Category Archives: book production

Revising the Description of Florence, BML, MS Plut. 89 sup 86

I’ve spent a few days this week revising and correcting my description of Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana MS 89 Plut. 86 which I studied and described as part of my FWF Lise-Meitner project (my end of project blogpost from May can be found here). I acknowledged in March when I uploaded the descriptions that they were drafts, reasonably good, I hoped, but that I would polish and replace each in short order, as required. I’d expected that phase to come some throughout the summer, but time, tide and the writing of the next research proposal and monographs wait for no one. Winter is already drawing in and, so far, I’ve only revised one of the manuscripts. The finalised description of the Florence manuscript and the other drafts can be found on the main portal on this website. The other manuscripts will get revised as and when I get the chance. Hopefully most of the others won’t require as much work as this one did!

It’s quite common in research to only publish successful findings, while errors and wrong directions get swept quietly under the rug. Perhaps they get aired with friends, or at a departmental seminar, but they’re rarely made public. It’s also becoming more common to note that this is not actually a good response. On the one hand, it curates an impression of researchers as infallible that can be down-right disheartening if you compare all your own errors with everybody else’s apparent stream of perpetual successes. On the other hand, sharing and talking through some of those mistakes may be useful for others engaged in similar research or for clarifying a methodology if a similar situation is encountered again. So, in the spirit of comradeship and usefulness, here’s an outline list and commentary of some of the errors I made in my original draft description of the Florence manuscript of the Liber Papiensis and how/why I corrected them. Conveniently, by going through the emendations and alterations in the order they appear in the description, I get to leave the biggest to last.

I should also note that, despite the issues, I have been using these descriptions as a working tool. I’m currently in the process of writing the first draft of my chapter on the materiality of the Liber Papiensis manuscripts, and am currently focusing on the various strategies taken to pricking and ruling the quires and producing the ruling grid. Through the process of writing up a prose description, which is a detailed form of analysis in itself, some of the major errors were revealed. Other errors came to light simply from having put nine months between writing them and re-reading them (not to mention over two years from first taking the notes on which the descriptions were based in a fortnight of manuscript handling in Florence in August 2014).

The first error is an invisible one from the outside, and arose from bad data management. Oh, I’ll make excuses about a hard-drive having burnt out, and a laptop having died between then and now, but that’s really no excuse. When I went to try and find the .doc of the description I discovered it was… gone. All I could find was an early draft from 2015, which had only about quarter of the information. Thankfully, I had the pdf from the website, and was able to cut and paste a lot of the information back into a word file, and reformatting most of it wasn’t too bad. Apart from the tables and diagrams in the appendices, those required a bit more effort. I’ll come back to the actual contents of the table of ruling grids in due course.

The next error is an issue of naming.  I raised this in my blog post from May of this year, when the funded period of my postdoc came to an end. From the outset of my project, I’d referred to the collected text of the Lombard Laws and Frankish and Saxon capitularies as the Liber legis langobardorum rather than the alternate title, the Liber Papiensis, by which it is also known. I opted for the former, having read in the scholarship that this was attested in the manuscripts (I don’t have the reference to hand at the moment, unfortunately). Conversely, the name the Liber Papiensis is modern, a convention adopted in the mid-nineteenth century when the laws were edited for volume IV of the Leges series of the Monumenta Germiniae Historica. All very good, except that the manuscript attestation of the Liber legis langobardorum only survives on other versions of the laws, whether the Edictus or the twelfth-century re-systemisation of the Lombarda. As I said, this wasn’t a newly-discovered error of the last week, but a long-standing correction that has been lingering on the to do list for months.

The next error was actually the last I discovered, floating to the surface of that golden-haze moment when I thought the corrections were finalised, I re-made the pdf, sent a copy to the printer and then went to collect it. My eye glanced down to the front page and took in the opening sentence of the manuscript’s summary, which I reproduce here verbatim for your amusement:

“A distinctly decorated manuscript of relatively portable size, with numerous line-drawn initials with foliate and knot-work features and highlighting in red-ink.”

What on earth, I asked myself, does ‘distinctly decorated’ mean? It reads like one of subjectively vague description of palaeographic hands, when some scribe is described as elegant, dramatic, crowded, untutored or whatever. an expression that means everything (to the describer, perhaps) and nothing (to the bemused reader). I certainly agree with my former self in that the Florence manuscript is relatively more decorated than most of the other surviving copies of the Liber Papiensis dating to the eleventh and early twelfth centuries. (The two volumes of the copy of the Liber Papiensis now held in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan MSS O 53 sup and O 55 sup, are even more decorative than the Florence manuscript, in that there are animalistic and anthropomorphic elements to the initials, and a wider range of coloured inks are also used. Meanwhile, the copy in the British Library, London, MS Add. 5411 has a half-page line-drawing of an enthroned Charlemagne flanked by two dapper retainers at the start of the capitularies. I digress from my subject here, though). But still, what does ‘distinctly decorated’ really mean? The latter part of the sentence covers it I think, as it emphasises the foliate and know work construction of the line-drawn initials used to introduce new clauses. Conveniently, a cleaner opening sentence to the summary description of the manuscript can be produced simply by removing those two offending words, and increasing rather than losing meaning in the process: “A manuscript of relatively portable size, with numerous line-drawn initials with foliate and knot-work features and highlighting in red-ink”.

The main area that needed correcting, however, was the table of ruling grids. As can be seen from the quire diagram (which, apart form having been remade as I couldn’t cut and paste it from my pdf, remains the same), there are only two atypical quires in the manuscript, the first and the last. Quire 1 has a folio added at some later point, while Quire 17 was produced from the outset from five bifolia rather than the more regular four. Apart from that later, additional folio at the start of the manuscript, the scribe made no use of half-sheets (or singletons if you prefer) and every folio is one side of a complete bifolium. Moreover, every ruling grid throughout the manuscript has through-lines that extend through the central spine of the bifolium. As such it can be confirmed that both sides of each bifolium were ruled simultaneously as one large, open sheet. This is not unusual, of course. But my tabulation of the ruling grids described them by folio, effectively treating each half as an independent block. Perhaps that is not painfully problematic, but it jarred with me when I was trying to use the description as raw data to write my section on the pricking and ruling of the manuscript. So, I decided to revise it. And there I found another set of errors.

Examination of the photos of the manuscript available online from the BML revealed that a notable number of the extenders and through-lines I’d recorded by folio back in 2014 didn’t always match the images. Now many of the ruling lines are faint and often difficult to discern, and my notes from the library frequently mentioned this. But comparing the two revealed a much different pattern. My impression before had been that each bifolium had been ruled individually, and where two ruling grids appeared to be roughly the same it was in most cases chance rather than design or an artefact of the scribe’s working practice. Reviewing the data revealed a significantly large number of adjacent bifolia with paired ruling grids, and sometimes where there were still differences between them there was enough evidence to support a strong hunch that the difference was because some lines on one were too faint to notice. It seemed that the regularly (if not exclusively) employed pattern was to rule the bifolia stacked simultaneously in stacked pairs.

Revising that error took the better part of the three days. It was definitely worth it. Moreover, I also uncovered in the process some further evidence that did not quite fit that model: Suggestions of the ruling grid sometimes having been produced in two phases. However, that reaches beyond the requirements of describing the manuscript, and brings me back to the interpretation of how the scribe physically produced the manuscript, a further insight into the material praxis of their book culture. As such undertaking corrections to my previous work, some of which I have been a touch embarrassed to confess to and type up, has brought me full circle to the activity that allowed me to spot the errors in the first place. I’ll save further discussion for the monograph, but suffice to say it’s peeled back another layer of the obfuscating mist that lies between us, looking on in the modern day, and the minutiae of activity of the otherwise unknown scribe who made this delightful and intriguing manuscript of laws, capitularies and related text in the last decades of the eleventh century.

 


Oh, and I’ve also made multiple back-ups of the revised files 🙂

Hair and Flesh

After giving a lecture on codicology in Stuttgart last month, I got a follow up question sent via the organiser (Dr Anja Thaler) regarding differentiating between the hair-side and flesh side of parchment. Rather than just replying, I thought it would make a good subject for a blog post (especially as the month is almost at an end and I’ve not written one yet). So, without further ado hair and flesh.

Before musing on my own experiences, it may first be useful to outline what I mean by ‘flesh side’ and ‘hair side’. First, though, we need to step back and consider parchment (sometimes called membrane, sometimes vellum if derived from cows or bulls). Parchment is the de-haired skin of an animal (particularly cows, sheep or goats, but hey, go wild), which has been soaked, scraped and most importantly dried under tension. The modern definition that leather is prepared through soaking in tannic acid while parchment is not, do not hold for the medieval period, the defining point is the drying under tension. I digress. Imagine the skin while it is still on the source animal, it has two sides: the side facing out from the animal, which has hairs on it, and the side facing in towards the animal in questions flesh and muscles and bones. Flay that skin in one big piece from the (dead, please!) animal and it still has two sides, the ‘flesh’ side that originally faced inwards and the ‘hair’ side that faced out.

Soaking the skin in water, perhaps with some appropriate plant materials added to make a dilute solution of tannic acid or some quicklime, helps loosen the hairs. Scraping the hair side of the parchment helps remove the loosened hairs. More thorough scraping removes the physical structures of the follicles themselves and helps to thin the parchment. Scraping the other side of the skin is also beneficial, any fat left clinging to the flesh side can be removed. Ideally, after its been stretched and dried (and scraped some more during this process) the skin will end up smooth and thin, without too much distinction between the two sides. The practice of pouncing, that is applying finely powdered chalk to the surface, is not always employed, but when it does it makes for a smoother writing surface and causes the hue of the parchment to become paler and more homogenous. Which can add further complications to the job of identifying which side is which.

 

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This is a manuscript I’ve not yet had the pleasure of looking at in person: Madid, Biblioteca Nacionale MS 413 (I chose it because the images are freely available and hosted by the library on a creative commons license). It’s a tenth- or early eleventh-century century copy of the Lombard laws originally produced in southern Italy, an overview of the manuscript can be found here. The image here shows an opening with the hair side of two facing folios (30v and 31r). The parchment, from the photo at least, seems relatively pale, but look in the right hand margin of the folio on the right, and a clear area of follicle patterning can be seen. Contrast that with the next opening (fols 31v and 32r), and the relative paleness of the flesh side (even in photo) becomes apparent.

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When I first began doing my own manuscript research in the second year of my PhD, I remember sometimes struggling with identifying which side of a folio was the hair side, which the flesh. For every folio where it was instantly apparent, there were others which caused me to scratch my head in confusion. It got easier with time and practice, most things do of course. Knowing that, as a general rule the flesh side tends to be paler and whiter in hue helps, especially when the more starkly coloured hair side has not been pounced, is a useful hint.

During my doctoral research I gathered some useful secondary resources on the subject, and can highly recommend both Robin Reed’s Ancient Skins, Parchments and Leathers and Christopher Clarkson’s ‘Rediscovering Parchment’ (full bibliographical details at the bottom of this post). The majority of the information in this post (and in my brain on the subject) has been assimilated from these. It’s worth noting some of the distinctive points:

  • Parchment from kid skin tends to be white on the flesh side and grey on the hair side with older goats often having grey-black regions on the hair-side.
  • Parchment from lamb skin tends to be yellow on both sides, while sheep skin tends to have a paler flesh side, and
  • Parchment/vellum from calf skin tends to be creamier in colour, but again with a darker colour on the hair side for mature animals.

 

Reed notes that distinguishing between goat and sheep can be almost impossible (even with living animals, and includes a cute photo to prove it), while Clarkson suggests that goats differ and can often be distinguished from sheep or calf on account of having softer and more flexible texture.

Both also note that older animals tend to have more established networks of veins and arteries, the presence of which can sometimes be seen or felt in the texture of the parchment even if remaining iron in the blood has not reacted with tannic acid to leave a dark stain in the shape of the vein. Which apparently can happen, although I have not yet seen it in person. Similarly, older animals are more likely to have suffered injuries and scar tissue or (vastly) stretched holes from tick bites, etc., can frequently be spotted on the surface.

Sometimes the hair side of the folio would have been so well scraped that details such as follicle patterns and bits of skin colouring are not really apparent on the surface. Sometimes later damage, abrasion and the such like to the flesh side can have darkened it so much it looks like hair side. Sometimes the parchment has been laterally split to make two sheets, one of which has a hair side and an ‘inside’, as it were, the other a flesh side and an ‘inside’. I’ve not seen this in any manuscripts I’ve studied myself, as it is a later practice not yet developed or employed in the tenth to twelfth century law-books that my research focuses on. It’s a detail worth remembering though, especially as Reed comments that many extra thin parchments assumed to have been produced from uterine vellum (that is parchment produced from calf foetuses) has probably actually been produced as a split skin instead.

Needless to say, in my early days in the archives (still less than a decade ago) I frequently confused hair and flesh, or spent what felt like hours pondering a folio, flipping back and forth. Sometimes I’d just put a question and come back to it. (Hands in the air honesty, it still happens sometimes). On more than one occasion I’d spend ages pondering my way through quire, finally decide on some tricky instances and step back to look at a quire diagram – that gave the same face of two halves of a single bifolium hair on one part, flesh on the other. It happens in recording, but clearly not in the manuscript. The bifolium though sometimes provides an easy solution, if one half is tricky to the point of frustration and the other has a nice, diagnostic feature such as a patch of follicles then the information can just be transferred across the quire. Tricks of knowing where else you can (should) look become a part of the working repertoire alongside an ever attuning eye and holes in the memory that let you slowly forget the difficulties you once had.

 

Bibliography

‘Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional 413’, in Biblioteca Legum: A Database on Secular Carolingian Law Texts, ed. by Karl Ubl <http://www.leges.uni-koeln.de/en/mss/ [Accessed 28 July 2016]

Clarkson, Christopher, ‘Rediscovering Parchment: The Nature of the Beast’, in Conservation and Preservation in Small Libraries, ed. by Nicholas Hadgraft and Katherine Swift (Cambridge: Parker Library, 1994), pp. 75-96

Reed, R., Ancient Skins, Parchment and Leathers (London: Academic, 1973)