Category Archives: #1stMS

My First Manuscript


In October I tweeted a picture from the very first medieval manuscript I ever called up in a special collections reading room: a small, charmingly illustrated collection of Marian prayers. Once I had sent the tweet, I thought it was interesting that I remembered the manuscript so well: I had only seen it once, and never extended my acquaintance beyond the one meeting. That this manuscript had been my ‘first’ was also more or less a coincidence: I had developed an interest in medieval studies in the first two years of my undergraduate studies in Dutch language and literature, and was spending a year in Berkeley as exchange student. The only manuscript in Dutch I could find was this little devotional work; I made a transcription of a couple of pages, admired the beautiful illustrations, and that was that.

I had seen manuscripts before, and even held some in my hands: the year previously I had taken a codicology course taught by Jos Biemans, who had shown us several manuscripts of the University of Amsterdam Library, including its famous Caesar De bello Gallico manuscript. He let us touch the books he took into class, too, convinced that that was the best way to get us to appreciate the physicality of the codex. By the end of the course we had been so immersed in medieval manuscripts, that when he showed us a slide of one and asked us to date its script, it took a couple of minutes for the first of us to realize that we were looking at a faux-Gothic Asterix Christmas card (I wish I could show you the picture, but I have never been able to find it – so please send it to me if you have it).

But there is something special about that very first, one-on-one, encounter with a manuscript of your own choosing, called up to the manuscript reading room for your own consultation. Something so special that, in fact, I suspected we all remember our first manuscript. So I tweeted this question:

The question was picked up by a number of great manuscript tweeters (such as @peripheralpal and @erik_kwakkel), and soon my suspicion was confirmed, but the responses did something more than that; they also showed a little bit why exactly it is that we remember that particular manuscript.

For a few of us, experience with manuscripts came long before we started studying history (‘Actually I met manuscripts much earlier, when I read from sifrei torah (handwritten Bible scrolls) as a teen’, writes @andrea_a_l). Many of us called up our #1stMS for a palaeography or codicology course as undergraduates or postgraduates, or in summer school, for an exercise in description, although for several of us the first time we called up a manuscript came once we had started our PhD research. Many come to their #1stMS with a specific research question, in the context of MA of PhD research, or for a job: certain prayers in a particular manuscript; descriptions of virtues in the middle ages; manuscripts containing a particular text; in search of evidence a specific correction of a text; descriptions of manuscript fragments, and so on.

While many first encounters did not result in long-term engagement, others did. In one case, the manuscript was ordered up in search for an MA subject, and while not used then, was revisited later for other research. The encounter is always impressive, if perhaps not just enough for a change of career plans – although @onslies, an early modernist who asked if she could come and play with us wrote of her first medieval manuscript that it ‘is gorgeous and made me regret not being a medievalist’.

Sometimes, the first experience of a manuscript is via substitute such as microfilm or digital scan; nevertheless, one can build up such a level of knowledge of a manuscript via this route that it counts as the real experience: this was the first manuscript I knew. That said, the first actual meeting with the manuscript can lead to some pleasant surprizes: @pabinkley writes about his #1stMS that its previous ‘editor used rotographs, which didn’t reproduce blue: I was surprised to find the “missing” initials intact’. And we remember other lovely details, too: a ‘nice doodle of a face on f. 1’ (@CarrieGrif), ‘this furious monk’ (@HLaehnemann), a ‘glorious portrait of female patron Joan Tateshal’ (@andrea_a_l). There are also chance encounters which linger in memory: ‘Letter Book G at Royal Society, looking for a letter from de Graaf. Open book, 1st document is a letter from Galileo!’ (@matthewcobb).

Some first manuscripts are very impressive; first prize should perhaps go to @Codicologist (then @GeekChic83), who sat down with the Exeter Book – although the real prize was of course the manuscript itself: ‘Best 10 hours of my life so far!’ But a manuscript does not have to be quite as famous as that to leave an equally lasting impression: @sarahxgilbert’s 1stMS was ‘an orphaned, scruffy flyleaf with some medical recipes. I felt very lucky to visit it’. That first encounter is often followed by lasting warm feelings: ‘Still in love with it’ (@KKrick11); ‘Still fond of all three!’ (@LucyAllenFWR). Sometimes, however, the sentiment is one of enduring perplexity: ‘I checked it again last month and it’s still a puzzle’ (@DanielWakelin1).

The meeting with a manuscript is a very physical experience – and indeed there are goose bumps and sweaty hands all around, as well as reminiscences of the smell of the manuscript. To return to the Exeter book: ‘The best thing about handling the Exeter Book was seeing gold flecks on parchment from where MS was used to keep gold leaf flat. You don’t get that with the (excellent) facsimile or dig. ed. Goose bump moment when the light hit the parchment just right!’ And the physical responses do not end with that first encounter, but continues when later revisiting the same manuscript: ‘ordering that #1stMS gave me again the buzz of years ago!’ (@onslies); Kathleen Neal can ‘still remember the awe & the lovely smell!’ (via @MonashCMRS). The digital, however, is encroaching: some visited their first manuscript in order to digitize it, others report that their #1stMS has now been digitized. It seems to be with a certain level of satisfaction that one reports that their #1stMS is ‘still not available on @GallicaBnF’.

Many share memories of lovely and knowledgeable librarians (@bodleianlibs and @ExeterCathedral are singled out for praise), although some (not to be identified here) are a little less nice: @skatemaxwell reports, after being granted permission to see a prestigious manuscript at a famous library in France, being asked ‘by horrified librarian ‘Mais qui êtes vous?!’’; @rebeccadixon75 had her #1stMS actually snatched from her hands when librarians recognized their error of giving a restricted manuscript to a lowly MA student.

Reminiscing about our #1stMS naturally also leads us to reminisce about our teachers of codicology and palaeography, and share fond memories. Jos Biemans, J. Peter Gumbert, John Higgitt and Malcolm B. Parkes are among the eminent palaeographers mentioned. Special credit goes to Steven Justice and Jennifer Miller of the University of California at Berkeley, who even visited their student (@adrienneboyarin) in the reading room ‘to coach on basics, calm nerves. I’d do it for any student now’. Similarly, and also at Berkeley, Alan Nelson provided a special kind of encouragement: ‘he didn’t tell me it was unusual for a US undergrad to transcribe 138 ff. of late Middle English…’ (@skgoetz). It seems that for many of us, our #1stMS experience was also a moment we became a little more aware of didactic approaches, and perhaps a moment that brought us a little closer to our teachers; in any case, we have taken from the encounter some of our teachers’ techniques: ‘he made us (3rd y students) each look at one aspect of the newly bought ms … brilliant way of teaching mss!’ (@HLaehnemann); others report that they now use the very same manuscripts they were taught with to teach codicology to a new generation of scholars.


With many thanks to the following for their contributions to #1stMS: @1greenblogger, @abilglen, @AboBooks, @aclerktherwas, @AdrienneBoyarin, @andrea_a_l, @b_hawk, @Bertilak, @CarrieGrif, @chaprot, @Codicologist, @DamienKempf, @DanielWakelin1, @DenizBevan, @DirkSchoenaers, @dongensis, @dorothyk98, @erik_kwakkel, @gerardfietst, @GingerMarple, @HLaehnemann, @homophonous, @jessehurlbut, @JohanOosterman, @katemond, @KKrick11, @KLaveant, @krijnpansters, @krmaude, @LeaFantastica, @lisafdavis, @lmeloncon, @LucyAllenFWR, @MariaRottler, @matthewcobb, @MedievalMcCoy, @meganlcook, @melibeus1, @MFLCOF, @MonashCMRS, @moselmensch, @mtechman, @ncecire, @NotThatJHendrix, @onslies, @pabinkley, @peripheralpal, @Prossian, @protoDW, @Quadrivium_UK, @RabiaGregory, @RandallsCottage, @rebeccadixon75, @RMBLF, @RNAmendola, @robmmiller, @sarahxgilbert, @skatemaxwell, @skgoetz, @susuer, @SvenMeeder, @Zweder_Masters. I am grateful to @Codicologist for reading and commenting on a draft, and to @Quadrivium_UK for hosting this post.

Finally, special thanks to the original makers of our #1stMSS, and to the institutions who keep them safe: Arnhem, Provinciaal Gelders Archief, 2; Berkeley, @bancroftlibrary, UCB 082 & UCB 092; Bernkastel-Kues, Codex  Cusanus 106; Brussels, @kbrbe, 19607; Cambridge, @theUL, Ee.1.12 ; Chapel Hill, @UNCLibrary, 522; Douai, Bibliotheque, 167; Dublin, @RIAdawson Library, D II 3; Exeter, @ExeterCathedral Library, 3501; Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, XC sup.; Innsbruck, Universitätsbibliothek, 900; Iowa City, @UILibraries, c36li; Leiden, @ubleiden, BPL2627 & LTk 278; London, @BLMedieval, add 47059, add 30863, add 33241, Cotton Nero D. IX, Cotton Tiberius A. xv, Cotton Vespasian D. v, Egerton 1151, Egerton 827, Harley 3865, Harley 4482, Sloane 1686, Sloane 3466; London, @royalsociety, Letter Book G; London, @WellcomeLibrary, 46; Madrid, @BNE_biblioteca‎, 5254; New York, @MorganLibrary, 691; Oxford, @bodleianlibs, Ashmole 61, Douce 215, Douce 252, Douce 324, e Museo 35, Fairfax 40, Hatton 31, MS Eng. letters e. 29, Rawlinson B 505; Paris, @ActuBnF, fr. 12476, fr. 1584, fr. 22928, lat. 14503, lat. 15962; Philadelphia, @upennlib, Codex 196; Princeton, @PrincetonPL, Taylor 1 (Phillips 2223); Providence, @brownlibrary, French translation of Ludolph’s Vita Christi; Strasbourg, Bibliothéque Nationale et Universitaire, 0309; Utrecht , @UniUtrechtLib, 315; Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vat. Lat. 3822; Zutphen, Regionaal Archief, Antiphonarium of the St. Walburgis church.


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