Medieval Manuscripts and Digital Humanities

Medieval Manuscripts and Digital Humanities
Thursday 20 August 2015

The Rothschild prayer book (c. 1515 – 1510), famous for its luxurious decoration and exquisite miniatures painted by leading Flemish artists, is a fine example of the most popular form of medieval book – the Book of Hours. This form of devotional book is so-called because it typically contains prayers to be recited to the Virgin at specified times of the day, known as the Hours of the Virgin. These books were also used as an aid to keep track of the calendar and personal entries in many surviving examples show that they also served as a record of family milestones.

Rothschild Prayer Book, Calendar page for March and April.

The selection of devotional texts in each manuscript and the choice and extent of illustration in these medieval ’bestsellers’ can tell us much about the personal preferences and aspirations of their medieval readers. Even a richly painted manuscript such as the Rothschild prayer book was intended for intimate, personal use.

In a recent exhibition at the National Library of Australia, this manuscript was the centerpiece of a selection of the library’s medieval manuscript holdings, situating this object of exceptional artistry within the broader context of the development of the book from the tenth to the early sixteenth centuries. The inclusion of three more modestly designed and decorated books of hours provided a context in which to compare the diverse forms this popular devotional book could take.

A printed version [], published in Paris in 1506, around the same time as the Rothschild prayer book was being produced, illustrates how the new technology of print co-existed with manuscript production, although by this date owners of hand produced books of hours tended to be limited to elite patrons who could afford them.

New technologies of digital imaging are further transforming the ways in which we access, view, interpret and reconstruct medieval manuscripts.  The emerging discipline of ‘digital fragmentology’ enables researchers to identify leaves from manuscripts now held in repositories around the globe, and, through research and serendipity, to identify their source and to virtually reconstruct part or all of the books to which they once belonged.

A fine example of how digital methods for reconstructing manuscripts can provide new insights into people’s hopes and fears in the past is the case study of a book of hours produced in northern France in the third quarter of the fifteenth century. Detective work by the manuscript scholar Lisa Fagin Davis, shared in her blog Manuscript Road Trip [], has enabled her to digitally reconstruct as much of this manuscript as the current state of library catalogue and digital inventories allow.

Starting out with a manuscript leaf now in Smith College, Massachusetts, Davis takes us on her journey as she identified 17 further leaves scattered across five collections in two continents to piece together enough of the volume to give the book an owner, a reader, and a location in history. We learn that the single initial leaf once formed part of a book produced for a woman in Chalons-sur-Marne, which contained a text in French about and an image of St Margaret of Antioch. Margaret was the patron saint of women in childbirth, and the French version of her legend was possibly used as a textual amulet to protect birthing women. As Lisa Fagin Davis concludes, virtually reconstructing this book sheds light on its likely female owner, perhaps frightened and in pain, reaching for it to read or to hold to calm her during childbirth.

Margaret and the Dragon, Sotheby’s London, Lot 21b, sold 3 December, 2013, recto and verso. []

Digital humanities research and the new approaches to manuscript studies it enables make this an exciting moment to study medieval manuscripts. Yet for all the advantages of digital images, the material attributes of the manuscript or leaf can tell us much that a virtual image cannot convey.  The crowds of people who hovered over the Rothschild manuscript encased in its protective glass case at the National Library, peering through the vitrine to examine the shimmer of goldleaf on parchment and enquiring about the pigments of the paints, calls to attention how the vivid quality of illumination and the quality of a book’s production engage the viewer. All the senses are required when examining objects of our historical research: the play of light, size and scale, evidence of use and handling and smell all contribute to our understanding of a source and what it can reveal about its past. Digital imaging creates possibilities for developing new understandings about medieval culture, nevertheless continued close study and handling of the surviving objects is key to be able to appreciate and write about their histories and those of the people who made, used and valued them.


Julie Hotchin specialises in medieval religious and cultural history, with a particular focus on religious women's devotional, educational and intellectual activities in late medieval Germany.


School of History


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