A Continuously Expanding Periphery

When the Peripheral Manuscripts Project, the three-year project to digitize and describe medieval manuscripts from Midwestern institutions, officially began on June 1st, the principal investigators and the cataloging and digitizing teams were expecting to include approximately 480 items, including codices, leaves, documents, and one scroll in their digitization and description work, based upon initial partner reported inventories.

By late July, however, partners reported identifying an additional 130 items for potential inclusion in the project, funding permitting, which would bring the total number of manuscripts selected for inclusion over six hundred. This additional material was identified as partners prepared for the July 2020 virtual partner meetings which served as the initial launch of our project. These meetings, spanning four days, were an opportunity for project staff and partners to meet and discuss policies and processes and to plan future steps, including finalizing inventories, scheduling site visits, and transporting, storing, and digitizing materials. Following brief introductions,  Lisa Fagin Davis, Executive Director of the Medieval Academy of America and an expert in Manuscript Studies, gave an overview of the history of manuscript collections in the United States and the current state of manuscript cataloging, digitization, and discoverability. 

The meetings also included several rounds of “lighting talks,” which gave partners a chance to highlight their institutional collections and to share some of their recent manuscript discoveries. University Archivist Kristina Schulz (University of Dayton), for example, uncovered a bound collection of sixty manuscript fragments ranging from the ninth to the eighteenth centuries. Thirty-two additional fragments were also identified at Knox College, and twenty fragments more were found at the Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology. One new codex, uncatalogued and undescribed, was discovered by Goshen College. These exciting new discoveries highlight the importance of focusing on the under-described medieval collections at regional institutions in order to gain a fuller understanding both of what these items might reveal about the historical contexts in which they were produced and of how medieval manuscripts circulated across the Midwest.

The conversations among our partners during July’s virtual meetings also prompted our partner, Meg Miner, University Archivist and Special Collections Librarian at Illinois Wesleyan University to search through the stacks in IWU’s special collections for manuscript binding fragments that might be found in their collection of early printed books. Binding fragments are pieces of manuscripts reused in the binding process, and Meg found three binding fragments in situ, i.e., still within the binding. Studying these fragments in situ can offer invaluable insight into both the fragments and the books they are binding. The contents of the fragment can reveal the location where the book was bound or the identity of the binder, and the fragments themselves can preserve noteworthy texts and scripts. As the Peripheral Manuscripts project team meets over the coming months, we will keep looking for new potential material such as this that we might include in our project.  

Every manuscript is a unique cultural artifact that sheds light on its medieval readers and later collectors. As our project builds momentum, we are excited to see what other items might be revealed over the coming months, and we hope to incorporate at least a few of these newly identified items into our project as we proceed. Check back as we update the blog with spotlights on manuscripts from the project as well as posts about the digitization and cataloging process. We are excited to share our journey of discovery with you!

By Dov Honick, PhD Student, Medieval Institute, the University of Notre Dame

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