My experience as an intern at The Parker library; or a brief look into the retained importance of the physicality of manuscripts in an increasingly digital age.

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  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

One thought on “My experience as an intern at The Parker library; or a brief look into the retained importance of the physicality of manuscripts in an increasingly digital age.

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  1. It certainly does seem to have been an amazing experience! it’s really interesting how much information can be deduced from such simplistic features (like the difference it makes to draw illustrations on the smooth side of the vellum). Congratulations on your great findings!

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