Gold Leaf, Chant Music and Bibles for the Blind: More treasures from the Discovering Lost Manuscripts Project
Four weeks on and we have searched through thousands of books (on one particularly caffeinated day we managed to look through 561 books) and found over 500 fragments in total. Along the way, our friends have put up with a great many excited messages until they have finally cried “Mercy! No more fragment photos!” Needing an outlet to share our latest finds, we decided there was only one thing to do… it must be time for another blog!
The genesis of the Discovering Lost Manuscript Project was a suggestion from an academic to search our Bible Collection for binding fragments. The Bible Collection contains a huge variety of bibles, new testaments and gospels that provided us with constant delight. Quite aside from the twenty manuscript and printed book fragments that we found in the collection, we discovered bibles in languages we did not know existed (including Rarotongan, an East Polynesian language spoken on the island of Rarotonga in the Cook Islands) and handled some of the most beautifully bound books we have ever seen. Below are some (of the many) treasures from the Bible and the Typographical Collections!
The Tangible Word of God:
One of our favourite finds from the Bible Collection was this version of The Gospel of St John in a precursor to braille. Designed by James Gall, the alphabet used is a type of embossed writing called the triangular alphabet, which Gall brought to Britain in 1827. Each letter is slightly raised off the page and while most of the letters resemble our Latin alphabet, a few of the more curved letters, such as g, have been adapted so that they are easier to recognise through touch. The similarity of this angular alphabet to the Latin alphabet had the advantage that people who had been able to read before going blind could merely learn the alphabet and start reading fluently almost immediately. Even for members of the blind community who had never learnt to read or had never been able to, the simplicity of the triangular alphabet meant it was easy both to learn and teach. Gall hoped his language would contribute to the greater project of widening access to literature and particularly the bible for a whole community. While Braille has since become the preferred method of printing for blind readers, it was fascinating and even inspiring for us to experience a very early attempt of improving access to the written word.
Also whilst searching through the Bible Collection, we came across a couple of boxes. Housed alongside the other books, boxes provide a little extra mystery as you never know what you will find inside and we always look forward to the shelves where we’ve spotted some. Inside both boxes were books with beautifully embroidered bindings, and we just had to do some research into why such lovely covers weren’t more commonplace!
According to the British Library, in the 16th and 17th centuries embroidery came into fashion in England, particularly under the Tudors and Stuarts. They usually only covered Bibles or books of Psalms, and as embroidered bindings were never mass-produced but always made for individuals by request, most still cover the books they were made for.
In our last blog post, we mentioned our fragments ‘wishlist’, or list of fragments we would hopefully find during our internship. One of these was music, and for the first few weeks of our internship we were a little disappointed with the scarce results. However, upon reaching the collection of books from 16th century Germany we discovered a treasure trove of musical fragments!
The music shown in the fragments above is most likely Gregorian Chant, a form of unaccompanied sacred song of the western Roman Catholic church. Chant music originated entirely without lines in around the 9th century as a means of helping chanters remember the music they were singing, but gave no indication of pitch and only a rough melody. Later in the 13th century, as memories of the music were lost the chant music developed a four line stave and other notation. Each note was sung by every member of the group chanting, hence each note being the same length, and Gregorian chant has no meter so could be sung at whatever speed was preferable – hence the lack of bar lines! The shape of the notes reflected whether they were being sung in ascending order (square) or descending (diamond), and notes on top of each other indicated that the bottom note was sung first.
In the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation swept through Europe. This religious upheaval and change in religion might go some way towards explaining why Catholic chant was being discarded to use in book bindings, and as the Reformation began in Germany this may explain why we have found so many fragments within German books of that period. Gregorian Chant music also underwent an aesthetic overhaul, with later pieces published in the late 16th to early 17th century revised what they saw as corrupt and flawed ‘barbarism’ by making the chants conform to contemporary aesthetic standards.
Master Key To the Rich Woman’s Treasury:
Calling all struggling bachelors! Hidden away in (of all places) the Alchemy Collection, we found this gem of a book that recorded the names, location and estimated wealth of widows and spinsters in England. Our strong feminist inclinations railed against such an attempt to reduce a woman’s marriageability to her income. Yet despite this, we must confess to having spent a happy few minutes searching through the register to find long lost relatives, hoping to find them on the list of Duchesses, rather than of Spinsters!
One of the treasures we had joked about finding at some point was a manuscript with gold leaf. It was a dream we both thought was just that, but whilst making our way through the French 16th century collection we came across this goldmine (if you’ll excuse the pun!)
After we had finished questioning why anybody would cut up such a beautiful piece of manuscript, we began analysing it more closely. The conservation note in the back of the book suggested that the fragment had originally been used as a cover for the book, and a note in pencil on it suggested the text was from the Bible, St John Chapter 1 verse 36-7. However, if anyone reading this is able to discern any more we would love to hear from you!
As we are nearing the end of our internship at Special Collections, we have really enjoyed looking back over some of our amazing and amusing finds to make this blog post. From learning the basics of palaeography and being able to identify some scripts (if in doubt, it’s Latin and courthand) to reading some very strange books, to making some very exciting finds, we’ve ticked off nearly every item on our wishlist and some others besides! We would like to thank the entire team at Special Collections for this fantastic opportunity (and for providing us with biscuits) and hopefully we’ll be back to find some more treasures soon!
Have you enjoyed looking at the fragments we’ve found? Why not let us know which was your favourite, or have a look through this slideshow (below) at some of our largest fragments and see what you can discern from them? (All information gratefully received!)
Amy Cooper and Kirsty Hardwick
Interns – Discovering Lost Manuscripts Project