160,000 Pages of Glorious Medieval Manuscripts Digitized: Visit the Bibliotheca Philadelphiensis

We might think we have a gen­er­al grasp of the peri­od in Euro­pean his­to­ry immor­tal­ized in theme restau­rant form as “Medieval Times.” After all, writes Amy White at Medievalists.net, “from tat­toos to video games to Game of Thrones, medieval iconog­ra­phy has long inspired fas­ci­na­tion, imi­ta­tion and ven­er­a­tion.” The mar­ket for sword­play, armor, quests, and sor­cery has nev­er been so crowd­ed.

But whether the his­tor­i­cal peri­od we call medieval (a word derived from medi­um aevum, or “mid­dle age”) resem­bled the mod­ern inter­pre­ta­tions it inspired presents us with anoth­er ques­tion entirely—a ques­tion inde­pen­dent and pro­fes­sion­al schol­ars can now answer with free, easy ref­er­ence to “high-res­o­lu­tion images of more than 160,000 pages of Euro­pean medieval and ear­ly mod­ern codices”: rich­ly illu­mi­nat­ed (and ama­teur­ish­ly illus­trat­ed) man­u­scripts, musi­cal scores, cook­books, and much more.

The online project, called Bib­lio­the­ca Philadel­phien­sis, hous­es its dig­i­tal col­lec­tion at the Inter­net Archive and rep­re­sents “vir­tu­al­ly all of the hold­ings of PACSCL [Philadel­phia Area Con­sor­tium of Spe­cial Col­lec­tions Libraries],” a wealth of doc­u­ments from Prince­ton, Bryn Mawr, Vil­lano­va, Swarth­more, and many more col­lege and uni­ver­si­ty libraries, as well as the Amer­i­can Philo­soph­i­cal Soci­ety, Nation­al Archives at Philadel­phia, and oth­er august insti­tu­tions of high­er learn­ing and con­ser­va­tion.

Lehigh Uni­ver­si­ty “con­tributed 27 man­u­scripts amount­ing to about 5,000 pages,” writes White, includ­ing “a 1462 hand­writ­ten copy of Virgil’s Aeneid with pen­ciled sketch­es in the mar­gins” (see above). There are man­u­scripts from that peri­od like the Ital­ian Trac­ta­tus de mal­efici­is (Trea­tise on evil deeds), a legal com­pendi­um from 1460 with “thir­ty-one mar­gin­al draw­ings in ink” show­ing “var­i­ous crimes (both delib­er­ate and acci­den­tal) being com­mit­ted, from sword-fights and mur­ders to hunt­ing acci­dents and a hang­ing.”

The Trac­ta­tus’ draw­ings “do not appear to be the work of a pro­fes­sion­al artist,” the notes point out, though it also con­tains pages, like the image at the top, show­ing a trained illu­mi­na­tor’s hand. The Bib­lio­the­ca Philadel­phien­sis archive includes 15th and 16th-cen­tu­ry recipes and extracts on alche­my, med­ical texts, and copi­ous Bibles and books of prayer and devo­tion. There is a 1425 edi­tion of Chaucer’s Can­ter­bury Tales in Mid­dle Eng­lish (lack­ing the pro­logue and sev­er­al tales).

These may all seem of recent vin­tage, rel­a­tive­ly speak­ing, for a medieval archive, but the col­lec­tion reach­es back to the 9th cen­tu­ry, with hun­dreds of doc­u­ments, like the 1000 AD music man­u­script above, from a far ear­li­er time. “Users can view, down­load and com­pare man­u­scripts in near­ly micro­scop­ic detail,” notes White. “It is the nation’s largest region­al online col­lec­tion of medieval man­u­scripts,” a col­lec­tion schol­ars can draw on for cen­turies to come to learn what life was real­ly like—at least for the few who could read and write—in Medieval Times.

via Medievalists.net

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Why Knights Fought Snails in Illu­mi­nat­ed Medieval Man­u­scripts

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

The Medieval Mas­ter­piece, the Book of Kells, Is Now Dig­i­tized & Put Online

A Free Yale Course on Medieval His­to­ry: 700 Years in 22 Lec­tures

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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