Two New Undergraduate Research Projects on Medieval Manuscripts

This is a guest post from our colleague Professor Scott Gwara.

Undergraduates in Dr. Scott Gwara’s Honors College course Reading the Medieval Book exhibited proposed research projects at the Hollings Library Open House last Saturday.

Undergraduates Aaron Sanders and Carl Garris prepare the Open House exhibition.

For a project entitled “Medieval Identity Theft,” Carl Garris, Kirkland Gray, and Aaron Sanders have been examining an erased ownership inscription in USC’s Breslauer Bible. USC Libraries acquired this thirteenth-century manuscript in 2012. The students are collaborating with Dr. Gwara, Jeffrey Makala, Special Collections Librarian for Outreach and Instruction, and Dr. Alison Marsh, a faculty expert in USC’s History department. Preliminary efforts to read the Breslauer inscription have revealed the name of a donor “Brother Richard,” but the identity of Richard’s church and other places mentioned in the inscription remain a mystery.

An multispectral image of the Breslauer Bible inscription taken with the assistance of Michael B. Toth of the Archimedes Palimpsest imaging team (R. B. Toth Associates), and processed by Dr. Fenella France, Library of Congress.

The group theorizes, however, that a monastery once owned the Breslauer Bible. Books from monastic libraries are rare because the “dissolution” of the monasteries under King Henry VIII destroyed so many ancient manuscripts. For conclusive answers, Carl, Kirkland, and Aaron propose to use Stanford University’s synchrotron to produce an “iron map” of the ink residue left on the scraped parchment. The iron in medieval ink leaves traces readable by sensitive instruments. This same technology was used recently to decipher the Archimedes Palimpsest. Furthermore, by studying the letter-forms of medieval English handwriting and the Latin formulas commonly used for such inscriptions, the students will be equipped to interpret their “iron map.” Once the inscription is deciphered, work will be undertaken on Brother Richard’s historical context and the reason for his generous bequest.

Undergraduate Chemical Engineering major Adam Glenn is developing another scientific approach to medieval manuscripts in USC’s collection.

Chemical Engineering major Adam Glenn (center) with family members at the Open House.

His project, called “The Color of Prayer,” seeks to determine the chemical components of blue pigments in manuscripts from France, Germany, and Italy. If funded, Adam’s research will be carried out in Dr. Steve Morgan’s lab. Morgan is an internationally recognized Analytical Chemist working on dyes and pigments. Adam will also work with Dr. Gwara and Mr. Makala. Two primary sources of blue pigments were available in the late fifteenth-century: azurite, a copper ore, and lapis lazuli, a rare mineral imported from Afghanistan. Using multiple forensic techniques, miniature paintings in three selected manuscripts will be analyzed.

Working in Dr. Steve Morgan’s lab, Adam Glenn proposes to identify the chemical composition of blue pigments in this Italian manuscript and two others from the USC collection.

Adam expects to determine whether paint recipes for the color blue were consistent in the same period across Europe, and, if not, what reasons may have motivated artists to use expensive or economical materials. His work is modeled on research recently undertaken at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England.

Manuscripts analyzed in these two projects were acquired for USC through the generosity of the B. H. Breslauer Foundation, New York.


About Jeffrey Makala

The Irvin Department of Rare Books & Special Collections is located in the Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library at the University of South Carolina. The department preserves and makes accessible rare materials and special research collections supporting teaching and research across a wide range of disciplines.
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