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.


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Digital Manuscripts as Critical Edition

The following post is the written version of a presentation that Christoph Flüeler, Director of e-codices and Professor at the University of Fribourg, presented at the 50th International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, MI, May 2015. It has been very lightly edited by Dot Porter. Prof.  Flüeler has long been a leader in digital manuscript studies, and in his talk he proposed an exciting vision of digital manuscripts as critical edition. With Prof. Flüeler’s permission, we are very pleased to share his talk here on the SIMS blog. He will soon develop these thoughts into a longer article, which will be published in a more formal venue.

The point of departure for my contribution is as follows: in coming years an enormous number of manuscripts, tens of thousands of them from thousands of manuscript collections throughout the world, will be digitized and made available on the Internet. A few years from now perhaps a majority of all manuscripts of great cultural, artistic, and scientific value will be accessible online. As this happens, quality requirements regarding image quality, metadata, and user interfaces will markedly increase, and standards will be established, so that all over the world metadata and images can be processed and annotated via comprehensive and specialized manuscript portals and interoperable image viewing platforms. This presumption is based on careful observation of developments during the past ten years and of the large number of projects currently planned or in progress. Everyone who attended yesterday’s session entitled “All Medieval Manuscripts Online: Strategic Plans in Europe” with presentations by the British Library, the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München, and e-codices knows that I refer here only to concretely planned projects.

If digital manuscripts become ever more important for scholarly research in future, the following question arises: whatis the “scholarly research value” of digital manuscripts?

Discussion of the matter has thus far been conducted in an undifferentiated manner by persons interested in defending the exclusive status of the originals and who in some cases go so far as to question whether digital reproductions have any scholarly research value at all. This point of view strikes me as rather unconstructive, because it simply dismisses as unreliable these resources on which most researchers already rely, and on which they will in future base their work to an ever greater degree.

My perspective is a bit different. What we need to do is to ask the following question: what preconditions must be met in order for a digital manuscript to be understood as a reliable resource for scholarly research, such that a scholarly researcher can, without any great misgivings or doubts, utilize the digital object as the basis for serious research and make use of it to the fullest possible extent?

Central for my reflections is the different status of the physical manuscript and the digital manuscript. The fact that the relationship between physical manuscript and digital manuscript has barely been examined up to this point is rather astonishing. It is probably because a serious theoretical consideration of the immediate precursors of the digital manuscript was never undertaken; I speak here of print facsimiles and microfilms. Facsimile editions are hugely popular with collectors. The production of facsimiles is normally understood as a work of fine craftsmanship. While scholarly researchers are employed in their production, they contribute only the accompanying commentary. Theory has obviously been considered out of place when it comes to the production of facsimiles.

Microfilms, on the other hand, have always been seen as not particularly attractive research aids, are often incomplete, often contain errors, and are as a rule only black-and-white. They are still maintained as archival copies, but for scholarly researchers their usefulness as reproductions has (for the most part) been superseded.

In this context I will not raise the matter of the qualities that distinguish a digital manuscript from a facsimile edition or a microfilm. The advantages of the digital manuscript are too obvious to require enumeration here.

I would like to ask, instead, how a digital manuscript stands in relation to a critical edition of a text. Can the publication of a digital manuscript on the internet be understood as an edition? Further: could such an edition even be regarded as a critical edition?

I would like to consider again the statement I made earlier, in which I asserted that for scholarly research purposes a digital manuscript must be understood as a reliable resource to the extent that medievalists from various disciplines (for ex. History, Art History, History of Law, History of Philosophy, Classical Philology, etc.) can utilize the digital object as the basis for serious research and make use of it to the fullest possible extent.

This echoes the proper purpose of a critical text edition. A critical text edition does exactly this, and the science of creating editions has since the 19th century developed methods for achieving this goal. A critical text edition aims to create an authoritative and easily accessible text. Its usefulness is, however, often far greater: a critical text edition can, for example, highlight the historical dimensions of the transmission of a text and use a critical apparatus to tease out intertextual aspects of the text in ways that far exceed simple transcription. In addition, a critical text edition can drill down to a more original text, identify errors in transmission, and provide a text so convincing in its authenticity that it comes to be accepted in the scholarly research community as an authoritative version of the text.

If we do not insist that the definition of edition can only be applied to a traditional text edition, we can in point of fact understand the publication of a digital manuscript on the Internet as a scholarly edition.

In the meantime there are already thousands of texts which have received their first publication as digital manuscripts. This is also true of hundreds of texts found on e-codices. It is important not to underestimate the usefulness to scholarly research of this additional method of editing, especially for texts that have never been edited previously and that would perhaps otherwise never have been critically edited.

What scholars need are good, scientific editions. This is true for both text editions and editions of digital manuscripts. We can only regard as serious critical editions those that follow established scientific criteria, developed with a firm grounding in the concept that the publication can substitute for the original as a resource for research, up to a certain point and for specific purposes, and that it offers some type of added value beyond that of the original. A digital manuscript, like a traditional critical edition, is not merely a cheap copy, but ideally can show aspects of the primary resource, i.e. the original manuscript, that were not visible in such a way when viewing the original.

It is obviously important to note that the critical edition of digital manuscripts is a different task from the critical edition of texts transmitted in manuscripts. It is, however, not any less exacting.

No edition theory has yet been written concerning digital manuscripts. I can only briefly enumerate some relevant themes and desiderata.

A digital manuscript edition should, like a critical text edition, follow documented scholarly research criteria and not produce a plain, unexamined reproduction of the material object—in this case a physical manuscript, but should—as I already emphasized—create some added value and bring out new aspects of the manuscript that have not previously been observed or recognized; and a digital manuscript should obviously provide a reliable foundation for current research of the original manuscript.

The most authentic possible scientific reproduction is the first step. Completeness, high image quality, and true color must be provided. Measurability and verifiability are fundamental to access for all purposes of scholarly research. Digital manuscripts consist of digital reproductions. It is therefore essential to provide not only metadata about the manuscript, but also metadata about the digital object. The colors must be measurable, not only by using a simple color sample strip, but by employing a complex Color Management System. This is actually already standard these days, but as soon as the files are uploaded to the Internet, all the care that goes into this is often ignored. Image metadata, such as IPTC metadata, should be available together with the digital image, and should be linked closely enough that when images are transferred—for example, into another image viewing platform—the image metadata are automatically attached. Dimensions should be measurable in every part of a manuscript. Simply including ruler in an image is here, as in other cases, not sufficient; a digital measuring tool with flexible usability would always be preferable. In practice, we are for the most part still a long way from such precise, reliable and measurable digital images at this point; however, they are fundamental for serious scientific work. How is one to conduct serious research with images, if the images on the screen are often slightly distorted, the colors are not accurate, and no reliable measuring tool is available? Not to mention poor resolutions of less than 300 dpi! Products like this are simply a waste of money.

Digital manuscripts do not consist merely of digital reproductions though. A digital manuscript is a virtual product that reproduces a tangible object in its entirety. This includes the proper sequencing of images. A data model must ensure that the image sequence remains intact when displayed in other viewing platforms. The same is obviously true for metadata regarding the physical manuscript and the digital manuscript, which aid in understanding the manuscript as manuscript, but also as digital object. I am referring to metadata in the broad sense. This includes: basic metadata, structural metadata, scholarly descriptions, image descriptions, metadata regarding codicology, digital object metadata, reports about additional restoration, and ideally even the full range of existing research literature. Finally, this includes—and very importantly—the transcriptions and editions of the text contained in the manuscript. If a critical edition of a digital manuscript is to comprehend the physical manuscript in its entirety, then text editions form part of it. In the future, text editions should not be understood as separate from digital objects, but as integral parts of them. I regard these integral parts not as competing or the edition as an absolute condition, but rather that these are complementary pieces of the ideal whole. Metadata can be added as desired—the richer the data included, the greater the usefulness and the scholarly research value.

A digital manuscript can and should be used to show more than is visible or explicitly contained in the original. Illustrations can be enlarged. Structural elements of the codex and the text can be accentuated. Individual illustrations or parts of the text can be annotated, and transcriptions and editions can be set next to the page images. Codicological features such as quires, watermarks, and color analysis can not only be provided, but can even be analyzed and interpreted within a digital manuscript. The research area of Image and Text Recognition is hard at work on tools to recognize and analyze layout, script types, scribal practices and eventually even texts.

It is important to emphasize that a digital manuscript should display a manuscript in its entirety. But we should even go a step further. A critical edition of a digital manuscript should not treat only a single manuscript, but should include as much data as possible about other related manuscripts and sources, in order to promote viewing the special qualities and features of the particular manuscript in a broader context. In this area as well the established methods of scientific editing aid me in developing criteria that can be applied to digital manuscript editions.

One fundamental task when editing critical editions of medieval texts transmitted in manuscripts is to collate individual transcriptions of texts and thereby obtain new information. The critical apparatus presents variations of the text as transmitted by the manuscripts used for the edition. This critical apparatus delivers indications of explicit and implicit references to other works as well and unfolds the intertextuality of the text. This means that a critical text edition goes beyond transmission of the text found in a single manuscript.

A critical digital edition of a manuscript can for example expand quire analyses, descriptions of illustrations, script analysis, structural analysis, water mark analysis of a single manuscript via metadata for another digital object, or other objects can be incorporated for the purpose of gaining new information. Let me offer just one example: quire composition and layout analysis can be performed across manuscripts from the same scriptorium or other scriptoria in order to recognize features peculiar to a particular manuscript, a scriptorium, or an entire epoch. A digital manuscript is thus more than just a digital version produced from a single physical object. It effectively has the potential toincorporate the entirety of manuscript transmission contained in all medieval manuscripts.

The publication of medieval manuscripts on the Internet has made amazing progress during the past ten years. Digital manuscript libraries have transcended the status of pilot projects. Digital manuscript libraries have become more professional and have by now become an essential part of the research infrastructure. This is surely due to the fact that not just a few individual manuscripts, but over 15,000 medieval manuscripts have been presented online up until now.

However the success and importance of digital manuscript libraries depend not so much on the number of digitized manuscripts as on the scientific quality of those digital manuscripts, which can only achieve fundamental change in the area of manuscript research through a critical theory of the digital manuscript.

Thank you for your kind attention.

Kalamazoo, May 15, 2015

Christoph Flüeler