Research Session 2: Viewing Different Manuscript Collections

So, my second visit to the RBML was off to an…interesting start. I had to be coached through the steps of how to properly request a manuscript collection, and believe me, it took multiple tries to get it right. Since my presentation is focused on transitional literacies, including parchment, my plan is to show examples of the development in techniques used to transform the animal skin into parchment. I am hopeful that within the collections I will be comparing that there will be some noticeable differences in technique and quality of the parchment used.

While reading through the RBML’s manuscript of Roman de la Rose**, I am drawn to the ornate illustrations that appear on many of the preserved pages. Although I cannot understand medieval French (or contemporary French, for that matter), I learn that Roman de la Rose is a love poem narrated from the perspective of a young man who describes a dream he had 5 years ago, in which he envisioned himself going to a closed-off garden where he looked at rosebushes in the Fountain of Narcissus. Cupid aimed several of his powerful arrows at the narrator, who became enamored by one of the flowers in the garden. Despite his numerous attempts to gain access to this one rose, the rose’s guards prevent him and increase their protection of the flower. Here, Guillaume de Lorris concludes his portion of the written poem, and Jean de Meun takes over. The rest of the poem – in Meun’s verison – has the narrator achieving his goal of possessing the rose through illicit means, intended to be more risqué in tone compared to Lorris’ earlier, more romanticized version of this tale.

Here is a photo I took of two of the pages:

Although the script on the page is beautifully printed, the quality of the parchment is quite thick and rough. Most likely, this can be attributed to its age. However, I also believe that the quality of the parchment reveals a great deal about the state of the process used to convert the animal skin into material upon which the text could be printed. Similar to my observations of the Spanish choir leaves during my first research session, I can see the hair follicles of the animal on the opening and back pages. Even though the Spanish choir leaf collection is dated to the 18th century (when, theoretically, methods to develop the parchment for printing would have improved), the appearance of the parchment in that collection is remarkably similar to that of Roman de la Rose.

After reading through Roman de la Rose, I decide to examine one more collection before leaving the RBML: a copy of the work On Mixed Life, by Walter Hilton, a 14th century English mystical writer. On Mixed Life is actually a part of a larger work (also by Hilton) entitled The Scale of Perfection, which details the process of the human soul to renounce sin and live a more spiritual, pure life.

Here is another photo I took of two of the pages of On Mixed Life:

According to its entry on Digital Scriptorium, the RBML’s copy dates to the late 15th century but was later bound in blind-tooled Russian leather during the 19th century. Immediately, I observe clear differences in the look and feel of this work in comparison to the earlier collections I have consulted. For example, the parchment pages in On Mixed Life feel a lot lighter than those in Roman de la Rose, and I wonder whether this is due to an evolution in the way the animal skin was cut and thinned in order to be converted into pages.

“Immediately, I observe clear differences in the look and feel of this work in comparison to the earlier collections I have consulted..”

The text almost looks handwritten, even though I know that is not the case. Aesthetically, the only decorative element present in the text is the usage of both black and red ink – there are no decorative images, such as those in Roman de la Rose or the Spanish choir leaf collection. At the same time, however, the front cover showcases a musical score design similar to those that appear in the folios of the Spanish choir leaf collection. This fact is highlighted in the information presented in Digital Scriptorium: the binding was made in part from a choir leaf.

This second visit to the RBML was certainly productive, and I have a better sense of what I would like to discuss in my presentation. However, even though I have been able to learn about each of the works represented in the manuscript collections and see them in person, I still have more to learn about how to study the materials themselves to determine their provenance and quality, among other distinguishing factors. In future visits to the RBML, I hope to consult more collections from later time periods so I can have a more informed understanding of how the processes of printing and binding manuscripts transformed through the centuries in Europe.**

*The background image is of f. 1v and f. 2 of Plimpton MS 284 at Columbia RBML.

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