Meeting the Manuscript


After spending several months at the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC), the prayer book has returned, stabilized and ready to be studied. I visited the prayer book last Tuesday at its home in the basement of Northeastern’s Snell Library. At the NEDCC, a small box was made to encase and protect the prayer book.


Protective case for the prayer book

Once removed from its box, the prayer book was propped up on either side with foam blocks, which supported its bindings. Being left alone with the prayer book was both exhilarating and terrifying– the book is incredibly small and delicate, yet somehow it has survived for over 500 years. While working with the book, I thought of all of the people who may have also handled it, the scribes who created each page, and the book’s past owners (who for now remain unknown). I spent a little over an hour with the prayer book, studying the front and back cover, paging through the book, and photographing the pages I wanted to study further. When studying the vellum pages, I looked for missing pages, pages with holes, and for anything which stood out from the rest of the book. Soon after turning the first few pages, I was shocked to find that the third page had been removed.

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The original third page found missing

Then, a few pages further into the prayer book, I found a small vellum page, which rested atop one of the other pages, and seemed separate from the other prayers. The writing on this loose page was in a different hand and a completely different style.

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A loose piece of vellum found between two pages

This page, like the rest of the prayer book, raises so many questions about the history,  methods of creation, and ownership of the Dragon Prayer Book. And, now that the digital images of the prayer book are in Northeastern’s Digital Repository Service (DRS), we’ll be able to continue studying and transcribing the prayer book wherever there’s internet access.



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 Next Phase


Over the past few weeks, several exciting developments have allowed us to take significant steps forward in our research. Having received the manuscript from the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC), we are now able to access the book both physically and digitally. With the help of reference books such as Michelle Brown’s “Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts,” I feel that I am becoming more and more comfortable with the process of studying and identifying different elements of the manuscript.

Recently, I have become particularly interested in medieval methods of bookbinding and the techniques that the makers of our manuscript used to assemble its pages. I am hoping that identifying such methods will shed light on various contextual elements of the manuscript, such as how much it may have cost, how it was intended to be used, and who it may have been created for. Though my initial conjectures about its format were made based on photographs, I am planning to visit the text in person in the very near future so that I can get a closer look at its physical elements.

Now that we have digital access to the text, the opportunity to transcribe its pages had increased significantly. Though familiarizing myself with this process is proving to be a bit of an uphill battle, simply having the pages available has allowed me to practice and slowly grow more comfortable with deciphering latin text. Overall, this is a very exciting phase in our manuscript journey, and I can’t wait to see what we will discover.


Methods of the Manuscript


In the past few weeks, as we have continued our study of the Dragon Prayer Book, we have begun learning about transcription. Although the prayer book is still at the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC), we have several photographs of the first page, which Lexi, Anna, and I have each tried to transcribe. Since much of the first page contains scribal abbreviations in Latin, we know that whoever wrote the first page was adept at understanding and making use of the many available abbreviations, and the original owner of the prayer book likely was as well. As a first year English major, I have very little experience with scribal abbreviations. So, before I could begin to transcribe the text, I had to understand the methods used by the scribe(s) when creating the prayer book. Professor Boeckeler likens medieval scribes to “professional texters,” for their tendency to frequently abbreviate common words and phrases. Today, people who text often abbreviate for convenience or because of character limits, and these abbreviations have become a part of our language, which leads me to wonder about the effects scribal abbreviations had on language and culture in the 15th century. Did scribes abbreviate for the same reasons as modern day texters? Documenting and working to understand our scribe’s (or scribes’) methods has been a key part of this project for me, as I think it will continue to be, especially once the prayer book returns to Northeastern’s Archives and Special Collections and we are able to interact with the entire text. To better understand our first scribe, I’ve begun compiling an alphabet with screenshots of the letters on the first page of the prayer book,  which has helped with deciphering individual letters (see: ManuscriptAlphabet). As we continue to study the prayer book, I hope to learn more about our scribe (or scribes), as well as the book’s history and the methods used to create both the book and the calligraphy within.




More Than Meets the Eye


As we dive deeper into the vast world of manuscript studies, it is becoming clear that this project has even more facets than we could have initially imagined. Last Friday, our team was able to take a close look at a few manuscripts at Harvard University’s Houghton Library as well as learn about Northeastern’s Digital Repository System, the interface that we will be hosting our findings on. After meeting with Bill Stoneman, Harvard’s Curator of Early Books and Manuscripts, it seemed to me that the question going forward is not just “What can we learn from this manuscript?” but rather “Where do we even start?” Having a fairly blind eye when it comes to archival work, I am quickly realizing that the value of these ancient books is far greater than simply the meaning of the words printed on their pages. Something Bill Stoneman said that resonated with me was that no observation should be considered too trivial to make note of, as even the most basic piece of information could lead to more significant research paths and conclusions. For example, a missing page could be indicative of more than just frequent use, perhaps suggesting that the book had been rebound or altered at some point. A recurring prayer or saint mentioned throughout the text could give clues as to who the book was originally created for, and what their intentions for purchasing it were. As we know so little about the text that we have been given to research, it will be crucial to pay attention to every minute detail in order to glean as much information as we can in our allotted time frame. Additionally, this meeting provided us with information about a number of online resources for accessing digital manuscripts, which will be invaluable in terms of preliminary research about early books in general as well as comparing and contextualizing our own manuscript when the time comes. After learning about the inner workings of the Digital Repository System, which seemed to be very user-friendly and intuitive, I am excited to finally begin working with the physical manuscript in the coming weeks. Though there is still so much to learn and just the transcription alone will be a considerable challenge, I can’t wait to start unlocking the secrets of this text and hopefully spark a conversation about this manuscript that will continue long after our research has been concluded.


A Tale of Two Meetings


Wow–so, last Friday, we (myself, Laura, Anna, and Professor Boeckeler) all took a little trip to Harvard to visit Houghton Library and to get an opportunity to take a look at some medieval manuscripts in order to prepare us for what we’ll be looking for in our own medieval manuscript! Additionally, we got the opportunity to meet with Professor Bill Stoneman, the Curator of Early Books & Manuscripts at Harvard, and talk with him about our project, our manuscript, and where we’re headed! For me, it was equal parts exciting and daunting; I’m so excited to get the chance to look closely at our manuscript, and start analyzing it for the goldmine of information that it contains (after all, it has only been given a basic description so far–there’s so much more to learn about this text)! At the same time, though, I can’t deny feeling a little overwhelmed with the sheer amount of information to be discovered, and how to discover it. There is a lot of specific terminology that accompanies research like this, and a lot of knowledge to be digested quickly. I have had no prior experience handling books like this one, and if there’s one thing that our meeting at Harvard taught me, it’s that I have a lot to learn before I get a crack at our manuscript!

Our second meeting that Friday, similarly, was very critical to the progress of our project. We met with some great grad students and faculty of the Digital Scholarship Group in Northeastern’s Snell Library in order to discuss the digital aspects of the project–namely, the website that we’re creating with the help of the DSG and their Toolkit system. The process of digitization is already being undergone for our manuscript–and while it’s being digitized, we are learning about how it will be stored in Northeastern’s super-secure Digital Repository and how the Toolkit interacts with the Digital Repository in order to create (with a little help from the good folks here at WordPress) our website! While at Harvard I was overwhelmed by my lack of experience in what I was learning, I found that the meeting with the DSG was just the opposite–learning how to operate the Toolkit and manage/customize the website felt like very comforting and familiar territory for me. Being very familiar (okay, probably too familiar) with the way that blogging works, it seems I’ve also acquired some experience with blog editing, basic HTML, and basic web design (good thing to know that all the hours I’ve spent blogging may have actually helped me with something). So, for me, the two meetings were kind of juxtaposed; the first that I found exciting but daunting, and the second which I found familiar and manageable. But this is good–there’s something I may not have experience in yet, which can be overwhelming, but there’s also something that I have a lot of experience with. It’s a nice balance, and I think being comfortable with the web aspects of the project will help encourage me to feel a little better about my inexperience with medieval manuscripts!

Exciting to keep working…now here’s hoping I can get through even one page of transliteration!