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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

 

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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).

 

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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).

 

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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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Volvelles: LJS 64, Illustrations to Peurbach, p. 4, Theorica motus orbis supremi super cetero mundi

Over the next several months, we’ll be creating Vines (short six-second videos) and animated gifs of all the moving volvelles in our copy of Illustrations to Georg von Peurbach’s Novae theoricae planetarum, LJS 64. This project has a few different aims. First, we’d like to show off one of the gems of our collection. This mid-16th century manuscript was created entirely by hand, to illustrate the theories of planetary motion described in Peurbach’s work. Volvelles are rotating diagrams that illustrate motion through the use of rotating circles. Although the volvelles in LJS 64 start out fairly simply (the volvelle shown in this post is a single piece of paper) as the book progresses they become more complex, and include layered circles, some of those layers having varied rotation points, and some with cut-outs that show the layers underneath. A facsimile of the manuscript is online at Penn in Hand, so you can page through a get a sense of what the volvelles look like – but those volvelles won’t move.

To get a sense of how the volvelles function, we’re creating two different virtual versions of each. One is an animated gif, created by layering and animating still images of the volvelle in Photoshop. The second is a short video, created using the Vine app, which shows a hand moving the pieces of the volvelle in real time. The more complex diagrams may require multiple Vines to show the complete movement. This leads us to the final aim of this project: to illustrate how different a fully virtual, contrived interaction with a physical object (an animated gif) is different from a hands-on interaction with that same object. Although the animated gif and the video ostensibly show the same thing, they are substantially different. And although the video supposes to show “here is how it looks in real life,” it still isn’t the same experience that you would have if you were sitting at the table moving the volvelle yourself.

Without further ado, here are our first virtual volvelles. This volvelle is captioned Theorica motus orbis supremi super cetero mundi (Theory/observations of the motion of the highest orb/body above the rest of the world.)

Animated gif, Theorica motus orbis supremi super cetero mundi, p. 4

Theorica motus orbis supremi super cetero mundi, p. 4

Theorica motus orbis supremi super cetero mundi, p. 4