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Creating a Digital Catalogue of the Latin Manuscripts at the John Rylands Library

Dr Jo Edge writes:

I’ve been employed at the John Rylands Library since August 2018, tasked with creating digital catalogue entries for the collection of 500+ Latin manuscripts by the end of 2019.

These items span a date range of about 1,300 years, from the seventh to the nineteenth centuries CE. The geographic origins of the collection are equally dispersed, with items from all over Western Europe. The collection also includes a range of formats – codices (books), rolls and scrolls made for varied usages. We have large, richly decorated books for rulers and monarchs, such as the Ottonian Gospels (MS 98), produced for Emperor Otto III between 996-1002.

Ottonian Gospels, Latin MS 98, f. 11r – The Eusebian canons.

Other manuscripts were produced for more practical use, such as the account book of Edward II of England (MS 132) for the years 1323-24.

Latin MS 132
Account book of Edward II, Latin MS 32, f. 5r – A list of the food and drink bought for the King’s Garderobe for 1323-24, including venison, brie, lampreys and quail.

Some are richly decorated and impeccably written such as the Rylands Beatus (MS 8), a commentary on the Book of Revelation produced in Spain in the twelfth century; while others are in a rough script, such as our earliest item in the collection, the Ravenna Papyrus (MS 1) – a donation by military leader Johannes of half his land to the church of Ravenna, produced circa 600.

Beatus’s Commentary on the Apocalypse, Latin MS 8, f. 89r – Lamb with cross.
Deed of Donation, c.600 CE, Latin MS 1, lines 1-23.

What all the hugely varied items in this collection have in common is that they are all written by hand, and are wholly or mainly in Latin.

Most of the Latin manuscripts were acquired by the Library in the first decade of the twentieth century, from the bequest of Enriqueta Rylands, and other acquisitions. The collection was partially catalogued by M. R. James in 1921. James produced catalogue entries of varied detail for MSS 1-183. Most of the rest were brought together in Moses Tyson’s handlist of 1928 which provides a sentence-long description of each manuscript. MSS 184 onwards were then partially catalogued by Neil Ker in 1980. Ker’s work was intended for completion and publication, but he died before this was possible. Fortunately, we have his typewritten, scribbled-on drafts to work with. Around the same time as Ker was producing his catalogue, then-librarian Frank Taylor made additions to James’s catalogue, which was reissued in 1980. As well as the work of James, Tyson, Ker and Taylor, various scholars have produced detailed work on particular manuscripts in the collection, often revising or even contradicting assertions made by James. One such example is Benjamin Pohl’s 2017 article in the Bulletin of the John Rylands Library on Latin MS 182 – a twelfth-century copy of Bede’s ‘Ecclesiastical History’, probably produced at the monastery of Gladbach, near Cologne.
Opening page of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, Latin MS 182 f. 1v.

This, then, is the extent of current cataloguing of the manuscripts in the Latin collection. It is an excellent base on which to build a digital catalogue.

There is not yet a standardised way to catalogue medieval manuscripts digitally, and different repositories use different software and methods. Here in Manchester, we are working with Cambridge University Digital Library who are providing us with a new online image viewer – Manchester Digital Collections. Following Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) principles in XML, I am currently retro-converting James and Taylor’s catalogue into digital files – I’ll then move on to Tyson and Ker. Once that is done, I will check all the entries against the original manuscripts, and create new entries for those items not included in any of the existing catalogues.

These descriptions are not intended in any way to be the ‘final word’. I am not an expert on the 1300 years of history represented in the Latin collection, and I only have another 9 months in post. The wonderful thing about digital records is that they can be modified. I hope to create at least basic records for all 500+ manuscripts (we are still in the process of allotting shelfmarks to some of our newer items!), which can be added to as further scholarship is carried out on particular manuscripts – or indeed, should the Library be able to employ another cataloguer in future.

As I work through the James catalogue, I often contact colleagues at other institutions who may be interested in particular manuscripts I encounter. For example, when I catalogued the Edward II account book (MS 132) mentioned earlier, I got in touch with several colleagues who work on Edward to see if they knew about it. Despite having been catalogued by James, there is currently no easy way to search the Rylands collection online, so it may have been overlooked. It transpired that several Edward scholars did not know about this document, which provides important information about the king’s finances and social relations for a crucial year in his life – he was in the grip of the hated Despenser family and dealing with tense relationships with France.

Repositories do not exist in a vacuum; the manuscripts in any one library or collection were usually acquired piecemeal at some point in the past – and so manuscripts that once belonged together are often now dispersed across repositories all over the world. The scholars who are expert in particular topics are spread around different institutions, or perhaps independent. I see reaching out to various colleagues as a vital part of my role. Twitter may have its downsides, but it facilitates scholars making these sorts of invaluable, instant connections.



2 comments on “Creating a Digital Catalogue of the Latin Manuscripts at the John Rylands Library

  1. Reblogged this on Dr. Jo Edge and commented:
    What I do from 9-5

  2. Pingback: Cataloguing Manuscripts: A Historian’s Reflections – The John Rylands Library Special Collections Blog

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