An Early Peek at Repository Contents

Digitization for the Peripheral Manuscripts Project began in the summer of 2021, and the description of partner items began shortly after. With each new item digitized and described, the project team is gaining a clearer sense of the characteristics of the items that will eventually be included in the project’s digital repository when it launches in 2024. 

We are only a year into our descriptive work, so we cannot yet make observations regarding all the 704 items that we anticipate will ultimately be included in the repository. But we can highlight what we’ve learned from the subset of 208 items (58 codices, 83 documents, and 67 fragments) that have been described so far or about which we have substantial historical metadata.  Broken down by physical type, these numbers represent 78.4% of the project’s anticipated codices, 76.8% of its documents, and 12.8% of its fragments.  

[Note: For the sake of this post, we have generalized the dating information for these items so they could be mapped more easily.  In instances where our project suggests a probable date range for an item, for example, we have assigned that item a date in the middle of that range.  Additionally, while some of these items can be localized to a particular city or region, we have also chosen to group items by their country of origin according to modern maps, so that basic trends in our data can be more easily perceived in the visualizations below.]  

When our items are mapped according to the place of origin by physical type (by codex, fragment, or document), it is immediately clear that the majority of these initial 208 items originated in what is now Italy, primarily due to the predominance of papal documents that exist in some of the early collections that have been digitized and described. We anticipate that these numbers will be more evenly distributed as more fragments, in particular, are processed. 

The majority of these early items, as we anticipated, are written in Latin, with 166 items, or 79.8% of the 208 items, being written in that language.  Eight other vernacular languages (so far), however, are also in evidence across these materials, including Italian (8.6%), French (3.3%), Spanish (2.9%), Middle Dutch (1.9%), and Middle English (1.4%), with German, Flemish and Portuguese each being found in fewer than 1% of these project items. 

In terms of contents, these initial 208 project items fall into the following categories: 54 are from service or liturgical manuscripts; 43 are letters; 36 are papal bulls; 34 are devotional books or Books of Hours; 23 are treatises of some type; 10 are bibles; 4 are land deeds; 2 are unidentified, in situ binding fragments; 1 is a school book; and 1 is a will. 

By mapping these categories, we can begin to see centers of production.  Books of Hours and devotional items (here in light blue) tend to have been produced in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands; service and liturgical books (here in orange) were produced widely; and many of our documents and letters (here in yellow and gray) were produced in Italy (in papal chanceries) and in Spain.

We can also begin to break down genres by dates of production.  By associating the service and liturgical items held by partners with the dates of their production, for example, we can begin to see that their locations of production shifted over the centuries. We have color coded the dates on the map below so that the lightest colors correspond, in general, to the earliest dates of production — indicating that the earliest items that belong to this genre in our data set were produced in France, Germany, and the Netherlands.  Fourteenth century items held by partners are likely to have originated in France, while fifteenth century items tend to have been produced in Italy and Germany. Sixteenth-century items were generally produced on the Iberian peninsula.

Our data will continue to shift over the coming months, as the remaining ~70% of project items are fully described.  But evaluating our data periodically in this way enables us to develop a clearer understanding of what types of items made their way into Midwestern collections and when and where those items were produced. And, as our data develops over the coming years, we look forward to seeing how items in our repository might be able to add to our understanding of medieval European book and document production more broadly.  If between 7-9% of medieval manuscripts originally produced across Europe have survived to this day, as has been recently estimated by Mike Kestemont, et al., then each new fragment and each new codex described by projects such as ours has the potential to tell us something significant about medieval culture, in general, and book production, specifically, that we did not know before.  

By Elizabeth Hebbard, Sarah Noonan, and Ian Cornelius


Kestemont, Mike, et al. “Forgotten Books: The application of unseen species models to the survival of culture.” Science 375.6582 (2002): 765-69.

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