Before the era of affordable, mass-produced paper, writers relied on expensive papyrus and parchment to express their thoughts on the page. In medieval Europe, authors sometimes “recycled” sheets of used parchment into scratch the words and writing new ones over it. These thick leaves, usually produced from stretched animal skins, then carried traces of their old content, creating a palimpsest: a manuscript with several sets of superimposed text.
Thanks to advances in imaging technology, modern researchers can easily identify medieval palimpsests that are virtually invisible to the naked eye. Recently, a group of undergraduates at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) used a self-developed ultraviolet fluorescence imaging system to uncover long-lost handwriting hidden beneath 15th-century handwriting.
According to a declaration, the trio — Zoë LaLena, Lisa Enochs and Malcom Zale — created the imaging system last year as part of a class of 19 people for first year students. The researchers’ progress slowed when RIT switched to e-learning in March due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but they received a grant to continue working over the summer and completed their project at the autumn by 13WHAM ABC.
As Jennifer Ouellette reports for Ars Technica, the students built a multispectral imaging system that exposes pages of parchment to non-invasive UV light, revealing chemical traces of inks and other clues. They then used their tool to inspect the parchment sheets of the Cary Graphic Arts Collection to the RIT libraries for any indication of medieval reuse.
To their surprise, the researchers discovered the remains of an elegant French cursive script under an illuminated page of a Book of Hours, or a devotional text popular with lay Christians in the Middle Ages. By RIT Libraries, this page was probably cleaned and reused by European monks around AD 1450
“When we put one of the [the parchment sheets] under UV light it showed that amazing dark French cursive underneath, which was amazing because this document has been in the Cary collection for about a decade now, and no one has noticed it, ”LaLena said in a RIT video.
LaLena adds that the sheet of parchment is from the collection of Otto F. Ege (1888-1951), an American bookseller and art historian who made a name for himself in the early 20th century as a “biblioclast” – literally, “destroyer of books,” as the historian previously wrote of art W. Fiona Chen for a Fordham University online exhibition.
According to Chen, Ege promoted the controversial practice of cutting pages of medieval manuscripts from their bound tomes and selling them individually. Although critics pointed out that this process destroyed the integrity of the documents, Ege argued that it democratized the knowledge and study of medieval texts, as individual pages were cheaper and easier to acquire for small libraries. than full volumes.
Because Ege sold manuscript sheets individually, 29 other pages of this copy of the Book of Hours are scattered in collections in the United States, LaLena notes in the release. These pages probably also contain palimpsests; the research students hope to analyze as many sheets as possible in the hope of uncovering more hidden texts, for example Ars Technica.
To date, students have imaged two leaves from the Ege collection in the RIT collections. They discovered traces of earlier writings under both texts. Another page analyzed, a sheet from the Ege Collection of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, was also found to have text hidden beneath its surface.
“The students provided extremely important information about at least two of our manuscript sheets here in the collection and, in a sense, discovered two texts that we didn’t know were part of the collection,” explains Steven galbraith, curator of the Cary Graphic Arts Collection, in the RIT statement. “Now we have to determine what these texts are. … To fully understand our own collections, we need to know the depth of our collections, and the science of imagery helps us reveal all of this to ourselves.