Slow Food Manuscript


That moment when, after you’ve been trying and trying to decipher a series of lines that all look the same, suddenly everything falls into place and a WORD magically appears in front of you! Ahhh, Transcription, how I’ve missed you! It’s a rare feeling to look at a page of text completely baffled by its jumble of abbreviated words with mysterious diacritics, then to slowly unlock each word and see the manuscript’s prayers open up before you like a flower blooming in slow motion.

What strikes me this week are the continuities and the discontinuities with the manuscript studies of my graduate days. For example, I am shocked by how much the web has lowered the entry-level into manuscript studies. I plugged in a few words that I was fairly sure of just into a broad Google search, and out popped our first prayer, word for word! On the other hand. the technologies may have changed, but the rush from decipherment is still the same!  And there is no substitution for slow time spent with the text, figuring out its puzzles. Manuscripts are slow food, not fast food. Laura & I have been stumped on all of the rubricated initials, and after a lot of back and forth with thoughts we had a little breakthrough about one –it signaled the closure of one line on the lower half of the next line, starting in the middle. This is a common enough phenomenon in early printed books (and manuscripts, too); dramatic literature like Shakespeare’s First Folio or the Quartos or printed and manuscript poetry frequently position the ends of long lines onto the next.  I probably shouldn’t be as surprised as I am by how much my stronger background in early modern print helps with deciphering the Dragon Prayer Book. The last time I did an extended transcription of a medieval manuscript was over ten years ago in a Harvard graduate course I took with Roger Stoddard and Laura Light on the production of books and manuscripts before 1600, and I realize now what strong grounding I received from them.

I am, however, surprised by how a little Latin goes a long way and how much more Latin I know than I thought I knew. There is also an interesting tension between how formulaic the text can be –we can easily find these prayers easily on multiple websites through simple searches–, but how the graphic representation of the text is much less formulaic. Or maybe it is more formulaic than I realize, and I’m just not enough of a manuscript scholar to know the formulae.  I do believe that a great portion of ms studies comes from attentive looking that then translates into seeing.

Manuscript studies takes a village. We are so fortunate to have a strong and knowledgeable community to aid us in both our grappling with the material object and our representation of that object digitally. In the past weeks we’ve met with Bill Stoneman, a curator of manuscripts at Harvard, as well as several Northeastern University teams of librarians, web-savvy technicians, and DH graduate student specialists who are responsible for the digital repository and for providing support for the WordPress site.  We’ve got several meetings set up with local ms scholars in the coming weeks, including with the first person to give an initial description of the ms, Patricia DeLeeuw from Boston College, and a music specialist, Michael Cuthbert at MIT, who will help us with the music.  And next week we travel to the digitization center to learn about how the process works. But again, I am struck by how much wider the community of ms scholars has become since my graduate days: in addition to the print resources I used at the Houghton Library, now there are incredible digital tools on the web that quickly facilitate making discoveries. I can’t wait to learn more about the resources that we’d only dreamed of just ten years ago.

Getting the manuscript back from the digitization center last week was exciting –Laura Packard, who has caught the transcription bug, jump started us again with all kinds of new questions, noting missing folia, a free-floating piece of parchment containing a prayer for which we don’t know the placement, the stamps on the cover, and some interesting page designs.  One big question I have based on our recent transcription efforts is why this book starts with Compline prayers –evening prayers—instead of matins–morning prayers—which is what one would expect?




The Little Manuscript That Could


When I first came to Northeastern University a few years ago as an Assistant Professor of English, I was asked to do a presentation on Book History in conjunction with an art exhibit. So I contacted the archivist at the time to learn what early books the library held. She brought a few piles of books out and apologized for the paucity of the holdings.

And then she held a final little book out to me, shaking her head, saying, “I don’t know what this one is. I found it on the shelves uncatalogued.”


Thus begins the contemporary story of this never-before studied little gem of a manuscript that we have affectionately dubbed “The Dragon Prayer Book.” If your library only has one manuscript, this is a great one to have! It has the best of all worlds: It’s workaday enough to give you a sense that someone –probably many someones of the Dominican persuasion—regularly used and cherished it, and yet at the same time it’s not merely utilitarian with no decorative elements. It has many decorated initials, including a single historiated one -an adorable first initial with the eponymous dragon.  It contains snippets of music throughout. It has tabs. It has clasps. It is pocket-sized yet also thick. We are so excited by the many more potential discoveries yet to be made about this unique object!

In Spring 2016, I encouraged three students in my Introduction to Literary Studies class to apply for several undergraduate research grants through which we could undertake a study of the manuscript and bring its hidden secrets to light via a showcase website. Fortuitously, our work is augmented and prompted by the confluence of several new resources and initiatives. First, Northeastern University has recently launched the cutting-edge Digital Repository, a resource designed to securely preserve and maintain long-term digital resources important to our school’s research and educational missions. Second, the Digital Scholarship Group put a call out for proposals to aid in the development of online tools for publicly displaying materials within the Repository. And finally, the The Dragon Prayer Book will make its first public appearance this Fall as part of an NEH-funded exhibit, “Pages from the Past: Illuminated Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in Boston-area Collections.” Happily, we received all of the funding we applied for Digital Scholarship Group!) and we are set to begin learning.

This blog tells the story of our process and discovery. Stay tuned for our revelations about The Dragon Prayer Book in both its parchment and digital forms!