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.
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: email@example.com . 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
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.
‘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.
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.
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.:
By comparison, we see something which takes the tree much more to heart in MS. Bodl. 515:
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.
What 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
by Dr Karin Scheper, Conservation Specialist, Leiden University Libraries, and Bahari Visiting Fellow, Bodleian Libraries, 2019-20
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A Commonplace Reformation: Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Add. A. 92 – Martin Luther’s Autograph Collection of Proverbs
This manuscript is one of two in the Bodleian’s possession which are written in Martin Luther’s own hand, and, running to 40 pages, is by far the more substantial – though, about the size of a postcard, it remains small. It is a collection of proverbs (Sprichwörter), mostly in German, and dating from some point in the later 1530s or early 1540s. It was acquired by the Bodleian for £45 in 1865 –the ‘carelessness and poverty’ of German libraries and museums for allowing this to happen was later lamented. (‘Sprichwörtersammlung’, ed. K. Drescher, in Luthers Werke: Schriften, 69 vols. (Weimar: 1883-), li, p. 634). This manuscript is the only version of this collection, which was never published or prepared for publication in Luther’s lifetime; indeed, its contents were not published until its preparation in 1900 by Ernst Thiele, which was then included in the Weimar edition of Luther’s collected works. It is not known why, other than an interest in proverbs, Luther began to write this work, nor why he stopped (the last six pages of the manuscript are blank) and did not publish it.
The format of the manuscript reflects Luther’s practice to cut up sheets of paper into smaller pieces to serve as notepaper, which would be small enough to carry around, or just to have ready on his desk to make notes on. The paper for the whole manuscript has the same watermark, an eagle (see image, from p. 22), and so was presumably all prepared at approximately the same time.
Thiele notes that this watermark is also found on the manuscript (also in this note-paper format) of Luther’s tract Wider Hans Worst, which was written and published in 1541, which gives some idea of when the manuscript might have been written. Being a notebook, many of the phrases win it are just brief notes – reminders from Luther to jog his memory. This means that many of the phrases are heavily abbreviated and make little sense to a modern reader, especially when many of the proverbs describe situations unfamiliar in the present day. The manuscript shows signs of composition and revision, too – Luther seems, perhaps with existing proverbs in mind, to be writing new proverbs, or at least variations of old ones. This manuscript can give a number of interesting insights, both into Luther, and his thought processes, and into the state of German literary culture of the period.
The sixteenth century was a time of considerable change for the German language. Once, Luther himself was regarded as the driving force of this change, but, while his importance in the development of the German language and German print culture should not be underestimated, he was part of a wider moment in which German changed. This included writers like Luther, but also merchants and printers, who all participated in changes in German literary culture. Proverb collections have been a focus for historians of popular culture trying to find a way in to oral culture which cannot be easily found through books. While this is attractive, there are significant problems with the use of proverb collections as examples of popular oral culture, since many collections of proverbs were used to give moral instruction. This is clear in the proverb collections of Luther’s contemporary, and sometime friend, Agricola, in which most of the proverbs are accompanied by brief moral instructions explaining how the proverbs can be used for personal improvement. Published proverb collections like Agricola’s provide an example more of what their authors think, or want, popular behaviour to be, than a reflection its reality. Moreover, the first, and most famous, of the sixteenth-century proverb collections, Erasmus’ Adages was emphatically not a collection of examples from popular speech: they were phrases to be learned and used for instruction, rather than as representative of folk wisdom and oral culture. These books of proverbs, then, reflect not popular opinions and beliefs, but the opinions and beliefs of the educated and of literary wits. To be included in such a collection was an indication, perhaps, not of the peasant-authenticity of a phrase, but on its aptness or elegance.
Luther’s collection, however, is somewhat different. It is not a neat and learned collection like that of Agricola or Erasmus. It contains no moral essays, nor citations of classical or contemporary authors. Few of Luther’s proverbs seem to be taken from noted literary sources at all. It was, of course, never published, and never arranged into a didactic text. It may, as Thiele argues, have originally been conceived as his own proverb collection in competition – or in dialogue – with other proverb collections of the time, but at some point Luther seems to have decided against this, and converted the aim into a work for purely personal use. Understanding these proverbs can be difficult, given that many of them are no longer part of contemporary culture, or refer to contemporary experiences or beliefs, or even to words which have since fallen out of use. For instance, a year regulated by religious festivals can be seen with the expression ‘zu pfingsten auff dem eys’ – something will happen ‘on the ice at Whitsun’, i.e. never (see image, from p. 10, at bottom).
Another proverb is just the short note ‘Blewel schleiffen’, where ‘Blewel’, in modern German ‘Bleuel’, is a piece of wood used to beat washing in running water to help clean it. Further, many proverbs rely on their context to be understood, and being in a list removes this almost entirely. This is made yet more difficult by the abbreviated form in which many of them are recorded. As Luther’s notes, they did not need to be complete, and may only stand for a prompt, intelligible to him, but not to anyone else. For example, ‘Hasen panier’ (flying ‘a hare’s banner’) probably is ironic for running away instead of advancing under a proper banner, as are the two words ‘ohren melcker’ (‘ear-milker’), which might be interpreted as way of saying ‘flatterer’. Many, though, are perfectly intelligible to the modern reader, and have close analogues with proverbs in English, as well as in modern German. For instance, ‘Er geht auff eyern’ (‘He goes on eggs’) can be read as ‘walking on eggshells’, while ‘Horet das gras wachsen’ (‘Listen to the grass grow’) and ‘Viel hende machen leicht erbeit’ (‘Many hands make light work’) are clear.
There are a number of features of this manuscript, many of which are typified on this detail from p. 23. The manuscript is written in an unusual red-brown ink; two versions of this ink can be seen, clearly demonstrating how the manuscript was written over time, and with no interest in internal consistency. The changes of ink suggest that the manuscript was composed over a period of time, with different inks showing as many as eleven periods of composition. The picture of a hand (a manicule) is used to indicate something of special interest. Here, it marks the phrase ‘Gott ist der narren furmunde’, meaning ‘God is the fool’s guardian’. ‘Fool’ here is not a term of abuse, but refers instead the Pauline idea of a ‘fool for God’ who is under special divine protection. This is, perhaps, a crucial theological proverb for Luther, expressing the ubiquity of faith, for even ‘fools’ can have it.
These pages also contain a number of proverbs which are abusive or scatological in nature, something quite typical of Luther’s polemical writings. For instance, amongst a series of proverbs on p. 9 relating to fish is ‘Bleib daheymen mit deinen faulen fisschen’ (‘Stay at home with your rotten fish’), while on another page there is the bald remark that ‘An armen hoffart wisscht der teufel den ars’ (‘the Devil wipes his arse on the pride of the poor’). This manuscript shows that such uses in Luther’s public writings were neither an aberration, nor actually spontaneous, since a number appear in this manuscript simply listed without anything to prompt them. Luther, it seems, worked out his insults in advance, ready to insert them into his other writings. Not all are abusive, though, and some quite homely, such as ‘Kuche uber den zaün, kuche herwidder’ (‘[offering] a cake over the fence receives a cake in return’).
Though this manuscript should not necessarily be considered as a direct record of popular culture of Luther’s time, for Luther, like his contemporary proverb collection, likely compiled his proverbs with some moral or didactic intent, it is useful in the understanding of Luther himself. This manuscript by no means revolutionises interpretations of Luther, his personality, or his preoccupations, which are already well-documented in the many sources which surround Luther’s life, but it does, perhaps, offer an unusually unmediated access to Luther, unaffected by the admiration or denigration of his followers and his opponents. It also lacks the public aspect of his polemics and letters, especially in the annotations which Luther apparently makes for himself alone. The private nature of this work, whatever its original purpose, gives insight into Luther’s working methods and what he wrote when he did not have an audience or a particular aim.
The manuscript will be displayed in the Weston Library from the 30th October to the 3rd of November.
Photographs taken by Alexander Peplow, and Professor Henrike Lähnemann, whose photos of the entire manuscript can be found here. Photos used with the permission of the Bodleian Libraries.
A description of its palaeographic features can be found on the Teaching the Codex website.
Alexander Peplow is a DPhil student in History at Merton College. The description of the Luther autograph was part of his course work for the Method Option ‘Palaeography and History of the Book’ with Henrike Lähnemann in the MSt. in Medieval Studies 2016/2017.