Mark Cantrell, Author

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Culture: Digital Technology Illuminates Dark Age Texts

Posted by Mark Cantrell on January 15, 2017 at 9:25 AM

 Out of time comes the magic of manuscripts


Dead minds will speak again thanks to a collaboration between the British Library and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France as they digitise 800 illuminated manuscripts, writes Mark Cantrell, but in our desire to understand the present will we read too much between the lines of the past?


BOOKS are time machines, said the late cosmologist, Carl Sagan: open up some ancient tome, and it provides a channel through which the minds of the dead can commune with the living.


Of course, it helps if you can speak the past's lingo. Otherwise you’ll just have to stick to looking at the pretty pictures. That’s the thing about language, it tends to shift; meaning can be a slippery thing at the best of times, especially after a few centuries of cultural and linguistic evolution.


Now make it a foreign language, namely Old French, and throw in a dead one like Latin, and those books become little more than objects d'art. Sometimes, then, for those of us who aren't academic experts, if we're to make that connection and commune with the past then an interpreter is a must.


That brings us to the British Library and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BNF). The organisations are collaborating on a project to digitise and disseminate 800 illuminated manuscripts from the years 700 to 1200AD, making them freely available to experts and the general public alike, online, for the first time.


The project is focusing on the centuries before and after the Norman Conquest, and indeed manuscripts produced on either side of the English Channel, because this represents a period of close cultural and political entwinement, according to the British Library. In this period, scribes were moving between England, France and Normandy, and were working in Latin and French on manuscripts the library described as of “unparalleled beauty and sophistication”.


“[The collaboration] will bring together manuscript treasures from a time when the cultural, political and religious interchange between Britain and France was unfolding at many levels,” said Roly Keating, the British Library’s chief executive.


“The illuminated manuscripts that our respective institutions hold are remarkable survivals from that period and bring it to life in a way that few other artefacts can. Making them freely available online will allow scholars to make new connections and will allow a much wider audience to explore the medieval world preserved in these pages.”


Illuminated initial 'B'(eatus) and full border at the beginning of Psalm 1, Canterbury, early 11th century (British Library Arundel MS 155, f. 12r)

The project has been funded by The Polonsky Foundation, a UK-registered charity that primarily supports cultural heritage and scholarship. Its support will result in the creation of two websites where the manuscripts will be freely visible to anyone interested in exploring the texts.


The BNF will create a new bilingual website that will allow side-by-side comparison of 400 manuscripts from each collection, selected for their “beauty and interest”. Meanwhile, the British Library is going to develop a bilingual site aimed at a general audience that will feature highlights from the most important of these manuscripts, along with articles commissioned from leading experts. Both websites will be launched by November 2018.


The new project will add to the growing numbers of manuscripts being made available in full online. More than 8,000 items are currently available via the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website; while many thousands of items are similarly available from the BNF's website Gallica.


“Through this ambitious digitisation project funded by The Polonsky Foundation, we are committing all the BNF’s scientific and technological expertise to make accessible to everyone these invaluable treasures from our medieval collections alongside those of the British Library,” said Laurence Engel, the BNF's president.


Dr Leonard Polonsky, chairman of the Polonsky Foundation, added: “Our Foundation is privileged to be supporting these two leading institutions in preserving the riches of the world's cultural heritage and making them available in innovative and creative ways, both to scholars and to a wider public.”


Quite what these manuscripts will have to say, well, time will tell. The writings of those scribes living and working in the late Dark Ages and the Medieval period will have little to say to us directly about the here and now, but you might say this was an era when the foundation stones of modern Europe and Britain were laid.


At the very least, we'll gain a glimpse into our origins, but in the echoes of those dead minds released from their tombs of parchment and ink, we might perceive something of what it's like to live in a time of transition, when the old ways are crumbling and something new begins to emerge out of the dust.


Naturally, we have a curiosity about the past, and these manuscripts open a window in time through which we can gain a glimpse of history as it was lived. Of course, can we trust the scribes of that age? After all, there was politics and prejudice, agendas and post-truth squabbles in centuries gone, much as there is today.


What's more, we live in an age of ructions and changes; inevitably we might seek to gain an insight into our present from these texts written at the 'dawn' of the European era. But what can scribes living and working in a time before print, let alone the internet, have to say about life and society and political relations in the fractured years of the 21st Century? Little, really, but you never know – we might learn something about who and what we are today.


For the most part, the past is the past. But we are what we are, and that is a species determined to find meaning out of the mayhem, using whatever materials we have to hand When it comes to ancient manuscripts, we should just be careful not to read in too much between the lines.


This is now, that was then. Indulge our curiosity, but let's just appreciate where we came from and think hard about where we're going.


Meanwhile, don’t forget to enjoy the pretty pictures.




Copyright © December 2016. All Rights Reserved.




Illuminated initial 'I'(nitium) with dragons and human masks in medallions, England or France, late 12th century (British Library, Royal MS 4 D II, f. 2v)

Images courtesy of the British Library



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