Manuscripts and Digital Humanities. A Colloquium at Leiden University

The NWO-sponsored research project ‘Turning over a new leaf’, in the person of Erik Kwakkel, organized the intense and fruitful Colloquium Manuscripts and Digital Humanities on Wednesday 22 April. The Academy Building of Leiden University, just over the Hortus Botanicus, hosted a bunch of digital and non digital humanists, interested in handwritten texts, palaeography, codicology, statistic, biology and software development, from 20 to 90 years old.

After the Colloquium … Erik Kwakkel, Manuscripts of the Latin Classics 800-1200, Leiden: Leiden University Press, 2015.

Each of the four talk deserves special attention. I’ll try to summarize the content and collect some of the issues raised in two posts; the second will follow soon! The abstracts of the papers are online here.

Erik Kwakkel (Leiden University, LUCAS), The Art and Science of Dating Medieval Script: The Case of the Long Twelfth Century

The organizer of the Colloquium focused on the shift from Caroline to Gothic, including what is usually called Pregothic.

The aim of the project presented is to define scripts with the minimum of intuitive comprehension and the maximum of clarity (objectivity?) in describing relevant features and in the use of technical terminology. Data are collected in a coherent database and can be visualized in several ways. This approach may have interesting effects in the teaching of palaeography.

Kwakkel gathered palaeographic evidences from a corpus of 350 manuscripts, dated (or datable), from all over western Europe. In considering the three scripts, he takes into account modifications of the strokes and some ‘power features’. The former are modification in the direction, the number, the length and the shape of the strokes. The latter may effect more than one letter, as the difference in angularity or the appearance of feet at minims consistently turned to right.

The visualization of data throughout graphics clearly shows the evolution of certain features, from the late XI century to the early XIII. Some of the most interesting findings are:

– the percentage of Pregothic features before the turning of the XI century is rather high, in certain cases around 40 %;

– peaks in the curve trend of a feature can be useful for dating witnesses.

The project also calculates the ‘Gothic weight’ of a manuscript, considering together the rates of single characters: for example, a Caroline r has 0 points, a Pregothic r has 1 point and a Gothic r has 2 points.

– As already proven by the single features, we’ll see that manuscripts around 1075 may have around 30 % of ‘Gothic weight’.

Differences between countries are also visible:

– German and French manuscripts from the end of the XII century show distant ‘Gothic weight’: 30 % for Germany, 70 % for France.

– France is very early in ‘Gothic weight’, especially Normandy.

Some problematic aspects of this research have also been addressed: Kwakkel argues that in terms of quantity and quality his corpus is reliable, while other scholars may not agree.

The final achievement of this research project is to prove that digital technologies should be considered as a valid resource in organising and processing palaeographical evidences, together with (and maybe beyond) the power and magic of the intuition.


Sarah Fiddyment (University of York, British Academy Research Fellow), Biomolecular Codicology: How Non-Invasive Techniques Can Uncover the Secrets Hidden in Parchment


The problem with techniques for analysing parchment is that manuscripts should not be damaged and often not moved from where they are. The method developed at York University and presented by Sarah Fiddyment respects these obligations and allows researchers to study the parchment and identify the animal from which it has been made.

In the Middle Age Europe, the diffusion of animals whose skin can be used for producing parchment is the following: predominance of cows in France, goats in Italy and sheep in Britain.

Here there are some of the topics discussed by Fiddyment, presenting the findings of the new non-invasive technique influences:

– The analysis of documents from an English Chancellery confirms that, for this kind of texts, local parchment is commonly used; in the case of England, this is also justified by the fact that sheep’s parchment is very difficult to be erased.

– From the XIII to the XVI centuries, parchment in general looses quality. Why does it happen? Several answers are possible; for example, during times it appears more and more profitable to have meats from animals, so that animals have been fattened up; but from fat animals, bad quality parchment comes up.

Fiddyment also introduced some of the projects carried on at the University of York.

One of them is focused on pocket bibles from the XIII century; the peculiarity of these kind of pocket bibles is that the parchment employed is incredibly thin. Scholars had explained this in two ways: the skin of other animals, and not the usual ones, is involved; there has been a technological enhancement. Studies at the University of York demonstrated that the skin of common animals (cows, sheets, goats) is employed in this bibles, proving that the change is due to the technologies utilized.

As said, in Italy the parchment is mainly made from goat’s skin. Another project in York is about Aldine editions. Aldo Manuzio is considered the first modern printer and publisher; some of the luxury books that he produced are on parchment. After Aldo Manuzio’s death, the quality of the parchment dropped; the recent study proved that this is because parchment from goats is not used anymore, replaced by cow’s parchment.

More on this Colloquium soon!


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