Medievalists work to restore damaged 14th century manuscript



 
 A team of medieval scholars are undertaking a project to restore a 14th century manuscript, which was had been badly damaged in the Second World War, and was believed to have been unrecoverable.

Gregory Heyworth, associate professor of English at the University of Mississippi, and three students are using  a portable, high-power, multispectral digital imaging laboratory to reveal writing found in a text called Les Esches d’Amour (The Chess of Love), which is a 14th century Middle French poem.

The manuscript was housed in the German city of Dresden during World War Two, and during one Allied bombing attack in the winter of 1945 the water mains within the city were broken, causing large scale flooding that destroyed many medieval manuscripts. Among these lay the only nearly complete copy of Esches d’Amour.

In its day, the poem had been read and imitated by such great authors as Geoffrey Chaucer, and owned by Mary of Burgundy, the world’s richest woman of the 15th century. But with most of its ink washed away, the poem was nearly illegible and feared to be lost forever. It sat neglected in East Germany until Germany’s reunification in 1990.

In 2005, two medieval scholars from the University of Mississippi – Heyworth and Daniel O’Sullivan, associate professor of modern languages – arrived. Over the next five years, they returned regularly to work under UV light, trying to decipher the poem’s nearly 30,000 verses. The work was cumbersome and frustrating.

“We kept coming up against entire blank passages, leaving huge holes in our transcription,” Heyworth explained.

With funding from a $25,000 grant from the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, Heyworth is in Dresden transcribing the poem that, when printed in a modern edition, will reach more than a thousand pages. Using the portable lab, his team is photographing the most damaged portions of the text. Shot under light of various wavelengths, the images are being mixed, manipulated and digitally enhanced.

“We don’t know yet what wavelength the text on any given page will respond to, so it’s a matter of trial and error until we can see the hidden writing,” Heyworth said. “Hopefully, there won’t be any gaping holes left, once we’re done with the lab.”

Ivo Kamps, UM professor and chair of English, said the project is “an enormously important contribution to the field of medieval studies. Dr. Gregory Heyworth is using his sabbatical leave from the English department to bring to conclusion a landmark edition of the Old French romance.”

Three students spent much of June working with Heyworth and his team in Dresden. They are Emilie Dayan, an international studies and French major from Oxford; Sarah Story, an art major from Jackson; and Marie Wicks, an international studies major from Ocean Springs. All are enrolled in UM’s Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College.

To help assemble the technology needed for the restoration, Heyworth contacted a group that has been restoring the Archimedes Palimpsest, a 10th-century manuscript containing the oldest copies of seven of the Greek mathematician’s treatises. Roger Easton Jr., professor of imaging science at the Rochester Institute of Technology; Michael Phelps, executive director of the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library; William Christens-Barry, chief executive and technical officer of Equipoise Imaging LLC; and Ken Boydston, president of MegaVision Inc., helped create a lab both smaller and more advanced than the one being used for the Archimedes project.

Alastair Minnis, a Yale University English professor, called the poem “one of the most culturally significant works of the 14th century.”

“Study of this poem has been hindered by misunderstandings concerning its manuscript tradition and particularly by the difficulty of reading the war-damaged manuscript,” he said.

Minnis is confident that this new edition will rescue Les Esches d’Amour: ”It’s a text of the first importance for our understanding of the emergence of a courtly pedagogy in late-medieval Europe. The poem deployed pagan mythology in the service of high-ranking Christian readers and sought to reconcile the conflicting demands of erotic desire and social responsibility.”

Below are videos from the students participating in this project:

Source: University of Mississippi