books and digitization are not hands-on manuscript science

Steven Avery

This was originally placed here:

'old parchment becomes rigid and cannot be folded and unfolded'


The more we study the Codex the more we see the problem of manuscript science being done from digital or books, without a hands-on. This is important, and we want to see where else it is addressed!


A Science Warning from Kathryn M. Rudy

Dirty Books: Quantifying Patterns of Use in Medieval Manuscripts Using a Densitometer (2010)
Kathryn M. Rudy

As we listen to the last gasp of the physical book, it is important to think about this material evidence and what it represents. What we have to gain by digitization and by abandoning the book as a physical object may be negated by what we have to lose. An important article by Nicholson Baker published in the New Yorker speaks to this issue. Baker decries the destruction of the card catalogue in favor of the digital catalogue, pointing out that the card catalogue, like the physical book, can preserve signs of wear in a way that its digital counterpart cannot.21

I make a similar plea that, as libraries continue to digitize medieval illuminations, they continue to grant access to the physical objects, which always hold more evidence than we first perceive. The Koninklijke Bibliotheek in The Hague, which preserves many of the examples taken up in this study, for example, has been in the forefront of digitizing images from its illuminated manuscripts, but at the same time has reduced the opening hours of its reading rooms. But they have done so partly because the reading rooms are frequently empty. It would seem that manuscript historians are largely content to study a digital copy from home if it exists. The convenience of digital facsimiles might be heralding the end of codicological approaches to manuscript studies. This is lamentable, as there is much subtle information stored in the physical object.

1 Nicholson Baker, “Discards,”New Yorker,April 4, 1994, I thank Mark Meadow for bringing this article to my attention.

This is clearly a major problem with the current uncial science. Hardly anybody speaks even of handling the uncials that are famous in the UK, Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus and Bezae. So a scholar like Dirk Jongkind, writing a book on "Scribal Habits", where the date of the manuscript is a key aspect, is essentially flying blind. He has lots of books and transcriptions, and he may have seen Sinaiticus a bit, but he never even saw Alexandrinus for comparison. (Remember, Skeat and Milne said that Alexandrinus vellum was "limp, dead" in comparison.)

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