Posted by: viscenter | June 28, 2010

Next Stop for Vis Center Humanities Research: England and Spain

The EDUCE research team is leading a two-stop digitization effort this summer, applying its unique technology to the creation of a digital representation of four major medieval manuscripts. Each manuscript is unique yet connected by themes that continue to engage scholars to this day.

Set up day, moving gear into the Server's Vestry, the room within the cathedral where the EDUCE team is working.

The first stop, Lichfield Cathedral, is in a town near Birmingham in England. The cathedral holds in its unique library a number of significant manuscripts. One of the most precious, The Chad Gospels, dates from the eight century, close to 730 C.E. Another fascinating manuscript is a Wycliffe New Testament, dating from 1410 C.E., which until recently has been in a private collection and is largely unknown to the scholarly community.

Interior of the Lichfield cathedral

The second stop, el Escorial, is a Monastery and cathedral in San Lorenzo, Spain, just 45 minutes from Madrid. The Escorial is famous for its scholarly holdings and in partnership with the EDUCE team will be supporting the digitization of two complete copies of Homer’s Iliad, termed by scholars as the E3 and E4, both dating to the eleventh century. The scholarly commentary in these manuscripts, written on every page in and around the actual story of the Iliad, contains references to material that is long lost.

These four manuscripts vary in condition, topic, author, language, and age. But they will soon share the technology the EDUCE team will apply, new possibilities for digital restoration, and the forward-thinking access agreements that will open them up for scholarship internationally. They also represent intriguing positions in the long-term affair we have as humans with technology, text, access, literacy, and visual language.

Section of one page of illumination from Chad Gospel

Specifically, the Chad Gospels show a very early example in England of the transition from text-only Latin Bibles to text with associated images, or illuminations. The Latin text was largely inaccessible outside the scholarly community. But the illustrations provided a visual story connected to the text. The move to the illuminated manuscript was part of the move to a more visual culture, and is mirrored as well in the words themselves: word divisions across lines and pages in the Chad Gospels actually show a trend away from strict grammatical rules, in favor of a visual aesthetic. The manuscript shows that the scribe was willing to break grammatical rules if it would make the artistry more visually pleasing!

The Wycliffe Bible was controversial in its day because it provided common access to the words of the biblical text. While the Chad Gospels show a willingness to embrace visual and artistic illustrations, the language was still Latin. Wycliffe pioneered the idea of access for English speakers by translating the Latin into the common language of the day. English speakers today can still read many of the words on the pages in the Wycliffe Bible – a triumph for literacy and access.

Page 85 recto of the Wycliffe Bible (part of the book of Timothy) held at Lichfield Cathedral, a complete new testament in middle English, 1410.

Where do the manuscripts of the Iliad fit in? They date to the eleventh century, in between the dates of the Chad Gospels and the Wycliffe Bible. They represent the challenge of access and preservation. It is likely that the two Homeric manuscripts now at el Escorial, E3 and E4, were once on the shelf in a library in Constantinople. As a collection, they may very well have been stored side-by-side there with the very references they cite, most of which are lost to antiquity. Somehow when Constantinople fell in 1453, they were saved, but not without damage and the loss, at some point along the way, of many other reference materials.

Now the EDUCE team brings digitization and restoration technology to these varied texts: technology for capturing texts visually, restoring damage, preserving their aesthetic quality, and supporting a platform for global access and translation into modern languages. New technology now becomes a part of the long tradition: visually stunning images, just like the Chad Gospels; access for everyone, like Wycliffe; restoring and recovering lost information, and rescuing scholarship from obscurity and destruction, like E3 and E4.



  1. I’ve just finished a history of manuscripts and book preparation from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance. There are a great many manuscripts needing this technology. With multispectral imaging many of the palimpsests and early manuscripts are just waiting with rare works to be rediscovered.

    I love whatyou guys do and wish success as much as I envy where you’re headed and what you’ll be the first to see!

  2. Thanks for your comment. I’m interested in your history of manuscripts – can you give me a reference? I agree that there are many things out there waiting to be discovered. That idea seems odd given that these things have been around for so long. But if you’ve ever see the holdings in some of these wonderful museums and libraries, you begin to realize how absolutely inaccessible most of the manuscripts are and how amazing the technology is at opening the doors for more careful scholarship. It is bound to produce a flood of new discoveries!

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