manuscript,

Imperfect pages

Bodleian reader Sarah Gilbert happened upon some interesting, imperfect pages when examining a manuscript at the Bodleian Libraries. We asked her to write about the experience.

In the medieval period in Western Europe, books were copied by hand onto specially prepared animal skins. The animals used for this purpose in the British Isles were sheep and cows, and in order to turn their pelts into pages these animals would be killed, their blood would be drained, they would be skinned, and then these skins would be soaked and stretched, scraped and dried, and polished and trimmed to make them into usable pages.

Jesus College MS 37, a copy of Iohannus Diaconus’ Vita Sancti Gregorii, is a manuscript with some very unusual pages. A few of its folios preserve faint traces of their animal past in the form of stained blood vessels.

Such stained vessels are very rare - transparent vein structures can sometimes be seen on a manuscript page like contour lines on a map, but to see the vessels still outlined in blood is much more unusual, and is possibly the result of the animals being bled too slowly after they had been killed.

Making parchment was a skilled job and sometimes imperfect pages were used in medieval books simply because the skins, however flawed, were too precious to waste.

As I was reading Jesus College 37 I was very excited to see such an unusual manuscript phenomenon “in the flesh.”

- Sarah Gilbert, Bodleian reader.

The Heart Book is regarded as the oldest Danish ballad manuscript. It is a collection of 83 love ballads compiled in the beginning of the 1550’s in the circle of the Court of King Christian III.

Shown above is the beginning of ballad no. 43. 

Store længsel, du går mig nær (Great Yearning, thou touches me). 

A later reader – the otherwise unknown Christen Masse – has added some notes, i.a. this pious hope: “gvd ende oc vinde alle mit er lende til en god oc gledelig ende amen” (may god end and turn my misery into a good and happy ending amen).

We do not know who compiled the ballads and instigated the writing of the Heart Book. All ballads except one – no. 66 – have probably been written by the same hand.

19.5 x 15 cm.

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Hello, all my lovely followers! Long time no see! Sorry for the prolonged lack of original posts, but I’ve been crazy busy at my new job as Library Technician at Smithsonian Libraries (@smithsonianlibraries)! I’m working primarily at the Cullman Library in the Natural History Museum, which houses the Smithsonian’s special collections relating to natural history, although I’ve also spent some time at the Dibner Library, which is home to special collections relating to the physical sciences.

Although I’ve only been there for two months, I’ve had the opportunity to do and see some amazing things! From a shelving unit for miniature books to a well-loved 13th century Armenian manuscript (MSS 1675B), the Libraries are truly full of wonders great and small. One of my favorites is the volvelle, or rotating calculator, found in a 16th century alchemical manuscript (MSS 867B)– I just love it when books are interactive! Expect more from that one in the future.

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Extremely Rare Neo-Sumerian Palace Messenger Tablet from Iri-Sagrig, Dated 2027 BC

A clay pillow-shaped messenger tablet from an important palace archive of the Sumerian city Iri-Saĝrig, dated to 2027 BC, with cuneiform text on both sides: “1 roasted mutton, 5 sila soup Ur-šu-suen, chancellor’s assistant when he came for the ’secretary’ of Nana’s field; 3 sila soup, 2 fish Laqipum, cup bearer, royal messenger when he went for royal offerings; 1 sila soup, 1 fish Suškin, royal messenger when he came from Der to the king’s place; 1 sila soup, 1 fish Kuganum, royal messenger; /REVERSE/ 1 sila soup, 1 fish Ilianum, royal messenger when they went to Der; 1 sila soup, 1 fish Namhani, royal messenger; 1 sila soup, 1 fish Lu-šulgira, royal messenger when they came to the governor’s place; 2 sila soup, 2 fishŠugatum, royal messenger when he came to capture fugitive soldier-workers, servants of Ninhursag; 1 sila soup, 1 fish Pululu, eguary when he went for the sikum-mules; A disbursement for the month Nigenlila, 19th day.”

This text dates to the second year of King Ibbi-Sin, the last king of the Ur III. The text is particularly rare because almost all of the named messengers are followed by a description their mission: “Suškin, royal messenger when he came from Der to the king’s place.” The tablet records rations of food and drink distributed by the government to royal messengers. According to Prof. David Owen the Iri-Saĝrig archive is probably the archive of the governor whose office was in the local palace. The king and other members of the royal family occasionally traveled to Iri-Saĝrig, perhaps on their way to or from Nippur or other towns. No town in Sumer was visited more often by the king than Iri-Saĝrig. This may explain the presence of so many royal functionaries associated with the town.