Medieval MSS in Action

Columbia students have the fortune this term to work actively with RBML’s medieval and renaissance manuscripts in two very different classes. Professor Christopher Baswell’s class, although termed "English vernacular paleography" in fact introduces his students to a vast array of issues pertinent to the study of manuscripts; he interprets the word "paleography" as we generally do in the English-speaking world, to include an examination of the manuscript world broadly speaking. In his introductory lecture, he quoted the famous phrase of Jean Mabillon, from the De re diplomatica (Paris 1681) pp. 241-242:

Non ex sola scriptura, neque ex uno solo characterismo sed ex omnibus simul de vetustis chartis pronuntiandum. Neque enim unum est in uno saeculo, unave provincia scripturae genus, sed varia, ut de nostro experiri licet: nec possunt omnes unius saeculi scripturae ad amussim repraesentari.


So although Mabillon wasn’t quite thinking of pricking, ruling, format, hierarchies of decoration and so on when he warned us against judgements based on script alone, his lapidary phrase remains actively in our minds. And Professor Baswell’s students have seen the real McCoy, issue by issue, and script by script, in many RBML manuscripts as the term moves forward.



 Plimpton MS 261, f. 1.
Brut Chronicle, copied by Ricardus Rede
England, third quarter of the fifteenth century






Professor Susan Boynton’s class in medieval musicology has taken a very different approach: one huge choir book is the center of class attention as each student takes responsibility for identifying the texts and the music of each piece: antiphons, responsories, versicles, canticles, hymns are sorted by function, by liturgical hour and by feast. The modes and the tones are identified, and the differentiae recorded. Did I mention that the book is huge? It is. It’s almost two feet tall and 16 inches wide; I weighed it in the mailroom once, and it racks up nearly forty pounds. Imagine a book that opens up to about the size of the New York Times, and that weighs as much as a four-year old child.

So here’s the good news. Columbia’s digital imaging people worked on the book most of last year, and produced a complete digital copy; they put it on a website with a bit of navigation, and the students do the bulk of their work on the manuscript at home. We have the book out during class sessions, but the long slow work of transcription and inventory takes place at the students’ convenience and in the quiet of their own study spaces.

Why on earth did they make such a big book? The standard answer is so that a number of choristers could sing from it at the same time, and indeed miniatures of the day usually depict five or six monks standing about the tall book stand, looking up to the book as they sing.




Plimpton MS 041, f. 16.
Perugia, Italy, third quarter of the fifteenth century





More images of both mss are visible on the Digital Scriptorium website:

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