Legacies of Paper: In the Archives and Beyond

Thinking Paper’s 2022 Lent Term Workshop

The Cambridge University Library’s Research and Collections Programme funds a number of incredible research projects: among them, the Thinking Paper project led by Dr. Orietta Da Rold (of the English Faculty) and Dr. Suzanne Paul (of the University Library). Thinking Paper refocuses attention on a medium that in Europe’s premodern era heralded a technological revolution: paper represents an important interdisciplinary conversation between literary scholars, historians of the book, economists, archivists, conservators, curators, artists, material scientists, surface chemists, bioarcheologists, and more. Understanding paper’s historical significance to these fields creates conversation that moves the materiality of the book not just to the forefront of scholarship, but to the center of research focused on the multivalence of a medium that continues to be essential to contemporary study—and life. 

Generating cross-disciplinary conversations was the focus of 2022’s Lent Term Thinking Paper Workshop, entitled ‘Legacies of Paper: in the Archives and Beyond’. By ‘legacy’, we intended to think about paper as an influential medium across multiple contexts ranging from the scientific to the historical to the literary. To engage that conversation from multiple angles, we invited speakers from an array of expert backgrounds to articulate how paper figured in their research. The results were stunning: speakers generously gave papers on early modern economies and class-structures, the contemporary ethics of the archives, new readings of texts like Ben Jonson’s Sejanus His Fall,  and much more.

Title page of the 1616 folio edition, with list of actors opposite.

Dr. Siddharth Soni and PhD Candidate Avani Tandon-Vieira, Dr. Darshil Shah, Dr. Bruno Frka-Petesic and Dr. Sarah Fiddyment united across science, literature, and the digital humanities to helm the morning session Material Considerations: Close-Reading the Page. Dr. Georgina Wilson, Dr. Heather Wolfe, and Dr. Nick Posegay all helmed the second session Material Communities: Paper as Nexus to give accounts of paper as an early-modern account of communities both economic and social while Egyptian archives were connected to early English papermaking and distribution. Our last session of the day, Materiality in the Archives: The ‘Thing’ About Paper, focused on materiality as a concept useful for producing new readings of canonical texts, an example of one such reading, and the material economies created by the transition from papyrus to paper from Dr. Anne Lester, Dr. Caroline Goodson, and Visiting Student to Cambridge, Thai-Catherine Matthews.  

Take a look at the Workshop programme and our featured speakers’ papers here:

The Legacies of Paper workshop featured research across a variety of disciplines, fostering discussion about the legacy of paper in the archives and beyond. How does one decolonize archives by making materials gathered in one collection, in one place, available to all? What can ancient Egyptian practices around harvesting raw materials for linen teach us about climate-minded paper processing in the contemporary world? What is the relationship between the Genizah archive of Egypt and early European paper, and what can research about that connection teach us about early cultural diffusion?

Life in Fragments: Stories from the Cairo Genizah

Dr Esther-Miriam Wagner reveals how an eccentric scholar and two Scottish twins braved a legendary curse to uncover the Genizah, medieval manuscripts in a Cairo synagogue.

Learn more: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b020tknt

These are just some examples of the questions prompted and discussed at June’s Thinking Paper workshop. Both as a visiting student to Cambridge and as one of the convenors of the workshop, I learned so much about understanding paper as a platform for multi-disciplinary discourse.

Paper is at the center of literary analyses, bio-codicology, archival research, ‘thing theory’ and materiality, economic exchange on papyrus, and more; its material value continues to be measured by the communities it creates, and the scholastic queries it fuels. 

Can materiality disclose the subjectivity of a love object in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde? Does publisher John Spilman’s ‘paper legacy’ reveal community-building to be one of paper’s ancient powers, bringing rag-collectors together with readers to produce new insights on the Early Modern economy? 


Simon MacLeish, ‘Literary manuscripts 2010: finding Arcadia in the gutter,’ The Conveyor: News from the Bodleian Libraries Centre for the Study of the Book.

What if paper was a means of discussing the contemporary ethics of the archives, or generating new readings of canonical texts like Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde? This workshop represents the possibilities engendered by studying one medium from a multitude of disciplinary directions: the expertise of scientists, historians, activists, archivists, and literary theorists led to new questions about the evolving potential of an age-old medium. 

With great thanks to Cambridge University Library’s Research and Collections Programme, this Workshop represents the culminating event of months spent researching and writing, planning and preparing, and capturing that progress here on The Manuscripts Lab blog. 

Thai-Catherine Matthews, PhD Candidate, Visiting Student to the Faculty of English, University of Cambridge

Paper Trails: Can Anachronistic Technology Justify Anachronistic Analogies?

Morgan Library MS. M.817 fol.001r

Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde focuses its narrative tension through paper: the material itself is essential to the plot of the poem. Troilus both confesses his admiration for Criseyde and later expresses his anxiety about her fidelity through his correspondence. Pandarus’s entire identity is encapsulated by his role as the mediator of these paper communications. Criseyde’s eventual betrayal of Troilus is heralded by her neglect of paper in answering Troilus’s missives. Most striking about paper in this poem, however, is the fact that it is an anachronistic technology at the center of a ‘Troy’ where Martha Rust intriguingly notes that clay tablets would have been in use.[1] Where Orietta Da Rold highlights Chaucer’s deliberate attention to paper itself as a material that underscores both plot and character development while making visible—and tangible—that plot’s most visceral themes,[2] paper is clearly too pivotal for its anachronistic presence to be incidental. This invites the following question: in centering this anachronistic technology, does Troilus and Criseydeinvite further anachronistic engagement? 

Note the particular attention paper turns on the fact of Criseyde’s unfreedom; when Criseyde initially voices her aversion to Troilus’s romantic attentions, she uses terms of enslavement: 

Allas! Syn I am free,

Should I now love, and put in jupartie

My sikeresse, and thrallen libertee?

Allas, how dorst I thence that folie?[3]

Fixed between ‘freedom’ and ‘thrallen libertee’, Criseyde articulates her position as a commodity object to be brokered between her socially ambitious uncle Pandarus and the reigning prince of Troy, Troilus, who now desires her. Despairing of the “constreinte” and “peyne” that categorize liaisons such as that she now faces,[4] Criseyde continues to underscore the unfreedom of her position: a position that connects her to Igor Kopytoff’s 1986 struggle to recuperate the enslaved body as a recognizable subject, insisting that the enslaved is only a commodity whilst in transit between the homeland from which they have been stripped and the new social nexus by which they will once again be individuated (though, still exploited).[5] This certainly proves to be the case for Criseyde: once Book V of the poem sees her brokered to the enemy Greek camp in exchange for a more valuable Trojan prisoner of war, Criseyde’s use of paper letters take serve to removeher from circulation. The end of transit has delivered into a new space: she has been reunited with her father, delivered from the siege plaguing Troy, and offered protection from Greek soldier Diomedes. Criseyde’s new context has created a new platform from which her paper letters allow her to distance herself from Troilus’s erotic gaze and royal power. Paper replaces her formerly accessible body with letters that Chaucer himself can describe but never render in full (despite fully reproducing Troilus’s letters); Criseyde as a subject eludes masculine access through her deployment of letters.

Muse, perhaps Clio, reading a scroll (Attic red-figure lekythosBoeotia, c. 430 BC)

Female letter-writing in Troilus and Criseyde reacts against the circulation of Criseyde’s body by using paper to protect that body—to distance it from danger, to make it inaccessible, to force a recognition of her cognition rather than foreground the sexual desirability of her form. Paper highlights the ways in which Criseyde as a female object is ‘unfree’ as a commodity in the social interactions between men…and its anachronistic powers invite scholarly interface with another female figure whose unfree, commodified, body is only removed from circulation through her deployment of vernacular English letters that serve to protect her body by making it inaccessible to the man who sees to re-enslave her. 

So… If Troilus and Criseyde invites anachronism by situating this anachronistic material at the heart of its letter-driven plot, then what are the comparisons to be made between Criseyde’s unfree, commodified female body using paper to free herself from circulation and, the unfree African-American female body of Harriet Jacobs, whose fictionalized avatar ‘Linda Brent’ used paper just as Chaucer’s Criseyde did?  

When Harriet Jacobs’s 1861 Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl[6] enters the ‘slave narrative’ genre—already well-established by male authors—it revolutionizes genre conventions for women by emphasizing the precarity of their bodies as erotic objects to subject-actors empowered by law and social-standing to fetishize these bodies at will. Her work—like Criseyde’s words—active the enslavement, commodity, and subject vs. actor dichotomy articulated by Kopytoff. Jacobs’s is an extraordinary case: she is the first African-American woman to entirely self-author her own autobiographical anti-slavery narrative[7] and as a literate figure she deploys the act of letter-writing in her quest for physical and legal emancipation. Jacobs famously involves elements of fiction in her autobiographical narrative—changing her own name and that of key figures in her life, openly disavowing the use of concrete place names or timelines in the very Preface to her work.[8] Her narrativized, self-as-character, ‘Linda Brent’ wields letters as Criseyde does: both figures rely on paper to remove her body from circulation, from erotic fetishization, and to place their bodies beyond the reach of the empowered male figure who fetishizes her.

Harriet Jacobs; Gilbert Studios,1894

Jacobs’s case represents an extraordinary one: she famously escaped the chattel-slavery of antebellum North Carolina not by fleeing the state, but by hiding in a garret in an abandoned shed on her freed grandmother’s property for seven years. Throughout this time, Jacobs wrote letters “back” to both her grandmother and to the man seeking to re-enslave her.[9]However, she carefully arranged to have those letters post-marked from various addresses in Boston, New York, and even Canada. When we think of the importance of letters to Jacobs, we must understand her letters first as pieces of paper. The material itself—difficult to come by for an enslaved person, illegal to wield as a writing or reading material, absolutely necessary to Jacobs’s pursuit of freedom and the literal difference between her life and death—proves essential throughout Incidents. Upon realizing that she lacks knowledge regarding mailing addresses, streets, etc. that will make her first letter authentic, Jacobs writes of her self-as-character Linda Brent being saved by a scrap of a New York newspaper an ally happens to discover in his pocket: a scrap of paper in the pocket used to insulate a glass bottle purchased the day before. Paper here is not for reading. Its usefulness as insulation and the ordinariness that makes it forgettable all allowed it to engineer this moment: where it can now help secure human emancipation. Paper protects Linda Brent’s body by obscuring her whereabouts; it forces a reckoning with her voice—what she asserts is her “cunning”[10]—while her person remains inaccessible. No longer an object in circulation or transit, paper allows Brent’s subjectivity to be seen.

Paper allows both Linda Brent and Criseyde to undermine female unfreedom in exactly the ways that Sarah Stanbury describes when positing women’s medieval letter-writing as assertions over the female right to privacy, to private space, and to autonomy over the body that in choosing privacy can choose to exit circulation in the public sphere.[11] Stanbury writes: ‘…letters formalize and isolate private from public zones as they materialize a portion of an individual thought and transport it across time and space.’[12] Through paper letters, might be able to commit this anachronistic analogy pairing Jacobs’ Linda Brent to Chaucer’s Criseyde?

This is the question orienting the current Paper Trails investigation. 

Both Brent and Criseyde are women in positions of unfreedom who circulate paper in lieu of their bodies to achieve emancipation from sexual exploitation. Both women represent English language, literary, and epistolary ‘firsts’;[13] and both foreground the importance of paper as material means of undermining unfreedom. Is this enough, however, to situate Troilus and Criseyde at the center of a new kind of ‘global Middle Ages’ research, one that connects text using the paper that defines both works—and continues to define their reception as scholars navigate these disparate texts from the same material, and can make the same theoretical moves in both works? Is this further evidence. of ‘technology’ engendering new conversations across new planes of engagement: does this kind of scholarship reinscribe paper’s place as a technology alongside advances of the recent digital work? Questions abound, but the work continues… 

Thai-Catherine Matthews, PhD Candidate, Visiting Student to the Faculty of English, University of Cambridge

[1] Martha Rust, ‘Love Stories in Paper in Middle English Verse Love Epistles,’ Journal of the Early Book Society 15 (2012): 101.

[2] Orietta Da Rold, ‘Paper in the Medieval Imagination’ in Paper in Medieval England: From Pulp to Fictions. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 199-200. 

[3] Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, ed. Stephen A. Barney, II. 771-4. 

[4] Ibid, II. 776. 

[5] See: “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process” in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

[6] Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, ed. Jean Fagan Yellin, 2nd ed. (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2009).  

[7] Jocelyn Moody, ‘African American Women and the United States Slave Narrative’ in The Cambridge Companion to African American Women’s Literature, eds. Angelyn Mitchell and Danille K. Taylor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 116.

[8] Jacobs, Incidents, 2.

[9] Jacobs, ‘Competition in Cunning’ in Incidents, 163-8.

[10] Jacobs, ‘Competition in Cunning’ in Incidents, 163-8.

[11] Sarah Stanbury, ‘Women’s Letters and Private Space in Chaucer,’ Exemplaria 6.2 (1994): 271–285.

[12] Ibid, 274. 

[13] As stated earlier, the letters depicted in Troilus and Criseyde are English literature’s first vernacular correspondence, making her the English literature’s first female letter-writer to use the vernacular. Similarly, Harriet Jacobs is the first literate African-American woman to write her own narrative of enslavement. See: Moody, ‘African American Women and the United States Slave Narrative’, 116.

The Pictorial Cycle and Iconographic Practices of Cambridge, University Library, Kk.1.7

MS Kk.1.7 contains The Pilgrimage of the Soul – the Middle English adaptation of Guillaume de Deguilleville’s fourteenth-century poem Le Pèlerinage de l’Âme. All of the extant manuscript copies of the Soul reserve space for illustration, indicating that miniatures played an integral role in the manuscript tradition of the Soul. Close comparison of the scenes chosen for illustration reveals an archetypal programme of illustration. Most copies show preparation or completion of twenty-six scenes, and these scenes show a high degree of consistency in subject and, often, iconography.[i] In Kk.1.7, a total of seventeen scenes are illustrated, and possibly one or two others are missing due to loss. The illustrator made critical decisions not only about which moments of the narrative would receive greater emphasis, but also about the iconography of these scenes, thereby deciding how they were presented and constructing reader responses. 

CUL, Kk.1.7, fol. 1r. Copyright Cambridge University Library

Much of the variation in Kk.1.7 might perhaps be attributed to the strong associations of the illustrated scenes with visual iconography, as seen in medieval pictorial representation and also in medieval drama.[ii] Rather than offering a faithful representation of the text, many of the miniatures rely on conventional pictorial prototypes and draw on extratextual traditions. The first illustration depicts the figure of Death piercing the sleeper with a spear, while the naked soul with hands in prayer is lifted up from his sleeping body into the clouds by the hands of God (fol. 1r). The motif of the departing soul with hands in prayer being carried into the heavens was popular between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, particularly in the prominent Ars moriendi tradition, which was heavily illustrated in England.[iii]

CUL, Kk.1.7, fol. 3v. Copyright Cambridge University Library

The angel and devil then lead the soul to judgement, and the soul is placed between them in the composition (fol. 3v), which recalls common medieval representations of the allegorical battle between good and evil, as illustrated fully in The Castle of Perseverance, a morality play of the early fifteenth century that visually ‘stages’ the division between a good advisor and an evil advisor.[iv]

CUL, Kk.1.7, fol. 7r. Copyright Cambridge University Library

The third miniature, on fol. 7r, is the presentation of the soul for judgement, and the proceedings are to be presided over by archangel Michael, as he ‘hast promyss’ to the ‘souerayn king to do iustyce and ȝeue iugement to all maner of peple’ (lines 16, 17-18 on fol. 4v). However, Michael is not depicted.

The illustrator adopts the authoritative tradition of Christ as Judge, figured as a Man of Sorrows, one of the most popular devotional images.[v] As is standard of the tradition, Christ’s arms are raised to show the stigmata, his bleeding side wound is exposed, and his face drips with blood from his piercing crown of thorns. The tiered angels flanking Christ enthroned on a rainbow and the inclusion of the trumpet also mirror depictions of the Last Judgement. The depictions of this scene in the other witnesses are precisely referential to the text. The scene in Kk.1.7 is not entirely responsive to the text, and its iconography refers to extratextual traditions. Christ in this scene attains greater visual potency than Michael. 

CUL, Kk.1.7, fol. 32v. Copyright Cambridge University Library

In another scene, however, on fol. 32v, the soul’s merits are weighed against his sins, and Michael is depicted instead of Justice, who is rendered prominently in most of the other witnesses. The iconography of Michael holding the scales was prevalent in medieval English wall paintings and reflects this illustrator’s tendency to conform to pictorial iconographic formulae.[vi]

CUL, Kk.1.7, fol. 46r. Copyright Cambridge University Library

As the pictorial cycle progresses, scenes of torture abound. One such scene (fol. 46r) purports to show ‘þe schap of þe firof purgatory’. The other manuscripts that illustrate this scene are consistent. They present the soul on his back ensconced in flames within concentric circles.[vii] The equivalent miniature in Kk.1.7 diverges from this treatment, as it shows a devil blowing the flames of Purgatory at two souls. This iconography is more generalised, for the torment of sinners in Hell was a well-worn theme with a varied iconography in the visual arts. 

CUL, Kk.1.7, fol. 37v. Copyright Cambridge University Library

In the Hell visions of Saint Paul and of Saint Patrick, sinners are shown suspended by different body parts above fire.[viii] The illustrator of Kk.1.7 adopted this iconography twice, as four souls on fol. 37v and three souls on fol. 56r hang from hooks by various limbs above a blazing fire. 

The subjects of the programme of the Soul manuscripts that have been omitted in Kk.1.7 did not typically appear in medieval visual arts, and so they do not carry the same visual associations as the previously mentioned subjects in Kk.1.7. There was no established iconography associated with the figure of Lady Liberality, for instance, and the scene in which the soul hears the story of Lady Liberality is not included in Kk.1.7. Other scenes are omitted in favour of ones with greater visual resonance. The scenes in which Justice testifies against the soul, Mercy pleads in the soul’s defense, and Christ’s grace outweighs the soul’s sins are not included in Kk.1.7, though they appear in many of the other witnesses. The scene in which the soul sees people he knew on earth does not have a set iconography in pictorial representation and is again omitted in Kk.1.7. 

The fact that illustrations were conceived as a part of the manuscript tradition of the Soul and that the miniatures in Kk.1.7 are associated with visual iconographies would suggest that there was a desire to emphasise the visual and encourage the visualisation of the ‘pilgrimage of the soul’. Connections to extratextual traditions would have been readily made by means of the miniatures in Kk.1.7. The miniatures may have then functioned as complementary extensions of the text, as aids to meditative activity. The function of miniatures in late medieval English vernacular literary manuscripts cannot be generalised, but close analysis of those in the individual witnesses of a text is essential. Slight variations in the choice and treatment of the miniatures should be considered, for even minor differences would have offered a different experience for the reader. 

Dana Malefakis; Research conducted as part of the M.Phil in English: medieval and Renaissance Literature, Faculty of English, University of Cambridge

[i] For a chart of the subjects chosen for illustration in each of the Soul manuscripts, see Rosemarie Potz McGerr, The Pilgrimage of the Soul: A Critical Edition of the Middle English Dream Vision, 2 vols (New York: Garland, 1990), I, pp. xlvii-xlix.  

[ii] Connections between Le Pèlerinage de la Vie Humaine and medieval drama have been discussed by Edgar T. Schell, ‘On the Imitation of Life’s Pilgrimage in “The Castle of Perseverance”’, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 67 (1968), 235-248. 

[iii]See David W. Atkinson, ‘The English ars morendi: Its Protestant Transformation’, Renaissance and Reformation, 6 (1982), 1. 

[iv] See Schell, 241.

[v]  See Catherine R. Puglisi and William L. Barcham, eds., New Perspectives on the Man of Sorrows (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2013). 

 [vi] See Richard F. Johnson, Saint Michael the Archangel in Medieval English Legend (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2005), p. 148. 

 [vii] Descriptions of the depictions of this scene in the other manuscript copies of the Soul are reported in Lesley Suzanne Lawton, ‘Text and Image in Late Medieval English Vernacular Literary Manuscripts’ (unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of York, 1982), p. 125. 

 [viii]See Jan N. Bremmer, ‘Christian Hell: From the Apocalypse of Peter to the Apocalypse of Paul’, Numen, 56 (2009), 308. 

Arthur Marotti’s The Circulation of Poetry in Manuscript in Early Modern England

Arthur F. Marotti’s The Circulation of Poetry in Manuscript in Early Modern England (Routledge, 2021) is a study that examines the transmission and compilation of poetic texts through manuscripts from the late-Elizabethan era through the mid-seventeenth century, paying attention to the distinctive material, social, and literary features of these documents.The study has two main focuses: the first, the particular social environments in which texts were compiled and, second, the presence within this system of a large body of (usually anonymous) rare or unique poems. Manuscripts from aristocratic, academic, and urban professional environments are examined in separate chapters that highlight particular collections. Two chapters consider the social networking within the university and London that facilitated the transmission within these environments and between them. Although the topic is addressed throughout the study, the place of rare or unique poems in manuscript collections is at the center of the final three chapters.The book as a whole argues that scholars need to pay more attention to the social life of texts in the period and to little-known or unknown rare or unique poems that represent a field of writing broader than that defined in a literary history based mainly on the products of print culture.

Learn More!

Arthur F. Marotti is Distinguished Professor of English Emeritus at Wayne State University. He is the coauthor of Ink, Stink Bait, Revenge, and Queen Elizabeth: A Yorkshire Yeoman’s Household Book and author of Manuscript, Print, and the English Renaissance Lyric, both from Cornell. He is also the author of John Donne, Coterie Poet and Religious Ideology and Cultural Fantasy: Catholic and Anti-Catholic Discourses in Early Modern England.


An Introduction to Biocodicology and the Beasts 2 Craft Project

The life of a book holds many stories, all leaving an invisible signature trapped in the pages, waiting to be read by those with the keenest eye. However, what if an eye is not enough? Invisible traces have seemed impossible to recover, but this is all changing with recent technological advances available to us. The emerging field of Biocodicology1 offers the tantalising prospect to read these long forgotten biographies, revealing complex stories of use, handling, storage and production.

But why is this relevant? What can we really learn that cannot already be ascertained from reading the text? The value of the materiality of manuscript production cannot be overstated. Understanding the craftsmanship involved in the production of materials, so intrinsically linked to the users themselves, are as much a part of the codex as the words inscribed on the page. Understanding book production in terms of the livestock economies that sustained them, the choice of animals (age, sex, breed), the idocincracies of each skin requiring specialist knowledge of treatment and production. But then there are additional stories imprinted on the completed text, how was it being used? Were these objects of reverence with barely a scratch as proof of their sacred status, or are they everyday books to be used and thumbed and splashed and cleaned? Much the same way as our favourite recipe books contain evidence of the ingredients we use, manuscripts may present similar signatures from their users, a drop of wine here, a stain of milk there, a veritable feast of biomolecules preserved for posterity, lying dormant waiting to be revealed.

Where were these books kept? In pristine condition in a specialist box away from the light and water and dirt that might transform them? Or were they accidental victims of severe weather conditions, flood or fires? All these situations can leave traces behind that we can now explore.

And what of the creatures living on the leaves? Bacteria and fungi are as much a part of the story as anything else, and can give us clues as to the storage environments of these objects, in addition to offering us the possibility of early diagnosis of detrimental strains that may need to be considered by the conservation teams.

These are some of the questions we are beginning to ask and trying to answer in the field of biocodiciology. Encompassing genetic, proteomic and lipid analysis, all these biomolecules are now accessible to us in a way that they never were before, and they are shining a light on some of the questions we perhaps thought could never be answered.

Emma Nichols from the Cambridge University Library talking to students about her ongoing role as a conservator collaborating with the B2C team

However, we would like to present biocodicology not just as new scientific techniques to be applied to cultural heritage objects, but rather as a true multidisciplinary field, needing the relevant expertise from manuscript scholars, scientists, conservators, digital analysts and crafter practitioners. It is a constant dialogue between the fields of what is wanted, what is needed and what is possible, each informing the others and enhancing their potential in ways that would otherwise not have been thought possible.

Biocodicology offers the possibility of conducting research in a way that compliments and integrates with the current methodologies, expanding the potential questions that can be answered. Using these techniques we have addressed a long held debate regarding the materiality of 13th C pocket bibles 2, explored the production history of the York Gospels 3 and participated in the complete 360 analysis of a 12th century glossed gospel of St Luke 4. All of these projects have required collaboration between scholars from many different disciplines to be able to resolve the questions originally posed.

Dr Sarah Fiddyment in her labs showing one of the many parchments she has sampled.

Over the years, we have amassed a large amount of data, particularly relating to parchment species, with over 5000 separate samples being analysed. This is starting to reveal a geographic pattern of species choice that could prove very useful in questions of origin and provenance. We are continually fostering new collaborations to expand the field and the data we acquire, so that it becomes more relevant with each sample added.

Part of the reason we have been able to access so many documents is due to the non-invasive sampling technique we developed alongside book conservators, using triboelectric extraction. This involves using a pvc-eraser to lightly wipe the surface of the parchment, and from the small crumbs generated we are able to extract enough proteins and DNA for subsequent analysis.

Broadly, the main techniques that are used in biocodicology are:

  1. Protein analysis: including Peptide Mass Fingerprinting (eZooMS) and proteomic analysis. This allow us determine the species of animal used to make the parchment, assess the quality of production (related to lime exposure) and analyse surface treatments and/or stains (deposits from plants, medicines, or human touch)
  2. Genetic analysis: both animal and microbiome. This gives further detail about the animal source, such as sex and sometimes breed, and offers the possibility of broad geographic provenance. The microbiome can inform about the environment the object has been stored in and potentially diagnose problematic microorganisms present.
  3. Visual analysis: including transmitted light photography and macro lens photography. This gives crucial information regarding the preparation of the parchment, the choice of animal, the method of production and possibly even evidence of breed (in the case of sheep due to the presence of hair follicles).
  4. Lipid analysis: currently under development. Analysing the fats present in the parchment offers the possibility of looking at climate signals and possibly dating.
  5. Craft practice and recreation: allows us to gain further insight into the production of parchment, recipes, choice of skins, etc based on the limited documentation that is available. Through trial and error using experimental recreation not only can we gain further understanding in the nuances of parchment making but we can also create control data sets for our analytical procedures.  
Dr Jiří Vnouček, conservator and part of the the B2C team, demonstrating traditional parchment manufacture at the medieval market in Gasir, Iceland

Beasts to Craft is an ERC funded advanced investigator grant, awarded to Professor Matthew Collins, that brings together a large group of scholars from different disciplines to develop and establish the field of Biocodicology. Although the project consists of a european network of participants, part of the team, including myself, are based in Cambridge at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. A biochemist by training, I have spent the last eight years working on the protein analysis of parchment, and I will continue to carry out this facet of the project here in Cambridge. In addition to the protein analysis we also carry out the genetic analysis of parchment, headed by my colleague Dr Matthew Teasdale, originally a cattle geneticist but also having branched out into parchment analysis over the last eight years. We are always open to new collaborations so please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any questions or would like to discuss participating in our project.

Dr Sarah Fiddyment is a postdoctoral research associate on the ERC Beasts to Craft project based at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation Horizon 2020 under Grant Agreement No. 787282. 

Further reading

1. Fiddyment, S. et al. So you want to do biocodicology? A field guide to the biological analysis of parchment. Heritage Science 7, 35 (2019).

2. Fiddyment, S. et al. Animal origin of 13th-century uterine vellum revealed using noninvasive peptide fingerprinting. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. 112, 15066–15071 (2015).

3. Teasdale, M. D. et al. The York Gospels: a 1000-year biological palimpsest. R Soc Open Sci 4, 170988 (2017).

4. Gibbons, A. Goats, bookworms, a monk’s kiss: Biologists reveal the hidden history of ancient gospels. Science (2017).

Early Modern Lexicography – ‘The Engelhus-Vokabular’

I’m currently working on a doctoral thesis on an analysis and editing of a 15th century dictionary written by the school-master, chronicler and theologist Dietrich Engelhus (ca. 1362-1434). The dictionary contains lemmata in both Latin and Greek (using the Latin alphabet), followed by a multitude of explanations such as definitions, translations into Middle Low German, examples of use, derivations and grammatical information.

Cod. Guelf. 956 Helmst., 221v

Cod. Guelf. 956 Helmst., 221v

Continue reading

Ralph Crane’s Manuscripts

My PhD research concerns the copyist Ralph Crane, a poet and scribe who is best known for his transcription of several plays for Shakespeare’s 1623 First Folio. Although typically described as a ‘playhouse scrivener’ or ‘copyist to the King’s Men’, Crane is known to have also copied for the Privy Council and Privy Seal Offices, and the Inns of Court. His manuscripts contain the work of the poets Randolph, Davison, and Austin, the naval officer Sir Henry Mainwaring, the playwrights Jonson, Beaumont, Fletcher, Massinger, Middleton and Webster, and the Lord Chancellor Sir Francis Bacon. At other points in his life, Crane was working alone, in the production of presentation manuscripts and verse miscellanies which contain poetry circulated only by him.

Crane's hand
Crane’s hand, National Maritime Museum Caird Library MS LEC/9 fols. 25v-26r.

Continue reading

Mapping Medieval Paper in England

CUL, MS Ee.2.15, fol. 20r. Paper stock: crown. Copyright Cambridge University Library

CUL, MS Ee.2.15, fol. 20r. Paper stock: crown. Copyright Cambridge University Library

The ‘Mapping Medieval Paper in England’ Project was funded by a Cambridge Humanities Research Grants Scheme 2014/15 with the aim of preparing a new dataset of Medieval Paper Manuscripts written in England between 1300 to about 1500 to consolidate the data that Dr Da Rold has collected to date.

Continue reading