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Manuscript of the Month: A Previously Unknown Witness to a Medieval Dictionary and the Origins of Librarians

April 29th, 2020

In memory of Richard Sharpe (1954-2020)

N. Kıvılcım Yavuz is conducting research on pre-1600 manuscripts at the Kenneth Spencer Research Library. Each month she will be writing about a manuscript she has worked with and the current KU Library catalog records will be updated in accordance with her findings.

MS 9/2:16 is one of dozens of fragmentary medieval manuscripts that are part of the holdings of the Kenneth Spencer Research Library. Originally part of a larger manuscript, this single parchment leaf was cut to size to be used as the cover of another book. Since the fragment was folded to fit this new host and the folds left quite an impression on the parchment, it can be estimated that the dimensions of the book our fragment was covering were about 156 x 96 x 43 mm. We do not, however, know what this book was.

Image of a manuscript fragment (recto) possibly from Papias the Lombard’s Elementarium doctrinae rudimentum [Elementary Introduction to Learning]. France? Netherlands? 13th century? The fragment had been repurposed as the cover of a codex.
Recto of a manuscript fragment containing a list of terms, which was used as the cover of another book. Call #: MS 9/2:16. Click image to enlarge.
Image of a manuscript fragment (verso) possibly from Papias the Lombard’s Elementarium doctrinae rudimentum [Elementary Introduction to Learning]. France? Netherlands? 13th century? The fragment had been repurposed as the cover of a codex.
Verso of the manuscript leaf, which served as the inner side of the cover of the book. Call #: MS 9/2:16. Click image to enlarge.

As it stands, 27 lines of text in three columns on both sides of the leaf remain. The three-column layout with ample margins on either side suggests that this fragment was part of a manuscript of substantial size. The widest part of the width of the fragment measures approximately 290 mm. We can therefore estimate that the original manuscript leaf perhaps measured something like 450 x 300 mm. That is to say, this parchment leaf is now perhaps half the size it used to be. A reading of the text immediately reveals that this is some kind of glossary, dictionary or encyclopedia, as it contains an alphabetical list of terms with explanations. The part we have includes terms that begin with the letter L, and that is why there are repeated decorated initial Ls on both sides of the leaf, two of which are pen flourished in red and the other two in plain blue. We can see that not all the terms begin with a decorated initial but only the ones that have relatively lengthier explanations.

Ordinarily, a glossary would be at the end of a book or accompany a text and include terms particular to that work. It is, however, difficult to see what the terms in this fragment might have in common as they vary not only in the length of their descriptions but also in their subject matters. For example, the words included on the recto page range from “liber” (book) to “liberalis” (of or belonging to freedom), “libia” (Libya, a country in North Africa) and “libidinosus” (passionate).

As it is seen in the images of the manuscript above, the fragment has sustained significant water damage which caused some of the ink to bleed and smear on the page, especially on the recto side. In order to uncover the text on the parchment that was lost due to the water damage, I applied some digital manipulation techniques to the images before I began transcribing the text. Different contemporary image processing techniques can be applied to images of manuscripts to recover ink that is not visible to the naked eye. And, sometimes even only recalibrating the sharpness and the contrast of images will yield results, depending on the extent of the damage and the erasure. The images of this particular fragment required a little bit of more work than that but the results were really promising.

Image of a manuscript fragment possibly from Papias the Lombard’s Elementarium doctrinae rudimentum [Elementary Introduction to Learning]. France? Netherlands? 13th century?, digitally processed to enhance the legibility of water-damaged text.
Recto of MS 9/2:16 after image processing with ImageJ/Fiji. Click image to enlarge.

As I was transcribing, at first I thought this was a copy of part of the Etymologiae [Etymologies] by Isidore of Seville (c. 560–636). Also known as the Origines, Isidore’s work is an etymological encyclopedia. Due to its comprehensiveness and the overall encyclopedic mindset of medieval scribes, authors and compilers, the Etymologiae was one of the most copied and consulted books throughout the Middle Ages. The entirety of the Etymologiae consists of twenty books but it is common to see selected books, chapters or even individual passages copied in medieval manuscripts. If you have read my last blogpost on MS C189, you may remember that I mentioned that another work by Isidore of Seville, the Sententiae (Sentences), also was fairly popular during the Middle Ages, and selected parts of this work were found in manuscripts as part of larger compilations.

When I compared the text of MS 9/2:16 with Isidore’s Etymologiae, I noticed that the fragment did not follow the order of books and chapters of the work, although individual passages certainly were directly taken from the Etymologiae. For example, on the recto side of the fragment, the text moves from the fourteenth chapter to the twelfth chapter of the sixth book of the Etymologiae in the first column with no apparent break and then on to the fifth chapter of the ninth book in the second column before going to the fifth chapter of the fourteenth book in the third.

These kinds of textual rearrangements are no surprise when it comes to medieval manuscripts. Many texts were not simply copied but reorganized and rewritten in the Middle Ages to better suit the particular needs of individual scribes or authors at given times. Moreover, in MS 9/2:16, I found out that there were sentences, albeit only a handful, that did not originate from Isidore’s Etymologiae. This phenomenon of additions to existing texts is also not uncommon in medieval manuscripts and could have been done by the scribe of this manuscript. Yet, in this case, I think the scribe of MS 9/2:16 was just following an existing exemplar and not necessarily making new additions. I now believe Spencer’s fragment is not directly from Isidore’s Etymologiae, but from a copy of Papias the Lombard’s Elementarium doctrinae rudimentum [Elementary Introduction to Learning].

Described by Richard Sharpe as the “first fully recognizable dictionary,” the Elementarium was composed sometime before 1053, probably over several years in the 1040s. One of the sources for Papias’s Elementarium was the Etymologiae, and that is why we find passages that go back directly to the Isidore’s seventh-century encyclopedia in this fragment. A notable feature of Papias’s Elementarium is that it is organized in alphabetical order based on the first three letters of each word. We can easily confirm this by looking at MS 9/2:16, in which each entry starts not only with the letter L but also with the letters LIB before moving on to LIC and then to LID. Among other features of the work, this alphabetical organization in itself has been considered very innovative for its time.

It is very serendipitous that MS 9/2:16 as we have it begins in the middle of a chapter entitled “De librariis et eorum instrumentis” in Isidore’s Etymologiae (VI.xiv). We would be justified in reading the title of this chapter as “on librarians and their instruments” since the adjective “librarius” (“librariis” in dative) means a person concerned with or employed about books when it is used as a noun, and that is what librarians do! In the Middle Ages, though, “librarius” usually referred to a copyist, scribe, secretary or bookseller. Yet, the Latin word “librarius” is indeed the origin of the word “librarian” in English and all the way into the eighteenth century the word “librarian” still (also) carried all these meanings in English.

According to A Census of Medieval Latin Grammatical Manuscripts by G. L. Bursill-Hall, over a hundred manuscripts of Papias’s Elementarium survive. There are also at least four print editions dated before the fifteenth century, the first of which was published in Milan in 1476. (Three of these incunabula dated to 1485, 1491 and 1496 respectively are digitized by the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Germany.) Perhaps the high number of the witnesses in addition to the complexity of the work are the reasons why a full edition of the Elementarium has not been undertaken in modern times. Since there is no modern edition of the text with which our fragment can be compared, I soon will make available an annotated transcription of MS 9/2:16.

For an introduction to medieval dictionaries, read Richard Sharpe, “Vocabulary, Word Formation, Lexicography.” In Medieval Latin: An Introduction and Bibliographical Guide. Ed. by F. A. C. Mantello and A. G. Rigg (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1996). 93–105.

N. Kıvılcım Yavuz
Ann Hyde Postdoctoral Researcher

Manuscript of the Month: A Manuscript, Wrapped in a Mystery, Inside an Enigma

April 1st, 2020

N. Kıvılcım Yavuz is conducting research on pre-1600 manuscripts at the Kenneth Spencer Research Library. Each month she will be writing about a manuscript she has worked with and the current KU Library catalog records will be updated in accordance with her findings.

A small quarto manuscript, MS C189, previously belonged to Alpha Loretta Owens (1877–1965), a graduate of the University of Kansas. Born in Rockwell City, IA, her family moved to Lawrence, KS, after she finished high school. She completed her first degree over a century ago, in 1901, at the University of Kansas and went on to receive an MA in 1903, also from KU. She then attended the University of Chicago, where she later worked at the John Crerar Library until 1918. Following a brief post teaching French at the University of Kansas ROTC, between 1919 and 1926 she taught French at Baker University in Baldwin City, KS, where she became Head of the French Department. In 1929, she completed her PhD at Johns Hopkins University and became Professor of Modern Languages in West Virginia at Morris Harvey College (now the University of Charleston). She taught French, Spanish and German there until her retirement in 1947. Subsequently, she returned to Lawrence, where she resided until her death. Owens also was the previous owner of another manuscript currently in the holdings of the Kenneth Spencer Research Library, MS J1:2, a fragmentary Torah scroll. Paul Mirecki from KU Religious Studies has been working on the history of this manuscript, the details of which were outlined in an article last year in the KU Alumni Magazine.

Portrait of Alpha Loretta Owens (1877–1965) when she was part of the faculty at Morris Harvey College in 1933. Source: The Harveyan, 1933.
Portrait of Alpha Loretta Owens (1877–1965) when she was part of the faculty at Morris Harvey College in 1933. Source: The Harveyan, 1933, courtesy of the Internet Archive. Click image to enlarge.

MS C189 is one of three manuscripts that were listed under “The Library of Miss Alpha Loretta Owens, Barboursville, West Virginia” in the famous Census of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the United States and Canada prepared by Seymour de Ricci with the assistance of W. J. Wilson and published between 1935 and 1940. According to the Census, all three manuscripts were examined by Wilson in 1935, when Owens was working at Morris Harvey College and living in Barboursville, WV, where the University of Charleston was originally founded and based. This is all we know about the history of MS C189; that the manuscript was purchased by Owens sometime before 1935. It is not known when, where and from whom she acquired the manuscript. Nor do we know any other previous owners or the origin of the manuscript.

A sample opening from MS C189, displaying the end of Porphyry’s Isagoge on folio 18v and the beginning of Aristotle’s Perihermenias on folio 19r.
A sample opening from MS C189, displaying the end of Porphyry’s Isagoge on folio 18v and the beginning of Aristotle’s Perihermenias on folio 19r. For more detailed information on the texts and for additional images of the manuscript, please see the record for MS C189 in the Digital Scriptorium. Click image to enlarge.

MS C189 is a remarkable object beyond the texts it contain. The textblock of the manuscript is homogeneous; that is, MS C189 is composed of a single codicological unit which was produced in one process and most openings look pretty much like the example provided above. It does not look like there are any missing leaves or like there were more gatherings either in the beginning or at the end. Parts of other manuscripts, however, were used as practical means to preserve this small book of 34 leaves as well as to support it. The binding of MS C189, which is presumably original, comes from another manuscript, as do the flyleaves in the front and the back from two others. Thus, we have one medieval manuscript that is placed inside fragments of two different medieval manuscripts and then wrapped with another one.

Front cover of MS C189 showing re-use of a manuscript bifolium Back cover of MS C189 showing re-use of a manuscript bifolium

Left: Front cover of MS C189. Right: Back cover MS C189.

MS C189 has a limp binding, in which a bifolium (that is, two conjoint leaves) from another manuscript is used as a cover in the form of a case. The repurposed parchment cover is attached to the bookblock by means of split lacing double sewing supports made out of leather. The sewing-support slips are laced out of each side of the cover through three single exit slits and then each double support returns through two separate slits, one at approximately 45 degrees above and the other at 45 degrees below the exit slits, creating a V shape. What used to be the upper margin of the bifolium (now the fore-edge turn-in of the front cover) is trimmed, with all edges of the cover left large enough to allow for turn-ins. The cover has lapped mitres; the fore-edge turn-ins lie on top of the head and tail turn-ins at the corners. There is no lining or any kind of other reinforcement and the sewing-support slips, which are mostly intact, are fully visible.

Opening with interior of the front cover of MS C189 on the left, displaying the lapped mitres and the exposed sewing-support slips, and on the right the first front flyleaf, a repurposed fragment from another manuscript.
Left: Interior of the front cover of MS C189, displaying the lapped mitres and the exposed sewing-support slips. Right: The first front flyleaf, a repurposed fragment from another manuscript. Click image to enlarge.

Considered original, in the Census of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts, the binding of the MS C189 is described as made from two leaves of a twelfth century theological manuscript. There is no other information provided regarding the fragment. Furthermore, since then, neither MS C189 as an artefact nor this fragment now fashioning the cover of the manuscript seem to have attracted any attention from scholars.

The parchment leaf that now forms the outer cover (the recto side of the first of the two folios) of MS C189 is almost fully visible without any intervention. Except for the trimmed upper margin, it looks like the entire leaf is preserved. Moreover, there seems to be no loss of text due to trimming. Most of the text also is still readable on the cover and the turn-ins. I was able to identify the existing text as a part of Isidore of Seville’s Sententiae (Sentences). Composed in the early seventh century, the Sententiae employs the ancient and medieval literary form of collecting brief passages on a given topic. The work as a whole consists of three books (in thirty-one, forty-four and sixty-six chapters respectively) in which Isidore creates a compendium of essentials of theology in an organized manner.

Isidore of Seville’s Sententiae was fairly popular and there are many copies of manuscripts that survive from the Middle Ages. Indeed, we have another manuscript, MS C54, that contains the Sententiae. Therefore, when I identified the text, I was expecting the conjoint leaf whose verso is partly visible on the interiors of the cover to contain a different part of the same text. The text on the outer cover is from Book 10.11 of the Sententiae, a chapter entitled “De angelis” (On the Angels). The text on the inner cover, however, is not from the Sententiae but instead is part of a sermon attributed to John Chrysostom, who was the Archbishop of Constantinople at the end of the fourth and the beginning of the fifth centuries. The sermon is simply known by the title “De misericordia” (On Mercy) or by its opening words, “Tria sunt quae in misericordiae opera,” which are not visible in MS C189.

Further research revealed that this chapter of Isidore of Seville’s Sententiae was sometimes used as part of medieval homiliaries. A homiliary, or a book of homilies, is a collection of short texts consisting of lectures or discourses on a moral theme, which are also known as sermons. More research (and perseverance) revealed that there is at least one other manuscript in which both of these texts are found. In Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Latin 3783(2), known as the Moissac Homiliary, not only do they both exist in the same manuscript but they are also in the same order that we have them.

Image of folio 279v from Latin 3783 (2) at the Bibliothèque nationale de France Image of folio 286r from Latin 3783 (2) at the Bibliothèque nationale de France

Left: The portion of “De angelis” in Latin 3783(2), folio 279v that corresponds to MS C189. Right: The portion of “De misericordia” in Latin 3783(2), folio 286r that corresponds to MS C189. Source: Gallica, Latin 3783(2), Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits.

According to the description of the Moissac Homiliary, Isidore of Seville’s “De angelis” opens a gathering of eight folios and the pseudo-John Chrysostom’s “De misericordia” closes it, with a series of shorter texts with similar topics in between the two (folios 279 to 286). The Moissac Homiliary is dated to the mid-eleventh century and is thought to have been compiled in Moissac Abbey in south-western France. What is now the binding of MS C189 probably looked like this manuscript in its original form. Both the cover of MS C189 and the Moissac Homiliary are written in late Caroline minuscule and both are laid out in two columns on folios of approximately the same size. The cover of MS C189 has 38 lines to a page whereas the Moissac Homiliary has 37 but seems to be a little bit more compact and has large initials in the beginning of each section. (We do not know whether the cover of MS C189 originally had any illuminated initials in the same places.) If the biofolium we have as the cover of MS C189 was indeed part of a larger book with a similar arrangement with six bifolia in between the two leaves we have, the two texts would fall more or less to the same places. It seems more than likely, therefore, that MS C189 and the Moissac Homiliary are related, possibly one copied from the other.

Additional research on MS C189, with all of its features and fragments, would certainly yield further answers as to how the manuscript came to be and perhaps even how it ended up in Alpha Loretta Owens’s collection in the early twentieth century.

The Kenneth Spencer Research Library purchased the manuscript from Book Nook in May 1966, and it is available for consultation at the Library’s Marilyn Stokstad Reading Room when the library is open.

N. Kıvılcım Yavuz
Ann Hyde Postdoctoral Researcher

Workshop Recap: Parchment Conservation

September 26th, 2016

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to travel to the International Preservation Studies Center (IPSC, formerly known as the Campbell Center for Historic Preservation Studies) to participate in a 4-day workshop on the conservation of parchment. My nine classmates and I – conservators from a variety of institutions around the country – stayed in IPSC’s dormitory housing in the tiny town of Mount Carroll, Illinois (read about the interesting history of the IPSC campus here) and immersed ourselves in the subject under the guidance of instructor Sheila Siegler, a chemist and conservator with many years of experience treating parchment documents.

From her long experience working with parchment, Sheila brings a wealth of knowledge and a set of strong opinions, but also a refreshing lack of fussiness when it comes to working with a material that has a reputation for being difficult. Along the way she was always very encouraging, reminding us that parchment can be tamed as long as you know what you’re dealing with and accept its quirks and imperfections as par for the course.

We began on the first day with a morning lecture on the history of the use of parchment and how parchment is made. This part is not for the squeamish – the process of turning sheep or calf skin into parchment is a messy business! We also spent some time learning about the chemical structure of parchment and how it deteriorates; as a chemist, Sheila wanted us to understand how and why the parchment would respond to the treatments we performed in class.

We spent the afternoon of Day 1 trying out different ways of examining parchment – under various types of illumination and under different levels of magnification – and comparing the ways that parchment and “parchment paper” behaved under different kinds of stress. Using scraps of historic parchment, modern parchment, and modern parchment paper, we soaked, boiled, and burned samples and recorded the results. Some students had the idea to intentionally disfigure their samples quite severely so that later in the workshop they would have the fun challenge of trying to undo the damage. At the end of Day 1 we broke into pairs and were assigned a large folded historic parchment document (reportedly purchased on eBay) that it would be our responsibility to examine and treat over the rest of the workshop.

Examination of parchment under ultraviolet light.

Examining a parchment document under ultraviolet illumination. Photo by Kyle Clark.

On the morning of Day 2, we worked on cleaning our parchments and preparing adhesives to use in the afternoon session on parchment repair. Sheila’s preferred cleaning technique is simple – a plain cotton ball, slowly and gently brushed over the parchment surface. Very grimy areas could be cleaned with a swab moistened in water if necessary, but Sheila’s no-fuss approach calls for only as much intervention as is needed; after all, very old documents are bound to show their age, and the idea is not to make them look brand new again, but, for those of us who work in research institutions, to make their contents accessible to researchers.

The adhesive we made is called parchment size and is prepared very simply by slowly heating bits of parchment cuttings in water until the mixture thickens into a mild gelatinous adhesive. We put it to use in the afternoon session, experimenting with it and other adhesives (wheat starch paste and methylcellulose) and different kinds of repair tissues (Japanese paper and a material called goldbeater’s skin, made from ox intestines) to mend tears in parchment. We mixed and matched adhesives and repair materials and made notes on the effectiveness of each combination. We also discussed the types of historic stitched or embroidered repairs that are sometimes seen on parchment, and some students experimented with replicating this type of repair on our sample scraps.

Conservation tools and storeroom

The storerooms at IPSC are a little like a candy store to conservators.

On Day 3 it was time for the most harrowing part of our treatment – humidification and flattening of our parchment documents. Students traded horror stories – their own or second-hand – of parchment treatments gone awry, but in her easy way Sheila urged us to jump in and be brave. We laid down plastic on the table, then moistened absorbent material, then a layer of Tyvek (yes, that Tyvek that you see at construction sites – it protects the document from being saturated but allows water vapor through to gently humidify the object) followed by the parchment and then more Tyvek, another moistened layer, and finally more plastic. After around 30 to 60 minutes, most documents were humidified enough to be ready for flattening, a process that involves placing padded clips close together around the parchment edges and pinning them down (we pinned our to sheets of stiff foam insulation) so that the skin is pulled flat. As it dries, it will “remember” its new flat shape.

Parchment workshop

Sheila demonstrating how to flatten parchment with the assistance of students. Photo courtesy IPSC.

Sheila was right – it really wasn’t so scary after all, nor quite as time-consuming as it’s sometimes made out to be. The clips can leave some minor distortions along the parchment edges, but those can either be removed through a second, shorter humidification followed by flattening under weight, or they can simply be left alone if one is satisfied with just having removed the major folds. As for the scraps that had been intentionally damaged earlier in the workshop, we tried the same humidification and flattening technique on them and were surprised at how well it worked.

Parchment workshop

Sheila assessing a student’s flattened parchment. Photo courtesy IPSC.

During the periods of waiting for parchment to humidify or to dry, we did more experimenting, this time with various surface preparations such as those that scribes would have used to prepare parchment for writing upon. We tried an assortment of mild abrasives, liquids, oils, eggs, and combinations thereof to see how they affected the quality of the parchment surface. Someone even found a feather and carved its tip into a nib to make a pen for testing the writing surfaces.

And finally we came to Day 4, when we marveled at our nice flat parchments and did still more experimenting, this time with hinging and matting techniques. Sheila’s preferred method is characteristically simple: a fringe of closely-spaced Japanese tissue hinges all around the document, adhered with wheat starch paste. Using many small hinges (rather than one long one to a side, another common hinging method) allows the skin more room to flex with changes in environmental conditions, which parchment is apt to do.

This workshop was a great experience, and I certainly came away with a better understanding of parchment, as well as the confidence to approach treatment of parchment items in Spencer’s collections.

Angela Andres
Special Collections Conservator
Conservation Services