Aug 15, 2020

Medieval Codes Update: reflections on the long view

 Yin Liu

I have not posted to this website in a very long time. My thanks to the student researchers who have held the fort while I was sidetracked by other things. But it is about time I popped back into this website to explain what is going on.

Perceval and recluse
Detail from BnF MS Fr. 343, fol. 21v: a knight visits a recluse.


The Medieval Codes project continues. For four years it was generously funded by an Insight Grant from SSHRC, which enabled me to support a productive and keen team of student researchers. Many of them are still connected to the project as volunteers, and I consult some of them from time to time, even if I no longer have funds to pay them. Not only have they contributed content to this website, they have, much more, added project assets that you can’t see, and amassed a large pile of material that will keep me occupied for years to come. Their interests have also led me to areas I would not have ventured into otherwise, sometimes areas I didn’t know existed. I am immensely grateful to them all.

After the SSHRC grant ended and I was no longer bogged down by grant administration, I continued to be bogged down by other forms of administration. So work on this project has proceeded very slowly. And then, in March 2020,  community transmission of COVID-19 was confirmed in Canada, where I live.

Jan 11, 2020

Oak Gall Ink Explained

Alex Margarit

In my study of the Ripley Scrolls and trying to understand how medieval documents were made,
I created a large batch of iron gall ink. Iron gall ink is made from the tannins found in oak galls and iron salts. The recipe for iron gall ink differs depending on who writes it, but the general idea remains that it is a simple ink made from a vegetable dye and a mordant. One thing I discovered about oak galls, aside from the way they grow on trees, is that they differ based on the region they come from. In the image below are Canadian oak galls (top) and Eurasian oak galls (below):

Fig. 1: Canadian oak galls (above) and Eurasian oak galls (below). All images (c) Alex Margarit.

Aug 3, 2018

Thomas Becket and Reading the Reception in the South English Legendary

Tristan B. Taylor

In my previous post I explored how linguistic glosses in manuscripts can reveal reception and use. Continuing with this theme, this post will examine how other extra-textual material on the leaves of manuscripts reveal audience and reception.

Fig. 1: A marked-up modern book. Image: Tristan B. Taylor.


Apr 24, 2018

The Construction and Function of a Physician’s Folding Almanac: British Library Harley MS 937

Julie Maseka

Leather case of Harley MS 937
Harley MS 937 is plainly catalogued by the British Library as a physician's folding almanac; however, this description fails to capture the uniqueness of this seemingly simple, yet intriguing, manuscript. In general, folded almanacs contain “calendrical, astrological, and medical elements” thought to have been used by both medical practitioners and laypeople (Carey, "What is the Folded Almanac?" 482). Harley MS 937 stands out in this category of manuscripts due to its distinct construction and interesting textual content. The manuscript is folded and enclosed in a leather pouch bound with a braided string, which offers both protection and portability. The text is in English vernacular, although Latin would be commonly expected of astrological-medical documents of this time period. While the text poses questions about the owner(s) of the manuscript and how they may have practically used it, this post will focus on how the physical format of Harley MS 937 influences its transportability and readability, leaving the discussion of the intended owner and the manuscript's application in medieval daily life for a later date.

Aug 24, 2017

The Voynich Manuscript: Theories, Both Crackpot and Legitimate

Yale, Beinecke MS 408, fol. 86v-86r
Madison Taylor

The Voynich manuscript is something of an oddity in the world of manuscript studies, as its appeal extends far beyond the hallowed halls of academia. Theories on its origin and interpretation would be no more out of place as published works in an academic journal than they would be in a conspiratorial conversation shared over pints of beer in a dimly lit pub. It is a tauntingly enigmatic document that preys on the desperate human desire for understanding, and its allure has trapped smarter folks than I in a vicious cycle of furrowed brows and tugged-out hairs. Regardless of the inevitable disappointment that awaits, I am nonetheless going to step up, roll back my sleeves, and join the ranks of those who have tried to pry the sword of meaning from this obstinate block of text.

Often referred to as "the world's most mysterious manuscript", this cryptic, 234 page codex has mystified scholars, linguists, cryptographers, and armchair code breakers since it was purchased by the Polish book dealer Wilfrid Voynich in 1912. Housed in the Yale Rare Book and Manuscript Library as Beinecke MS 408, the book comprises a series of obscure herbal, astrological, and anatomical illustrations. The document itself is quite striking: the text is written on vellum in brown ink, and the drawings are coloured with vibrant greens and blues, deep red, and dusty gold. Carbon dating of the parchment tells us that the manuscript was likely written in the early fifteenth century. Yet despite its five hundred year tenure on this Earth, there has yet to be one person who truly understands what the text says, or what its strange pictures are trying to convey.