As a student of medieval history, manuscripts are of great interest to me. Modern books are great, but the beauty and the mystery of a manuscript’s illumination and text is enthralling! At my home university I have had limited interaction with medieval texts, but this semester at Aberdeen I have been granted the privilege to conduct hands-on research with MS 243, the Richard Rolle of Hampole Psalter. The manuscript dates back to the 15th century and contains the book of Psalms written in Latin accompanied by Middle English translation and commentary as well as the Lessouns of Dirige. Because of the age and value of the text, in addition to copyright laws, I cannot take or post pictures of the manuscript. However, you should definitely look some manuscripts up online to get an idea of how fantastic these works of literature and art can be. For example, the University of Aberdeen has digitalized the marvelous St. Albans Psalter, a project which was led by my History of Art instructor, Professor Jane Geddes.
So far, I have been working with MS 243 two times a week, usually on Tuesday and Friday to allow the manuscript to fully recover from being handled. After my classes I head over to the Sir Duncan Rice Library and go downstairs to Special Collections Centre. In order to protect the texts only certain items are allowed into the Wolfson Reading Room. Bags, coats, food, and pens must stay in the lockers. I usually just take in my notebook and pencil, and perhaps an extra sweater as it can get quite chilly. The temperature of the Special Collections Centre is kept cooler than the rest of the library to help preserve the texts. Each time I sign in and say hello to Michelle Gait, the Reading Room Manager, who kindly has been coordinating with me so I can have access to MS 243.
After signing in I go to my spot in the Reading Room and prepare to take my notes while Michelle retrieves the manuscript from its storage location. Then, equipped with acid free paper, a magnifying glass, a small metal scalpel-like tool for turning the pages (which are called folio), and snakes (weights encased in fabric to keep the page from turning) I resume my examination of the manuscript (which rests carefully on a cushion).
Currently, I am focused on evaluating the physical aspects of MS 243. I look for any inconsistencies in the text, such as the script changing in size, color, or neatness. I also keep track of any differences in the color of the illuminated initials, which are done in red and blue, as well as the red underlining. I make note of which sections of the manuscript have more illumination and color as well as the areas that seem to have been rushed through and have less decoration or messier handwriting. I try to determine if any major changes in style occur between the distinct gatherings of the folio (called quires). To ensure that the manuscript is not put under too much stress I only work with it for an hour at a time, which always seems to go by extremely quickly. During the hour I usually can get through about two quires worth of the text, going slowly and taking notes on the rich detail of each folio.
I look forward to my time with MS 243 every week and hope that I continue to have the opportunity to work with manuscripts as my studies continue. Learn more about the University of Aberdeen’s Special Collection Centre.