Finding Context for our Manuscript Leaves

This summer, thanks to YouTube, I had the chance to watch Eric Ensley, Curator of Books and Maps at the University of Iowa Special Collections and Archives, summer seminar on “The Biblioclasts: Is it ever ethical to break a book?”. His question is one I think many of us are grappling with as we look at the collections of leaves at our institution. Prior to joining as a partner on this project, I knew next to nothing about Otto Ege, the infamous bookbreaker whose portfolios are present in so many of our institutions. And I was completely ignorant of the second biblioclast Ensley discusses, David Magee from Grabhorn Press. A quick catalog search showed that we have one of the Grabhorn Press leaf books in our collection. In watching Ensley’s talk, I learned more about Ege’s rationale for book breaking: for institutions to teach with materials they need to have the materials on hand. A leaf collection provides an opportunity to have access to medieval manuscript materials. While Ege’s original intent may have been to support teaching, Ensley’s final answer to his question has spurred me to think more about how I teach with our medieval manuscript leaves. Ensley says: “Is it ever ethical to break a book? Perhaps. But, as Ege enriching our teaching through the bitter calculus of his portfolios shows, there’s a danger that, in breaking books, one loses a context that may make us societally poorer, as it augments our pedagogical capabilities.” It is Ensley’s point on the loss of context that has inspired me to reflect on my teaching practice and also increased my excitement for the Peripheral Manuscripts project.

I do not believe in the continued practice of book breaking. Nor do I need to run any numbers to know that our collection of medieval leaves and our book of hours are the items most used in my classes. I share them with English students, Art History and History students and have even held a “paleography party” for faculty to come and examine our leaves for a few hours. Each spring, almost 100 students in our Great Conversation program are introduced to our medieval manuscripts during what has become my annual plenary. Having the leaves helped me establish connections with faculty and students when I started at St. Olaf three years ago. They have helped me convince faculty that a field trip to a large institution isn’t necessary when students can come visit and research medieval manuscripts in their home library. I think the leaf collections we have are being used as Otto Ege hoped—they have augmented my teaching.

Students in Great Conversation courses observing manuscript leaves

They have also inspired me to think creatively about how I teach with these objects, and I hope I provide the missing context that each leaf loses when separated from the original codex. In addition to showing students our book of hours and manuscript leaves, I have built a teaching collection of related objects. With each class I bring out my “touch and feel” collection which includes: a full goat skin, scraps of various parchment, bookbinding models that range from a wax tablet to a 15th-century limp vellum binding, and more recently quills and black walnut ink. By interacting with these objects, learning the process for making manuscripts, and studying our various leaves, my intention is to fill in some of the missing context.

Parchment scraps obtained from Pergamena for teaching

The prospect of comparing our collections with others included in the Peripheral Manuscripts digital collection is an exciting one. I’m looking forward to introducing students to our local collection and then directing them to the digital repository to begin filling in some of the context that is lost when looking at individual leaves. Soon students will be able to compare leaves digitally and perhaps observe how the format of a type of religious text changes over time or note the stylistic differences between scribes in France versus Italy. There could also be the opportunity to see leaves from the same book spread across institutions. I think the Peripheral Manuscripts project will yield many ways for us to contextualize and increase our understanding of our leaf collections.

By Jillian Sparks, Librarian for Special Collections and Archives Instruction, St. Olaf College


The Wow Factor

I tell visitors that this book was an early lesson in humility for me. When I became curator of Illinois Wesleyan University’s special collections sixteen years ago, I was surprised to learn that we had no information about how the book came to campus. The first page says it is part one of the work but we don’t know where part two is and we don’t know how part one got here! To our undergraduate student population it is the Harry Potter book. The shorthand I use is chant book.

There’s no mystery about what the book is: a medieval codex containing music and text for a Catholic Mass. But it’s big, and no one can believe we don’t have any information on its origins. There are two photos that offer clues to how long it’s been on campus. They date to the 1950s-60s and show it being used in the music library of that era. Those photos and a research paper a music history student did on it in the early 2000s are all we have to go on. That student dated it to the late 1500s and determined it was of Spanish origin. But we can’t say if it was made by monks in the New World or brought from Spain. Once, a political science major who was working as an assistant in the archives and who also was a member of our Collegiate Choir sang from it for a group of Humanities students.

I am not a medievalist or a Catholic and I don’t read music, but I am a shameless fan of the material culture used to convey ideas over time. And I am not above using the full force of the artifacts available to me to generate audible responses of “wow” from visitors of all ages. This book is a wonderful teaching object for book history and a great hook for engaging curious minds.

This large volume prompts myriad questions: Who would use this book? What is it made of? Why would one side of a leaf be white and the other yellow? Why does some of the vellum show stitching marks? What design choices can you identify in it? Are there parts of the book that tell you something about the social status and cultural values of its creators? And why on earth would anyone cut off the top of the only fully decorated initial letter in the book and leave all that white space at the bottom? 

I don’t expect that contributing it to The Peripheral Manuscripts Project will resolve the mysteries of this volume’s relationship to Illinois Wesleyan University, but wouldn’t it be cool if someone out there has part two? Whatever happens, we’re bound to learn something new about this book and the 13 other medieval manuscript leaves and fragments we hold. It’s exciting to share in the wow factor of material culture with this larger community.

By Meg Miner, University Archivist & Special Collections Librarian/Associate Professor, Illinois Wesleyan University


Saint Meinrad’s Book of Hours

One of the manuscripts held at Saint Meinrad Archabbey, a partner in the Peripheral Manuscript Project, is an illuminated personal prayer book (a book of hours), most likely dating from the early 15th century.  Its 164 vellum leaves, about 180 mm x 120 mm, contain a calendar of feasts and saints, the Hours of the Virgin, Seven Penitential Psalms, collections of prayers for different occasions, the Office of the Dead, and a Life of St. Margaret of Antioch in Old French verse.  Some of the text is in Latin, some in old French. The book is modestly decorated with gold initials and 14 small illustrations, mostly from the life of the Virgin and the infancy of Christ.  The only border decorations are elaborate floral and leaf patterns surrounding the illustrations. A descriptive bibliographer who analyzed the book in 1979 did not think highly of the illustrations.  The bibliographer wrote that “the illustrations are far from being fine examples of manuscript illumination.  Perspective is lacking, human figures are drawn with a certain stiffness, [and] no great attention is given to the details of a scene.” Nevertheless, the less refined style of the illustrations conveys naïve wonder and energy that lends them a certain charm.   

The history of the book is for the most part unknown. A list of births from about 1495 to 1505, which begins on the last folio and continues on an inserted paper flyleaf at the beginning of the book, allows us to place the book in northwest France for those ten years. During that period it was owned by the Huchet de la Bédoyère family of Talensac, Brittany.  The manuscript’s next known location is the attic of the rectory of St. John’s Church in Indianapolis in 1979. About the intervening 475 years we can only wonder, but one interesting and plausible speculation is that it was brought to America by Father Simon Bruté. Father Bruté was born in 1779 in Rennes, about ten miles from Talensac.  His father was a wealthy printer to the King and Parliament.  Father Brutè immigrated to the United States and in 1834 became the first bishop of the Diocese of Vincennes, which originally served Indiana and the eastern third of Illinois.  The diocesan seat was moved to Indianapolis in 1898. Bishop Bruté brought an extensive personal library with him to Indiana, much of it originating from France.  This prayer book could have been part of this collection.

When the book was discovered by the Diocese of Indianapolis in the late 1970s, it was sent to Special Collections at Indiana State University and then to the University of Chicago to be studied.  This resulted in an article on the book in the French journal Mémoires de Bretagne by Sharon Anne Pocock, then a University of Chicago graduate student in French language and literature. This article came to the attention of a gentleman in Brittany, Abel du Longbois, who sent a letter to the Diocese of Indianapolis about the continued existence of the Huchet de la Bédoyère family. M. du Longbois had been a bridge partner of the late Marquise de la Bédoyère.  In 1986 the Diocese of Indianapolis donated the book to Saint Meinrad Archabbey.

By Daniel Kolb, Library Director, Saint Meinrad Archabbey, Seminary and School of Theology

Image of the Slaughter of Innocents from Saint Meinrad’s Book of Hours


Spring 2021 Update

Even in the midst of the pandemic shutdowns, the Peripheral Manuscript Project proceeded in its work.  Here’s a brief update on some of what we’ve been doing during the past six months:

After some experimentation and extensive trials, our project has adopted OCHRE (Online Cultural and Historical Research Environment) as the database management system for the project. Hosted by the Digital Library Development Center at the University of Chicago, OCHRE will provide the digital architecture for organizing the data produced by the Principal Investigators (PIs). The decision to use OCHRE has allowed the PIs to start wrestling with the Gordian knot of any DH project: determining the format and modes of management for descriptive metadata and establishing best practices for data entry. Over the course of several months, the PIs consulted with OCHRE’s Data Service Senior Staff to decide how to model, collect, integrate, and structure the project data in the database environment.

OCHRE was initially designed for archaeological artifacts. Applying the object-oriented database environment to medieval manuscripts presents both unique challenges and surprising opportunities. To reflect the complexity and diversity of these manuscripts as fully as possible, the Peripheral Manuscript Project has devised a blended taxonomy with both textual and material hierarchies — even while ensuring that our eventual dataset will be compatible with TEI’s manuscript description elements.   

The project has also been preparing to launch the digitization phase of its work by finalizing the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with partner institutions that will govern the handling of items as they are packed, transported, and digitized at IU Bloomington.  As a part of this agreement, a large fireproof cabinet was added to the digitization lab at Indiana University Bloomington’s Herman B. Wells Library for housing partner institutions’ manuscript items while they reside at IU for digitization.  

Perhaps most exciting of all, the project’s PIs and partner institutions have continued to identify a substantial number of additional items for potential inclusion in the project since site visits began in 2020. As our work with partners has continued, we have identified the following new items, reported post-grant: 3 codices, 127 leaves, 58 documents, 1 scroll, and 11 binding fragments. The project team is  hoping, funding permitted, to integrate these new discoveries into the project as part of an ever-expanding periphery. More manuscripts are expected to emerge as additional site visits are conducted. Despite the logistical challenges posed by travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the PIs are more than halfway through the scheduled site visits, with the final visits being scheduled during the summer and fall of 2021.

By Eileen Morgan, PhD Student, Medieval Institute, University of Notre Dame

Our project’s fireproof cabinet full of items from Saint Mary’s College and Goshen College.

Digitization Begins

On June 2nd and 3rd, the project team welcomed the first deliveries of manuscript items from our partners at Goshen College and Saint Mary’s College to Indiana University Bloomington for digitization. As items were unpacked, their condition was verified against partner-provided records, and the digitization team assessed how to proceed with imaging over the coming months. We look forward to more intake sessions as the project enters this next exciting stage!


Social Distancing and Site Visits

Working with Manuscripts in the Time of Covid-19

As a crucial first step of the Peripheral Manuscript Project, the project’s Principal Investigators (PIs) must make site visits to each partner institution. These visits have to happen before the included manuscripts can be transported from their home institutions to the Herman B. Wells Library at Indiana University, Bloomington, where the Digitization Team will capture images of each manuscript. These meetings offer the PIs the chance to become better acquainted with the special collections at each institution and to confirm that items fall within the scope of the project. Most importantly, site visits ensure that the material condition of each manuscript item is recorded so that it can be digitized using the most appropriate method for each individual item. 

While these visits are a key early step in the project, they also pose significant logistical challenges, particularly due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. With twenty-two participating institutions located across eight states, the PIs must navigate not only the baseline logistics of assigning, scheduling, and completing site visits but also state travel and safety measures. The geographical spread of the project has meant that the PIs need to be sensitive to multiple state and municipal regulations as well as the health and access guidelines instituted by partner institutions. States may have implemented travel restrictions and quarantines, and host institutions may have staff working from home or visitor restrictions in place to ensure that social distance is possible during the visits. Meeting these logistical challenges requires careful coordination with the partner institutions and has required that, ultimately, the visits have had to be completed in stages.

Each visit follows specific procedures. Before the PIs arrive, our colleagues at partner institution have completed a detailed inventory form, noting all items that they hope to include in the project. Since more manuscript items have continued to be uncovered since the original grant was written, some items are being brought to the PIs’ attention for the first time. Confirming the information provided by partner institutions is the first step for each visit, and then PIs proceed to document any metadata that partners possess on the manuscript items that have been earmarked for inclusion in the project. Team members also record the basic measurements of each item, record the incipits, and, whenever possible, the titles of each work. Along with these textual elements, the PIs note other identifying aspects of the manuscripts, including musical notation, illuminations and other painting, and watermarks. These details help the digitizing team decide which technologies will be used in the digitizing process, and they also help the cataloguing team match the physical items to their digital records.

These visits additionally allow the team to make more informed decisions about the transport of each item. The inventory forms submitted by partners include space to note condition issues for each manuscript. Some of these, such as discoloration or smudged ink, primarily impact readability, while others, such as fragile bindings or flaking pages, require special consideration both for scanning and transporting. All such issues are recorded so that these fragile items are each handled with the proper care throughout the digitization and description process.

Despite the geographical and public health challenges of organizing site visits, their importance to the project makes the necessary planning worthwhile. In fact, several visits have already been completed, and some extraordinary finds have been added to the project as a result. Check back soon as we begin to spotlight some of the wonderful manuscripts that will soon be ready for digitizing.

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


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


MEST Announcement at IU Bloomington

In July of 2020, Liz Hebbard (PI of the Peripheral Manuscripts project) described the concrete goals of this project in a blog post for the Medieval Studies Institute at IU Bloomington. You can read her post to learn more about our initiative by going to:


Grant Announcement

On January 9, 2020, the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) announced the projects that were selected to receive funding through 2019 Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives awards. We are thrilled that our project, “Peripheral Manuscripts: Digitizing Medieval Manuscript Collections in the Midwest,” was one of the 18 initiatives that received funding.  

Our work officially begins on June 1, 2020! Follow us here and on Twitter (@peripheralmss) to receive updates on our progress.