In a guest blog, Éloïse Ruby, master’s student at Leiden University and intern at the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, describes the process of analysing and describing medieval manuscript fragments.
Taken all together, these fragments create a fascinating overview of the types of texts, scripts and decoration popular in Europe in the Middle Ages. They are a treasure trove of data and information waiting to be studied in more detail.
My task as an intern is to date, localise and describe fragments for the library’s catalogue. In order to do this, I quickly learnt to approach the fragments in a systematic way in order to focus my efforts. I also put together an ever-growing list of dateable features to help me extract as much information as possible from my observations.
Next, I look at the fragment’s script. I write down my observations on the shape and aspect of key letters and abbreviation symbols that can help me date and localise it. For each letter, I refer to my list of dateable features. Gradually I reach a conclusion on the time and place in which the manuscript to which the fragment once belonged was created.
My last step is to compare the fragment to the plates in books such as the many volumes of the Catalogue de Manuscrits Datés, J. P. Gumbert’s Illustrated Inventory of Medieval Manuscripts in the Netherlands, S. Harrison Thomson’s Latin Bookhands of the Later Middle Ages, or Albert Derolez’ Palaeography of Gothic Manuscript Books. In this way, I check my conclusion’s accuracy.
Once I have a satisfactory transcription, I begin to look for the text on Google, using the most promising phrases as search terms. This is the longest step, as it is often fraught with dead ends. Most of the time, it does eventually yield a number of results and allows me to identify the text itself, a similar text, or the text of which the fragment is a commentary. Google Books has digitised many late medieval printed books and this makes it an invaluable tool when it comes to identifying fragments.
Despite my best efforts, some of the fragments I have worked with in the last few months have remained unidentified. When studying fragments, there is a limited amount of text available to help you reach your conclusions. Sometimes, it is not enough (Fig. 4). And while Google is a very practical search platform, it still has limits of its own, and cannot help identify the more obscure texts. I have often been very frustrated with this, and questions such as: “what if I had more than this? ”, “what if I could read that faded or damaged part of the page? ” and “what if the bookbinder hadn’t cut right through the middle of that column?” have been recurrent.