Medieval manuscripts blog

10 posts categorized "Research collaboration"

09 January 2018

The Carolingian quest for the correct text of the Bible

The British Library was recently abuzz with the news that Codex Amiatinus — the oldest surviving copy of the complete text of the Latin Vulgate Bible — will be returning temporarily to Britain in 2018 for our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. Another important early medieval pandect Bible (containing the entire Bible in one volume) has now been digitised as part of the ongoing England and France 700–1200 joint project with the Bibliothèque nationale de France. This manuscript (Add MS 24142) is a fascinating example of the painstaking efforts to improve the biblical text by Carolingian scholars. It is one of the oldest of the six surviving Theodulf Bibles, so-called after the reviser of the text, Theodulf (b. 750–760, d. 821), the bishop of Orléans and Fleury. Two of the remaining five copies are now in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris (cod. lat. 9380 and cod. lat. 11937). The remaining three reside in the collections of Württembergische Landesbibliothek in Stuttgart (MS HB. II 16), Le Puy Cathedral, France (Trésor de la Cathédrale, unnumbered), and Det Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen (MS NKS 1).

A page from an early 9th-century Bible, showing the end of the Book of Ezekiel, with a correction to the Latin text in the margin.

A marginal correction at the end of Ezekiel, c. 800–825: Add MS 24142, detail of f. 108r

In the 8th century there was an abundance of different versions of the text of the Bible — of varying quality — in use across Europe. During the same period, the realm of the Carolingian dynasty (who took over as kings of the Franks from the Merovingians in 751) gradually expanded. Under Charlemagne (r. 768–814) it reached its greatest size, as an empire covering most of western Continental Europe. Reform and unification of the Church was an important issue for the Carolingian rulers and other elite members of society, and concerns about this variation in Bible provision and its effect on the liturgy grew. Establishing throughout the entire realm a revised text of the Bible, the most essential Christian text, was central to these reform efforts. This is made explicit in the General Admonition of 789, a collection of legislation issued by Charlemagne:

‘Correct carefully the Psalms, the signs in writing …, the songs, the calendar, the grammar …, and the catholic books; because often some desire to pray to God properly, but they pray badly because of faulty books’ (translated by Paul Edward Dutton, Carolingian Civilization: A Reader, 2nd edn., Toronto, 2009).

Theodulf was one of the key figures in Charlemagne’s circle of intellectuals and Church reformers. It was also Theodulf who produced one of the most ambitious efforts to answer Charlemagne’s call to ‘correct carefully’ the Vulgate text. He compared the various versions, using the best exemplars he could acquire. Not content with the first drafts of his work, Theodulf continued to revise the resulting text as new exemplars became available. The six surviving copies of his biblical text all reveal different stages of this continuous revision process with corrections, and sometimes alternate readings, recorded in the margins. In other words, Theodulf’s method was similar to how critical editions of texts are prepared today.

A page from an early 9th-century Bible, showing the beginning of the Gospel of St John.

The beginning of the Gospel of St John, c. 800–825: Add MS 24142, f. 222r

The resulting manuscript copies were clearly meant for close scholarly reading and reference, rather than for use in the liturgy. This is immediately clear from the rather modest dimensions and plain presentation of Add MS 24142. The Theodulf Bibles were written in a tiny version of Caroline minuscule script (the clear and legible script promoted throughout the Empire by Charlemagne) that was usually only used for marginal glosses.

Check out the digitised Add MS 24142 online to see how the specific function of this rare copy of the biblical text affected its form. Instead of decorated initials or illustrations, the transition between books is made clear to the reader by headings in a slender uncial script (a script originating in the classical world and consisting entirely of capital letters). Only occasionally is a simple rectangular border decoration added to further mark the division. The beginning of St John’s Gospel in the second column, above, is one example of this pragmatic arrangement. The British Library’s copy also stands out since it is arranged in an unusual three-column layout — maximising the amount of text on each manuscript page even further — whereas the four later Theodulf Bibles have the more standard two columns. These features combine to make Add MS 24142 a practical and relatively lightweight pandect Bible in comparison to most surviving medieval pandects, and it can be comfortably handled by one person.

 

Emilia Henderson

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15 September 2017

Fragmentarium and the burnt Anglo-Saxon fragments

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.

Cotton MS Otho A X 1v_PSC-blendwith17-5770

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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