Illuminating Medieval Manuscripts in the Digital Age, Part I

The Walters recently launched a new website that houses its digital collection of manuscripts: Featuring a user-friendly design, the site provides visitors with intuitive search options, including the ability to refine their search by date, geography, subject, culture, and more. 

Lynley Anne Herbert is the Robert and Nancy Hall Assistant Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the Walters. She started working at the museum as a fellow in 2010, and was soon brought on board as a full-time cataloguer of Western manuscripts for the NEH-funded manuscript digitization project. It often took her and the digitization team up to two weeks to catalogue and digitize a single book.

In this three-part conversation series, she recalls some of the amazing discoveries, observations, and challenges along the way; how the newly published data is helping to digitally reunite centuries-old volumes; and the benefits that open access provides. 

In this first installment of the series, Lynley talks about the highlights of the manuscript collection and discoveries she has made in the collection. Read the whole series here.

Did you make any exciting discoveries about works in the collection during cataloguing?

I did, actually. A lot of times, I discovered that the last time somebody had looked at these works was like 1950, pre-Internet, and some things were obscure enough that there was no way to really easily track down more information back then. For example, one of our German manuscripts, W.71, is a late 12th- or early 13th-century work; it’s a document of saints’ lives. It’s just text, there are no images, so it hasn’t really been studied by art historians. It’s not the most spectacular thing; but I was cataloguing it, and I got to the very last folio -the back of the very last page – and I saw that there was a different handwriting in the text there and it was very abbreviated. But the full page was just covered with text.

I was really curious about what it was because it was clearly separate from everything else in the book. I looked in the file, and it just said, “unknown text,” and I thought, okay, well, in the Age of Google, I’m going to see if I can find some of these phrases, and find out what the text is. I popped them in, and it turns out it’s a letter from the writer and visionary Hildegard von Bingen, which was an amazing discovery,because she had only been dead for a few decades by the time this book was made. It’s a very early copy of one of her letters, known today as Letter 43.


Why was this discovery so significant?

Hildegard is a significant figure in medieval Germany both as a woman and writer, and this is a very early copy of some of her work. We didn’t know we had anything at all in our collection connected to Hildegard. So this is something that Hildegard scholars still, I don’t think, realize that we have here, and it was a really exciting discovery for me because it was fairly early on when I was working on cataloguing, and I just thought, “Wow!” So things like that have been really fun.

What are some of the “highlights” from the collection that have been digitized, that people can now enjoy online?

W.102 is a famous manuscript—it’s fun, and truly unique! There’s nothing quite like it. It’s an English Book of Hours from about 1300, and it has fascinating imagery. There are some really funny things in it. There’s a famous image of a man pulling text on a rope—the scribe had forgotten to put a line of text in while he was writing,so he wrote it at the bottom of the page. There’s a figure in the margin with a rope and he’s yanking it up to the right spot.

A scribal error corrected

What else makes it so unique?

It also has a fable that goes across many pages in the back of the book, one of the fables about Reynard the Fox. It’s a whole sequence of animals in procession, and it connects to the text above. So it’s this really wonderful, fascinating thing that I’ve never seen in any other manuscript before. Basically, they think the fox is dead, so they have this whole funeral procession for him that goes across 17 pages starting on fol. 73r. If you know the fable, you know that he’s actually just passed out, but they think he’s dead. So when they get to the end of the procession, he wakes up and reveals he’s not dead, and the sadness turns to joy!What’s neat about it is that the text above this is about the death and Resurrection of Christ. So the idea in the fable actually parallels what’s going on in the very religious text above about Christ. And, of course, the moment it’s discovered in the fable that Reynard is alive comes  right at the moment when Christ’s Resurrection is announced in the text. So it’s this really perfect parallel that they create. I know no other book that does this. It’s long been seen as a special, unusual thing; it’s kind of funny, and it’s really wonderfully done.

What else should visitors see when they browse the site?

W.850, a 16th century Ethiopian Gospel Book known as the Gunda Gunde Gospels, has quickly become a very famous book in our collection. We have one of the best Ethiopian manuscript collections in this country. And that’s recent. We only started collecting Ethiopian works about 20 years ago. But we have some really, really important, special works.


And the Beaupré Antiphonary (W.759-762), which is a huge, important multi-volume manuscript. It has a great history. It belonged to John Ruskin and it belonged to William Randolph Hearst. Back in the 1950s, our first book curator, Dorothy Miner, wanted to consult the book. She heard that it was in the Hearst Foundation’s collection, so she wrote to them and asked if she could come see it. They didn’t respond. She came into work one day, and there was a crate on the doorstep, with a note saying the Walters could have the books – they just needed to pay the postage. So we ended up getting this incredibly rare, amazing, beautiful set of antiphonaries from the Hearst Foundation as a gift! But they really are some of the few in the world that survive from that period, from that place. They are just stunning—they have donor portraits and everything, all the bells and whistles; they’re really big and beautiful. So those are some of our superstar objects, from the Western side.

Were there any works that were particularly challenging to digitize and/or catalogue?

There were a lot of different challenges. We have Ethiopian scrolls, and we had to stop and think, “how do you digitize a scroll?” W.845 is one of those. These were actually very complicated for our digitization specialists. These scrolls are made of goat parchment, so they’re very heavy and they curl up very, very tightly. We had to be able to unfurl them and keep them flat enough to be able to photograph segments of them because the whole thing can’t fit onto the digitization cradle. So the conservators and digitization specialists had to find a way to  unroll them,  photograph segments, and then if you wanted a full picture of it you could  “stitch them together” digitally. They had to do the front and the back of the scroll. And there are no page numbers in a scroll because, well, it’s all one thing! So even just the cataloguing of that one was hard on my end because I had to figure out how to put in a page break. Where do you put in a “break” for each piece of a scroll?

Manuscripts are notoriously sensitive to light, and usually not displayed often or for long periods of time due to conservation concerns. How has this project helped people gain access to these works?

Yes, certainly, I think a lot of the works that are now online haven’t been seen often, or at all, although they are incredibly important and rare. W.105 is an English Book of Hours, known as the Butler Hours—it’s fragmentary, and it’s extremely fragile. It took a lot of consolidation by our conservators just to allow us to digitize it because it is so, so fragile. But it it is a significant work and contains wonderful images such as a painting of the original family who owned it. I had a scholar here a few weeks ago who was looking at English manuscripts, and we couldn’t even bring it out for her because of its condition.  So having something like this available digitally allows us to preserve these delicate works while allowing others to see them.

Read part 2 of Illuminating Medieval Manuscripts in the Digital Age