Building a Stanford Manuscript Community

October 17, 2011 - 3:53pm

One of the many remarkable aspects of medieval manuscripts as cultural artifacts is that they bring together (and, in an age of digitization, will surely outlast) a diverse human community, just as they did at the distant time and place of their manufacture.  In an academic setting, nearly every discipline studying the pre-modern past – philology, textual criticism, codicology, all of the liberal arts – relies heavily upon manuscripts as original source material.  For graduate students and faculty, especially those interested in the late medieval period, there remain many unpublished and unstudied works (surviving in difficult Gothic bookhands that students at first find challenging), and others which haven’t been published since the sixteenth century.  Manuscripts hitherto unknown to scholars are routinely discovered in private collections and the rare book marketplace.

If you spend much time with medieval manuscripts, you will soon encounter a broader manuscript community which does not reside within the borders of academia.  Included are independent scholars; booksellers and auctioneers; museum curators; collectors, bibliophiles and antiquarians; readers of classical and medieval works; librarians, including preservation and digitization staff; calligraphers and book arts practitioners; scientists using technology to recover palimpsested or otherwise damaged texts and to date them; authors and producers of media; working paleographers (a small group); and, in case I’ve left out anyone, the general public, which has an ongoing fascination with illuminated and occasionally fictitious manuscripts (in historical novels and occasionally outright forgeries).

Here at the Stanford Libraries, we aim to assist in manuscript community-building through our acquisition, exhibit, and Special Collections programs, supported in part by alumni and donors; through our endeavors in digitization, as a partner in the Parker Library on the Web project and a follow-on grant from the Mellon Foundation to develop interoperability tools for using worldwide websites with medieval manuscript content; and through hosting the biennial paleography seminar, jointly sponsored by several departments (including CMEMS), which Professor George Hardin Brown and I are pleased to offer in this year’s winter quarter.

A census of pre-1600 manuscripts in Special Collections is available for perusing online.  More recently, nearly the entire collection, 232 codices and fragments dating from the ninth through sixteenth centuries, has been digitized and placed in the Image Gallery (see “Medieval Manuscripts and Fragments”) of Stanford's  Digital Collections site.  The fragments are mainly recovered from the bindings of early printed books and used to teach paleography; many contain clues about the communities and individuals who have touched and read them in the remote and more recent past.

Offering as appetizer a photograph of our most recently acquired codex (Gregorius Magnus, Dialogorum libri quattuor…, Paris, ca. 1400-1425), I invite readers to partake of the Image Gallery’s splendid visual banquet.  I imagine that most will be surprised by the remarkable range of authors and genres – perhaps your own favorite works are included among our holdings – and of scripts and illuminations.  To return, in conclusion, to the goal of building a Stanford manuscript community, CMEMS participants are welcome to further examine any of these manuscripts and fragments in the Field Room of Green Library, and I will be delighted to make arrangements for you to do so by appointment.