovely gifts for my friends. The process took about a week, but most of that was standing time. It wasn’t too messy and no inky pawprints. (Although it was no coincidence I did this in the week my children were away…)




I wanted to do this to get a better understanding of the medieval process, and I really did. Its amazing that I’ve ended up with something I can use. And it was really easy. And – I have a surprising new respect for wasps.



Quality control from Chloe. She is happy to answer any ink-based queries.



Follow me on Twitter @sarajcharles for more experiments with manuscripts

Leave a comment

The “Genizah Scribes at Work”, a lecture by Judith Olszowy-Schlanger

“The Genizah Scribes at Work,” a lecture by Judith Olszowy-Schlanger, Professor of Hebrew and Judaeo-Arabic Manuscript Studies at the École Pratique des Hautes Études (EPHE), Paris, was delivered April 25, 2018, at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts.

In this lecture sponsored by the Jewish Studies Program at the University of Pennsylvania, Judith Olszowy-Schlanger explored the social status, training, and working conditions of the scribes who produced the manuscripts found in the Cairo Geniza, a treasure trove of over 300,000 sacred and secular documents produced from the 10th to the 13th centuries and preserved for centuries in the attic of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat (Old Cairo), Egypt, until its dispersal among libraries around the world.

Professor Olszowy-Schlanger brings to life a wealth of information buried in what she describes as “a necropolis of discarded books, contracts, and letters.” By examining the physical evidence left behind in the mass of discarded documents, she uncovers the habits and practices of scribes of all types—from professionals to “mediocre hacks” to scholars producing their own libraries—in order to demonstrate the rich and complicated nature of Jewish book production in the Middle Ages. Her study ranges across the spectrum of manuscript production: from fragments revealing the time-consuming, lavish production of prayer books to a twelfth-century scribe’s diary containing drafts of legal documents and the remnants of young students attempts to learn how to write their alphabets.

The Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies/Herbert D. Katz Center Distinguished Fellow in Jewish Manuscript Studies fellowship is supported in part by the David B. Ruderman Distinguished Scholar fund.


Leave a comment

The 2017–2018 SIMS-Herbert D. Katz Center Distinguished Fellow in Jewish Manuscript Studies lecture by Alessandro Guetta

“‘No Longer Alien Residents’: Italian Jewish Texts in the Late Renaissance,” a lecture by Professor Alessandro Guetta, Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales (INALCO), Paris.

Delivered February 27, 2018, at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts.

In this lecture sponsored by the Jewish Studies Program at the University of Pennsylvania, Professor Alessandro Guetta discusses early modern translations of Hebrew texts into Italian and Judeo-Italian, a language written and spoken by Italian Jews from the 13th to the 19th centuries.

Professor Guetta begins by positioning his work as a response to a lack of cultural and literary studies of these translations. Through a series of case studies, he argues that despite ongoing social segregation, Jewish writers were integrated within Italian society through their use of a common language, namely the Tuscan dialect that was becoming the national standard. In a period characterized by complex and creative literary production in both languages, a skillful adaptation of a Hebrew text into Italian allowed readers to appreciate the beauty of the text in both languages, and heightened their sense of its spiritual and intellectual meanings. Thus Prof. Guetta concludes that Italian was “not less beloved than Hebrew,” and encouraged his audience to seek out the unedited Italian and Judeo-Italian literary manuscripts from this period.

The link to the lecture on the SIMS YouTube channel is

The Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies/Herbert D. Katz Center Distinguished Fellow in Jewish Manuscript Studies fellowship is supported in part by the David B. Ruderman Distinguished Scholar fund.

Leave a comment

Adding to the story of Ms. Codex 615

Admont shelfmark

Last week we were delighted to receive an email from Dr. Christoph Egger of the Institut für Österreichische Geschichtsforschung about Ms. Codex 615, a fourteenth-century manuscript from Bohemia of Alain de Lille’s De planctu naturae.  Penn purchased this manuscript from Philadelphia bookdealer William H. Allen in 1951, but we knew nothing about its journeys before that.  Thanks to our digital facsimile available online, Dr. Egger identified Ms. Codex 615 as formerly MS 478 in the library of Stift Admont, the Benedictine monastery in the town of Admont, in central Austria.  The monastery’s library still owns more than 1,400 manuscripts.  Our manuscript has the Admont shelfmark on a label on its spine, shown here, and is described in a catalog of the monastery’s manuscripts, itself a manuscript compiled by Jakob Wichner in 1888, which is also fully available online thanks to  The entry for MS 478 has a note added in pencil recording the sale of this manuscript in 1938 to Brecher, who, according to Dr. Egger, was an antiquarian bookdealer in Brno.  For the source of this excellent information, details on more manuscripts from Admont now in other libraries, and a reunion of Ms. Codex 615 with some of its old friends, please see Dr. Egger’s post, “olim Admont,” on the Iter Austriacum blog.

Leave a comment

Gothic Arts: An Interdisciplinary Symposium (March 23-24, 2018)

Event Wrap-Up
Oliver Mitchell
Graduate Student Intern, SIMS

A is for arts: historiated initial illustrating James le Palmer’s definition of arts in his Omne bonum (British Library MS Royal 6 E VI, fol. 138v).

Early modern thinkers used the term “Gothic” to criticize the dominant aesthetic of medieval art and architecture. The real-life Goths were a barbarian tribe who had sacked Rome in the fifth century CE, contributing to the eventual collapse of the Roman Empire and ushering in the so-called “Dark Ages.” In contrast to the enlightened rebirth of Classical civilization underway in their own times, these Renaissance men thought, there was little to distinguish the superstition and ignorance of late medieval Europeans from such genuine barbarians.

The negative connotations of “Gothic” lasted well into the nineteenth century. Only relatively recently have scholars working on the Middle Ages started to question, complicate, or dismantle entirely the stylistic and period boundaries set up in previous centuries. Now, the loaded term “Gothic” is often either discarded altogether or qualified by apologetic inverted commas. After all, what use is a pejorative post-medieval descriptor to historians seeking an authentic understanding of the period on its own terms? But then again, is there a danger that we’ve thrown an authentically Gothic baby out with the historiographic bathwater?

These and a host of related questions fueled two days of discussion and debate at Gothic Arts: An Interdisciplinary Symposium, held at the University of Pennsylvania on March 23-24, 2018. Organizers Mary Channen Caldwell, Sarah M. Guérin, and Ada Kuskowski (all faculty members at Penn) invited scholars working on medieval art history, literature, law, and music to explore the intertwined notions of “Gothic” and “arts” in their fields. Caldwell, Guérin, and Kuskowski delighted in breaking down disciplinary boundaries, doing their best to avoid placing, for example, multiple musicologists or art historians in panels together. As a result, the conference felt genuinely interdisciplinary and offered a sustained and coherent discussion on its theme over the two days.

Sharon Farmer (UC Santa Barbara) and Catherine A. Bradley (University of Oslo) took us deep into the material and conceptual processes involved in the creation a single Gothic work of art. Farmer’s exploration of the global networks of trade and labor involved in the production of a silk purse was particularly eye-opening. Papers by Anne Lester (University of Colorado Boulder), Sarah Kay (New York University), and Kevin Brownlee (Penn) were similarly concerned with the Medieval West’s complex relationship with worlds beyond its own, through both physical relics of the Holy Land and the intellectual traditions of Classical antiquity.

In a paper with real contemporary relevance, Sara McDougall (John Jay College and the CUNY Graduate Center) spoke about the disparity between theory and practice in thirteenth-century laws in relation to extra-marital pregnancy. In a masterly demonstration of the mathematical theory underpinning Gothic buildings, Meredith Cohen (UCLA) presented a digital reconstruction of Paris’s Saint-Germain-des-Prés based on only fragmentary physical remains.

Similarly enlightening was Brigitte Bedos-Rezak (NYU) speaking about the agency of medieval seals, which she showed could continue to exert authority even after their owner’s death. Richard Leson (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) also discussed markers of identity in his paper on a private prayer book embellished with an almost unrivalled profusion of heraldry, both real and fictional.

Thomas B. Payne (William and Mary) unpicked the typological iconography of sacred music in a paper neatly complimented by Mark Everist’s (University of Southampton) iconoclastic approach to generic distinctions in the thirteenth century. On the subject of performance, Carol Symes’s (University of Illinois) Saturday plenary on “How to Do Things with Written Words: The Ars scribendi of Vernacular Documentation” muddied the waters of medieval literacy, vernacularism, and notions of performativity. In a paper that was itself performed as much as spoken, Prof. Symes moved effortlessly through the medieval centuries in order to set her thoughts on the Gothic text in a deep and rich historical and cultural setting, picking up on many of the themes raised by Francis Gingras (Université de Montréal) on Friday.

The roundtable session chaired by William Noel (Director, Kislak Center and SIMS) asked five speakers to rethink Panofsky’s seemingly Hegelian notion of habitus. Carissa Harris (Temple University) drew striking comparisons between the obscene fourteenth-century English tale Gilote e Johane and a scene involving an unexpected sexual proposal from TV sitcom Broad City. Emily Steiner (Penn) showed the fundamental interdisciplinarity of medieval thought through a selection of encyclopaedias. Ivan Drpić (Penn), Meg Leja (Binghamton University), and Nicholas Herman (SIMS) expanded the discussion to encompass Eastern European, early medieval and post-medieval perspectives, blurring the clear geographic and chronological boundaries associated with the idea of Gothic.

The immersive atmosphere of the conference was completed by two Friday night treats: a small display of medieval manuscripts assembled by SIMS curator Nicholas Herman, and a performance of medieval music by the New York-based trio Concordian Dawn.

The organisers of Gothic Arts were hoping for critical and interdisciplinary discussion, and they got it in spades. On such an issue, consensus was always going to be slippery. Some delegates rallied to the defence of the term “Gothic,” recognising in it a certain utility and seeking to reclaim it from Vasarian oblivion. Others maintained that, if we are looking for an authentically medieval mind-frame supporting the aesthetic and intellectual unity of the “Gothic” arts, the advantages of this particular word are outweighed by its historiographic baggage.

With such a fabulous array of scholars sharing such exciting material, my feeling is that all who came left saturated with new knowledge and insight regardless of their feelings about “Gothic.” Perhaps the true value of the term lies in its capacity to stimulate precisely the kind of rigorous interdisciplinary debate both practiced and preached at Gothic Arts: An Interdisciplinary Symposium.