800+ Treasured Medieval Manuscripts to Be Digitized by Cambridge & Heidelberg Universities

West­ern civ­i­liza­tion may fast be going dig­i­tal, but it still retains its roots in Ancient Greece. And so it makes a cer­tain cir­cle-clos­ing sense to dig­i­tize the lega­cy left us by our Ancient Greek fore­bears and the medieval schol­ars who pre­served it. Cam­bridge and Hei­del­berg, two of Europe’s old­est uni­ver­si­ties, this month announced their joint inten­tion to embark upon just such a project. It will take two years and cost £1.6 mil­lion, reports the BBC, but it will dig­i­tize “more than 800 vol­umes fea­tur­ing the works of Pla­to and Aris­to­tle, among oth­ers.” As the announce­ment of the project puts it, the texts will then “join the works of Charles Dar­win, Isaac New­ton, Stephen Hawk­ing and Alfred Lord Ten­nyson on the Cam­bridge Dig­i­tal Library.”

These medieval and ear­ly mod­ern Greek man­u­scripts, which date more specif­i­cal­ly “from the ear­ly Chris­t­ian peri­od to the ear­ly mod­ern era (about 1500 — 1700 AD),” present their dig­i­tiz­ers with cer­tain chal­lenges, not least the “frag­ile state” of their medieval bind­ing.

But as Hei­del­berg Uni­ver­si­ty Library direc­tor Dr. Veit Prob­st says in the announce­ment, “Numer­ous dis­cov­er­ies await. We still lack detailed knowl­edge about the pro­duc­tion and prove­nance of these books, about the iden­ti­ties and activ­i­ties of their scribes, their artists and their own­ers – and have yet to uncov­er how they were stud­ied and used, both dur­ing the medieval peri­od and in the cen­turies beyond.” And from threads includ­ing “the anno­ta­tions and mar­gin­a­lia in the orig­i­nal man­u­scripts” a “rich tapes­try of Greek schol­ar­ship will be woven.”

This mas­sive under­tak­ing involves not just Cam­bridge and Hei­del­berg but the Vat­i­can as well. Togeth­er Hei­del­berg Uni­ver­si­ty and the Vat­i­can pos­sess the entire­ty of the Bib­lio­the­ca Palati­na, split between the libraries of the two insti­tu­tions, and the dig­i­ti­za­tion of the “moth­er of all medieval libraries” pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture, is a part of the project. This col­lect­ed wealth of texts includes not just the work of Pla­to, Aris­to­tle, and Homer as they were “copied and recopied through­out the medieval peri­od,” in the words of Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Library Keep­er of Rare Books and Ear­ly Man­u­scripts Dr. Suzanne Paul, but a great many oth­er “mul­ti­lin­gual, mul­ti­cul­tur­al, mul­ti­far­i­ous works, that cross bor­ders, dis­ci­plines and the cen­turies” as well. And with luck, their dig­i­tal copies will stick around for cen­turies of West­ern civ­i­liza­tion to come.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

800 Illu­mi­nat­ed Medieval Man­u­scripts Are Now Online: Browse & Down­load Them Cour­tesy of the British Library and Bib­lio­thèque Nationale de France

Behold 3,000 Dig­i­tized Man­u­scripts from the Bib­lio­the­ca Palati­na: The Moth­er of All Medieval Libraries Is Get­ting Recon­struct­ed Online

Explore 5,300 Rare Man­u­scripts Dig­i­tized by the Vat­i­can: From The Ili­ad & Aeneid, to Japan­ese & Aztec Illus­tra­tions

How the Mys­ter­ies of the Vat­i­can Secret Archives Are Being Revealed by Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


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