I am a year 12 student at Hills Road Sixth Form College, Cambridge, who is in the process of writing my Extended Project Qualification on the digitisation, and viewing of medieval manuscripts today. I am also taking A-levels in History, English Literature and History of Art. At the start of this academic year, I was extremely excited when I was informed that for our EPQs we had free reign to complete a qualification in whatever area took our interests: as I am fascinated by medieval history, English literature, our social and cultural past, and have read around the ASNC course, and had a chance to expand this passion further. Therefore, I wanted to learn more about our direct sources to this time period (as I have never really researched manuscripts before). As such, I reached out to the library, in order to learn more about the preservation, care, handling, and digitisation of manuscripts and early printed books.

Over this week I have been given so many amazing opportunities, to explore and handle manuscripts, early printed books, and learn more about the ongoing bibliographical project for https://parker.stanford.edu/parker/  and online efforts to transcribe paleography from a variety of manuscripts, including MS 286, ‘The Gospel of St Augustine’. This will undoubtedly help to publicise the amazing collection, as well as allow manuscripts to be viewed and made understandable to as many people as possible (e.g. through outlining conventions for transcription, so eventually all digitalised documents can searched as pdfs, meaning someone with no paleographical knowledge, or knowledge of Latin, Old English, or abbreviation conventions, such as myself at the start of this week, will be able to access these documents).

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Transcription project on a page from the Gospels of St Augustine

I have also cemented my belief in the continued importance of the physicality of manuscripts as historical sources, despite how important digitalization is in aiding our understanding. As someone who is very interested in the past, I found myself awestruck when handling original manuscripts, and attempting to decipher what another person had considered so important to take the time to have written down, painstakingly by hand on sheets of vellum over 1000 years ago. In short, it was a sense of excitement that I cannot even begin to describe, at seeing and touching an object that is so old, and provides a window into the medieval psyche. This was most evident when I examined MS 304, ‘Juvencus’s Evangelium Metrica’, the only surviving complete copy of an epic poem outlining biblical events from around 600 AD!


A page from CCCC MS 304

Another thing I discovered, was the importance feeling the texture of the vellum – for example, in MS 373, ‘Ekkehard of Aura’, a wedding present to Mathilde, wife of Emperor Henry V, outlining the lineage of the Franks back to Charlemagne, I found it particularly interesting to note that most of the illustrations are drawn on the smooth (flesh) side of the vellum in order to avoid the rougher surface of the hair follicles. As such, the majority of pages with illustrations are turned so that the flesh side is illustrated, hence not always abiding by the general pattern when the manuscript was bound in order. This textural difference was also interesting in MS 204 ‘Juvencus Evangelium Metrica’, in determining the difference between parchment makers holes (meaning that no text will have been lost), and later damage. In paleographical terms, it is also somewhat easier to transcribe from the original source, as the saturation of ink on the letters is greater when a point has been gone over twice in the formation of a letter. This made it much easier for me to distinguish letters than when I was looking at an image on a computer screen.


“Pippi[n] Rex Francer Pater Karola Magna” An image of Pepin, father of Charlemagne from CCCC MS 373.

Another thing I enjoyed about this experience was the freedom to explore the sources, in particular, noting parts of a text that had been underlined, added to, or considered particularly important by the owner of an early printed book. This gives us an amazing unprecedented look into the minds of the people who have come before us, through their highlighting of ideas they valued, or small comments in the margins voicing an opinion. This is one of my absolute favourite finds, from SP-416: ‘Abridgement of the Chronicles of Englande’!IMG_1995

This has been an absolutely amazing experience, and I am so thankful to the sub-librarians for making me feel so welcome and allowing me to have this opportunity to learn in such a hands on way! It’s safe to say that I am now even more fascinated by the medieval world, and will definitely continue to hone my (base level) paleographical skills in the future, as well as consider a career as an archivist or librarian in the future.

Rhiannon Warren



As with any historical field, despite the sheer quantity of evidence you may collect, there will always be parts of the past that remain shrouded in mystery. This is of course true for manuscripts; even if we combined all our current knowledge, we will never quite manage to uncover each and every hidden facet of a sheet of parchment. However, there are individuals within the field leading research with the use of science – more specifically, using Raman spectroscopy to study the pigments used in manuscripts. During my fortnight’s internship at the Parker Library, I had the pleasure of observing the work of Richard Gameson, Andrew Beeby, and Catherine Nicholson. I came to learn that through identifying the materials used to create pigments for illuminations in medieval manuscripts, we can better understand the techniques of the illuminator or scribe, the skill of those within the craft, and also gain an insight into where such materials were bought and traded from geographically.

Dover Fl.195v

Dover f.195v – The Lord appearing to the Prophet Jeremiah.

Spectroscopy has enabled research over an expansive palette of manuscripts, and complementary documents such as financial accounts and histories of the institutions the manuscripts originated from, lets us conclude whether the pigment was chosen due to availability, cost, or ease of manufacturing.


Unfortunately, there are several obstacles that arise when studying manuscripts. Parchment, made from the skin of animals (in England, typically that of a sheep or cow), is incredibly delicate and susceptible to damage; some of the inks used damage the substrate irreparably as the page is exposed to light and oxygen. Nevertheless, working with medieval manuscripts requires that they be exposed to light, and come into contact with both people and scientific apparatus. Previous scientific enquiry has caused damage, from the reagents used in the 20th century, to samples which were snipped from the corners of manuscripts more recently; however, in the past decade, an alternative has been offered. Raman spectroscopy, combined with hyperspectral imaging and diffuse reflectant spectroscopy, allows for a detailed analysis of a minute section of manuscript, whilst causing the smallest amount of exposure and damage. By aiming a low intensity laser beam at a point in the manuscript no larger than a millimetre, the wavelengths that ‘bounce’ back are indicative of what compound (or compounds) make up the pigment under analysis. Such analysis is particularly useful when studying pigments used in manuscripts produced in the British Isles and northern Europe between the seventh and fifteenth centuries.


Canterbury, being chosen by St Augustine as the seat of the early Christian church in England, developed into an area of expansive wealth, a historical fact which is evident in the manuscripts that were produced there. The Dover Bible (CCCC MS 3 & MS 4),  was split into two volumes, both of which measure over half a metre long, and together consist of almost 300 parchment bifolia, a number which is roughly equivalent to the number of cow hides which would be necessary to produce the manuscripts.

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Dover f. 159v – Elijah is taken by the Lord on a fiery chariot up to Heaven.

As these two volumes are also home to some of the brightest and most intricate illuminations of the twelfth century, their analysis can provide a stunning insight into pigments used in the medieval period immediately after the Norman Conquest. Though considerable study has been carried out without the use of Raman spectroscopy, this added layer of scientific inquiry has become invaluable to researchers.


Looking at contemporary financial and import records determines that lapis lazuli, a bright blue pigment imported predominantly from Afghanistan, was the most frequently used source of blue in illuminations in Canterbury manuscripts. The sheer cost of the material resulted in the pigment being deployed in two ways; sparingly in cheaper manuscripts, often only being used for depictions of God, saints, and other key biblical figures, and more liberally in manuscripts that aimed to demonstrate the overflowing wealth of the institution that made or commissioned it. However, it is known that blue paint could also be made using a pigment called ‘Egyptian blue’, which was found in pre-existing materials such as antique glass or pottery, and ground up before being added to the paint medium. This poses the issue that when looking at the colour blue on a manuscript with the naked eye, lapis lazuli and Egyptian blue look completely the same. Raman spectroscopy arrives somewhat like a lamp to lighten the darkness and uncertainty around these pigments. When looking at the Dover Bible in particular, it is shown that lapis lazuli was the pigment of choice. This is complementary to the knowledge that the Dover Bible was made by Canterbury for the small neighbouring dependency, the Priory of Dover, demonstrating a wealth so immense they can pay for luxurious manuscripts not just for themselves, but for others as well.


The issue of two different sources of the same colour being virtually indistinguishable from each other is not limited to blue. Throughout the first and middle half of the twelfth century, vermillion (cultivated from cinnabar) and red lead were also two different compounds that could be used to create red paint.

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Dover f.131r – The Amalekite sent by the dying Saul delivers the crown and ring to David.

In some cases a difference can be seen at first glance – vermillion can be mixed to create a striking blood-red, whereas red lead gives way to a more orange tone, allowing for contrast. However, deeper analysis using Raman spectroscopy has shown us that they can also appear in paint mixed together, or used in identical shades, but on different sections of the same manuscript, as demonstrated in the Dover Bible.


Mixing of different compounds to create variety in a colour’s shade is a common method in the Dover Bible. Research on various twelfth century manuscripts from the Canterbury area has shown that grey-blue was created using lapis mixed with ash, and for pure grey, such as human hair or a cloak, lapis was mixed with orpiment (yellow). The mixing of two pigments together is not just reserved for blues and greys. Green can be formed in two ways; firstly though the use of copper, or, with vergaut (a mix of orpiment and indigo).  When looking at Canterbury manuscripts as a whole, spectroscopic research has shown that copper greens dominated throughout the post-Norman period.

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Dover f.100r – Joshua and Caleb.

However, vergaut green did reappear around 1100 AD in some Canterbury manuscripts, but was now made by combining orpiment with lapis lazuli, rather than indigo. It is unlikely, knowing that lapis could only be imported from Afghanistan, that the choice to create vergaut from lapis was a decision that sprung from availability; more likely, it was to demonstrate the wealth and status of the institution. This assessment could only have been made by using the data that Raman spectroscopy provided as greens, like blues, are very difficult to discern with human eye alone.


Spectroscopy has also shown us that the copper green in the Dover Bible particularly was further modulated with the addition of white lead. White lead was used as part of the richer palettes seen in eleventh and twelfth century manuscripts – for example, it is used in the Dover Bible to add highlights, minute detail such as the whites of the eyes, and mellow the green of the borders. Study of other Canterbury manuscripts has shown that varying concentrations of green pigment itself could create different tones, but the use of white lead to alter the shade is dominant in the Dover Bible.


The concluding note of this article strays further than the Dover Bible; the research of Gameson and Beeby has extended far beyond Canterbury manuscripts. Studying the past requires us to surrender the idea that fact is always fixed. Even conclusions that have been considered infallible for several decades can be uprooted using new methods of research. Raman spectroscopy is no exception, and allows us to look at manuscripts in a way we could not before – to loosely quote Gameson, ‘shed new light on old illuminations’.


-Megan Webb




  • Beeby, Andrew and Gameson, Richard and Nicholson, Catherine. Illuminators’ pigments in Lancastrian England. ‘Manuscripta’, 60 (2). pp. 143-164. (2016)
  • Beeby, Andrew, Gameson, Richard & Nicholson, Catherine. Colour at Canterbury: the Pigments of Canterbury Illuminators from the Tenth to the Twelfth Century. ‘In Manuscripts in the Making. Art & Science 1’. Panayotova, Stella & Ricciardi, Paola Harvey Miller – Brepols. 21-35. (2017).
  • Nicholson, Kate, Beeby, Andrew and Gameson, R. G. (2016) ‘Shedding light on medieval manuscripts’. Spectroscopy Europe, 28 (4). pp. 6-8.
  • ‘Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts’, Christopher de Hamel, Penguin UK, (2016).
  • ‘The Cambridge Companion to the History of the Book’, Materials and meanings, Stoicheff, Peter. ed. Howsam, Leslie. Cambridge University Press, (2015).
  • ‘The Book in Britain, Volume II, 1100-1400’, Illumination – pigments, drawings, and gildings,  Morgan, Nigel.  ed. Morgan, & Thomson, Cambridge University Press (2008).
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The Wycliffite Bible (CCCC MS 147)

Language can be exclusive. When a text is unavailable in one’s own language, one feels barred from understanding its meaning. This concern allows us insight into the thinking behind the production of this highly controversial manuscript from the Parker Library collection: the Wycliffite Bible (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 147). The Wycliffites, followers of the divisive church reformer John Wycliffe, were the first to translate the Bible from Latin—which the clergy read—into the vernacular, the language of the people: English. This particular manuscript is of the later version of the Wycliffite Bible, and was likely produced between 1410 and 1430. In its prologue is the pronouncement that ‘no simple man of wit be aferd vnmesurabli to studie in the text of holy writ, for whi tho ben wordis of euerlastyng lif’[1] [no man simple in wit should be unreasonably afraid to study in the text of holy writ, because those are words of everlasting life]. While researching the fiery Late Medieval debate surrounding this manuscript and others like it, I discovered that era’s contention regarding textual, and especially biblical, translation and interpretation.

I began by looking at the language the Wycliffites themselves used to describe their project of producing the first ever English Bible. I found that one particular phrase—‘the naked text’—was ‘intimately linked with the Wycliffite project of Bible translation’.[2] This phrase originated from medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer’s Prologue to The Legend of Good Women, in which Chaucer summarises his intention to translate his classical sources in order to declare ‘[t]he naked text in English’.[3]

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The prologue to the later version of the Wycliffite Bible

But what is a ‘naked text’? Chaucerian scholars can help to shine a light on this obscure phrase. Sheila Delany reads Chaucer as describing ‘a text bare of rhetoric, a text faithfully translated, a text devoid of gloss, or a text completely transparent to meaning’.[4] D. S. Brewer similarly contends that ‘[t]he plain or naked text, without the ‘glose’ – without, that is, the interpretation that came to signify falsification or flattery or deceit – appealed to Chaucer, and he always uses the word ‘glosing’ unfavourably’.[5] The Chaucerian idea of ‘the naked text’, therefore, refers to a text that requires no interpretation; one can read its meaning directly. The compelling idea of a Bible ‘completely transparent to meaning’—and whether this could be a reality—lies at the heart of the Wycliffite Bible controversy.

The bizarre imagery of textual nakedness is worth analysing. Sheila Delany offers both positive and negative connotations in her analysis of this Chaucerian phrase. She notes that, because ‘naked’ is ‘the past participle of a transitive verb: to naken or to nake an object, meaning to make bare, to expose, to strip someone or something of covering or protection’, the ‘naked text’ can be seen as something ‘impoverished, stripped of what had properly covered or adorned it’.[6] On the other hand, she writes: ‘nakedness is a natural condition: the pristine condition, after all, of the human race and the human individual’.[7] This duality of connotation made the ‘naked text’ phrase fruitful for both the proponents and critics of the English Bible. For the anti-Wycliffites, the phrase could be used unfavourably, as nakedness does not usually suggest something meant to be public and widely accessible, but rather something that should remain private (in this case, ‘the naked text’ of the Bible should remain in the hands of the clergy). Meanwhile, for the Wycliffites themselves, ‘the naked text’ of the English Bible symbolised freeing God’s Word from its stifling and elitist Latin clothing.

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Marginal criticism of the translation of ‘erodius’ as ‘gefauken’

The direction reception of an English Bible by ordinary people certainly seems to involve less interpretative work than the reception of the Latin Bible by the clergy—highly trained in biblical interpretation—who then pass on their interpretations to their congregations. The English masses, having had no interpretative training, certainly would not feel as if they were interpreting, but simply reading. However, the possible naivety of Wycliffite optimism starts to show through here. Even the untrained common man could not help interpreting as he read; even the illusive ‘naked text’ would be quickly clothed in his own interpretation. Moreover, the unavoidable interpretive work involved in all translation—including that of the Latin Bible by the Wycliffites—cannot be ignored. The Wycliffite Bible in the Parker Library bears witness to the supposed dangers of translating into the vernacular, as this very manuscript contains the earliest comment on the inaccuracy of the Wycliffite translation; in the margins of Psalm 103, Wycliffe’s competence in Latin is criticised when he translates the Latin word ‘erodius’, meaning stork, into the Middle English word ‘gefaukun’, referring to a type of falcon.[8] Modern critic Mary Dove deems this comment to be ‘finicky’ and ‘clutching at anti-Wycliffite straws’,[9] yet the comment’s triviality demonstrates the immensity of underlying tensions regarding biblical translation.

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A small marginal gloss

As mentioned above, Chaucer’s ‘naked text’ idea seems to reject the inclusion of glosses—that is, explanations and paraphrases that could guide textual interpretation. Similarly, for the Wycliffites, ‘the Bible had to be reclaimed from the discourse of glossing’.[10] While rejecting that academic and exclusive ‘discourse’, they believed that ‘the Christian life well and tenaciously lived […] is the highest and most authoritative form of biblical glossing’.[11] Consequently, the Parker manuscript, like other Wycliffite Bibles, only contains minor and infrequent glosses, such as ‘intertextual glosses’ which usually ‘appear in the margins, outlined in red’.[12] This scarcity of explanation led the clergy to worry about the spiritual endangerment that might arise from allowing ordinary people to read difficult parts of the Bible themselves. The Dominican friar Palmer, who argued against vernacular translation, supported circumlocution—the method by which priests gloss and interpret scripture in a roundabout way for the laity—and warned that the naked, uninterpreted text of the Bible had given rise to multiple heresies among untrained people in the early church.[13] For Palmer, ‘the naked text’ was an ominous danger, as the laity are incapable of properly understanding what they read; his opinion undercuts the Wycliffite hope for a Bible ‘transparent to meaning’ for ordinary people.

Even now, there is a diversity of views on the value or naivety of the Wycliffite project. There is a degree of irony in the Wycliffites’ adoption of Chaucer’s ‘naked text’ phrase, as critics such as Delany read the original phrase as ironic, suggesting that Chaucer himself knew ‘there is no such thing as true nakedness whether of texts or of people or of ideas’.[14] Moreover, Chaucer omitted the phrase from a later version of his own text, seemingly in ‘response to the increasingly controversial Wycliffite project of Bible translation in the late 1380s and 1390s, which claimed to be able to produce just such a “naked text”’.[15] A few years later, in 1409, the English Church introduced the following interdictions: ‘no vernacular scripture translated recently enough to be clearly understood […]; no vernacular theology; no lay access to clerical learning’.[16] What is intriguing here is the Church’s concern that a text might actually be ‘clearly understood’; this is a worry about clarity rather than the lack of it. Perhaps the Wycliffite idea of producing a truly ‘naked text’—with an accessible meaning outside of clerical interpretation—was too optimistic, but rather than laughing at its naivety, the Church in fact seemed desirous to prevent the Bible from becoming too ‘naked’. It seems that the Wycliffites had, at the very least, tapped into a latent anxiety about how the Bible was read and who read it.

—Julia Dallaway (julia.dallaway@worc.ox.ac.uk)


[1] Josiah Forshall and Frederic Madden (eds.), The Holy Bible, containing the Old and New Testaments, with the Apocryphal Books, in the Earliest English Versions made from the Latin Vulgate by John Wycliffe and his Followers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1850): 2.

[2] Sheila Delany, The Naked Text: Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994): 41.

[3] Geoffrey Chaucer, ‘The Legend of Good Women,’ in Chaucer’s Works, Volume 3, ed. Walter W. Skeat (Project Gutenberg, 2014): p.72, l.86.

[4] Sheila Delany, The Naked Text: Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994): 75.

[5] D. S. Brewer, A New Introduction to Chaucer (London and New York: Routledge, 1998): 249.

[6] Sheila Delany, The Naked Text: Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994): 118.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Mary Dove, The First English Bible: The Text and Context of the Wycliffite Versions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007): 175.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Kantik Ghosh, The Wycliffite Heresy: Authority and The Interpretation of Texts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002): 1.

[11] Michael P. Kuczynski, ‘Glossing and glosses,’ in The Wycliffite Bible: Origin, History and Interpretation (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2016): 367.

[12] Ibid., 348.

[13] Mary Dove, The First English Bible: The Text and Context of the Wycliffite Versions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007): 10.

[14] Sheila Delany, The Naked Text: Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994): 1.

[15] Michael N. Salda and Jean E. Jost (eds.), Chaucer Yearbook: A Journal of Late Medieval Studies, Volume 4 (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 1997): 99.

[16] Mary Dove, The First English Bible: The Text and Context of the Wycliffite Versions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007): 37.

HQ AW initial and tearEncountering a manuscript is a vastly different experience to reading a modern printed edition of the same text. I discovered this when I had the privilege of examining the Ancrene Wisse manuscript (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 402) during my internship at the Parker Library. Ancrene Wisse—meaning ‘advice for anchoresses’—is an early thirteenth-century text intended to guide the devotional lives of female religious recluses. But, alongside its content, what struck me about the manuscript was its palpable materiality. I was confronted with an animal skin that had been skilfully made into a durable writing surface, and could see the flaws in the parchment that sometimes resulted from that process. The flaws, in particular, ensured that I saw the text not as an abstraction, such as critical editions present, but rather as an unavoidably physical instantiation.

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Flaws in the parchment: a hole and a stitched up tear

The production of medieval manuscripts was an arduous process. Skins, from livestock such as sheep and goats, were made into parchment through ‘the laborious processes of liming, curing, dehairing, scraping and smoothing’, as well as being ‘strategically cut to maximise the available surface area to produce as many leaves as possible’.[1] These processes, particularly that of scraping the skin, could result into small holes, which would grow larger when the skin was stretched out. The skin could also already be weak or damaged in places, and therefore prone to tearing. Medieval scribes consequently had to be creative in repairing parchment holes, which ‘could be stitched, glued with a patch or simply avoided by writing around them’.[2]  Parchment leaves were often folded in such a way that ‘any irregularity and damage appear at the edges’, so that the binder could potentially decide to cut off the damaged area.[3]

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A repaired tear within the body of text

MS 402 of Ancrene Wisse contains examples of several of these repair techniques. I saw tears stitched up with green thread, often at the edges of leaves; it is probable that these leaves were intentionally folded so that the imperfection would not interfere with the text. Holes also appear within the body of text itself, and are sometimes left open, sometimes stitched up. I could tell that these holes occurred prior to the scribe writing on the parchment because the scribe had cleverly navigated the text around them. It was striking to see how the scribe works with the physicality of text—almost as if in artistic collaboration. On one leaf, two colours of thread have been used, suggesting that the parchment was repaired on more than one occasion; perhaps some of the original stitching came loose and a different colour was used to replace it. Yet in other places, stitches have clearly come out without being replaced, as the parchment bears the puncture holes of a needle; this is likely because a modern conservator would not venture to replicate the original repair works. Furthermore, as the parchment has dried and hardened over the centuries, the original thread that restrained an old tear is no longer needed; the parchment can hold itself in place.

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Two colours of thread on the same leaf

Due to its abundance of flaws, the parchment used for Ancrene Wisse seems to be of relatively low quality. The quality of materials used in making a manuscript could give us clues about the societal value of the text and its readers. Orietta De Rold explains that ‘[m]odern research suggests that the qualitative differences in the process of making the parchment had an impact on the production of the medieval book. Little evidence of the quality of the parchment which was bought and sold is available in contemporary records […but…] it is possible to observe differences’.[4] One example she gives is that dark, easily creased parchment was often used for university books in the fourteenth century. Such low quality parchment corresponds to the fact that the text was not meant for ecclesiastical purposes; it was merely for use by students. While Ancrene Wisse is itself a religious text, its intended audience of the female religious could resign it to lesser parchment, at a time when women were undoubtedly considered lesser members of society.

To me, the flawed nature of the parchment seemed wonderfully juxtaposed with the visible care and precision that had gone into making the manuscript as neat as possible. After the leaves of parchment were made, they were ‘passed to others for the addition of pencilled margins and lines’.[5] The scribes’ precision is evidenced by the fact that the ‘relative dimensions of margins’ were often determined by ‘the golden mean or sectio divina’.[6] Scribal work was undertaken by monks, and was even viewed as an act of devotion, as Peter Stoicheff suggests:

Some scripts are as small as one-sixteenth of an inch high, too small to be easily read with the unaided eye, suggesting the devotion was not in the act of reading but the act of the inscription into the parchment surface itself – literally making the word flesh. Digital enlargements of such scripts reveal an astonishing accuracy in the straightness of line, the height of script, and the shape and detail of individual letters.[7]

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A tear that had once been stitched up

Given the scribes’ commitment, perhaps the additional task of repairing imperfections simply added to the profundity of their devotional act. Tears and holes could be imbued with theological significance due to the medieval trope of comparing manuscripts to bodies—in particular, the body of Christ—and thus seeing manuscript flaws as analogous to the wounds of Christ’s Passion. The scribes’ dedicated work in preserving a text of religious value such as Ancrene Wisse on flawed, animal material could even be seen as symbolically incarnational—‘literally making the word flesh,’ as Stoicheff writes. These parallels reinforced my sense that the parchment’s flaws add to the beauty of the manuscript, as they deepen its symbolic potential.

R. D. Fulk and Christopher M. Cain write that ‘[c]ritical editions […] regard texts as abstractions, treating them as having an ideal form of which manuscript instantiations are imperfect representations’.[8] Yet my experience with the Ancrene Wisse manuscript at the Parker Library taught me that this supposedly ‘ideal form’ carries little of the immediacy of seeing an animal skin, complete with all its flaws, interacting with the text itself, in literal and symbolic ways.

–Julia Dallaway (julia.dallaway@worc.ox.ac.uk)


[1] Peter Stoicheff, ‘Materials and meanings,’ in The Cambridge Companion to the History of the Book, ed. Leslie Howsam (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014): 78.

[2] Orietta Da Rold, ‘Materials,’ in The Production of Books in England 1350-1500, ed. Alexandra Gillespie and Daniel Wakelin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011): 20.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 19.

[5] Peter Stoicheff, ‘Materials and meanings,’ in The Cambridge Companion to the History of the Book, ed. Leslie Howsam (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014): 78.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 79.

[8] R. D. Fulk and Christopher M. Cain, A History of Old English Literature (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013): 65.

As part of my work experience here at the Parker Library I was given the opportunity to do my own research and write it up on a blog post. This was an amazing chance to see what research means practically, and at first I was overwhelmed by the number of books available to look at and make the focus of my post. I spent a solid forty minutes trawling through the list of print books here at the Parker (twice!), and came upon a few I thought looked interesting based on the title. I took out four books which date between 1473 and 1631. Once I had stumbled through the one Latin book I decided to brave, and skimmed the three English ones, I decided to properly look at “A Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World” by John Speed, published in 1631.


This book aims to teach people about the world, first by a brief overview of world history, then by continent, then by country or empire, including an entry on the English Civil War at the end. Every section, whether on the whole world, a continent or a country has a map to go with it, most of which are dated to 1626.  In the same volume, although a separate book is “The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain”, by the same author, published in in 1632, which has entries on history and each county, starting in the south and moving up to the north.

“A Prospect of the most Famous Parts of the World” begins with descriptions of the continents, of which John Speed identifies four. He also, very helpfully, ranked them in how good he believes them to be. The first is Asia, which he gives first position to because the “greatest part of our divine history was there written and acted”, with the birth and death of Jesus and the beginnings of the Christian Church. He acknowledges that Europe is the most famous for “the acts of men”, but Speed evidently places this of less importance than Biblical history.

P1020448Second place goes to Africa for similar reasons – it is where life came from and therefore God has shown his approval. Europe comes in third with an apology from the author, followed by America in last position because it is new and does not have much history or world power at this point. The map for America is partially incomplete, with the explanation that it is “those known parts of that unknown world”.

All the continents and countries have two full pages of description on its history, culture and people, and a double pages map with cityscapes and pictures of men and women wearing traditional dress. These images give us an insight into how different cultures were, and what people from England thought other places were like, or what they wanted to think they were like.

All in all, “A Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World” was a fascinating and sometimes unintentionally funny read, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to look through some historical texts. I was interested by how different cultured viewed each other, and what interactions were like between them, especially at this point in history, as travel was becoming easier and European nations were starting to build their empires.

–Hannah Volland



I am a year 10 student at Parkside Community College, and my year group must complete a week of work experience as we move into our final year of secondary school, to give us a taste of the world of work. A wide range of companies and organisations provide work experience, but the Parker Library was my choice because I was curious about the world of libraries, manuscripts and books. I have always enjoyed both English and History lessons at school, and the Parker really seemed to bring these together, and I thought that it might show me the practical ways in which the things we learn about in school or see in exhibitions and documentaries are researched and rediscovered.

That pretty much covers what I wanted to get out of my placement here, and I wasn’t disappointed. I have been given many opportunities to see how the library worked. I’ve seen the processing, cataloguing and paperwork, as well as the handling of both manuscripts and print books. Also, I’ve been able to see other parts of the process old texts go through, such as conservation, where I was shown the ways people repair, restore and protect the manuscripts.


The Wilkins Room of the Parker Library

The amount of work and care that goes into handling and maintaining these texts showed me how much history means to our culture and how important it is to preserve it for the future. I also realised how valuable they were to the people who made them. When I visited the conservation lab, I was shown how on some untrimmed vellum manuscripts and books it is possible to see the imprints of the spine, hips and shoulders of the animal that the skin once belonged to. This was amazing to see because it illustrates how much worth the very paper had for the people who wrote it. Dozens of sheep or cows were needed just to make the paper for one book, which was expensive and time-consuming, shedding a light on how important the author thought this particular piece of information was.

Something else I will do (I have not yet completed my placement) is visit Corpus Christi’s Taylor Library, which is for undergraduates. I think this will be a good experience, because it will show me how most libraries work. Even though term has broken up, so there are not any students to borrow books or study, I think it will be interesting to see how libraries are structured and the kind of work there is to do, as well as how this contrasts to other kinds of libraries like the Parker, which has a very different set up and purpose.

One of the things the Parker does is catalogue its books. So far, not all of them have been catalogued, because of the overwhelming number of them, and all the other things the Parker does. During my placement, there has been a cataloguer looking at books on botany, which was a great opportunity for me to see how new material is found and looked at. I was able to help find books and see if would be applicable to the subject.

Something that is really fascinating about a number of the books, especially herbals and similar books about plants are the numerous coloured illustrations (like those in SP.196 below), which are absolutely breath-taking, and to my mind a bit more engaging than the blocks of dense Latin or Middle English. Some of the books which have not been opened often since their creation have vivid colours and the patterns and diagrams are still bright. However others, especially illustrated Bible pages, which would have been left open, are worn or discoloured. It is incredible to see how much effort people put into the margins, edges, and single letters.

P1020455      P1020453

Overall, I have learnt a lot on my placement and feel really grateful to have had the opportunity to learn about books in history in a really hands-on way. Of course, I’ve only had a snippet of what the world of research and practical history is, but I’m definitely more fascinated by the work of archivists and librarians now.

–Hannah Volland

The Parker Library is pleased to invite you to a symposium celebrating the launch of its newly redesigned digital platform. The conference will be an occasion to reflect on the impact of the digital humanities on manuscript studies, bringing together graduate students, researchers, and library professionals who work with or on manuscript books.

Thanks to the generosity of our sponsors, attendance at the conference is free of charge. The complete programme is available for download here. To register, please email us directly at parker-library@corpus.cam.ac.uk.

Parker 2.0 programme

We look forward to seeing you there!