Manuscript Laboratory, Part 1: Determining Provenance and Descriptive Bibliography Initial Instructions and Tips

        Before the next class, go to the web page from this hyperlink: Manuscript Laboratory, Part 1, and concentrate on the folio assigned to you.  As in the case of the printed book laboratory, I encourage you to discuss what you see with your lab partner(s) and other members of the class.  Attempt to describe it to the best of your ability, working only from the "digital surrogate," the hyperlinked scanned image linked to the table on the MS Lab page, and follow the further instructions you find there.  It's OK to feel puzzled, curious, even at a loss for what to do next, but try to avoid getting frustrated by sharing the task with your colleagues.  You also are encouraged to ask the instructors questions, though "what is it and who wrote it" probably will not get a straight-forward answer.  This is the next stage in your training to "tolerate mystery as a precondition to discovery."  Use the "Worksheet" version of the itemized list below to help you organize your evidence.

        You will have access to the actual manuscript leaves during Special Collections' ordinary operating hours (usually 8 to 4 M-F).  In general, remember that paper manuscripts, like paper printed books, are far more fragile than even most older manuscripts on parchment.  Paper flakes and tears easily, whereas parchment is highly resistant to flaking and almost impossible to tear (but don't try!).  This manuscript is exceptionally fragile.  Its condition already has deteriorated significantly since its discovery.  Keep the leaves in their Mylar sleeves, and avoid bending them, resting them on their archival board folders unless it is absolutely necessary to hold the sleeved leaf, itself (e.g., to check with the Zelco light or daylight for chainlines or watermarks).

Provenance:  Where did this come from?  The current source of the MS often is obvious, and in the absence of other visible evidence, you should begin by asking its current owner/conservator where s/he got it.  Do not take on faith what any current owner says about a document, but if the story matches the observable facts, that establishes the first link in the chain of provenance by which the manuscript's origins can be described.  Be prepared for breaks in that chain, and for the possibility that it may never reach backward in time to the MS's author and place of origin and original purpose.  At those points, textual evidence may help us infer plausible hypotheses.  Click here for quick help.

Description of Content (Author / Text / Relation to Other Versions in MS or Print):  Because your digitized leaves are linked to large images, this can be done most easily from the digital images, thereby reducing stress on the documents, themselves.  Begin by transcribing the text of your leaf as well as you can.  Work with your lab partner on this part.  Shift as needed from the smaller to the larger image.  The more eyes are on the manuscript, the better you can learn to read its hand.  Can you recognize the text, itself, or the style in which it was composed?  Was the manuscript ever edited for print?  If so, is it a pre- or post-print manuscript of the work.  Even if you cannot recognize it on your own, you still may be able to identify the text and/or the author.  Remember what we have learned in the digital text/archive portion of the course.  Digital surrogates of print and MS texts have flooded the Internet.  As the years go by, your manuscript, or some printed state of it, is increasingly likely to appear as a digital surrogate somewhere on the web.  How would you go about searching for it?

Physical Description--Paper size (h/w in cm.); Text block size (h/w in cm); Paper composition (chainlines?  watermarks?): This will be possible using the digital images of the MS only to the degree that you can tell whether the images' colors are truly representative of the original, whether they reveal chainlines or other traces of hand-laid paper, and what size the original document was.  Does the digital image tell you those things?  Hint: compare it with an archival quality digital image online.  What is missing from your MS folio's image that provides that information in the archival quality image?  Even with that missing source of data, always remember, the digital surrogate is not the original document.  For the best research, only "autoptic" (with your own eyeballs) examination of the original will do.

Number of leaves/folia/pages: Is this a complete text?  Or is it missing its "head" or "foot" leaves, or are leaves missing from within it?  Again, does the digital surrogate tell you the whole story, or do you need autoptic access to the original document?

Imposition of text on leaves/folia/pages:  How was the text laid out on the original paper leaf?  Remember from the print lab that authors, like printers, can make more efficient use of limited paper stocks by writing smaller and folding the leaves to double or quadruple (etc.) the number of available folia for inscription.  Again, does the digital surrogate tell you the whole story, or do you need autoptic access to the original document?

Further issues:

Lines per page (most/least, average):  Methodical scribes copying a known document tend to plan the size of their lines in order to make sure they can finish transcribing the lines of their exemplar on the available leaves.  Medieval scribes pricked and ruled each page to make it easier to stick to this discipline.  Authors composing new texts in MS have less control over how long their copy will be, but they can use tricks like abbreviation to make efficient use of the page (see below).

Words per line (most/least, average):  When comparing MS hands, don't overlook the writer's habitual word spacing, which can be an important clue to the identity of the scribe who wrote a given MS. 

Characteristics of the script (era, formality, abbreviations, distinctive letter forms)  Pay attention to the formation of capital and miniscule letters, comparing them from word to word.  Your best comparisons will come when differing words repeat similar letter combinations that will allow you to see "ligatures," the linking lines which the pen makes on the move from one letter to the next.  What letters are formed separately from the rest?  Pay special attention to capitals.  Autograph signatures often contain unique letter forms because their authors practice those letter combinations so frequently, and autographs often are stylized intentionally to express personality or to frustrate forgery.  (KreugerBooks Rare and Fine Books maintains an image bank of modern authors' signatures that can be of some help ruling in or out a given author's autograph signature.)

Other document evidence not visible in digital surrogate