THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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2 posts categorized "Research collaboration"

27 June 2018

Networks of Knowledge: Insular manuscripts and digital potential

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In the early Middle Ages, ‘Insular’ missionaries, reformers, pilgrims and intellectuals from Ireland and Anglo-Saxon England ventured onto the Continent, leaving their distinctive mark on European culture. They founded monasteries that became centres for learning and formed institutional networks that extended across Europe. They brought manuscripts from the ‘isles’ and established new libraries and scriptoria to transmit and expand knowledge. Their efforts are evident today in the considerable number of manuscripts with distinctive Insular script, decoration, texts and techniques of production that are still found in European libraries. Around 75% of all surviving Insular manuscripts are housed in continental European collections, with most of these in Insular missionary areas. Almost 50% now have a digital presence online, which represents a tipping point for digital scholarship on these books.

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‘Britain, an island of the ocean, which once was called Albion, lies to the north-west, being opposite Germany, France and Spain, which form the greater part of Europe’ — in the first words of his Ecclesiastical History, Bede sets Britain firmly in its European context: Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 5v

Members of the British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts section recently participated in a workshop in Dublin and Galway (19–22 June 2018), organised by Joanna Story (University of Leicester), as part of the project ‘Insular Manuscripts AD 650-850: Networks of Knowledge’, funded by the Leverhulme Trust. It followed the first workshop in the series, hosted by the British Library in April 2017. The final workshop will take place next year in Vienna.

This most recent event focused on the topic of ‘Networks of knowledge then and now: digital potential’. Its purpose was to bring together curators, digital specialists and academics to discuss the new possibilities offered by digital technology for promoting and researching Insular manuscripts. In particular, we examined how digitised manuscripts provide a large accessible dataset which can be searched, mapped and interrogated to help us trace early medieval cultural networks across Europe. Like the Insular networks of knowledge, our research network was fundamentally international in its scope, and aimed to deepen connections between scholars based in libraries and in universities.

Insular MSS workshop photo 1

Workshop participants examine fragments of Codex Usserianus Primus (Dublin, Trinity College Library, MS 55). Photo credit Joanna Story.

During the workshop, we heard presentations from those who have curated projects to digitise and promote manuscripts. Rachel Moss (Trinity College Dublin) reflected on ‘The Bank of America Merrill Lynch-TCD Gospel Books Project’, which conserved and digitised four early medieval Irish manuscripts from the collections of Trinity College Dublin. Charlotte Denöel (Bibliothèque nationale de France) gave us an overview of The Polonsky Project â€” the collaborative project between the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France to digitise 800 early medieval manuscripts and present and interpret them on our shared websites. We learned about the Insular manuscripts digitised by the e-Codices website from Brigitte Roux (e-Codices: Virtual Manuscript Library of Switzerland, University of Fribourg), as well as the potential for digitally reassembling fragments with the new project Fragmentarium. Karin Zimmerman (University of Heidelberg) told us about her work virtually reconstructing the historical libraries of Lorsch Abbey and the Palatine Library. We were reminded of the scale of the task of digitisation by Claire Breay (The British Library), and of the possibility of losing a sense of the scale and materiality of the manuscripts as objects.

We also learned about the software and techniques being developed to provide new ways of working with digitised manuscripts. Ben Albritton’s (Stanford University) tutorial on the IIIF image viewer Mirador had us comparing, annotating and sharing digitised manuscripts from different libraries and websites using the same interface. Stewart Brookes (University of Cambridge) showed us how to use the software Archetype as a palaeographical or art-historical tool for digital annotation, comparison and searching of manuscripts. We were deeply impressed by Christina Duffy’s (The British Library) examples of how multispectral imaging can recover details of manuscripts otherwise obscured by damage.

Cotton MS Otho A I fol 1r multispectral

A fragment of decrees from the Council of Clofesho (747), damaged in the Cotton Library fire, before and after Christina Duffy processed it through multispectral imaging: Cotton MS Otho A I, f. 1r

Additionally, researchers told us about the ways in which they are employing digital tools in their own projects. We heard from Immo Warntjes (Trinity College Dublin) about his new project, funded by the Irish Research Council, to develop an 'Object Based Catalogue' of medieval scientific texts using the data from digitised manuscripts, to trace the transmission of Irish ideas and reconstruct the continental networks of Irish thought. Máirín MacCarron (National University of Ireland Galway) showed us how she is using social network analysis tools in a new project funded by the Leverhulme Trust to better understand the dynamic social relationships presented in early medieval texts. The use of digital tools to measure Insular influence in continental manuscripts was demonstrated by Ursula Kundert (University of Würzburg), through her analysis of ‘diminuendo’ lettering.

The event has left us feeling inspired by the work that everyone is doing and excited to be working with manuscripts at such a pivotal time. We are grateful to all the participants for sharing their ideas, to Bernard Meehan (Trinity College Dublin) and Dáibhí Ó Cróinín (National University of Ireland, Galway) for being our hosts and guides, and to the National University of Ireland, Galway; Trinity College, Dublin; the Royal Irish Academy and the National Museum of Ireland for their hospitality. We would also like to thank the Leverhulme Trust for their funding, and Joanna Story and Jessica Hodgkinson for organising the workshop.

Insular MSS workshop photo 2

Workshop participants examine fragments of Codex Usserianus Primus (Dublin, Trinity College Library, MS 55). Photo credit Joanna Story.

Don’t miss the chance to see many highlights of Insular manuscript production in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, opening at the British Library on 19 October 2018.

 

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15 September 2017

Fragmentarium and the burnt Anglo-Saxon fragments

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Have you ever been intrigued by the survival of fragments of medieval manuscripts, used perhaps as waste in later bookbindings, or damaged in catastrophic events such as the Ashburnham House fire? The recent launch of Fragmentarium (the Digital Research Laboratory for Medieval Manuscript Fragments) will enable many of these fragments to be analysed in greater detail, and in some cases to be digitally reunited. The British Library is one partner in this project, alongside institutions and collections from Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Norway, Switzerland, the USA, the Vatican and the United Kingdom. As the project states, 'Fragmentarium enables libraries, collectors, researchers and students to publish images of medieval manuscript fragments, allowing them to catalogue, describe, transcribe, assemble and re-use them.'

Some of our readers may have come across the story of the Ashburnham House fire of 23 October 1731. This tragic event left a number of manuscripts in the famous collection of manuscripts assembled by Robert Cotton in an extra-crispy state. After a remarkable conservation effort undertaken in the 18th and 19th centuries, many of these volumes did not look so bad, all things considered, as you can see for yourself with Beowulf. But some of these manuscripts did not fare so well — to the naked eye they often resemble something approaching a burnt biscuit!

Cotton MS Otho A X, f. 1v, as it looks in person.

Cotton MS Otho A X, f. 1v, as it looks in person

The burnt Cotton fragments are among the most evocative artefacts of medieval culture, both for the tragedy of their destruction and the mystery of their contents. Many of the surviving leaves remain critical to scholarship, often containing unique texts or their earliest known copies. Work on other fragments at the British Library has already shown that multispectral photography can make it possible to extract more information from what survives. The burnt leaves remain vulnerable, and so it is critical that digital techniques be used to document and preserve their present state.

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Cotton MS Otho A X, f. 1v: a blend of photographs taken across light spectra

For several decades, technology has been applied to improve the readability of the Cotton fragments. In the early 1950s, ultraviolet photography was applied to Æthelweard’s Chronicle (in Cotton MS Otho A X and Cotton MS Otho A XII) in order to make new sense of a handful of pages. The same process was also used with Cotton MS Otho A I. At the time, however, these photographs did not achieve wide dissemination due to the limitations of publishing in print.

Multispectral imaging setup at the British Library.

Multispectral imaging setup at the British Library

The recent application of multispectral photography has enabled us to recover more details of these fragments, and with reconstructed colour. At the same time, regrettably but inevitably, this technology has revealed that, in the course of half a century, the condition of these fragments has sometimes deteriorated. A few volumes that seemingly could be read without technological assistance only a few decades ago have details that today are difficult to read with the naked eye. In some cases, the volumes are so fragile that they can only be issued in the British Library's Manuscripts Reading Room with special curatorial permission.

We are currently publishing key remnants of some of the burnt Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in the Cotton collection on Fragmentarium. Dr Christina Duffy, the British Library's Imaging Scientist, has photographed over a hundred of these fragments and has skilfully processed them to make their reconstruction as legible as possible. The results will be available under a Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication. Fragmentarium has also built the capacity into their site to handle multiple images of a single folio — rare but critical functionality for dealing with multispectral imaging, since the images you will see are a scientific but also very much a human reconstruction.

Andrew Dunning

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