Illuminating Medieval Manuscripts in the Digital Age, Part II

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. 

For the second part of the series, Lynley talks about digitally reuniting manuscripts with other digitized manuscripts from other institutions.

Thanks to this project, over the years, you’ve been able to “digitally reunite” manuscripts that were once believed to be incomplete. How did you make some of those connections?

We have manuscripts where we’ve discovered that another institution in another part of the world has other pieces of our book! For example, there’s a  10th century manuscript, known as the Corvey Gospel Fragment (W.751), which was split apart at least a century ago.  We have several leaves, and the others are in the Bibliothèque Municipale of Rheims (Ms. 10).  They came from a Gospel Book originally owned by the Chapter Library of the Cathedral of Rheims until it was confiscated, along with the rest of the cathedral’s manuscripts, during the French Revolution. 

Can you tell me more about the work?

It’s extremely fragile, and we only have it in our galleries once in a blue moon.The fragment dates to the 10th-century,so it’s very early, and all of the pages are purple with gold and silver letters, and intricate designs. The purple dye as well as the  gold and silver are somewhat unstable, so it currently “lives” in conservation. It’s a very important fragment, and one of the earliest things in our collection, so to have that digitized is just a really fantastic thing.

German / Corvey Gospel fragment (W.751) / ca. 950-975 (Ottonian) / Museum purchase, 1952

Can you think of any other examples?

One of our really famous manuscripts is known as the Beaupré Antiphonary [W.759–62]. What’s neat is that we knew some of the pages had been cut out by the English writer and collector John Ruskin,when it was in his collection in the 19th century. He was kind of notorious for cutting pages out and giving them away to his friends when they would come to visit. So we knew that the other pages from this book were floating around, out in the universe; and actually, the Lilly Library, in Indiana, happens to own a number of pages that belong to our volume. They had just digitized their pages, and we had just digitized our book. So they sent us digital copies of their pages, so that we can somehow put them together with ours, but we are still working out how to do that. The pages were numbered in the 19th century, so you can actually see where the gaps are.

It sounds like there are still so many connections to be made. What is your goal for the future of the digitization project?

The goal is to digitize all of the manuscripts. Basically, what we have left is our French manuscripts and our Italian manuscripts, for the most part. Once we’re done with those, I hope that we will be able to turn to some of our very rare printed materials.

What kind of rare printed materials?

We have 1,300 incunabula, which is an incredible, rich collection. Incunabula are printed books from the time of Gutenberg up until 1500. And because they’re from the very, very first decades of printing, they tend to be unique objects; even though they’re printed, a lot of times they’re hand illuminated. They have notes from their first owners in them and modifications have been made. Sometimes, the text doesn’t print right. So they’re very rare printed books.

Anton Koberger (German, late 15th century) (Publisher) Stephen Fridolin (German) (Author) / Schatzbehalter der wahren Reichtumer des Heils / 1491 / Acquired by Henry Walters / Currently on view in our special exhibition, A Feast for the Senses

It would be amazing to share those works with colleagues in the field as well as the general public.

We have some books that belonged to famous people. For instance, we have one that belonged to Philipp Melanchthon (91.1273), who was Martin Luther’s best friend and a very important Reformation figure—and it has his notes throughout it! It’s those kinds of things that we would really like to digitize because our copy is unique in the world. I hope we will have the opportunity to turn to those printed works and start digitizing them once we’re done with the manuscripts. That’s a ways down the road, but that’s the goal: not to stop at manuscripts, but to look to the rest of our collection and find the special gems in there as well.

Read part 3 of Illuminating Medieval Manuscripts in the Digital Age

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