Scraps of History

I’m supposed to be working on a novel, but a conference has intervened so I’ve been visiting Medievalists for two days. I can’t tell you everything I’ve learned in the last few days (for it’s a technical update for me in what’s happening in the world of manuscript studies, since my first PhD included matters of that kind) , but I can give you ten moments of interest.

1. Some illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages have curtains. A picture might have a special religious meaning, or it might be of someone losing their head, or it might be two people in bed. The scholar in question was introducing us to the little scraps of cloth and the fine silk thread and the holes in the parchment that make these curtains. I want to call them veils. One of the terms for finding them in a manuscript catalogue is ‘serpente’.

2. Ireland is creating a virtual reproduction of the National Archive that burned down in 1922, and it is a thing of beauty already. Plus, there’s some really neat programming behind it.

3. Holes in manuscripts can be turned into a part of the story. The hole in the parchment we were shown represented the Wound of Christ and dripped red paint.

4. Someone sent a piece of amazingly fine parchment in for testing, expecting it to be gazelle. It was nothing so exciting. Even the finest Medieval manuscripts are mostly made of calf, sheep or goat. When they are amazingly fine it’s mostly because they’ve been worked to a tremendous level of fineness. Why mostly? Finding this out has to be done without damaging the parchment, so some things are not yet known. The scholar explaining to us then showed us a picture of a binding made of roe deer.

5. In the middle of me listening to papers (which is why it is in the middle of this list), I received a reminder of something I did last year. Another conference, this time all about historical fiction. I was lucky enough to moderate two fascinating writers, one of historical fiction and one of history. It’s just been turned into a podcast:

6. When fiction writers invent a religion, we are in danger of forgetting something critical about religion in society. One of the presentations gave the perfect explanation of what we can miss. Their research is into finding it out for a part of Europe in the Middle Ages:

7. Clever people have found a way (using erasers made of rubber) of discovering what has made contact with a manuscript without damaging the manuscript. One example had traces of honey, milk, eggs, oats, wheat, peas and broadbeans.

8. Digitising of manuscripts is proceeding apace. One project is a bit bigger than the others. It is digitising whole archives of Christian and Moslem manuscripts. Because it’s whole archives and it’s in parts of the world where there were also Jews, I live in hopes some Jewish manuscripts enter the mix.

9. Someone has tested a new method to work out what percentage of manuscripts survive. They think maybe 7-8% of Medieval manuscripts are still around. This is only, they warn, tested for one kind of manuscript. We have lost over 90% of our past…

10. Livonia – the region – has archives in at least five unrelated countries due to various countries taking control and taking archives with that control. This makes it very tough for Estonian researchers. What’s even tougher is the number of languages they need to be able to read. All Medievalists read languages. Not all of us have to read at least eleven. (Eleven was my rough count.)

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