The smudges, splotches, and stains of medieval manuscripts

By Louisa Shepard

Medieval manuscripts are often spectacles to behold, their intricate illustrations dazzling with jewel-toned pigments and gold leaf. But it’s the dark splotch, the fingerprint smudge, the stitched-together tear in the parchment that are the most exciting discoveries for University of Pennsylvania researcher Erin Connelly.

A manuscript from the Penn Libraries collection included in the research is Ricettario, originally from Italy in 1530, a collection of remedies for a variety of conditions. The dealer’s description suggests the stain might be due to a “chemical spilled on the manuscript by an alchemist.” (Photo by Eric Sucar / University of Pennsylvania)

Connelly, a postdoctoral fellow at the Penn Libraries Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies, is part of a national team of researchers who for the past year analyzed stains they found on parchment, paper, and bindings in medieval and early modern books. They gathered scientific data on 40 manuscripts from five institutions, using the innovative approach of high-tech scanning.


The project’s name is Labeculae Vivae, Latin for Stains Alive. The goal was to begin a catalog of what those stains could be and to learn more about the life of the books and about and the lives of those who used them, as well as to inform those who are handling them today.

“Once you start looking at a medieval book for stains, it’s all you see,” Connelly says, explaining her fascination. “If you look at my Twitter feed, it’s all mysterious stains, fingerprints, wax drips, even an insect I found between the folios.”

The five manuscripts from Penn’s collection that were part of the study are on view through Aug. 6 in an exhibit, “Labeculae Vivae: Building a Reference Library of Stains for Researching Medieval Manuscripts,” on the sixth floor of the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library. The folios and preliminary results are displayed in graphs created from the analysis of multispectral imaging scans.


The research project, funded by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Council on Library and Information Resources, was created and managed by three postdoctoral fellows in data curation: Penn’s Connelly, whose research interests focus on medieval medicine; Alberto Campagnolo at the Library of Congress, who researches how to model the book as an object in the digital world; and Heather Wacha at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, whose research addresses how the materiality of manuscripts informs the historical context and content of a book.

“The project came out of our interests,” Connelly says, “We wanted to develop a methodology to examine parts of medieval books that are often ignored.”

Connelly and team have presented their findings at international conferences, including the Digital Humanities Conference in Mexico City in June and the International Medieval Congress in Leeds, England, the first week of July.


“The great thing about this project is its interdisciplinary character,” says Will Noel, director of the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts, and the Schoenberg Institute. “Using multispectral imaging on medieval manuscripts to determine their history and their use and abuse is an entirely novel use of the technology.”

The imaging data, totaling 328 gigabytes, and the accompanying analysis will be held by Penn and be available free of charge to the public through the OPenn site at Penn Libraries. Included will be visualizations of the data, what the researchers are calling “stain stories,” or fragmentary narratives of a manuscript’s history based on the spectral signatures of its inks and stains to aid future studies.

The team has been working on the project for the past year. The multispectral imaging took place in the fall at Penn in the Libraries Conservation Lab and also at the universities of Wisconsin and Iowa by Michael Toth of R.B. Toth Associates in Oakton, Va. Some of the manuscripts imaged at Penn were from Philadelphia’s Science History Institute. Other manuscripts were from the Library of Congress.


“What we are presenting are some preliminary results from our analysis, and depositing all of our imaging data in a structured, stable way,” says Connelly, and others can follow up on their work.

The Stains Alive project set out to provide a dataset to identify stains that are commonly found on manuscripts, a sound methodology for the replication of gathering and analyzing the data, and a clear explanation for how to use the dataset to further the study of medieval manuscripts and their conservation.

“Also, knowing how to characterize a stain without a lot of technical knowledge could be useful for librarians and conservators handling the materials,” Connelly says. For example, the ability to identify a heavy metal stain could inform those handling the manuscripts.

Multispectral imaging involves illuminating each page with colored lights at specific wavelengths in a totally darkened room. Technicians use a high-tech camera to capture the reflection. Each substance reflects the wavelengths of light in specific ways, creating its own fingerprint.


Those fingerprints of modern-day known substances such as ink, water, blood, wine, and acids can then be used for comparison to the mysterious stains on the pages.

Connelly chose which books from Penn and the Science History Institute to include in the project. “I went immediately for medical books because they show signs of use,” she says. “Medical and alchemical books show furnace burns, from practical use by the alchemist, and chemical stains.”

Her favorite text in the project from the Penn collection is a 13th-century medical manuscript originally from Paris, known by its library moniker LJS 24, that has stains from liquid throughout. “We were curious with this one because some fluid had been spilled. Is it water, ink, or something medical in nature?” she asks.

An illustration in the manuscript depicts a physician dressed in the robes of a Dominican monk. “It has these extraordinary historiated initials, beautifully done, showing medical illustrations to complement the text,” she says. “In one I particularly like, a doctor is holding a urine flask while talking to a patient. In medieval medicine, urine was useful in the diagnostic process.”

Sometimes the stains on the folios are urine, sometimes from a feline. The most common stains researchers find are water damage and ink spills, Connelly says.

Given the dark color of the stain on a folio in LJS 24, there was much speculation. “The spectral curve matches ink,” she says. “A possible blood stain had been suggested, but with aging the stains turn colors.”

Penn books analyzed also included fragments of pages from a 13th-century encyclopedia, a manuscript from 15th-century Luxembourg about the practice on artistic use of pigments, and a treatise on urine from 16th-century Italy with a collection of medical recipes.

A dealer included notes on one of Penn’s manuscripts, guessing that the stains were chemicals. The book, “Ricettaro,” is a collection of remedies against a variety of ills, attributed to Giovanni Andrea Nola in Italy about 1530.

“We analyzed different parts of the stain, the text ink, paper, and parchment and made some spectral curves,” Connelly said. “It shows that a certain portion of the stain is ink that was washed out, but there is something else there that is entirely different. It isn’t water. It isn’t ink. It doesn’t match paper or parchment.”

To solve the mystery, future researchers will have to compare to present-day acids to continue to narrow down the possibilities, she says. “A lot of this has told us what it’s not,” she says. “It’s a starting point for further research.”

Click here to visit the Labeculae Vivae website or follow them on Twitter @LabeculaeVivae

Our thanks to Louisa Shepard and the University of Pennsylvania for this article. 


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