Researching and Digitising Copper Printing Plates at the Bodleian Library

Chiara Betti, DPhil student on the Collaborative Doctoral Partnership scheme

Most of us imagine libraries as repositories of books, manuscripts, and paper things. However, library collections are much more diverse than this. For example, the Bodleian Library not only preserves precious manuscripts and printed books but holds prints, paintings, printing plates and blocks, and even embroidery samples. And until the beginning of the twentieth century, you could also find marble sculptures and wax seals in the Bodleian collections.* However, libraries have sometimes struggled with the practicalities and the purpose of preserving objects such as printing surfaces, which are after all the tools used to make books, rather than books themselves. Why should libraries preserve printing plates? How can they be understood and integrated with the rest of the collections?

My doctorate focuses on the unique collection of printing plates amassed by the British antiquary Richard Rawlinson (1690–1755). The antiquary’s life mission was to preserve artefacts, manuscripts, books, and curiosities of historical relevance in the hope that future generations might learn from those objects. Thanks to contemporary accounts, we know that his London house was so crammed with objects of any sorts that he resorted to living in the attic, with the result that he could not even hear visitors knocking at his door!

Rawlinson was an extremely generous collector and often lent items from his collections. Shipping printed reproductions of those items was much more straightforward. While still an undergraduate at St John’s College, Oxford, Rawlinson commissioned his first engraved copper plate from Michael Burghers (c.1647/8–1727), an engraver for the Oxford University Press, in 1710. Rawlinson could reach a much wider audience with impressions from a single copper plate, with fewer risks of never seeing his possessions returned.

In many aspects, Rawlinson’s commitment to reproducing and documenting valuable artworks and manuscripts can be seen as an antecedent of modern digitisation campaigns of museum and library collections. Echoing his mission to “collect and preserve”, the Bodleian Library has embarked on a crucial project that will produce many dozens of super-high-resolution images of some of the library’s treasures. ARCHiOx –Analysis and Recording of Cultural Heritage in Oxford – is a collaborative project that originated from the partnership of the Bodleian Libraries and the Madrid-based Factum Foundation. Since February 2022, the Bodleian’s Imaging Studio has been photographing items selected by the Bodleian curators and staff, starting with the Rawlinson copper plates. For a detailed description of the digitisation process, the reader is invited to refer to John Barrett’s recent blog about ARCHiOx. In brief, John and his team are creating 3D recordings that allow us to study in detail and measure the objects photographed. This imaging technique, which can capture textural details, represents a significant step forward in the study of printing plates and, in general, of the materiality of objects.

Why should we preserve and study printing equipment? Copper printing plates (and woodblocks and lithograph stones) are a repository of  information about the manual processes of creation and revision, often not acquirable from the impressions. Three examples here, images of copper plates obtained with the help of John Barrett in the Bodleian Imaging Studio, will elucidate how they help us to learn more about our print collections.

The Invidia plates: two sides to a story

From left to right: Anonymous, Tempio Fortuna Verile, 18th century. Engraved copper plate. Rawl.Copperplates g.17; Anonymous, Cerchio di Antonino Callo, 18th century. Engraved copper plate. Rawl.Copperplates g.21; Anonymous, Trofei di Mario, 18th century. Engraved copper plate. Rawl.Copperplates g.19.
Views of Rome on three small copper plates. From left to right: Anonymous, Tempio Fortuna Verile, 18th century. Engraved copper plate. Rawl.Copperplates g.17; Anonymous, Cerchio di Antonino Callo, 18th century. Engraved copper plate. Rawl.Copperplates g.21; Anonymous, Trofei di Mario, 18th century. Engraved copper plate. Rawl.Copperplates g.19.

The above three small plates giving views of Rome are from a series of twelve copper plates copied after much larger Italian engravings depicting the same subjects. However, these three plates have more in common than one might expect. Their reverse is etched with an old design, indicating that they were formerly part of the same larger copper plate that was then re-used and cut up to make new engravings. The other side of these plates shows a naked female figure with Medusa-like hair, a man dressed in Elizabethan fashion, and another man with a hat standing in front of a building. If we place the three plates next to one another as in a jigsaw, a new image appears. In this case, technology provides a more efficient alternative to manually aligning the plates.

A digital restoration of an etching of Invidia (Envy) from the reverses of Rawl.Copperplates g.17, g.19 and g.21. No extant print made using this side of the plate has yet been identified. The etched lines are extremely shallow, measuring 0.029mm in depth.
A digital restoration of an etching of Invidia (Envy) from the reverses of Rawl.Copperplates g.17, g.19 and g.21. No extant print made using this side of the plate has yet been identified. The etched lines are extremely shallow, measuring 0.029mm in depth.

The image above was obtained by stitching together the images of the three reverses, and the results are impressive. This image can be used to run online searches to try to identify other impressions of this plate or designs from which it was copied. So far, even with these methods, I have not found any impressions, but my research continues with the hope of solving the mystery of this “puzzle plate”. The absence of impressions might even suggest that the plate was made for decorative purposes rather than printing.  It is hoped that further research will shed light on the route of this copper plate from the ‘Invidia’ design to the small views of Roman sites shown above. These tools for printmaking had an industrial history, linking one engraver and publisher to another through the re-use of materials.

The De Passe family: portraying royalty

The Rawlinson collection of plates features many famous engravers from the 17th and 18th centuries, including members of the famous Dutch family De Passe.

Willem De Passe, Portrait of King James I and Henry Prince of Wales, 1621. Engraved copper plate. Rawl.Copperplates c.34.
Willem De Passe, Portrait of King James I and Henry Prince of Wales, 1621. Engraved copper plate. Rawl.Copperplates c.34.

Copper plates like the portrait of King James I and Henry Prince of Wales have an enormous historical value as not many 17th-century printing plates survive today. The engraved portraits are representations of monarchy attempting to assert its importance. The printing plates let us look behind the techniques and materials that were used to achieve this.

Digitising these objects ensures their preservation while making them accessible to a broader audience. In fact, while studying the objects in the flesh is irreplaceable and essential for the researcher, the reality is that accessing printing plates is not always straightforward. On average, printing plates are much heavier than books, and, unlike most books, their handling requires gloves (to prevent oils from our skin corroding the metal) and much care. High-resolution images enhance the possibilities for the study of these objects.

Studying mezzotint plates: seeing through time

William Faithorne the younger after John Closterman, Portrait of Madame Plowden, 1690–1725. Mezzotint on copper. Rawl.Copperplates c.43.
William Faithorne the younger after John Closterman, Portrait of Madame Plowden, 1690–1725. Mezzotint on copper. Rawl.Copperplates c.43.

A favoured method for making print portraits was the mezzotint process. Mezzotint plates rarely survive because of the limited number of impressions they can yield. The few existing examples in the Rawlinson collection confirm that the plates are too worn out to see the details of the images on them. However, the images produced by ARCHiOx slightly improve our chances of studying the way these plates were made. For instance, the plate with the portrait of Madame Plowden is hardly legible with the naked eye because it is extremely worn out and is covered with a thick layer of dirt and residual ink. Thanks to the advanced imaging provided by ARCHiOx, we can decipher the image and see that many details were etched into the plate to enhance the delicate shading provided by the mezzotint process.

Science and Humanities

Those familiar with copper plates will be aware of how challenging it is to study them, even when you have them in your hands. They are often preserved in a poor state, with residual ink in the engraved lines or evident signs of oxidisation which obscures the image. However, once printing plates have undergone a process of cleaning and conservation, the polished copper is highly reflective, making it almost impossible to photograph it. Advanced imaging techniques such as those developed by ARCHiOx  allow us to observe and study printing plates in unprecedented detail. Moreover, the presence of ink in the grooves is no longer an issue – if anything, it is an advantage as a perfectly polished surface would not be suitable for this kind of photography.

Copper plates belong to the category of “difficult objects” preserved by libraries and archives. They are not printed material, nor really 2D artworks, and often fall beyond the expertise of the curators and conservators. As a result, printing technologies are sometimes left out of  catalogues and digitisation programmes, making it difficult for a researcher to obtain information through the usual library channels. My research and the valuable work of the Bodleian Imaging Studio and the Digital Bodleian will finally close a gap, starting with the Rawlinson copper plates, just one of the collections of printing surfaces held by the Bodleian Libraries.

The results obtained by ARCHiOx will transform this research. The ARCHiOx imaging not only produces high-resolution images but enables researchers to measure details on the objects’ surfaces. For instance, it is possible to measure the distance between engraved lines as well as their depth. Thanks to the generous support of SHARP (Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing), which allows me to conduct detailed analyses of some of the Rawlinson copper plates, we have been able to compare the accuracy of the ARCHiOx technology to that of optical 3D microscopes. For example, using the Alicona Infinite Focus 3D Profilometer at LIMA (Engineering Science, Oxford), I measured the distance between parallel lines on copper plates engraved by various artists to establish the differences in techniques and skills. The same measurements were taken on the ARCHiOx, and the results are consistent with those of the 3D profilometer.

3D image of a section of Rawl.Copperplates e.65 obtained with the Alicona Infinite Focus 3D Profilometer. The scale on the right shows the depth of the engraved lines.
3D image of a section of Rawl.Copperplates e.65 obtained with the Alicona Infinite Focus 3D Profilometer. The scale on the right shows the depth of the engraved lines.
Depth profile of the same section of Rawl.Copperplates e.65 showing the varying depth of the engraved lines.
Depth profile of the same section of Rawl.Copperplates e.65 showing the varying depth of the engraved lines.

The results so far obtained with ARCHiOx and the Engineering Department are promising. They will reshape our understanding and appreciation of print technologies as tools for researching book and art history, the history of collecting and heritage science.

With thanks for his assistance in writing this article:

John Barrett, Bodleian Library’s Senior Photographer and ARCHiOx Technical Lead for the Bodleian.

* Transfer of the seals and seal matrices to the Ashmolean: Bodleian Library, ‘Index to Rawlinson [Monastic] Matrices, [C18]’. Library Records e. 382; Bodleian Library, ‘Transfers to the Ashmolean and Other Institutions (1863)’. Library Records d. 1180. Marbles: Also see Jeremy Coote, ‘An ‘Unimportant’ Inscription: The Antiquarian and Institutional History of a ‘Muscovite’ Cup in the Rawlinson Bequest of 1755’, The Bodleian Library Record, 30 (nos 1-2 April to October), (2017), pp. 16-40

This blog was prompted by Chiara Betti’s doctoral research on the Rawlinson copper plates. Readers with an interest in Chiara’s research are encouraged to contact her at The research is funded by the AHRC through the Collaborative Doctoral Partnership. See:

Nature Printing

by Elena Trowsdalean English Literature and Language Finalist at Brasenose College on placement in Special Collections. Elena has been identifying some examples of ‘nature prints’ in Bodleian collections.

Re-blogged from

Beginning 25th July 2021, the Oxford Botanic Garden has been celebrating its 400th anniversary. The Bodleian Libraries have been collaborating with the Garden to identify historical books containing depictions of scientific specimens. Recently I spent a week in the Weston Library for Special Collections, investigating books which feature specimens depicted using a technique called ‘nature printing’. Related to this topic, there will be an event during summer 2022 entitled ‘Capturing Nature’, created by designer and printmaker Pia Östlund.

Nature printing, otherwise known as Naturselbstdruck [Nature’s self-printing], is an intriguing form of printing which is often breathtakingly lifelike. Using this method, prints are taken directly from the natural object itself such as a leaf, flower or even occasionally a bat. Alois Auer’s specific technique of nature printing, depicted in The Discovery of the Natural Printing Process: an Invention … (1853), involves impressing the natural object into a lead plate. Making a printable surface was done by electroplating the impression to create a copper plate, which was used to create the print on paper. This is an intaglio technique, where the ink rests in the shallow grooves of the lead plate rather than on the higher surfaces. However, in my investigations I have chosen to also study nature prints which fit the definition more loosely. Out of the examples I have found, some are taken from directly applying ink to the natural item, some may incorporate photographic printing techniques and others are facsimiles of nature prints, made from woodcuts which used the original nature print as their primary reference. Some prints are hand coloured, others use coloured ink, and some are drawn upon after they have been printed.

In my investigations, I have found nature printed items dating back to Johann Hieronymus Knipof’s work in 1757. Some are more intricate than others, partially because some have used wet subjects and some dry, dry subjects tending to be easier to print accurately. My personal favourite is the work of Constantin von Ettingshausen. A compilation of his works in three volumes is housed in the Radcliffe Science Library. I ordered this to the Weston Library reading room and examined it closely, finding extremely intricate leaf prints which detailed their structure and veins perfectly.

To compare different ways in which nature printing have been used and adapted, Francis Heath’s Fern Paradise (1875) can be compared with Thomas Moore’s Nature-Printed British Ferns (1859), H.B. Dobbie’s New Zealand Ferns (1930) and Peter Hutchinson’s Ferns of Sidmouth (1862).

Books illustrating ferns
Figure 2: Left to Right, plate 6 from Francis George Heath’s Illustrated Edition of The Fern Paradise (1875), print from Thomas Moore’s The Octavo Nature-Printed British Ferns (1859), cover of H.B. Dobbie’s New Zealand Ferns (1930) and first print from Peter Orlando Hutchinson’s The Ferns of Sidmouth (1862).

All of these books depict ferns using different, contrasting techniques- all of which fall under the blanket term of nature print. In his work, Heath discusses how his plates of ferns are originally taken from nature prints made through applying a fern to a plate of ink, which is why they appear like negative images of the blank space the fern creates. Then, Heath sent his nature prints to a printing house where they were turned to woodcuts. Moore’s ferns are seemingly direct nature prints, made using different coloured inks applied to the plate the ferns were imprinted onto, then with some additions such as the yellow seeds. The most intriguing aspect of Dobbie’s fern study is its cover, which has a gold embossed fern pressed into its binding. This fern appears exactly like a nature print, meaning a nature print was probably the reference image used by the embosser. Hutchinson’s fern is less detailed than the others. It was made by lithography and the fern was likely not dried out. Each of these techniques creates a different visual way to understand these objects, useful to scientists at the time as well as being aesthetically and historically meaningful to current researchers.

A nature-printed bat
Fig 3: The final page of Henry Smith’s Specimens of nature printing from unprepared plants (1857).

Then, perhaps the most shocking example of nature printing I have found is Henry Smith’s Specimens of nature printing from unprepared plants (1857). This book’s final page is a nature print of a bat’s wingspan. This bat was obviously compressed it could be printed but remains incredibly detailed. From looking online, I have found that Smith’s other works contain other nature prints of animals, including multiple snakes. I find this way of preserving the likeness of animals to be slightly unsettling, yet extremely beautiful and evocative.

During my time researching nature printing in the Bodleian collections, I was granted the privilege of spending a morning at the Bodleian bibliographic press with Richard Lawrence. We decided to experiment with nature printing techniques and printed a variety of items including a leaf and some insects. We used the classic method of imprinting a natural object onto a piece of soft lead, covering this with ink, wiping away the excess, then printing this lead plate.. The Natural History Museum of Oxford were kind enough to provide me with some waste specimens to be used as printing subjects.

States of the nature printing of a leaf: the leaf and impressed lead plate; the lead plate inked; the print
Fig 4: Mine and Richard’s nature print of a leaf. From right to left: subject, lead plate, initial print, final print.

We quickly realised that dried leaves were much easier to print than insects. The printing objects needed to be flat and dry to avoid distortion within the press. However, we did manage to make some semi-successful butterfly prints.

The butterfly specimen resting on the lead plate on the press, before impression

This was an incredible process to have the chance to attempt. I now have a newfound respect for the nature printers of the past as this form of printing requires a huge amount of precision and technical skill. On 18 July 2022 visitors will be able to see this fascinating printing method demonstrated as part of the Oxford Botanic Garden programme.

All of the items I have referenced are accessible to order on SOLO and I will include the links to their web pages below. While I hoped to find more examples of nature printing across the many Bodleian collections, I am satisfied with the dozen or so that I managed to successfully locate. However, it is likely that many more examples exist in the collections but have not yet been located or catalogued. Hopefully, in the future, more of these beautiful items will be accessible for further study.

Sprig of a tree nature printed in a book
Fig 6: Page from Henry Smith’s Specimens of nature printing from unprepared plants (1857).

Thanks to Matthew Zucker, for the view of a list of  his own collection of nature-printed books, and for advice on the history of nature printing.


Constantin Ettingshausen’s Über die Nervation der Blätter bei den Celastrineen (1857)[and also collected works]:

Francis George Heath’s Illustrated Edition of The Fern Paradise (1875):

Henry Smith’s Specimens of nature printing from unprepared plants (1857):

H.B. Dobbie’s New Zealand Ferns (1930):

Peter Orlando Hutchinson’s The Ferns of Sidmouth (1862):

Thomas Moore’s The Octavo Nature-Printed British Ferns (1859):

Secondary Resources

Hanquart, Nicole and Régine Fabri, ‘L’impression naturelle : une technique originale au service de l’illustration botanique. L’exemple des Chênes de l’Amérique septentrionale en Belgique du Belge Julien Houba (1843-1926)’, In Monte Artium (Journal of the Royal Library of Belgium), vol. 7 (2014), pp. 57-78. <>

Weber-Unger, Simon, Mila Moschik and Matthias Svojtka, Naturselbstdrucke: dem Originale identisch gleich (ALBUM VERLAG , 2014)

Copper plates in the Bodleian Libraries

Rawl. copper plates g.310
Bodleian Library, Rawlinson Copperplates g.310

The Bodleian Libraries hold several collections of copper plates dating from the 17th to 19th centuries, amounting to approximately 2000 individual pieces of copper. A brief overview and the available handlists can be found in the LibGuide to printing surfaces.

The majority of these plates were made for book illustrations connected with published scholarship in the sciences, or antiquarian studies. These include the plates to:
Robert Morison, Plantarum historiae universalis Oxoniensis (1680-1699)
Martin Lister, Historiae Conchyliorum (1685-1692)
Edward Lhyd, Lithophylacii Britannici (1699)
Richard Gough, Sepulchral Monuments (1786)

Plates made for a number of other 17th and 18th-century publications survive in the collection of Richard Rawlinson (d. 1755).

Another category of plates are those that were commissioned by Richard Rawlinson (1690-1755) to portray his own collections of other objects, including medieval manuscripts. The Rawlinson collection of copper plates, amounting to some 750 in all and including these commissioned plates, the collected book illustrations and other picture plates, is currently the subject of a doctoral study by Chiara Betti.

Finally, copper plates made for packaging and ephemeral print are held in the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera, under the headings “Copper Plates for Paper Bags” and “Copper Plates for Bookplates”.

The Morison copper plates

Morison Sect. 15 Tab 7, 'Mosses'
Morison Sect. 15 Tab 7, ‘Mosses’

Morison was Professor of Botany at the University of Oxford. The publishing history of his great work has been studied by Scott Mandelbrote. [‘The publication and illustration of Robert Morison’s Plantarum historiae universalis Oxoniensis’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 78 (2015), 349-379.] Over 290 folio-sized plates were preserved for a projected reprint but were then set aside for some centuries before finding use, allegedly, as the counterweight to a lift in the science library.

One of the Morison copper plates with a plant specimen and a proof print.

A project and seminar in 2019 examined the Morison plates by placing these alongside related material surviving in several Oxford institutions, including plant specimens from the Herbarium, proofs of the plates in the Sherardian Library, and prints at the Ashmolean Museum and at the Oxford University Press made by the same engravers, including Michael Burghers, who worked on the plates for the lavishly illustrated, and ruinously expensive, Morison book.

Optical 3D profile of engraved line
Optical 3D profilometry of an engraved line, by the Laboratory for In-situ Microscopy, University of Oxford

A John Fell grant to the Bodleian Libraries supported Optical 3D profilometry of some sections of the plates, taken by the Laboratory for In-situ Microscopy and Analysis (LIMA), in the Department of Engineering Science. Four days were allocated for the profilometry scanning in January 2019. Examinations were carried out on small portions [c. 4 cm sq, up to 10 cm. sq] of each of the plates. Profilometry enabled close examination of the depth of the engraving marks. Measurements enabled comparison of marks at different parts of the plates. The measurements showed the consistent depth of the lines, the profile of engraved lines (shown in the image) and also demonstrated the raised surface, as expected, of plates from which corrosion had not been cleaned.

The Lister copper plates

Bodleian Library, Lister Copperplates 162 (plate 350), the bear claw clam
Bodleian Library, Lister Copperplates 858 (plate 787 ), Conus Marmoreus

The Lister copper plates of shells and molluscs, from drawings by Martin Lister’s daughters, are the subject of a publication by Anna Marie Roos. [Martin Lister and his remarkable daughters: the art of science in the seventeenth century (Oxford, Bodleian Library, 2018)]

Many of the illustrations for Lister’s work depict just one specimen. Many plates in the book therefore bear the assembled imprints of several small pieces of copper.

The Rawlinson copper plates

Rawl. copper plates e.39
Bodleian Library, Rawlinson Copperplates e.39

During his life, Richard Rawlinson built a collection of 752 printing plates. He commissioned at least one-fourth of them to illustrate his vast collections, while the rest of the plates came from auction sales. The copper plates show a wide range of subjects: portraits, facsimiles of documents, topographical views, coins, medals, and seals.

From the early 1720s, Richard Rawlinson used his engravings as a means to facilitate and spread the knowledge of his collections. Besides commissioning original engravings, the voracious collector attended many auctions of books, art, and copper plates. Thanks to Rawlinson’s meticulously annotated sales catalogues, it has been possible to study the provenance of about 80 of his second-hand copper plates.

The Rawlinson printing plates are now the focus of Chiara Betti’s doctoral project. Her research takes a multidisciplinary approach that brings together book history, printmaking, engineering, and history of collecting. Chiara’s research will shed light on the history and provenance of the Rawlinson plates and their manufacture and use in publications both before and after the antiquary’s death.

The Gough copper plates

Bodleian Library, Gough Copperplates d.102

Among the plates of Richard Gough’s Sepulchral Monuments (1786, 1796) are several images engraved from drawings by the young William Blake. The plates themselves are signed by James Basire but, as argued by Mark Crosby, [‘William Blake in Westminster Abbey, 1774-1777,’ Bodleian Library Record 22:2, October 2009] ‘it was common practice for a master to sign the work of his apprentices,’ and Blake was apprenticed to Basire from 1772.

The John Johnson Collection

As a collection dedicated to printed ephemera and the history of printing, the John Johnson Collection in the Bodleian Library holds a few dozen copper plates which were used to print packaging and for personal printed items such as bookplates and calling-cards. These are probably the most recent in date of the copper plates preserved in Bodleian collections.

John Johnson Collection, Copper plates for paper bags

Chiara Betti and Alexandra Franklin

Bodleian manuscripts on the New Testament Virtual Manuscript Room

MS. Gr. bib. d. 6 (P) on NTVMR

We are delighted to announce that digital images of over a hundred key manuscripts for the New Testament in Greek at the Bodleian Library are now available through the New Testament Virtual Manuscript Room (NTVMR), hosted by the University of Münster. The research team at the Institute for New Testament Textual Research (INTF) has scanned and transcribed archival microfilms and historic photographs of these collection items.

The NTVMR is an online open collaborative research environment focusing on the textual criticism and research of Greek New Testament manuscripts. The Institute for New Testament Textual Research conceived this platform and continues its development.

There are over 5,600 known Greek New Testament manuscripts. Approximately ninety per cent of these have images available on the NTVMR. The platform was initially designed for editing critical editions of the Greek New Testament, in particular the Editio Critica Maior (ECM). It is open access, which means that anyone with an email address can create an account and begin customizing their own workspace and creating their own projects.

Although the NTVMR hosts high-resolution colour images from many institutions, most of its images are from black and white microfilm resulting from photography expeditions undertaken by INTF staff in the 1960s through 1980s. The new Digital Bodleian image licensing terms waive the former requirement to apply for permission to reproduce Bodleian imagery for non-commercial purposes. This allows the NTVMR to display these images without restrictions under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial (CC BY-NC) licence.

About 122 manuscripts of the New Testament in Greek, or portions thereof, are housed at the Bodleian, many of which have microfilm available in the NTVMR. Digital Orientalist has published an overview of NTVMR. For questions about the NTVMR, contact Greg Paulson.

An appointment with history: Theodor Mommsen finds Jerome’s Eusebius at Oxford

by David Ganz

Theodor Mommsen, one of the greatest classicists of the nineteenth century, visited Oxford in March 1889. Legend has it that Mommsen was so keen to work at the Bodleian Library that he stood at the entrance at 7 am, waiting for it to open.  He was eager to examine a manuscript of Cassidorus’s Variae (probably MS. Bodl. 96 ) when Edward Nicholson (Bodley’s Librarian 1849-1912) showed him an early composite manuscript that contained Jerome’s translation of Eusebius’s Chronicle, MS. Auct. T. 2. 26. The manuscript had been bought at the Meerman sale in 1824.

(Mommsen made time for modern reading too: he dined with W. Warde Fowler at Lincoln College, who records in an excellent memoir of Mommsen that he had been reading Jane Eyre on his way from Berlin, and spoke of it with enthusiasm. Mommsen was keen to find a copy of Wuthering Heights at an Oxford bookstore.)

Jerome’s translation and expansion of Eusebius’ Chronicle
The composite manuscript proved to be quite extraordinary. Hiding behind a 15th-century addition, it contained an early copy of Jerome’s Latin translation of Eusebius’ Chronicle (Eusebius’ compilation was made in the early 4th century with Jerome’s translation and additions done by c. 380). On fols. 33-145 Mommsen discovered a mid-5th century copy of the text. Without any delay, Mommsen published an article about the discovery of the Oxford manuscript in Hermes 24 (1889) 393-401. Henry Nettleship (Corpus Christi Professor of Latin 1878-1893) had transcribed portions for him.

Page from Jerome’s translation of Eusebius’ Chronicle shows the parallell reckoning of various regnal years. Here we can observe that the 6th Olypiad saw Ahaz ruling in Judah, Hoshea over the Israelite Kingdom of Israel, and Alcmaeon and then Charops ruling in Athens. Right at the beginning of the 7th Olypiad we find a note about the foundation of Rome. Bodleian Libraries, MS. Auct. 2. 26, fol. 66v (mid-5th century (after 435 or 442), Italian?).
[click on image to examine] Page from Jerome’s translation of Eusebius’ Chronicle shows the parallel reckoning of various regnal years. Here we can observe that the 6th Olympiad saw Ahaz ruling in Judah, Hoshea over the Israelite Kingdom of Israel, and Alcmaeon and then Charops ruling in Athens. Right at the beginning of the 7th Olympiad we find a note about the foundation of Rome. Bodleian Libraries, MS. Auct. T. 2. 26, fol. 66v (mid-5th century (after 435 or 442), Italian?).

Marcellinus Comes, Chronicle
The manuscript yielded also another discovery: on fols. 146-178 there is the earliest known text of the Chronicle of Marcellinus Comes (d. c. 534), copied in the second half of the 6th century. Mommsen went on to edit Marcellinus’ Chronicle in 1894.

The beginning of Marcellinus’ Chronicle. Bodleian Libraries, MS. Auct. 2. 26, fol. 146r (6th century (after 548), Italian?).
[click on image to examine] The beginning of Marcellinus’ Chronicle. Bodleian Libraries, MS. Auct. T. 2. 26, fol. 146r (6th century (after 548), Italian?).
The manuscript was correctly dated by the eminent palaeographer and latinist Ludwig Traube, and was reproduced in facsimile by another editor, the distinguished classicist and astronomer John Knight Fotheringham in 1905.

Importance of colour of the text
When Jerome translated Eusebius’s Chronicle into Latin, and brought it up to date, he wrote a preface in which he instructed scribes how to copy the complicated series of parallel columns which enabled readers to date biblical events by reference to events in the history of Egypt, Greece and Rome.

He wrote ‘the history is multiplex, possessing barbarian names, matters unknown to the Latin-speaking peoples, inexplicable numbers, and columns equally interwoven with events and numbers, so that it is almost more difficult to discern the order in which things must be read, than to arrive at an understanding of the meaning.’

‘The variety of colours should also be preserved; lest someone suppose that so great an effort has been attempted for a meaningless pleasure of the eyes, and, when he flees from the tedium of writing, inserts a labyrinth of error. For this has been devised so that the strips of the kingdoms, which had almost been mixed together because of their excessive proximity on the page, might be separated by the distinct indication of bright red, and so that the same hue of colour which earlier parchment pages had used for a kingdom, would also be kept on later ones.’

The work was important not only because of its chronology, enabling readers to date the fall of Troy, the rape of Lucretia, and the birth of Christ, but also because it provided dates for the lives of Greek and Latin authors. The Oxford manuscript is one of the four late antique copies to survive, and though the opening leaves are missing, the other copies are fragments or a palimpsest.* The Oxford manuscript is written in uncial script and has some contemporary slanting marginal annotations.

In 1902, to celebrate the Bodleian tercentenary, Ludwig Traube presented the library with his publication of a facsimile of the fragments of a similar manuscript of the Chronicle which had survived as binding fragments in Leiden, Paris and the Vatican. In his Latin preface he stressed the importance of photography for the study of manuscripts.  Traube saw the importance of the age of photography, as he named it, for the study of manuscripts, and hoped for the publication of more full photographic facsimiles of manuscripts. He would have delighted in the number and the quality of digital facsimiles. There is another fairly early copy of Jerome’s translation of Eusebius’s Chronicle in Merton College MS. 315 . This 9th century German manuscript is the oldest book at Merton College and likewise accessible on Digital.Bodleian .


* The surviving 5th-century witnesses are:

  1. Bodleian Library MS. Auct. T. 2. 26[]
  2. The Fleury manuscript as constructed by Traube that survives now in 4 different locations, all are former binding fragments [ and]:
  • Paris (14 leaves in BnF Lat. 6400B)
  • Vatican (2 leaves in Vat. Reg. Lat. 1709B)
  • Leiden (6 leaves in Voss. Lat. Quarto 110A)
  • Orléans  (not actual fragments, but offsets in both front cover and back cover in Orléans France Médiathèque 306 (260))
  1. British Library Harley MS. 3941 (19 leaves as palimpsest under a 9th century Isidore text) []
  2. Wrocław Poland University Library Rehdigeranus 1 (1 leaf) []

Further reading:
W. Warde Fowler, ‘Theodor Mommsen, His Life and Work,’ History Vol. 2, No. 3 (July-September, 1913), pp. 129-142.
W. Warde Fowler, Reminiscences (1912).

Seminar in Palaeography and Manuscript Studies, 2021

Seminar in Palaeography and Manuscript Studies
Convenors: Daniel Wakelin, Martin Kauffmann

Meetings will take place online via Zoom on Mondays at 2.15pm (GMT) in weeks 1, 3, 5, and 7. Original manuscripts will be shown. Registration is required. E-mail: . Your message must be received by noon on the Friday before the seminar (or register for the whole series by noon, Friday 15 January).

Week 1 (18 January)
Julian Luxford (University of St. Andrews)
The Tewkesbury benefactors’ book

Week 3 (1 February)
Bodleian and John Rylands curators
Newly acquired medieval book coffers at the Bodleian and the John Rylands Libraries

Week 5 (15 February)
Adam Whittaker (Birmingham City University)
Medieval music theory in Bodleian manuscripts

Week 7 (1 March)
Marc Smith (École des chartes)
Late medieval writing models: contextualizing MS. Ashmole 789

Six medieval manuscripts, two laptops, a curator and a document camera


Teaching with library material has been continuing at the Bodleian’s Weston Library for Special Collections even as provisions to protect the health of staff and readers have placed restrictions on the numbers and movement of people within the Libraries. Several of the Libraries, including the Weston Library, have re-opened to readers since August 2020.

The autumn term usually brings a  large number of University of Oxford classes to the Weston Library seminar rooms to share the collections most closely connected with their studies. This year, some of those visits have continued with students arriving in smaller groups while others have gone online. The key to sharing manuscripts and rare printed material with students and wider audiences has been the provision of films and of live online interaction, through the use of document cameras and smartphones.

A document camera, or visualiser, has been part of the Bodleian master classes set-up for many years, as a means of giving participants in the room–attending in person, remember those times?–a clearer view of details to which speakers wanted to draw attention: decoration, letter forms, binding structures, even (in a good light) the hair and flesh sides of parchment.

Now the same technology enables sharing online, and we, like others in the special collections world, took up the call to action by Aaron Pratt (Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Curator of Early Books and Manuscripts at the Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin) in his online seminar in June 2020, Sharing Special Collections with an overhead camera.

The images shared onscreen have been good enough for a Classics seminar to read Latin and Greek text and compare letter forms, and for an Art History class to examine the pages of medieval manuscripts. In the picture attached, curator Martin Kauffmann can be seen addressing a class over Microsoft Teams. In this session, the particular configuration of MSTeams  (the mirroring of the self-view) made it convenient to add a second laptop, so that Dr Kauffmann could see the manuscript onscreen in the same orientation as the students saw it and also see and hear the students onscreen, to ask and answer questions.

How does this compare to in-person teaching? Interaction is less spontaneous than when students visit the seminar rooms. We are all familiar by now with the problem of talking over each other in online meetings, where the ‘raised hand’ emoji replaces our instinctive reliance on the silent cues of posture and eye contact. On the other hand, compared to the experience of crowding around books placed on a seminar table, the online platform brings an image of the manuscript equally to each student’s computer screen.

And yet, as we have learned from work for the Sensational Books project at the Bodleian headed by Emma Smith (Oxford) and Kate Rudy (St Andrews), vision is not the only way to experience books and manuscripts. Seminars in 2019 with blind and partially-sighted visitors highlighted how touch and smell are also information carried in books, and how much variety our rare book and manuscript collections have to offer.

A rare books internship at the Bodleian Libraries contributing to the Provenance Digital Archive

from Victoria Higgins, Rare Books Summer Intern

Bodleian Libraries Lawn f.567, armorial binding stamp
Bodleian Libraries Lawn f.567, armorial binding stamp

When I was offered an internship in the Rare Books department of the Bodleian Library, I imagined my working days would not look entirely different to those of my English postgraduate degree – calling up material to the reading rooms of the Weston Library and searching through the pages of early printed books. Once lockdown was announced, I was grateful to learn that the internship would go ahead, except now later in the year, and entirely through remote working. Of everything shaken up by the crisis, my internship was probably low on the list of injuries. Nevertheless, I was uncertain about how I would proceed without access to the material. Thanks to my supervisor, however, I have never been at a loss for things to do. More than anything I think this time spent working for the Bodleian Library from home has made me consider afresh the value of “digital humanities” projects, and what is bound up in collections beyond the physical objects.

One of the main projects I have been working on is uploading to the CERL Provenance Digital Archive. CERL, or The Consortium of European Research Libraries, exists to “share resources and expertise between research libraries with a view to improving access to, as well as exploitation and preservation of, the European printed heritage.” The provenance project I was working on contributes to this mission, as individuals are able to upload to its visual database with ease. The effect when you enter the website is a jigsaw of carefully photographed bookplates, inscriptions, and bindings. Some are tagged with names and institutions, while many bear the elusive “Unidentified Owner”. Some are beautiful, such as an art deco style ex-libris belonging to “M.S.K.”, but many are visually unremarkable, plain ownership inscriptions and minor manuscript annotations. I was uploading marks of provenance found in the Mortara collection, bought by the Bodleian from Alessandro de Mortara in 1852. It dates from the 16th-19th centuries, and is particularly rich in 16th century Italian authors. What stood out to me working on this project was the number of hands these books passed through before they reached Mortara, and ultimately the Bodleian.

CERL prescribes a very particular process; upload one entry per mark of provenance. In practice this meant often uploading multiple entries from the same book, which had been marked by more than one individual. The idea is that a person would be able to search the archive for a particular mark – say a bookplate – and find images which match the one found in their book. In this way, the aspiration of the digital archive is to allow researchers to reassemble scattered libraries, as owners’ books were sold, auctioned and gifted to libraries and individuals across Europe. The project is still in its early stages and will be the sum of its parts, reliant on individuals choosing to take the time to upload their discoveries to the database. Nevertheless, working through these images from home I felt this was a digital space where near instant connection and collaboration was possible. It was exciting to think someone might recognise my unidentified armorial stamp or hastily scribbled name on a title-page.

Another project involved going behind the collections themselves to consider the personalities which formed them, as I was tasked with writing Wikipedia articles for some of the Bodleian’s named donors. It was fascinating to learn about the personal histories which drove these remarkable collections. An example is Brian Lawn (1905-2001), who was professionally a physician, educated at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. His profession seems to have driven his collecting, which is rich in medieval and early modern medicine.

Having purchased his first antiquarian book as a medical student, Cornelius Agrippa’s Vanity of Sciences (1684), Lawn’s lifelong collecting was motivated by an academic interest in the history of medicine. Perhaps against our presumptions about collectors, Lawn stated that his “books were bought for use and not for artistic or aesthetic reasons, many of them are what the booksellers used to call “working copies”.” He published two monographs on medieval problem literature, as well as an edition of the Salernitan Questions, considering their use in the history of teaching medicine and natural philosophy. What struck me is that there are similar stories of collections developing out of personal or professional interests for most of the donors’ biographies I explored. While I have often used rare books for my own research, I have rarely stopped to consider the individuals named on the shelfmarks. Spending time working remotely for the Bodleian has allowed me to think about the biographical histories which shaped the library as we encounter it today.

While it is a shame that I have not been able to go into the Bodleian Library and look at its materials in person, I have greatly enjoyed my internship. Working on rare books away from the objects themselves has made me think about collections in new ways, both in line with and separate from my academic interests as a student. It is safe to say that resources like the CERL Provenance Digital Archive are becoming more relevant than ever, and perhaps the time librarians will have spent on such projects during this time will help make their collections accessible to readers in new ways.


Victoria Higgins

Rare Books Summer Intern

Exemplary difference: examples in historic music theory

Adam Whittaker, Lecturer in Music, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire

‘Writing about music is like dancing about architecture’, or so the famous phrase goes. And yet, we have been writing about music for centuries. We are fortunate to have such a range of medieval and Renaissance writings on music that survive, from luxurious presentation volumes to scrappy single sheets pasted into miscellaneous collection. Although we often see quite stable transmission of texts across multiple sources (sometimes across centuries), we see much greater variation in the examples and diagrams. These, it seems, were fair game for change, revision, and emendation for specific readerships and local contexts, or simply at the whim of the scribe. My research explores why these differences matter.

In the autumn of 2019 I was in Oxford as the Albi Rosenthal Visiting Fellow in Music at the Bodleian Libraries. During my fellowship, I consulted a number of music theory manuscripts, including MS. Bodley 515 and MS. Digby 90. These manuscripts contain the famous Quatuor principalia musice [Four Fundamentals of Music], most likely authored and/or compiled by the English friar John of Tewkesbury in the late fourteenth century.

First, let’s look at one similarity. Early in the text, the theorist uses a monochord (a theoretical instrument of a single string) to explain the interval of a tone; a musical step in layman’s terms, as though moving from G to A on a piano. Both sources have a functionally similar diagram, even if there are some subtle visual differences.

Bodleian MS. Bodl. 515, fol. 10r (detail)
Bodleian MS. Digby 90, fol. 11v (detail)

We can see that both manuscripts show a monochord (horizontal line representing a string); both indicate the interval of a tone between G (low G) and A with an arc labelled ‘tonus’; and both have the indication ‘monochordu[m]’ at the left-hand edge of the diagram. Bodl. 515 shows a more artistic approach to this diagram, with its coloured labels and decorative circles, whilst MS. Digby 90 favours equal tonal spacing with notches. Despite these differences, which might be attributed to scribal taste more than anything else, the reading experience across the two sources is near identical.

However, such similarity isn’t always present. If we look at the depiction of the Guidonian hand – a kind of conceptual map for musical space that is commonplace in music theory texts – we see both similarities and differences. The Guidonian Hand mapped the six-note intervallic pattern (ut-re-mi-fa-sol-la) onto physical locations on the body which a singer could use as a memory aid while they sang. To think about how the Hand works in practice, The Sound of Music’s ‘Do-Re-Mi’ is especially helpful. Let’s consider the diagrams presented in the two sources.

Bodleian MS. Digby 90, fol. 21r (detail)
Bodleian MS. Bodl. 515, fol. 23r (detail)

There are some important differences here. You’ll notice that MS. Bodl. 515 is missing labels on joints, whilst these are clearly visible in MS. Digby 90. These are crucial! Without the syllabic markings on the joints of the thumb and fingers, this diagram serves little demonstrative function, beautiful as it is. Such a scenario poses some interesting questions and might have left fifteenth-century readers scratching their heads. Is this just a scribal error? Was this aspect of the diagram to be entered in a different layer? Did the scribe not understand the diagram they copied? Was there an error in the exemplar copy that a scribe couldn’t resolve? What use is the diagram when it is missing such key information?

This last question is of particular importance for the final comparison I want to make here. The relationship between musical durational values is a fundamental building block of music notation. Early musical notations were more context-dependent, with the same note shape being worth two or three counts depending upon the context. Theorists found many intriguing ways to discuss this phenomenon, but the most interesting for the present discussion is the idea of a note value tree.

Some contemporaneous musical treatises refer to the ‘arbor’ of Johannes de Burgundia, a figure about whom we know nothing except for a passing reference to his ‘arbor’ in a musical treatise by Petrus de Picardia (fl. 1250). Both our sources include a diagram of this type, though we see some divergence in approach. In MS. Digby 90, we see the relationships made clear in a quasi-tabular format (largest values at the bottom), with lines connecting the related mensural levels. Working from the bottom up we see that the largest note value divides into three parts, which itself is divided into three smaller parts etc.:

Bodleian MS. Digby 90, fol. 45r (detail)

By comparison, we see something which takes the tree much more to heart in MS. Bodl. 515:

Bodleian MS. Bodl. 515, fol. 49v

The visual appeal of this is important. MS. Bodl. 515 offers hatched details on the trunk of the diagram, with additional coloured detailing which has faded over time. In this way, the longest note becomes the ‘root’ of the tree, and its subdivisions into smaller notes become represented as branches, themselves with sub-branches. Although both sources adequately demonstrate the theoretical point, the subtly different diagrams change the nature of the text–image relationship. The tree-like construction of MS. Bodl. 515 creates a sharp mental picture for a reader to recall. MS. Digby 90, though equally clear, establishes a different mensural picture. These diagrams demand different reading practices and present theoretical material in divergent ways.

My point here is not to assign greater value to either source, but to demonstrate that what might be dismissed as ‘minor scribal variants’ really matter when we consider how a reader might engage with a text in a specific manuscript source. If a diagram containing such foundational information that was common knowledge to expert readers, then why did a scribe go such significant effort to present this in a visually appealing manner? The reader’s experience of the same text in these two sources would have been quite different. Through this lens we begin to see the way that the materiality of music theory texts is at least as important as the contents of the texts themselves, and that the diagrams and examples give us an unparalleled insight into this. These theoretical ideas are alive in the manuscripts that preserve them.

Adam Whittaker:






Reaching out (digitally) with medieval manuscripts

A screenshot from the webinar, Blogging with Manuscripts, July 2020What do you get when you put together an excited group of medieval manuscript specialists and ask them to discuss blogging and teaching with digitized manuscripts? The answer: trumpets, drapes, marginal animal appearances, fake back-drops, cries of agony, laughter and lots of good advice.

A worldwide audience (from California to New Zealand!) gathered in three online sessions that were organized as additional evening events for the International Medieval Congress (IMC) at Leeds, 6–9 July 2020. The organisers were very pleased to see that each session had well over 100 participants. Our speakers shared their experiences on using digitized medieval manuscripts for teaching, and for reaching out to various audiences via social media, mainly through blogging and tweeting.