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Historical Jigsaw Puzzle: Digitally piecing together Medieval manuscript fragments

Historical Jigsaw Puzzle: Digitally piecing together Medieval manuscript fragments

The leading manuscript libraries of Europe and North America have been participating for the last three years in developing the digital research platform Fragmentarium. This new digital laboratory makes it possible to put pieces of fragmented manuscripts back together again, like pieces of a gigantic puzzle.

Image courtesty of the University of Freiburg

In the Middle Ages, the vellum of discarded manuscripts was not thrown away, but rather was reused. For example, it was cut up and used as bookbinding material to strengthen or decorate new volumes. This practice was still very widespread in the early modern period right up into the 17th century. Thus, hundreds of thousands of manuscript fragments are scattered far and wide across the whole world. By properly identifying and researching these fragments, historians and literary scholars hope to gain a more comprehensive and precise picture of the Middle Ages.

Large quantity of unresearched fragments

Big Data and the ever-increasing interoperability of digital libraries have opened up a new field of research using the Internet. This is the goal of the Fragmentarium website. Reproductions of medieval fragments can be uploaded onto a central platform from different servers in different countries. They can then be catalogued, scientifically described, transcribed and collated online.

”It is quite possible that in the next few years or so we will make some sensational finds”, says the project leader, Professor Christoph Flüeler of the University of Fribourg. ”However it is more important to increase piecemeal our knowledge of the Middle Ages by means of this huge quantity of unresearched fragments.”

Prominent partner libraries

Participating in this international project are, amongst others, the National Library of France, the Vatican Apostolic Library, the Bavarian State Library, the Bodleian Library in Oxford, the Leipzig University Library, the British Library and the Austrian National Library, but also the Universities of Harvard, Stanford and Yale in America. The project is headed by a research team at the University of Fribourg, which for years has been a leader in the field of digital manuscript research and with its e-codices –Virtual Manuscript Library of Switzerland has already created one of the most innovative digital libraries in operation.

International Conference in St Gall

What is quite new about Fragmentarium is first and foremost the type of collaboration involved. At the moment there are twelve different research teams and a number of doctoral candidates from around the globe all digitally networked and working on particularly significant examples. Following the international conference, on 1 September 2017, this world first web platform officially launched and opened to the public.

Click here to explore the Fragmentarium website

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