Women in the Margins: Eadburg and Bodleian Library, MS. Selden Supra 30

by Jessica Hodgkinson and John Barrett

A series of exciting inscriptions, almost invisible to the naked eye, have been discovered in the margins of an important eighth-century manuscript in the Bodleian Library, MS Selden Supra 30. Revealed through state-of-the-art 3D recording technology by the ARCHiOx project, these marginal annotations provide tantalising new insights into this manuscript’s history and its links to women, in particular, to a woman called Eadburg.

Introducing Bodleian Library, MS Selden Supra 30

Bodleian Library, MS. Selden Supra 30 is a copy of the Acts of the Apostles, a book of the New Testament, written in Latin. It is a small volume, measuring only 229 x 176 mm (only slightly bigger than an A5 piece of paper).

Bodleian MS. Selden Supra 30 open at pp. 18-19
Bodleian MS. Selden Supra 30 open at pp. 18-19

Like most surviving manuscripts from this period, MS. Selden Supra 30 does not contain a formal colophon or scribal note recording when, where, and by whom it was made.

However, certain features of this manuscript, including the style of uncial script used to copy the text, demonstrate that it was produced in England, most likely somewhere in the kingdom of Kent, probably in the first half of the eighth century (i.e., between c. 700 and c. 750 AD).

MS. Selden Supra 30 was certainly in Kent by the fourteenth century when a shelf mark was added to p. 1 showing that it was then in the library of the monastery of St Augustine’s in Canterbury.

The opening page of MS. Selden Supra 30 (p. 1) which has suffered damage and is now significantly discoloured. The shelf mark from St Augustine’s, Canterbury (Di. I. G. III) is visible in the upper margin. 
The opening page of MS. Selden Supra 30 (p. 1) which has suffered damage and is now significantly discoloured. The shelf mark from St Augustine’s, Canterbury (Di. I. G. III) is visible in the upper margin.

Prayers added to p. 70, which was originally left blank, suggest, however, that very early in its history MS. Selden Supra 30 was owned and used by a woman.

These prayers were copied in the same type of script as the rest of the manuscript but by a different scribe to the two responsible for copying its main text.

The first prayer is a petition to God made by an anonymous woman, described as God’s “unworthy servant” (indignam famulam).

This strongly suggests that, at the time the prayer was added, MS. Selden Supra 30 was being used by a woman, or a group of women. The prayer may have been copied into the manuscript by a female scribe.

The formula of this prayer is unique and does not survive in any other manuscript. It could have been composed by the petitioner herself.

In 1935, in the first edition of Vol. 2 of Codices Latini Antiquiores, Elias Avery Lowe, then a Reader in Palaeography at the University of Oxford, suggested that another addition made to MS. Selden Supra 30 could provide further evidence of its links to women.

Lowe recorded, for the first time in print, that the letters EADB and +E+ had been incised into the lower margin of p. 47. He noticed that the letters had been cut into the parchment with force, apparently using a knife, slicing through the upper surface of the membrane.

ARCHiOx recordings of the letters inscribed at the bottom of p. 47.
ARCHiOx recordings of the letters inscribed at the bottom of p. 47.

Lowe suggested that these letters were abbreviated forms of the female name Eadburh/Eadburg.

Discovering Eadburg

Studying MS. Selden Supra 30 in the Weston Library’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Reading Room in 2022, Jessica Hodgkinson, a PhD student at the University of Leicester, funded by the AHRC Midlands4Cities consortium, spotted another inscription in the lower margin of p. 18. This inscription had never been noticed before. It was very small and almost invisible to the naked eye but appeared to contain Eadburg’s name written in full.

State-of-the-art technology has now not only confirmed this new inscription, but revealed several other instances of Eadburg’s name, alongside many more early marginal additions, incised into the parchment of MS Selden Supra 30. These discoveries provide new and exciting insights into the use of this book by a woman called Eadburg in eighth-century England.

Recording the inscriptions
by John Barrett

Scratched markings on the surface of a page are usually photographed using a single light positioned at a low angle. This simple principle is termed raking light.  However, through recordings made for ARCHiOx, it has been demonstrated that scratched markings may be far more effectively recorded using a technique called photometric stereo.

A description of ARCHiOx and an explanation of the technology and processes in use can be read in this blogpost:  ARCHiOx: research and development in imaging – The Conveyor

 The photometric stereo workflow adopted for ARCHiOx uses 2D images to record and store 3D information. These images map the direction and height of the original’s surface, and are processed into renders showing only the relief of the original with the tone and colour removed.

Renders produced using a photometric stereo workflow are superior to raked light images in three ways:

A 3D render lacks the excessive contrast of a raked light image making markings easier to discern. Through the use of software, it is possible to re-light renders virtually, giving complete control over the intensity of the shadow and highlight over the recorded relief of the original.

The ability to filter for different textural frequencies makes it possible to separate the scratched markings from the texture of material on which the markings have been made.

Renders can be re-lit virtually from any direction or height making it possible to reveal markings made along any angle.

In addition, the depth of a marking can be measured by examining a cross-section through it. The profile may also provide clues regarding the mark-making tool, in this case a drypoint stylus.

A cross-section through the lower horizontal line of the letter ‘E’. The depth of the drypoint inscription through this line measures around 18 microns (0.018mm).
A cross-section through the lower horizontal line of the letter ‘E’. The depth of the drypoint inscription through this line measures around 18 microns (0.018mm).

A photometric stereo recording of the near-invisible inscription on p. 18 was captured in May 2022.

The Selene, a prototype imaging system designed and built by the Factum Foundation, project partner for ARCHiOx, was used for the recording.

Multiple images were captured from the inscription before being processed, filtered, and enhanced. The resulting high-resolution shaded render shows only the three-dimensional surface of the page.  Through this new image, the drypoint inscription has been recorded successfully for the first time.

 Top to bottom: An unedited render of the 3D surface of the bottom of page 18 with the inscription now visible.  An enhanced version made through tonal remapping.  A digitally annotated version.  The digital annotation with the render removed.

Top to bottom: An unedited render of the 3D surface of the bottom of page 18 with the inscription now visible.  An enhanced version made through tonal remapping.  A digitally annotated version.  The digital annotation with the render removed.

Subsequent analysis and processing, overseen by Jorge Cano, designer of the Selene, led to a new set of renders which enhance the markings further. These new images were created by compiling renders, re-lit virtually from multiple directions, and using a process called principal component analysis, or PCA.

The clearest recording of the drypoint inscription to-date. The inscription has been enhanced using techniques including virtual relighting, image stacking and principal component analysis.
The clearest recording of the drypoint inscription to date. The inscription has been enhanced using techniques including virtual relighting, image stacking and principal component analysis.

The lines which form this inscription are incredibly shallow. Even the most prominent are only 15-20 microns in depth, perhaps equivalent to less than a fifth of the width of a human hair. It is, therefore, unsurprising that the inscription is simply absent from a conventionally-lit colour image of this page.

Top: The drypoint inscription is absent from this capture recorded using conventional lighting.  Bottom: The digital annotation is applied at the exact position where it was recorded using photometric stereo technology.
Top: The drypoint inscription is absent from this capture recorded using conventional lighting.  Bottom: The digital annotation is applied at the exact position where it was recorded using photometric stereo technology.

Processing the data using computational methods has revealed an astonishing amount but analogue (i.e., human) intervention has still been required to digitally annotate the image to clarify the reading. Despite attempts to filter specifically for the inscription, shading from the texture of the parchment and its many tiny creases have proved almost impossible to remove. This makes it difficult in some areas, to rule-in or rule-out the presence of lines. An objective and cautious approach has been taken with the digital annotation. This has involved multiple imaging colleagues working independently to contribute to a set of annotations which could then be compared. Finally, the renders and digitally annotated images were shared with the researchers, allowing them to make their own observations and annotations with the benefit of context.

Subsequent recordings made for ARCHiOx have revealed that Eadburg’s name is spelled out in full five times on five different pages of MS. Selden Supra 30 (pp. 1, 2, 3, 12, and 18). On some of these pages, and elsewhere in the book, other abbreviated forms of this name, including E, EAD, or EADB, are also present.

Reading the inscriptions

The discovery of Eadburg’s full name etched several times into the manuscript’s margins definitively confirms Lowe’s theory that the letters previously identified on p. 47 are, indeed, abbreviations of the same name.

Eadburg’s name was copied out using letterforms common to all the newly identified inscriptions. The form of the A (an oblique line with an oval bow on the left) and the angular U and G are distinctive. This suggests that the same scribe may have made all of these additions. If so, it is at least possible that the scribe was Eadburg herself.

Readers and owners of early medieval manuscripts, both men and women, sometimes added their names to books, usually in ink, but occasionally, as here, in drypoint. Another early eighth-century example is the ink inscription that records, in Old English, that Abbess Cuthswitha owned a copy of Jerome’s commentary on the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes (now Würzburg, Universitätsbibliothek, M. p. th. q. 2, fol. 1r).

Eadburg’s name could also be a mark of ownership or evidence of reading. Although small in scale, and faint, someone, perhaps Eadburg herself, was evidently keen to preserve her name in the pages of this book to be seen by subsequent readers. What is unusual about Eadburg’s name, however, is that it appears here, in full or in abbreviated forms, 15 times.

Eadburg’s name is written on the opening page of the manuscript (p. 1). It overlaps part of the top of the enlarged decorated initial P which begins the text. Here, her name is preceded by a cross (+).

A series of ARCHiOx recordings of p. 1 of MS. Selden Supra 30:

Capture using conventional lighting (Bodleian MS. Selden Supra 30, p.1)
Capture using conventional lighting (Bodleian MS. Selden Supra 30, p.1)
Detail of the unedited 3D render of the inscription (MS. Selden Supra 30, p.1)
Detail of the unedited 3D render of the inscription (Bodleian MS. Selden Supra 30, p.1)
Digital annotation of the inscription (MS. Selden Supra 30, p.1)
Digital annotation of the inscription (Bodleian MS. Selden Supra 30, p.1)
Image showing the digital annotation applied at the exact position where it was recorded using photometric stereo technology (Bodleian MS. Selden Supra 30, p.1)
Image showing the digital annotation applied at the exact position where it was recorded using photometric stereo technology (Bodleian MS. Selden Supra 30, p.1)

The decision to etch the name over the top of the first letter of the text must have been deliberate. It establishes Eadburg’s presence in the book from the outset and connects her name intimately with the biblical text it contains.

On p. 2, her name is framed by a cartouche.

Detail of the recording of the lower margin of p. 2 showing the name Eadburg surrounded by a rectangular border.
Detail of the recording of the lower margin of p. 2 showing the name Eadburg surrounded by a rectangular border. (Bodleian MS. Selden Supra 30, p.2)

On p. 18, Eadburg’s name forms part of a multi-word inscription added to the lower margin. Here also, her name is preceded by a cross. Some of the following letters are easy to see, whilst others, especially those towards the end of the inscription, are difficult to make out, even with the benefit of the new visualisation techniques.

The most recent and clearest recording taken of the inscription, enhanced through virtual relighting, image stacking, and principal component analysis, appears to show, however, that, among the visible letters, there is a wynn (Ƿ), the Old English letter for W. This letter can be distinguished from the Rs in the inscription, including in the name Eadburg, by the form of the bow which is pointed and extends further down the vertical line of the letter than on R. The presence of a wynn shows that the inscription was written, not in Latin, but in the Old English vernacular language.

This inscription probably comprises three words. The name Eadburg is the subject of the statement, so we might reasonably expect the other letters to include a verb followed by the object.

A preliminary reading of the inscription is:


+ Eadburg bears [cw….n]

Most of the letters in what appears to be the third and final word are unclear, with only CW– at the beginning and -N at the end remaining legible.

One Old English noun that could fill this position is cwærtern, meaning ‘prison’. Interestingly, the inscription is positioned beneath the beginning of the text of Acts 5:18 which describes the imprisonment of the Apostles by the high priest of the Temple and his followers because they had continued to preach the Gospel (…et injecerunt manus in Apostolos et posuerunt eos in custodia publica). If cwærtern is the third word in the inscription on p. 18, perhaps Eadburg sought to mirror the text, associating herself with the Apostles in their imprisonment.

Deciphering the drawings

Alongside Eadburg’s name, several intriguing drypoint drawings have also been discovered. Some are clearly human figures, though further investigation is needed to establish exactly who or what they depict. All the figures are very small. Several seem to have been made by incising a line around a thumb or finger to form the outline of the figure.

ARCHiOx recording of the lower margin of p. 9. Digital annotation applied in lower image showing two figures. The figure in the background has outstretched arms, and is reaching towards the figure at the front who appears to be holding up a hand to signal them to stop.
ARCHiOx recording of the lower margin of Bodleian MS. Selden Supra 30, p. 9. Digital annotation applied in lower image showing two figures. The figure in the background has outstretched arms, and is reaching towards the figure at the front who appears to be holding up a hand to signal them to stop.

The scene added to the lower margin of p. 11, which features at least three figures, may also include two E‘s. There appears to be an E, preceded by a cross, to the left of the first figure, and a second E, followed by a wynn (Ƿ) between the second and third figures. Could Eadburg have drawn this scene in drypoint and signed her work with her initial, as found elsewhere in the manuscript?

Recording of the dry-point addition in the lower margin of Bodleian MS. Selden Supra 30, p. 11.
Recording of the dry-point addition in the lower margin of Bodleian MS. Selden Supra 30, p. 11.

Identifying Eadburg?

Eadburg’s name or initials are etched into several pages, sometimes next to contemporaneous dry-point drawings. But who was she? More work on the newly discovered additions may bring us closer to answering this question.

We know of nine women called Eadburg living in England at some point between the seventh and tenth centuries (for details see the online Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England). Other sources provide some tantalising clues that might help identify the Eadburg of MS. Selden Supra 30.

Charter evidence suggests that a woman called Eadburg was abbess of a female religious community at Minster-in-Thanet, in Kent from at least 733 until her death sometime between 748 and 761. As Lowe suggested in 1935, her dates and location correspond with the palaeographic assessment of the script of MS Selden Supra 30.

Abbess Eadburg of Minster-in-Thanet may also be the woman of the same name who corresponded with Boniface, the West Saxon missionary bishop and Church reformer. He became archbishop of Mainz in 732 and was martyred by pagans in Frisia in 754. Surviving letters show that Boniface held Eadburg in high esteem and that she sent books to him in Francia. He commissioned from her a deluxe copy of St Peter’s Epistles to be written in gold.

Boniface’s friend clearly had access to manuscripts and the means to make them. As such she is an especially strong candidate for the woman whose name was etched into the margins of MS. Selden Supra 30.

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

Jessica Hodgkinson is a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester funded by the Midlands4Cities doctoral training partnership. Her research explores the participation of women in early medieval book culture in Western Europe through the analysis of surviving manuscripts commissioned, copied, owned and/or used by them.

 With special thanks to Jorge Cano, designer and engineer for Factum Arte and the Factum Foundation, for his work on enhancing the recording of p. 18, to Dr Philip A. Shaw, Teaching Fellow in the Department of English Studies at Durham University, for helping to decipher the Old English of this inscription, and to Professor Jo Story and Dr Erin T Dailey at the University of Leicester for their guidance and suggestions.

Logo of the Helen Hamlyn Trust Logo of the AHRC Logo of Midlands4Cities Doctoral Training Partnership

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.

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: bookcentre@bodleian.ox.ac.uk . 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.

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.



Alice in Medieval Oxford

What is it about the delightful nonsense of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that gives it a such sense of timelessness? Part of its genius is the story’s ability to draw on more than contemporary culture. The story was conceived on a boat journey between two of the major landmarks of medieval Oxford, from the edge of Christ Church to Godstow.

The medieval-style title page of the manuscript that Charles Dodgson presented to the real Alice: London, British Library, Add. MS. 46700, fol. 1r.

Lewis Carroll (the pen name of Charles Dodgson, 1832–98) was a fellow of Christ Church. The original Alice was Alice Liddell, the daughter of the dean. Henry Liddell is now best known to students for ‘Liddell and Scott’, his Greek-English Lexicon that has never gone out of print.

Alice in Wonderland opens with a prefatory poem that describes how the story came into existence. On a summer afternoon, 4 July 1862, Dodgson and his friend Robinson Duckworth (1834–1911), a fellow of Trinity College, went out on a boating trip along the River Thames (known as the Isis in Oxford, from its Latin name ‘Thamesis’). They took three of the Liddell sisters: Lorina, Alice, and Edith. In the poem, Dodgson gives them generic Latin names to protect their identity: Prima, Secunda, and Tertia. They began at Folly Bridge, on the border of Christ Church, where Dodgson lectured in mathematics.

Christ Church was originally a medieval monastery, founded according to legend by Frideswide (died 727), Oxford’s patron saint. In the twelfth century, the monastery became St Frideswide’s Priory. Its canons created a shrine to Frideswide that became a pilgrimage site for everyday people with health problems that medieval physicians could not heal. When all else failed, pilgrims looked to faith for healing as a last resort. Although church reformers had destroyed the shrine, the nineteenth century had revived interest in the story.

The shrine of St Frideswide at Christ Church, Oxford, with the window by Edward Burne-Jones on the right.

When the boaters set out, Edward Burne-Jones had only just, in 1859, finished an elaborate stained-glass window based on the medieval story of Frideswide (recently adapted as its own children’s book, The Princess who Hid in a Tree). Among the objects that he depicts is a well. This points further up the river.

Frideswide’s treacle well

Alice’s journey begins when she falls ‘down a very deep well’. In conversation with the sleepy Dormouse, we would likely agree with her disbelief at his ‘treacle-well’:

‘Once upon a time there were three little sisters,’ the Dormouse began in a great hurry; ‘and their names were Elsie, Lacie, and Tillie; and they lived at the bottom of a well——’


‘Why did they live at the bottom of a well?’

The Dormouse again took a minute or two to think about it, and then said, ‘It was a treacle-well.’

‘There’s no such thing!’

Although Alice is the first known use of the phrase ‘treacle-well’, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the feature was almost certainly inspired by a real well that Christ Church had inherited from the medieval priory.

The well at the church of St Margaret of Antioch, Binsey.

Frideswide was a princess who had become a nun, and spent years in hiding from King Algar, who was aiming to abduct her. In the twelfth-century narration by Robert of Cricklade, the prior of St Frideswide’s, she fled to Bampton, but soon drew unwanted attention from locals after news spread of her healing powers. She then fled to Thornbury, an isolated location just outside Binsey. Water was a problem for her band of sisters. After they miraculously found a source, this became a site for pilgrimage:

Because the riverbed was far away, and it seemed inappropriate to her that the sisters should go there to drink water, she obtained a well by prayer. It is there to this day, providing the free gift of health to many who drink from it.

Dodgson was playing on the archaic origin of ‘treacle’, which referred not to a syrup but to medicine. The well was a subject of much interest for another member of Christ Church, Thomas Prout (1824–1909). The inscription now on the well head states that he had it rebuilt in 1874. He had a reputation for falling asleep in meetings. Be careful how you treat your colleagues: you might end up as a dormouse.

The story of Brichtiva of Northampton’s pilgrimage to St Margaret’s Well in the 1180s: MS. Digby 177, fol. 16v.

The earliest story of a pilgrimage to the well is from the early 1180s, in a Bodleian manuscript. Philip of Oxford wrote the Miracles of St Frideswide, with a delightfully graphic account of a woman’s pilgrimage to the well (ch. 45: MS. Digby 177, fol. 16v):

A woman named Brichtiva from the vicinity of Northampton had lost hearing in her right ear for a full year and ten weeks. When she had come to the church of the holy virgin to recover her health, those standing round urged her to go to the well that the blessed virgin had obtained from the Lord during her lifetime by her prayers, which is about a mile from the city.

She immediately walked there, and filled her ears with water from the well. A ringing in her ears and a tribulation of itching immediately followed. She inserted a stalk into her ear, and drew out a small portion of flesh. She had received the gift of hearing perfectly. She returned to the church, blessing God, and showed all who were present that she was cured.

The well is in the churchyard of St Margaret of Antioch, who can still be seen in a 14th-century window that the medieval canons added at Christ Church. The building that stands is from the 12th century, and still makes for an accessible break from the concerns of modern life, without even electricity to create a distraction.

Contemplating Godstow Abbey

The ruins of Godstow Abbey.

Alice and her companions ended their journey at Godstow, best known for its ruins of a medieval convent, which may hold the key to the story’s unsettling conclusion. The Abbey of St Mary the Virgin and St John the Baptist was a community of Benedictine nuns founded in 1133, not long after St Frideswide’s Priory. Today, as in Dodgson’s time, it is mostly used for picnics and inhabited by cattle. Only a handful of walls give a sense of the buildings’ scale. For anyone with even a dim awareness of the past, it is impossible to go there without thinking of the destruction that King Henry VIII inflicted on English and Welsh monasteries, which included the dissolution of Godstow in 1539.

Cornelis Metsys, King Henry VIII; Dodgson, the Queen of Hearts (National Portrait Gallery D24928; British Library, Add. MS 46700, fol. 45v).

Henry is best known for his penchant for chopping off his wives’ heads. One cannot help but draw a comparison between him and the similar behaviour of the nightmarish Queen of Hearts. In the illustrated manuscript of the early version of the story that Dodgson presented to Alice Liddell (London, British Library, Add. MS 46700), his drawing of the double-chinned Queen looks remarkably like the stereotypical depiction of Henry VIII.

‘Anglo-Saxon attitudes’ in Bodleian MS. Junius 11, p. 20.

Readers have made many hypotheses about the origins and meaning of the strange creations of Alice in Wonderland. Some of these are far-fetched, but there is no question that the medieval world was on Dodgson’s mind. He designed a presentation manuscript for Alice in the style of a late medieval book, with decorated borders and Victorian interpretations of gothic lettering. Through the Looking Glass even includes a reference to ‘Anglo-Saxon attitudes’, using an art historical term for a style of drawing visible in works such as the Bodleian’s Junius manuscript. The original Cheshire Cat might be a fourteenth-century carving at St Peter’s Church, Croft-on-Tees, where the writer lived in his teens. An awareness of different societies contributed to Dodgson’s diverse mental furniture and turned this story into a well-loved book, which itself has changed how we understand Oxford.

Decades of manuscript photography on Digital.Bodleian

from Andrew Dunning, R.W. Hunt Curator of Medieval Manuscripts

Digital.Bodleian is the online home for Oxford’s special collections in the Bodleian and college libraries. Although it is still relatively new – with a second version coming later this year – it encompasses decades’ worth of photography projects. Many of Oxford’s medieval manuscripts are represented in some form, but only a portion of these have a full set of high-resolution images such as the Bodleian studio can now produce.

A recently photographed manuscript: MS. Bodl. 264, fol. 119v
A recently photographed manuscript: MS. Bodl. 264, fol. 119v

This sometimes means that you can find multiple versions of the same manuscript. For instance, the Bodleian’s famous Romance of Alexander, MS. Bodl. 264, appears online in three different forms:

Historical images of manuscripts can be useful to researchers trying to determine what an item looked like in the past or aiming to understand the history of its interpretation. What are the origins of these different sets of photographs?

Collections on 35-mm film

Between the late 1970s and early 2000s, the Bodleian published manuscript photographs on film. Dr W. O. Hassall (1912–1994), a curator of medieval manuscripts, assembled volunteers, popularly known as ‘Hassall’s vassals’, who occupied the Schola Musicae off the Old Schools Quadrangle and compiled image descriptions. Teachers and researchers could buy colour slides and filmstrips to use manuscripts outside the library including such gems as ‘Humanistic script and illumination’, ‘Pilgrimage’, and ‘Diagrammatic and allegorical wheels’. The complete series is listed in a printed index, Colour Transparencies, 35 mm, Available from the Bodleian Library (1983).

The Bodleian Colour Transparencies catalogue (1983)
The Bodleian Colour Transparencies catalogue (1983)

These collections focus on illuminated or decorated books, and were produced either for a particular manuscript or around a theme. This inevitably promoted certain types of manuscripts, and a particular intellectual approach to them focused on illustration. Researchers were already investigating ways to apply computational methods to this collection by 1978. Libraries abroad built up collections and rented them out, such as the Bodleian Library Slide Collection at Purdue. There are a handful of manuscripts in this series that have full film coverage, but most films aimed to give only representative examples.

The library eventually produced over 20,000 slides. ArtStor of New York funded the scanning of the slide collection, which was shipped to the USA for the purpose. Images appeared both on ArtStor and the Bodleian’s LUNA Image Library, the predecessor to Digital.Bodleian, which researchers remember for both its unexpected treasures and frustrating interface. Other large libraries have developed similar projects to repurpose their old photographic holdings, such as the British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

These images eventually became part of Digital.Bodleian after 2015. For example, the Laudian Acts (MS. Laud. Gr. 35), a sixth-century copy of the Acts of the Apostles in both Latin and Greek, appears in four film photographs alongside new digital photography). As well as a historical record, these images are valuable for the detailed descriptions which accompany many images and allow you to search out, for example, images of dragons.

Early Manuscripts at Oxford University

Early Manuscripts at Oxford University (originally the Celtic Manuscripts Project) was among the first experiments in digitizing medieval manuscripts. It was a collaboration between the Bodleian Library, Balliol College, Corpus Christi College, Jesus College, Magdalen College, Merton College, and St John’s College. Beginning in 1995, the project photographed almost ninety manuscripts written between the ninth and nineteenth centuries. It focused on major treasures from Oxford libraries to create wider availability for originals which are often too fragile to handle. The photographs were originally available on a separate website.

Digital photography of the late 1990s from Early Manuscripts at Oxford: MS. Hatton 48, fol. 25r
Digital photography of the late 1990s from Early Manuscripts at Oxford: MS. Hatton 48, fol. 25r

This collection includes many of the oldest manuscripts in Oxford libraries, such as the earliest copy of the Rule of St Benedict, written around 700 (MS. Hatton 48); St Dunstan’s Classbook, designed for teaching in the tenth century (MS. Auct. F. 4. 32); and the oldest copy of The Song of Roland, from the early twelfth century (MS. Digby 23b). It also includes some later manuscripts, such as a five-volume set of Fons memorabilium uniuersi, a humanist encyclopedia from the fifteenth century (Balliol College MSS. 238A, 238B, 238C, 238D, 238E). The project was a pioneer in providing open-access digital photography for complete manuscripts. Although the Bodleian’s studio can now produce even more detailed photographs, the images are serviceable for most scholarly purposes and remain a valuable historical record.

New digital photographs

Early Manuscripts at Oxford received government funding, but this disappeared after subsequent cuts. As at other libraries in the UK, collection digitization is now only possible through researchers who make it an element of a broader grant, publishers who produce a facsimile, or the generosity of donors. Partnering with the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel, the Bodleian’s latest medieval digitization project is Manuscripts from German-Speaking Lands, digitizing nearly 600 medieval manuscripts in a project funded by The Polonsky Foundation between 2019 and 2021.

New manuscripts usually appear on Digital.Bodleian only when there is a complete set of photographs. Occasionally, part of a book will appear online to support another research project. For example, MS. Douce 180, the ‘Douce Apocalypse’, has selections from 35-mm film; a small set of images made for comparison purposes in The Apocalypse in Oxford project; and now a full set of photographs. The Medieval Manuscripts in Oxford Libraries catalogue lists each set of photographs available for a given manuscript.

Digital.Bodleian represents evolving records of collections rather than giving a single representation of a given item. The results of manuscript digitization are increasingly dazzling as photography technology improves, but they do not reduce the value of archival photographs.

Medieval manuscripts: how we are working from home

The Bodleian medieval manuscript specialists have been working from home. Watch this film, and read below, to learn how the online catalogue of medieval manuscripts is being improved, even at a distance from the manuscripts themselves. Take a digital tour of the online resources available to everyone, starting with medieval manuscripts in digital.bodleian, and make a special trip with the Polonsky Foundation to see the Bodleian’s manuscripts from German-speaking lands in partnership with the Herzog August Bibliothek.


by Matthew Holford, Tolkien Curator of Medieval Manuscripts

So, how does a curator of manuscripts work remotely?

Good question! To be honest, we’re still working it out. A normal day used to involve a lot of contact not just with manuscripts but with reference works, many of which aren’t online. Not having access to any of those is going to be challenging. But one thing we can do is work on enhancing the records in our online manuscript catalogue.

Doesn’t the online catalogue already cover all your medieval manuscripts?

It does! But almost all the records are only brief compact descriptions. These give a summary of the textual content and languages used, a broad categorization of the decoration, information on the writing support (usually paper or parchment), and the date and origin of the manuscript. But they often don’t cover all the textual content and generally don’t have any other physical description (e.g. information about bindings) or any information about the history of the manuscripts.

Why wasn’t that information included?

  • Usability; Simply having all our catalogues rekeyed would have been of limited value, for several reasons. Many of them are in Latin, so not very user-friendly; and a lot of the information in the older catalogues needs interpretation and updating to be useful to today’s readers.
  • Accuracy about provenance; The older catalogues were often mistaken about the date or origin of manuscripts. The Bodleian’s summary catalogue of illuminated manuscripts (“Paecht and Alexander”) is much more reliable, and we’ve updated older records with reference to that catalogue where possible.
  • Accuracy about content; It’s usually possible to identify texts in the manuscripts more reliably and accurately. For example the 1922 description of MS. Bodl. 40 contains this snippet, ascribing one text to William of Ramsey:    Snippet from the Bodleian Summary Catalogue

By checking some online databases and chasing up our online bibliography for the manuscript we can see that this text is in fact by Henry of Avranches.

What does that all mean for the catalogue?

Rather than simply reproduce the information in the main printed catalogues, it was decided to create an updated summary of those catalogues that was more accurate in some ways, but less comprehensive in others. The original intention was that the online catalogue would be a way into the printed catalogues, rather than replacing them completely.

But once you provide an online catalogue, users expect it to contain everything.

Exactly; and enhancing the catalogue records is now a major focus of our work at the library. Fortunately it’s something we can continue to do remotely.

How can you catalogue without seeing the manuscripts?

Enhancing the catalogue records doesn’t only result from fresh cataloguing – although that does happen, of course. We also have an ongoing programme of retroconversion – putting all the contents of the printed catalogues online, and updating them as far as possible from key secondary resources, but usually without seeing the manuscripts themselves. This is a much quicker process than fresh cataloguing – it might take a week or more to newly catalogue a manuscript, but on average only an hour to retroconvert a printed record.

So what changes will I see in the catalogue?

Here’s a film to show in more detail how the records are being upgraded.

We’re currently working on records from volume 2 of the Bodleian’s Summary Catalogue (published 1922-1937), covering manuscripts acquired by the Library before 1697. All records will include more information about the owners of manuscripts and their acquisition; all will include a bit more physical description (number of folios, page size, and binding if early); and many will include much fuller information about the textual contents and languages found in manuscripts. MS. Bodl. 90 is an example. The original record looked like this:

Old record for MS. Bodl. 90

You can see the revised record here.  You can compare the differences for yourself: what stands out for me about this record is the enormous improvement in the accuracy and detail with which the manuscript’s textual content is covered. In other records there might be less new information about contents but more about early owners. In general, as work progresses, the online catalogue will give a much better idea of the texts that can be found in our manuscripts, and of where those manuscripts were in the Middle Ages.

The irreplaceability of the physical object: examining Persian manuscripts

by Dr Karin Scheper, Conservation Specialist, Leiden University Libraries, and Bahari Visiting Fellow, Bodleian Libraries, 2019-20

Dr Karin Scheper. Photo credit: Ian Wallman
Dr Karin Scheper. Photo credit: Ian Wallman

Thousands of Persian manuscripts are held in the Oriental collections of the Bodleian Libraries, and an increasing number is available online. https://digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/ For the study of the texts and illustrations these digital images are invaluable, as they provide access anytime and anywhere. At the same time, the original manuscripts continue to be of enormous value because things can be learned from the material composition that can never be studied using the digital images alone. We increase our understanding of the use of manuscripts and books, and the historic context of their making, through the physical items.

A Bahari Fellowship in the Persian Arts of the Book made possible my research focussing on the Persian manuscripts in the Bodleian collections, especially those bound in lacquer boards.

See the podcast of Karin Scheper’s 2020 lecture, ‘Islamic bindings as a window on East-West relations’.

Bookbinding traditions differ between cultures because local practices, the availability of materials and cultural cohesion influenced developments. Persian bookbinders worked within the tradition of the wider Islamic world, though they used certain techniques and materials more often or in specific ways.

Bookbinders in the Islamic world used a combination of simple techniques and strong materials that resulted in a functional, durable book. An unsupported link-stitch, a spine-lining and the endbands effectively connected the textblock and binding. This method was used consistently over many centuries for all sorts of texts and bindings, from luxuriously illustrated ones to plain textbooks used for private study, and for elaborately decorated bindings to modestly tooled covers. But when a new technique was introduced in the Persianate world, of painted leather covers which further developed into lacquered boards and gained much popularity, the traditional use of the spine-lining became problematic.

Traditionally, the spine-lining was pasted to the textblock spine to provide stability, and the endbands sewn through it for even more coherence. Then the extending sides at the joints were pasted onto the inside of the boards, to strengthen the board attachment. It used to be the bookbinder who finished the insides of the boards with a doublure of leather, silk or a decorated paper that hid these parts of the lining material.

Bodleian MS. Elliott 104
Bodleian MS. Elliott 104

With lacquer boards, however, the artisans who painted the colourful exteriors also developed decorative schemes for the interior. In most cases they painted a daffodil, iris or dahlia on a contrasting background. The presence of this painting, on the lacquered boards, caused the problem: the bookbinder could no longer adhere the extending side of the lining onto the inside of the board. The change in technique resulted in a more vulnerable board attachment, necessitating the repair of many bindings with lacquered boards in the joints. These later interventions have complicated the study of the historic development of this binding type.

The Bodleian collections appear to hold several nearly pristine bindings with lacquered boards, and my study of the original board attachments was able to shed new light on the construction. I found evidence of a different method to finish the interior joint, specifically developed for these binding types. This knowledge fills a gap in the history of Islamic bookbinding, but is also valuable information for conservators who take care of the collections and develop a treatment approach.

Bodleian MS. Ouseley Add. 183 Fihrist: https://www.fihrist.org.uk/catalog/manuscript_4800
Bodleian MS. Ouseley Add. 183. Fihrist: https://www.fihrist.org.uk/catalog/manuscript_4800

A number of the manuscripts with lacquered bindings have painted patterns on the leather spine, though the decoration of the spines is extremely rare in Islamic bookbinding. Some of the geometrical or flowery designs on these spines include the title of the volume, which seems to point at western tastes in the shelving of books; traditionally, the title is found on the tail edge of the textblock as manuscripts were shelved horizontally, the small edge outwards. A spine title suggests a changed placement on the shelf.

Other binding types of full and partial leather that were examined add to our understanding of bookbinding practices in the Indo-Persianate world. Noteworthy is a fairly large number of bindings with leather doublures that extend and cross the inner joint. The part of the leather that is pasted onto the textblock was then finished with a strip of paper that has a zig-zag cut edge, suggesting that the leather was a decoratively cut.

Bodleian MS. Elliott 115, showing cloth satchel. Fihrist: https://www.fihrist.org.uk/catalog/manuscript_10930

It is fascinating to gain insights into how these manuscripts were carried and handled in the past. A number of cloth bags or satchels have survived as the protective cases of manuscripts collected by the brothers Gore and William Ouseley [https://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/weston/finding-resources/guides/middleeast#nineteenth] Some of these enclosures appear to be made of reused textiles and their shape echoes traditional cloth wraps for manuscripts. These may be purely functional protection for the manuscripts during their travels, yet it would certainly have enhanced the experience of displaying these objects, when a beautiful binding had to be pulled out of a colourful satchel.

Nothing can replace working with the tangible objects. Of course, the principal purpose of a bookbinding is functional, though it could be made to also add beauty and value to a manuscript. Historic bookbindings still serve these two purposes, yet for today’s users they have an important extra value. The materials may help to verify the dating of the manuscript and to localise the origin of its making. But what is more, the things we can learn from the materials, the physical characteristics and traces of use increase our possibilities to connect with past practices and help us understand a world long gone.