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

manuscripts

#mss2017 Case 9: tiny books, tiny writing

Sian Witherden has been working on tiny books as part of her Balliol DPhil research. She writes: ‘In this exhibition, four small Balliol manuscripts have been placed together in one display case.  These books are not related to each other in any way besides their common size—they contain different texts, they are written in a variety of languages, and they hail from across the globe. However, the creators of all these books faced the same challenge: how do you produce a readable text on such a small scale? Each of these books is smaller than an adult’s hand, and this demands an impressive level of craftsmanship. In MS 348, for example, the scribe has managed to write letters that are just a millimetre or two in height. Creating ornamental initials and illuminations on this scale is an equally arduous task, and close-up photographs of these decorations reveals an astonishing level of detail and precision. ‘

Anna Sander: On the one hand, small books  are easy to move, hide or pack away if necessary; not obviously useful for recycling as binding waste, as big sheets of parchment are, when no longer e.g. liturgically relevant; and often much-loved, beautiful, and highly personal items handed down through generations. On the other, they are easily misplaced, lost or stolen owing to their small size; highly attractive on the market, reluctant though an owner might be to sell; and rather chunky to handle  because of their high proportion of height and width to thickness. Mechanically, their own weight will not help to ‘persuade’ a stiff binding to open further, and in this exhibition, it’s only the tiny books that need to be strapped in place in order to keep them open. They are made to be held in the hand, or perhaps both hands, used by one person. While big books are necessarily at the more expensive end of the book production scale because of the larger amount of parchment required to make them, tiny books are not necessarily less expensive, as they may be beautifully produced and highly decorated with expensive materials, and are sometimes written on very thin parchment which must have been even more difficult to make than regular sheep or calf.

The size of the text in these small books varies widely – while MS 348’s minute writing is closest in size to that of MS 148, a much larger book, that of the other three small books shown here is not especially small, and reasonably friendly to the naked reading eye. Though it’s especially striking to see a whole book in minute writing, tiny script is not unusual in manuscripts – it is often used for annotations, marginal comments, rubricator’s notes, and interlinear glosses (see e.g. MS 253). Was it done with the same pen as the larger main text? a tiny quill? a feather? a tiny brush? Did they have spectacles or magnifying glasses? There isn’t much evidence – descriptions and depictions of scriptoria and scribes’ equipment and practice are surprisingly few, and not always reliable. We are intrigued, and will add more evidence here as we find it.

More about tiny manuscript books


#mss2017 Case 9d: MS 378

MS 378, open at ff.28-29, showing rubrics and stitching in the middle of a quire

MS 378 is an undated volume of prayers to the Virgin Mary in Ethiopic, or Ge’ez, the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. This is Balliol’s smallest manuscript book at only 2 ½ x 3 ½”, or 62 x 83mm. It is so tiny that its custom-made box is about four times the size of the book, with a recessed mount to hold it securely. One benefit of this rather larger and heavier box is that it’s easy to find on the shelf, to handle, and to keep track of during production and consultation – a box as small as the book might easily be hidden behind a larger one, or worse, dropped.

This manuscript is displayed closed in order to show its Ethiopic sewing, often known as Coptic style and distinct from later western binding techniques. The Copts, early Egyptian Christians, were the first to use the codex format, and their sewing method is still unsurpassed in simplicity and flexibility: a new Coptic binding can be opened a full 360 degrees.

The MS is in fairly good condition; the sewing is fragile and there is evidence of fairly recent repair to the attachment of the front board – what looks like a large stitch on the lower front cover – but other than some surface dirt it does not require further intervention. The paper label glued to the front cover, which MS 378 has in common with many of the others, is in the hand of EV Quinn, who began at Balliol as Assistant Librarian in 1940 and became Fellow Librarian in 1963, a post he held until 1982.

MS 378 is the only one in the collection known to have been given to the College by Benjamin Jowett from his own library, but there is no documentation in the archives about how he came to acquire it, or its previous provenance.

Although it is neither western nor medieval (as far as we know, at least), this manuscript has been included in the exhibition for two reasons: it shares many of the same conservation issues and endearing qualities as any tiny book, and it serves as a small signpost to another section of the collection that has hitherto suffered from lack of attention. As yet, many of Balliol’s 33 non-western manuscripts are still ‘closed books’: not yet accurately dated and without full descriptions of their contents, they have not been studied in detail and their research value has yet to be assessed. We hope that through recently established Balliol and Oxford contacts, and with good digital images emerging as useful tools, scholars in the relevant fields will soon be able to tell the College more about this part of the collection. Their entries in Mynors’ catalogue have been grouped together under their traditional label of ‘oriental manuscripts’ here.

MS 378, showing stitching, boards and binding

More about Ethiopic manuscripts and Ethiopic/Coptic sewing:


#mss2017 Case 3a: MS 349

MS 349 medieval binding, showing spine and front cover – formerly red

We have begun with two examples of administrative documents created in the course of College business. MS 349 perhaps conforms more closely to the expected type of a medieval manuscript: in codex format, a 15th century copy on parchment, in several different English bookhands, of nine texts related to the office of priesthood, listed by Mynors.

This manuscript is, unusually, displayed closed in order to show the only surviving medieval binding in Balliol’s collection – and a modern gummed paper label in the unmistakable hand of EV Quinn, whose career in Balliol Library spanned 40 years in the 1940s-80s. Images are displayed to show a typical opening, some of the alum tawed supports showing through in places, and an illuminated initial using gold and colour.

MS 349 was bequeathed to Balliol by Dr George Coningesby (1692/3-1768, Balliol 1739) in 1768, and by then would have been an antiquarian gift rather than a contribution to the active contemporary College Library. Coningesby is  the largest single donor of manuscripts (17 or 18) to the College after William Gray, a 15th century Bishop of Ely. He also left a large number of printed books to Balliol.  Coningesby’s donations were just late enough to escape the wholesale rebinding of the medieval library in 1724-7, for which one Ned Doe was paid nearly £50. Most of the manuscripts are still bound in this 18th century half-calf (similar to suede); the bindings tend to be heavily glued and many have cracked and split, while the fuzzy covers are thin, and tear easily. MS 349’s boards still retain the metal furniture for an otherwise lost fore-edge clasp, but do not bear marks of any chain staple. Mynors notes that ‘The last mention of chaining in the library accounts falls in the year 1767-8, and an entry under 1791-2 ‘From Stone the Smith for old iron and brass’ probably marks the ending of the practice altogether.’

MS 349 – turnin showing something of the cover’s original bright red colour

Losses to the cover of MS 349 reveal a bevelled edge of the wooden board; there is also (old and inactive) woodworm damage, and the smooth pigskin cover has faded from its medieval red nearly back to the original pale brown, though an inner corner shows some remaining dye. While in many cases medieval sewing structures may survive within later rebindings, they are difficult to observe; full medieval bindings are rarer survivals and provide useful research opportunities.

edge of wooden board showing old insect damage

broken sewing supports, exposed within the volume

 

At some time there has been a modern repair of ff.121-122, a bifolium that had become detached from the textblock. Although there is some heavy cockling to folios at either end, and tears to spine folds in places, the book opens well and can be handled, carefully.

MS 349 – a typical opening

More about western medieval bindings:

and see also resources under Medieval Manuscripts – Introduction on the Further Reading page


#mss2017 Case 1: Statutes of Dervorguilla, 1282.

College Archives D.4.1

Detail of the beginning of the Statutes: ‘Deruorgulla de Galwedia domina de Balliolo…’

We begin not with a codex but with a single sheet of parchment with a pendent seal, the usual format for individual medieval legal and administrative records. This is the first formal document laying out the constitution, governance and way of life of the scholars of Balliol College; it is issued in the name of Dervorguilla of Galloway, Lady de Balliol, and is dated at Botel (Buittle Castle, seat of the lords of Galloway, near the town of Dalbeattie in Dumfries & Galloway), on the octave of the Assumption of the glorious Virgin Mary (i.e. 22 August), in the year of grace 1282. The text is written, as usual for medieval charters and books alike, in heavily abbreviated Latin: in the first line above, ‘dna’ with a line above it is an abbreviation of ‘domina’, ‘lady’; ‘dilcis’ of ‘dilectis,’ ‘beloved’; ‘xro’ of ‘christo,’ ‘Christ’; etc. Some abbreviations are indicated by generic signs including a line above the remaining letters, or the apostrophe still used today, but many are systematically represented by specific characters or symbols: in the fourth line above, you will notice several words ending in ibȝ – the ȝ, which looks like the Middle English letter yogh or a long-tailed z, stands for -us, so the ending is -ibus, used in Latin for dative or ablative plurals. There are useful lists and dictionaries of medieval abbreviations, but any archivist or researcher who routinely deals with medieval documents memorizes the most frequently used ones. Understanding the generic abbreviations depends on good reading ability and a knowledge of the formulaic language and context-specific vocabulary used in the relevant form of medieval documents.

Statutes of 1282, face (front side) and dorse (back side). Photos by OCC, 2017.

The Statutes have required remarkably little repair over their 735 years and are still in extremely good condition: as the College’s key founding document they have always been carefully preserved, and as they were legally superseded by Sir Philip Somervyle’s statutes in 1340 they were not current for long enough to suffer much wear from actual use. Parchment, usually made from the prepared skin of sheep or young calves, can last longer than a millennium if kept away from heat, damp, direct sunlight and pests; iron gall ink if made correctly and similarly preserved lasts as well. The fate of wax seals is often less happy, as in addition to the vulnerabilities already mentioned, they are naturally highly brittle and fragile even under the best storage conditions.

This document will have been folded around its seal for much of its existence; this has helped to preserve both the text and the seal. It and many of the medieval title deeds were flattened, and a modern label affixed, in the late 19th century. The original fold lines are still readily visible.

The Statutes were mounted in an acid-free buffered housing inside a Perspex box frame by Judy Segall of the Bodleian Library’s Conservation Department in 1986, at the instance of Dr JH Jones, then Dean and Fellow Archivist of Balliol. This treatment protected the flattened document and its seal, and made it safe to produce for either research or College events.

1282 Statutes, 1986 mount showing silica gel desiccant crystals. Photo by OCC, 2017.

In 2017, Dervorguilla’s Statutes were lightly cleaned and rehoused in a new acid-free mount by Katerina Powell of OCC, with an outer box made by Bridget Mitchell of Arca Preservation.

 

Seal of Dervorguilla: L obverse (front), R reverse (back). Photos by OCC, 2017.

The seal attached to the 1282 Statutes is not the College seal but the personal seal of Dervorguilla herself. In her right hand she holds an escutcheon (shield) bearing the orle (shield outline shape) of the Balliol family; on the left, the lion of Galloway. The other two shields represent Dervorguilla’s powerful English family connections: on the left, three garbs (wheatsheaves) for the Earl of Chester; and on the right, two piles (wedges) meeting toward the base for the Earl of Huntingdon. The motto on the obverse (front) reads, clockwise from the top:  + S’[IGILLUM] + DERVORGILLE DE BALLIOL FILIE ALANI DE GALEWAD’.’ [Seal of Dervorguilla de Balliol, daughter of Alan of Galloway.’] That on the reverse (back) gives her titles in reverse: ‘S’ DERVORGILLE DE GALEWAD’ DNE DE BALLIOLO’ [Seal of Dervorguilla of Galloway, Lady de Balliol].

The College’s shield, used in its official logo today and visible in various forms throughout the College site in Broad Street, is taken directly from that shown on the reverse of Dervorguilla’s seal, above: the arms of Balliol and Galloway impaled, with, unusually, those of the wife rather than the husband on the dominant dexter side – the right as held, though the left as viewed.

Further reading:

  • F de Paravicini, Early History of Balliol College. 1891. (includes full transcript of Statutes, in Latin) online at archive.org 
  • HE Salter, The Oxford Deeds of Balliol College. 1913. online at archive.org
  • Marjorie Drexler, ‘Dervorguilla of Galloway.’ Transactions of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society LXXIX (3rd series) 2005, pp.101-146.
  • JH Jones, A History of Balliol College. 2nd ed rev, 2005. (includes full English translation of Statutes)
  • Two illustrated talks on the conservation of medieval charters and their seals by Martin Strebel of Atelier Strebel, presented at the Seal Conservation Round Table Congress Oxford, March 2007
  • Amanda Beam. The Balliol Dynasty: 1210-1364. John Donald, 2008
  • National Library of Wales, Seals in medieval Wales  
  • Imprint Project: a forensic and historical investigation of fingerprints on medieval seals, University of Lincoln

Manuscript Fragments in Early Printed Books

a selection of manuscript fragments inside Balliol’s early printed books

Balliol’s archivist and librarians are working together with researchers to collect information about manuscript fragments reused in the bindings of the college’s early printed books. This information has not been compiled at Balliol before, and while some manuscript fragments are well known in secondary literature, the college’s catalogue entries do not always include copy-specific details describing them – or even indicating their presence.

Fragments are usually located just inside the front and/or back covers of books, may consist of paper or parchment, and can occur as spine linings, stubs, pastedowns, tabs, and flyleaves – or even offsets, inky ghosts of vanished texts left on the facing page. All kinds of texts are reused; so far we have already noted full or nearly full pages of text, decorated, decorated initials, sections of medieval and early modern music notation, and parts of administrative documents and personal letters.

More about current research on manuscript fragments and binding waste


Balliol ARCH C. 1. 9 #mss2017

Guest post by Sian Witherden

 Balliol College Library has one copy of the Rudimentum Novitiorum (‘Handbook for Novices’), an encyclopaedia of world history whose author remains anonymous. This book was printed on paper in Lübeck by Lucas Brandis on the 5th of August 1475. The volume is quite large at 380 x 290 mm, and it is still in the original stamped leather binding. Other copies from the same print run are held in libraries across the globe, including Berlin, Copenhagen, Moscow, Paris, Prague, Princeton, Vienna, and Zürich. Each of these copies has its own unique history, but what is perhaps most remarkable about the Balliol copy is the way it has been dismembered by a later reader (or perhaps readers). Many of the woodcut prints in this volume have been cut out, though there seems to be no obvious reason why certain images were selected for excision and not others. Perhaps the reader wanted to keep these particular ones for a scrapbook or put them to use in another volume. Unfortunately, leaves are also missing from both the front and back of the book.

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Another reader was evidently so dismayed by the extent of the losses that he felt impelled to make a comment in the margins: “Is it not a great shame to the scholars of Balliol College to suffer such a choice book as this is to be thus defaced?”[1] There is of course a distinct irony to this, as the annotator takes issue with the defacement of the volume while simultaneously adding his own blemishes to the same book.

sian2

In the sixteenth century, the book was evidently owned by John Wicham, whose name appears twice on the outer cover along with the year 1584. Curiously, the book is incorrectly identified as the Opus Historicum of Guillerinus de Conchis both on the spine and within a flyleaf note written in “a late sixteenth or seventeenth century hand,” according to Dennis E. Rhodes.  The Rudimentum Novitiorum has no connection with Guillerinus de Conchis.

* * *

For further reading on this book, see Dennis E. Rhodes, A Catalogue of Incunabula in all the Libraries of Oxford University outside the Bodleian (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), 296–7.

[1] Abbreviations have been silently expanded and orthography has been modernized.

– Sian Witherden, September 2017. Follow Sian’s tweets @sian_witherden


light #mss2017

Light exposure (lux, UV, heat) is always a concern during exhibitions. How much light does St Cross get, and how can ancient manuscripts be protected while also being made accessible to visitors?

First, limiting exposure. Exhibitions of original material run for 3 months maximum. Pages exposed are changed regularly where that’s practical for the topic of the exhibition. Depending on their condition, books are closed whenever open hours are not planned for a few days in a row. Thanks to the condition survey and research following from it, I’m developing a ‘rota’ of manuscripts that can be produced as examples of various features, rather than getting out the old favourites every time.

DSCN9256

The interior of St Cross, including the book cases used for exhibitions, does receive a surprising amount of natural as well as artificial light. The clerestory windows on the south side, although they are small and high, allow a lot of light for much of the day on the shelves on the north side of the nave. The above photo is taken with no artificial lighting on at all, around midday in early September. It is clear to see how much more direct sun shines on the upper than the lower shelves.

DSCN9257

Thanks to the deep shelving and even deeper pelmets on top of the cases, the back of any shelf receives much less direct sunlight than the front. But manuscripts on display need to be as visible as possible – at the front of the case.

DSCN9259Also at the front of the case are these very bright and undimmable LED lights down both sides – they provide all the ambient light to the working area of the reading room as well as illuminating the objects on the shelves. It would be complicated and expensive to install temporary, movable conservation-standard low-level lighting in all these cases. The LEDs emit practically no heat or UV at all, and their intensity decreases dramatically a few inches away. But they are still pretty bright.DSCN9260

There is a simple and effective, if not ideal, solution: open manuscripts (or indeed closed books, as bindings suffer from sunning as well)  are covered with a (new) acid free folder, or similar conservation-quality light card cut to fit, outside of exhibition open hours. This blocks pretty much all the light from sunshine and artificial lighting.

DSCN9261The free-standing exhibition cases are fitted with heavy card covers, which are also in place outside exhibition open hours. These are easier to put on and remove than their usual full-length wooden covers.