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.
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?” 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.
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.
 Abbreviations have been silently expanded and orthography has been modernized.
– Sian Witherden, September 2017. Follow Sian’s tweets @sian_witherden
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.
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.
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.
Also 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.
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.
The 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.
The benefits of last year’s condition survey of manuscript books continue apace: during last year’s manuscripts condition survey, we listed 155 manuscripts either unboxed or inadequately boxed. Boxing is a quick and effective – and relatively inexpensive, depending on the type of box – way to protect all kinds of archival material from light, dust and handling damage, as well as providing a certain amount of buffering from the environment.
First batch of 25 to be measured – these manuscripts are in good condition and require only light cleaning. Once they are boxed they will not need further conservation attention for a good long time, we hope. This will mean we can cross two dozen off our list of 155 quickly. The next tranches of mss will be measured in batches as well, in order according to how much repair they need, starting with those needing least binding repair, and avoiding those needing major text block repairs until the end. This isn’t just about getting through the list quickly: any change to the binding – and even some major interventions to the text block – may alter the outer shape of the book and therefore the box. Those will need treatment before they can be accurately measured for a box. Some may need a folder or wrapper in the interim.
The first lot of custom-made boxes has arrived from the Bodleian’s boxing and packaging department:
a surprisingly small package…
contains a certain number of boxes…
which are bigger on the inside than the outside! clever packing 🙂
one type of box – drop-spine, mostly used for larger, thicker or hardback volumes; several have string-and-washer closures on the fore edge for extra security and a little pressure to help keep the boards in shape
all done – another two dozen manuscripts safer on the shelf and during production!
Balliol College Archives & Manuscripts and the Oxford Conservation Consortium recently completed a condition survey of all of Balliol’s medieval and early modern manuscript books, as well as a number of later items catalogued in the same series. (See RAB Mynors, Catalogue of the Manuscripts of Balliol College Oxford, OUP 1963.)
The survey of 497 items, ranging from single sheets and home made booklets of a few bifolia to palm leaves strung between wooden boards and huge bound volumes on parchment, took 39 sessions averaging 3 hours each (ca 120 hours total, more than 4 items per hour) over 29 weeks, from mid-January to the end of July 2014. The staff hours required were twice that, as each session required two people: a conservator handling the manuscripts and a Balliol staff member entering data into an Access database on the OCC laptop. This was a much more efficient use of the college’s OCC subscription time than having the conservator enter the data as well as assess the manuscripts. It also provided a once-in-a-career opportunity for Balliol Library staff, particularly the Archivist, who is responsible for the manuscripts, to become familiar with every manuscript in the collection, in some detail. Most of the data was entered by the Archivist, but all members of Library staff participated during the course of the survey, as did five members of OCC staff. The process was speeded up considerably by having the 10-15 items scheduled for each day’s session ready in advance and waiting on a trolley in the reading room when the conservator arrived.
Each item received an average of 15 minutes of assessment, but in practice it varied from 10-25 mins depending on the complexity and condition of the item. The survey template included sections for descriptions of each item and assessment of its current physical condition as well as recommended repair/conservation treatment: survey information (date seen and name of assessing conservator); physical dimensions; current boxing or other container; text block materials, binding type, cover and board materials; attachments and supports, sewing, endbands, fastenings, text block edges, binding decoration, labels or titles; condition of text block and its media; condition of binding (cover, boards, joints, sewing, endbands, labels); whether the volume had been rebound or rebacked; its overall condition or usability; any treatment required or recommended, including new or replacement preservation boxing/packaging; and any other notes.
- good lighting and seating, a large stable table
- large document trolley
- measuring tape
- conservator’s tools e.g. large tweezers, selection of dentistry tools!
- magnifying glass
- cold (LED) desk lamp
- foam wedge book supports of various sizes
- bone folders
- lead weight/snakes
- laptop for entering data
The template for the survey database was adapted for the Balliol survey into Access format from OCC’s existing Word document, which had been used for several previous similar surveys at other colleges. We also kept a paper copy of the form handy during survey sessions for easy reference to descriptors. It was pre-loaded with all the MSS numbers, short titles for identification and centuries of production. At the end of each session the updated database was copied to a memory stick and to the archivist’s networked drive.
Having the survey information in a database format, not only electronically searchable but also sortable, makes possible many of the future uses of the data listed below.
We found that while the template provided an excellent structure for focused investigations and vocabulary for nearly everything we needed to describe, it would have been useful to have a notes field as well as tick-boxes for description of the writing materials. Most texts fell into the usual categories of iron-gall ink, black-brown ink, pigments etc, but we also found various types of ‘pencil’ in some of the medieval books, and modern inks, pencil and typescript in some of the modern mss. In some cases we noted these in the Notes field at the end, but more information would have been captured with another field in the writing materials section. The same applied to the Bindings description section, especially for some of the unusual amateur bindings and coverings. We began noting the number of binding supports partway through and found it a useful addition.
Data entry was done directly into the Table view of the Access database; this helped to keep investigations very focussed, as the Table view layout made it difficult for the data enterer to skip around between sections, but an Access user interface would give access to more fields at once and should be considered for future use. Some users might prefer to convert the database to Excel, and we have found it useful to extract and convert parts of it to Word for reports and printing.
Aside from the professional and custodial benefits to staff and the college, we all enjoyed this survey immensely! It was an exciting time of (re)discoveries in the collection and much learning for all involved.
Benefits and uses
1) The most obvious function of the survey is to inform conservation treatment priorities for the future, but it is far from the only one. For each manuscript, its current condition and recommended treatment will be balanced with its contents/research interest and likelihood of exhibition or teaching use. We have good data going back more than 10 years on the ‘research popularity’ of the manuscripts.
2) In addition to conservation treatments needed, the survey has identified basic important preservation improvements e.g. numerous mss are not yet boxed, or need wrappers inside their otherwise good acid-free envelopes
3) The survey acts as a shelf check of the manuscripts.
4) Although the manuscripts were catalogued by Mynors, some of the descriptions date from as early as the 1930s and many reflect Mynors’ own research interests, heavily biased toward the texts of western medieval books. The survey has helped to identify underdescribed manuscripts needing improved catalogue entries to serve the wider interests of students of codicology and the history of the book. Areas particularly needing improvement are descriptions of historic bindings, details of illumination and book decoration, early modern manuscripts and non-western manuscripts.
5) Electronic records make it easy to flag the manuscripts’ physical condition to potential users on our website, so it is clear in advance which need (extra) special care in handling and which (few) will not be produced to researchers in their present condition. This will inform staff handling and manuscript-specific instructions on handling to readers. Better handling will improve long term preservation by decreasing the likelihood of further damage.
6) Similarly, exhibition/loan requests can receive quick and detailed responses about the suitability of specific mss for display and particular considerations needed. Where necessary, treatments can be prioritised or alternative candidates found. Staff will be able to balance the physical exposure of manuscripts across the collection rather than repeatedly displaying the same few well-known and regularly requested ‘treasures’. Increasing the breadth of manuscripts displayed will lead to institutional appreciation of the collection as a whole rather than a set of highlights with an anonymous hinterland of unknown quality.
7) Staff can easily find FAQ statistics e.g. largest, smallest, oldest, unusual characteristics, shared features, authors, texts, dates; these will be useful for reports, teaching, outreach, displays and online features.
8) Improved staff/institutional knowledge of the whole collection has already led to use of some of the less-frequently consulted (and formerly less valued) manuscripts for teaching and school outreach purposes.
More benefits and further uses of the survey are still emerging:
- Conservators are adapting database template for use in similar surveys with other colleges.
- a research-experienced volunteer is gaining curatorial experience and starting improvements to descriptions of codicological and decorative features to support teaching, research and exhibition requirements (see (4) above).
- an academic researcher has been provided with the most complete list available to date of all Balliol manuscripts within a date range containing illumination (in this case, decoration using pigments and metal e.g. gold leaf). The list derived for these criteria from the survey database is considerably longer than any comparable list yet in print.
A few survey numbers
- MSS surveyed: 497
- people involved: 9
- staff hours: ca. 240 (ca. 120 each Balliol and OCC)
- no. & % of mss in good condition: 211
- no. & % of mss in fair condition: 196 + 22 in ‘fair-to-good’ condition, indicating that some minor repairs would make the manuscript significantly safer to produce.
- no. & % of mss in poor condition: 38 + 24 in ‘fair-to-poor’ condition, usually meaning that one of the boards is detached but the MS is in otherwise fair condition
- no. & % of mss in unusable condition: 6
- largest MS: two answers: largest volume MS 228, dimensions 480x350x125 mm, vol 0.021 m3; and largest boards MS 174, dimensions 480x370x090 mm, vol 0.0159 m3 .
- smallest MS: MS 378, a book of prayers in Ethiopic, written on parchment with wooden boards and a nice example of Coptic binding. It measures 081x062x035 mm.
- oldest MS: MS 306, part of which is a 10th century copy of a text by Boethius
Have a look at our conservation survey series of posts for more details of our discoveries! Still more to come…
Balliol MS 385 is written in Pali on lacquered and gilt palm leaves enclosed and strung between painted wooden boards.
Detail of one of the boards
The inner side of one board and the outside leaf
Detail of an outer leaf
leaves from the middle of the manuscript, with text and decoration
detail of decorated leaf
Balliol has few Oriental manuscripts – the term under which all the non-western mss in languages and scripts from Pali to Persian, Hebrew to Hindi, have been lumped together. Most of them were given individually to the College as antiquarian curiosities, and they have not, on the whole, been evaluated, described or studied much at all in comparison with the collection of western manuscripts. But there are discoveries still to be made!
A description of MSS 385 and 386 by Prof FW Thomas, cited by Mynors as ‘kept with the MSS’, is lost, so as far as we know Balliol does not have information about the date or origins of this MS. There is no obvious documentation of how it came to Balliol, but there is a lot of acquisition information, at least for the 20th century, in the Annual Record, so we will at least survey that to see what we can discover.
In the meantime, our descriptions remain inadequate, but thanks to the efforts of archives, libraries and museums to put images from their own collections online, it is possible to put these ‘Balliol orphans’ in some kind of context with other manuscripts of their kind(s). I have found some (to the untrained eye at least) similar manuscripts – and therefore several useful descriptors and explanations of particular features – at:
- Trinity College Dublin Digital Collections (Dublin, Ireland) – try searching for ‘manuscript’ and then add Hebrew, Arabic, etc. This post from M&ArL@TCD’s blog about a Pali MS from Burma has images of something similar to Balliol 385.
- Walters Art Museum Illuminated Manuscripts (Baltimore, MD, USA) image collections on Flickr – includes a large collection of Islamic manuscripts
- The Wellcome Library (London, UK) image collection – search for e.g. ‘Pali’
- Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY, USA) – a small online exhibition on ‘Early Buddhist Manuscript Painting: The Palm-Leaf Tradition’
- Northern Illinois University (DeKalb, IL, USA) – manuscript collections in their Southeast Asia Digital Library
Very little of the British Library’s large Southeast Asia collections is online, either images or descriptions, but you can find some images here: http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Default.aspx
For background knowledge rather than images:
- The Fragile Palm Leaves Foundation
- The Pali Text Society
- The Wellcome Library’s Catalogue of the Burmese-Pali and Burmese Manuscripts
Balliol MS 452 is a copy of the Koran, given to the College in 1983. The donor did not have information about its date or provenance. We will be asking experts in the field(s) to examine Balliol’s small collection of Oriental manuscripts and describe them in detail, most for the first time. Watch this space!
Physically, the book is currently in unusable condition. The spine and one cover are detached, and the unsupported sewing is weak with some breaks, making the textblock unstable. Any use in this state causes damage – we disturbed it as little and as briefly as possible for this examination, while documenting as much as we safely could.
The first folio features areas of illumination using gold and pigments above and below the text and on two, perhaps formerly three, sides of the border. This page shows some old repairs, of which there are many throughout the volume.
above, showing f1 with the blue linen spine lining exposed
The two sections of the fore edge flap have become detached, and the hinges between the three parts of the cover are mostly lost.
The red leather cover, now darkened, was painted with silver and gold or pigments resembling metals. The various layers, which would not have been visible when the book was new, are now showing more clearly as the materials age and wear.
The small square gold-coloured areas are made separately and stuck on – some are beginning to lift as the adhesives lose their strength.
A view of one of the endbands, showing the typical zigzag pattern, now broken about halfway.
This volume was housed until recently inside what was once a beautiful dark green silk velvet bag, evidently specially made for it. A stub remains from the bag’s lost tie, in a rather natty check or plaid. The textile itself needs conservation, and removing the book from the enclosure or replacing it is only causing further damage to both items, so they will be kept separately – but still together. Ideally, one both items have been treated they could be housed in separate areas of the same box.
Thanks to the survey, we hope that both the history and the future of this book will soon become clearer!