- notes, frequently asked questions and useful links from the archivist and curator of manuscripts at Balliol College, Oxford. Opinions expressed are strictly the author's own!


conservation survey notes 3

Today’s feature comes from MS 151 (a 13th century copy of letters by St Bernard of Clairvaux), f 161r – rubricator’s notes. At the very edge of the bottom of most pages are tiny notes. These will have been made by the scribe as he went along, to indicate the text for headings and anything else that needed to be added in red, for which he left spaces in the (black) main text.

Then he or another scribe went back through the text, adding paragraph marks, initials, headings and other decoration, usually (as here) in alternating red and blue inks. The rubrication notes were placed right on the edge of the parchment because they were always intended to be trimmed off, and they usually are – occasionally one that wasn’t quite close enough to the edge will remain, or at least the tops of the letters will, after trimming, but it’s rare to have them present, as in this one, throughout the manuscript.


Further decoration such as marginal foliage or figures, historiated initials etc, using more pigments and sometimes gold, (not present in this ms) was yet another layer of time and therefore expense in the book production process. Scribe, rubricator and limner were three distinct roles that might all be done by the same person, or by two or three different individuals.


conservation survey notes 2

Several things to say about Balliol MS 149, a 14th century collection of sermons – on f 122r, the most eye-catching feature is the big manicula, aka Nota Bene hands, used as pointers the way we might use arrows, highlighting, underlining etc. How many fingers??

The handwriting is also notable – more or less a documentary hand such as we would expect to find in charters and other administrative documents, here unusually used in a formal book context. And lots of different types of text correction: rubbing out and writing over, superscript interpolations indicated by the still-current caret ^, dotting under the word to be deleted, crossing out… why has crossing out survived and expunction (underdotting) not? More about types of errors and corrections and technical notes on same - see especially IV.vii and V.ii.


more about manuscripts

Updating our online lists of Balliol’s medieval manuscripts: the condition survey of medieval books is progressing well. Each time we finish another 50, the descriptor [good/fair/poor/unusable] is added to its list entry in square brackets, to indicate its current physical condition as assessed by Oxford Conservation Consortium staff in 2014. Those in Poor condition will not normally be produced for researchers, and those rated Unusable not produced at all, until conservation treatment has been carried out in order to prevent further damage during consultation. Poor or Unusable manuscripts may also not be fit to photograph safely, including by staff. If you do want to consult or request images from a manuscript that is not currently in a state to produce or photograph safely, please let us know – active research interest is of course a key factor in determining our conservation priorities.

This doesn’t mean that currently Poor or Unusable manuscripts will be inaccessible forevermore. The survey is being undertaken specifically to inform our decisions about what needs conservation treatment most urgently, and it stands to reason that those in the worst condition and which attract active research interest are most likely to be high on the list.

Neither does it mean that Fair or Good manuscripts can be handled with joyous abandon. (After all, they are all at least 500 years old in order to qualify for the title ‘medieval’.) Production of manuscripts is always at staff discretion, and readers are expected to arrive with good handling skills and/or be instructed in them – and put them to use!

More ‘before’ pictures of Interesting Problems in manuscripts coming shortly – and starting next year, we look forward to posting ‘after’ pictures of the ‘ex-poor’!


conservation survey notes 1

A new series of illustrated posts inspired by  interesting things encountered during the condition survey of Balliol’s medieval manuscripts - a bookworm’s-eye view of common and unusual problems and solutions, if you will. We begin with Balliol MS 156 (12 century Jerome on Isiaiah), f 2v. ??????????

At first glance the text looks rather abraded, as though it has been rubbed. But lift the page and the real problem becomes clear…


Classic iron-gall ink corrosion – the ink was made too acidic and has eaten away the parchment, leaving more or less, and in some cases letter-precisely, text-shaped holes. Fortunately, in this manuscript at least the problem does not continue past the first few folios – somebody must have made a new pot of ink with rather less acidic proportions! Also clearly visible here are several old parchment fills or repairs at the edges of the page.

report Nov 2013 – Feb 2014

A) Reader & visitor numbers by month

November: 7 researchers over 12 days consulting Medieval   mss (3), Swinburne & Clough papers, George Malcolm papers, Nicolson   diaries, Geach papers, Jenkyns paper.  70 non-research visitors.

December: 5 researchers over 6 days consulting Medieval   mss (3), George Malcolm papers. 24 non-research visitors.

January: 7 researchers over 10 days consulting Hill   papers, medieval mss (2), Nicolson diaries, David Urquhart papers, Jenkyns   papers. 11 non-research visitors.

February: 11 researchers over 18 days consulting Medieval   mss (2), RBD Morier papers,  David   Urquhart papers, Chalet papers, AL Smith papers, Jowett papers (2), Pugin   drawings, Mallet papers, Nicolson diaries, Morier family papers. 8 non-research visitors.

Researcher profiles: 30 individuals. Nearly all researchers in person are academics and grad students (mostly external to Oxford), with the occasional family historian, Old Member or independent researcher. Research visits range in length from a few hours to several days, sometimes more; most are a day or two. The length of a visit does not reflect the number of documents produced or the amount of attention/assistance required.

B) Remote enquiries

Nov: 96
Dec: 64
Jan: 86
Feb: 81
total: 327

Number of remote enquiries in 2013: 924 (avg 77/month, nearly 4 new ones every working day)

C) St Cross activities


  • Planning a set of book dummies demonstrating stages of codex construction and composition from Martlet Bookbinders (Dr Allan Barton)
  • Planning ‘Maps & Monsters’ school session with Library staff for Access Officer’s school groups
  • Temporary kitchen hoardings are looking nice with photos (by ACS and Ian Taylor) mostly of items from the college archives & captions from Dr Jones’ 750th exhibition (St Cross in Sept/Oct ‘13)


  • 7600 images posted on Flickr in response to research enquiries Nov 13 – Feb 14. 600 000+ views of individual images (cf 300K in October, 400K December, 500K January).
  • Browning letters project – meeting with project leaders from Baylor University, Waco TX; conference call with them plus head of digitising re technical matters & visit to Texas in May for Browning’s birthday-related events
  • Social media Nov-Feb:
    • Facebook: 29 posts, mostly expanded & illustrated versions of tweets. 295 total likes
    • Twitter: advertising talks/events, Movember heritage photos & quiz based on Balliol portraits (several Old Members liked this!), live tweets during NaNoWriMo sessions, images online notices, WW1 resources notices, Balliol Novelists for NaNoWriMo; 105 new, total 678 followers. I have been recommended as an innovative customer-facing tweeter! (must be a good thing…)
    • Blog: 13 new posts, avg 800 views/month, top search terms: latin grace, Balliol family, chapel stained glass, officer cadets in WW1
    • Volunteer (s) – Will Beharrell from UCL library course, 4 days moving vestry unit collections and listing Richard Hare letters. Very helpful at just the right time!


  • Medieval mss condition survey is well underway, 125+ done since January – not catalogue descriptions or adding to Mynors. This is the first survey of the mss’ physical condition in modern times. We will be able to compare this with reader and enquirer data plus teaching/exhibition requirements to determine conservation treatment priorities, and notify potential researchers in advance of the occasional temporary access restriction where necessary, for years to come.
  • Investigating possibility of test case photography of title deeds with Melissa Terras at UCL with Polynomial Texture Mapping



  • NaNoWriMo Come Write In sessions on Thursday mornings
  • biweekly meetings of medieval mystics reading group (Prof N Palmer, SEH)
  • Unlocking Archives 7 (Ian Mertling-Blake) on the Book of Kells
  • Unlocking Archives 8 (Lynda Dennison) on the Cambridge Index of Images in Oxford College Library Manuscripts
  • MSS and early print seminar for 2nd yr English students by Balliol Fellowsray
  • Adam von Trott exhibition for participants in symposium at Mansfield College

December: tour & display for Latin in Medieval Britain lexicography conference; Anna visit to Durham Cathedral Library

January: Balliol Fellow & group of MPhil students for early printed books workshop (FG)

February: Balliol Fellow and (Balliol +) students for medieval mss seminar


William Gray and his books – lecture


Dr Katherine Zieman

formerly Assistant Professor of English and Medieval Studies at Notre Dame University
will give two Oliver Smithies Lectures in Hilary term:

‘Miraculous Multitasking and Other Stories in the History of Attention’

on Thursday 20 February 2014, 5.00pm (5th Week) in Lecture Room XXIII, Balliol College.

‘William Gray and His Books’

on Thursday 13 March 2014, 5.00pm (8th Week) in Lecture Room XXIII, Balliol College.

William Gray was the single most important donor (by far) to Balliol’s 15th century library. More than half the surviving library of medieval Balliol came from Gray.

Lecture Room XXIII is underneath the Senior Common Room, near the top right corner of this map of Balliol.




reading closely

tcd1An interesting enquiry from last year, demonstrating that the internet is a brilliant research tool, but that like any source it needs careful interpretation, and that not all immediately available information is correct or complete.

The enquirer requests information on William Hussey 1867-1939, son of Thomas Hussey of Kensington, stating that the images sent with the enquiry, of a Ladies’ Challenge Cup medal,  clearly show that WH rowed for Balliol when they won that particular race in 1891.

The enquirer has probably searched for something like ‘ladies challenge cup 1891’ and found the Wikipedia page http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ladies’_Challenge_Plate for the Henley Regatta’s Ladies’ Challenge Plate race, won by a Balliol crew in 1891, and concluded that Hussey must have been part of this crew.

In fact the medal shows nothing of the kind, and a closer look reveals quite a different story.

First I checked whether William Hussey had indeed been a member of Balliol – the college registers are not 100% infallible, but they are pretty good. No result, so back to the medal for other clues. A little more scratching around online revealed several things that didn’t add up to support the Henley & Balliol assumption:

  • Date: Henley is always held over the first weekend in July, but 1 July 1891 was a Wednesday. (thanks Time and Date!)tcd2
  • Race name: the Ladies’ Challenge Plate race at Henley has never been known as the Ladies’ Challenge Cup – it is the only Henley trophy that isn’t the Something Cup.
  • Winner name: the LCP is an Eights race, not an individual one, so even if each member of the winning Eight had a commemorative medal, it would not be inscribed ‘won by [any single name]’. Cf. Henley commemorative medals at http://www.bonhams.com/auctions/18783/lot/59/, a particularly nice find after searching for images of the LCP medals for visual comparison.
  • Double-checking with another source – even supposing everything else was somehow wrong, we have a photograph of the Balliol Eight that did win the LCP in 1891; the rowers were: Rofe, Rawstone, Darbishire, Mountmorres, Fielding, T Rogers, Farmer, F Rogers, cox Craig-Sellar. Not surprisingly, no Hussey.

So if it was not at all connected with the Henley Royal Regatta or Balliol’s win there in 1891, what is this medal? Balliol-based evidence stops here, but ‘we have no further information about this’ seemed a bit abrupt when most of what I had already found out was from non-Balliol sources anyway. Besides, by this time I wanted an answer to the puzzle, if I could find one!

Look at it again – the intertwined letters on the medal look like T C D, in a distinctively Irish style, and Trinity College Dublin’s Regatta does include a Ladies’ Challenge Cup race. But to check up further, one might try looking at the club’s own site: http://www.tcdlife.ie/clubs/boat/archive.php. The answer is probably in Raymond Blake’s book, In Black and White: A History of Rowing at Trinity
College Dublin
. My research ends here; I can’t spend any more time on this enquiry, and the answer won’t add to knowledge of the Balliol archives.

And there are still questions: why should the medal read TCD when TCD’s boat club has been known as the Dublin University Boat Club since 1847? Is the DUBC (TCD) Ladies’ Challenge Cup race rowed by singles or eights? Is there any evidence at all that this is a rowing medal?

It’s rare that answers to archival enquiries are either complete or absolute – often, the best we can hope for is to add another interesting piece to the puzzle, or point in another direction.


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