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From Parchment to Cyberspace

Medieval Literature in the Digital Age

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Stephen G. Nichols

From Parchment to Cyberspace argues the case for studying high-resolution digital images of original manuscripts to analyze medieval literature. By presenting a rigorous philosophical argument for the authenticity of such images (a point disputed by digital skeptics) the book illustrates how digitization offers scholars innovative methods for comparing manuscripts of vernacular literature – such as The Romance of the Rose or texts by Christine de Pizan – that reveal aspects of medieval culture crucial to understanding the period.

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1. What Is a Manuscript Culture?

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On a recent June morning, I turned to the science section of the New York Times and was intrigued to read the following headline: “Medicine’s Hidden Roots in an Ancient Manuscript.” Under the banner, but before the text of the article, I saw a large photograph of the open manuscript showing dark lines of text set off by red initials and interspersed with rubrics (section headings in red). The opening lines hint at a mystery: “The first time Grigory Kessel held the ancient manuscript, its animal-hide pages more than 1,000 years old, seemed oddly familiar.” Quickly we learn that the enigma is two-fold: a search for crucial pages scattered in libraries around the world, and then the even more complex task of deciphering a medical treatise by the Greco-Roman physician, Galen of Pergamon (d. 200 C. E.), hidden beneath the visible text.

The manuscript turns out to be a palimpsest, which is the term scholars use to describe a book whose parchment pages have been scraped by scribes in order to inscribe new texts. In this case, Syrian monks in the eleventh century wanted to make a hymnal, and used a ninth-century Syriac copy of Galen’s “On the Mixtures and Powers of Simple Drugs” for the purpose. Happily, parchment absorbs the vegetable and mineral inks used in the period, so it’s possible to detect traces of the original writing in a palimpsest. That’s where the second part of the mystery comes in: the quest...

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