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UCL Special Collections


Updates from one of the foremost university collections of manuscripts, archives and rare books in the UK


It’s alive! Or the Cuteness of Paper Memory.

By Angela Warren-Thomas, on 28 September 2018

Written by Laurent Cruveillier


UCL Special Collections possesses a collection of medieval and early modern fragments, including 157 manuscripts and nine early prints.

Most were recovered from bindings of other manuscripts or early printed books, where they had been used as spine linings, paste-downs or covering material.

The conservation process of the printed paper fragments is now nearing completion, and more will be shared on the theme, but along the way, one particular set of four 16th century, probably Italian, fragments of Aristotle’s “Ethica Nichomachea” (PRINT FRAG/4) behaved in such an endearing way that it inspired one of the involved conservators to produce a short clip.

In this film, one sees how providing the tiniest amount of moisture helps the paper fibres finding their original position, in an almost organic and live motion, as if they had kept the memory of how they were laid, centuries ago.

Witnessing their movement was such a thrill that we wanted to share it with you.

Learn more about the collection:

‘The Lover’s Confession’: students research Confessio Amantis fragment

By Helen Biggs, on 23 April 2018

This post contributed by Calum Cockburn and Lauren Rozenberg.

On the 8th and 9th December 2017, UCL Special Collections hosted the third workshop in the Digital Editing and the Medieval Manuscript Fragment series (DEMMF), organised and taught jointly by UCL and Yale postgraduates students to twelve graduate students (the majority of whom are UCL-based).

The workshop began with a lecture on UCL’s manuscript fragment collection and a handling session held at the Institute of Education library led by Katy Makin (UCL Library Services). A huge variety of materials was on on display, including a leaf from a music manuscript, once thought to have been used as a binding for an Early Modern book; a thirteenth-century breviary with a charming inhabited initial; a Hebrew papyrus from the Book of Genesis; and a tiny piece of parchment with lines from Euripides’ Medea. Examining these materials, the participants were introduced to the unique and complex challenges literary scholars and digital editors face in creating literary editions from medieval manuscript fragments, fragments that often vary considerably in size and shape, in the legibility of their scripts and hands, in the nature of their decoration and layout, and the amount of damage they have sustained during their different lifetimes.

The students examining the the Confessio Amantis fragment.

The ultimate aim of this workshop was the collaborative transcription, encoding and publishing of a digital edition of a four-leaf fragment of the Confessio Amantis ‘the Lover’s Confession’ (MS FRAG / ANGL / 1), dated from the fifteenth-century and now housed in UCL Special Collections. This poem is a 33,000-line Middle English work by John Gower (d. 1408), a contemporary of Chaucer (d. 1400), whose compositions were particularly popular during the late medieval period. This text alone survives in 59 copies, one of the most copied manuscripts that survives to us, alongside the Canterbury Tales and Piers Plowman, written by William Langland (d. 1386). The Confessio uses the confession by an ageing love to the chaplain of Venus as the framework for a long series of shorter narrative poems, linked thematically by each of the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’. UCL’s fragment is unique in the collection in that its four leaves were given their own brand new binding at the turn of the twentieth century. It originates from Book V of the poem, concerning Avarice.


Two details from MS FRAG / ANGL / 1

To aid them in the creation of their edition of this text, the graduate students took part in a series of discussions and exercises concerning the palaeography and codicology of fragments, digital editing and TEI markup, the use of XML editing tools, most notably oXygen software, and project-based collaboration in the digital arena. Subsequent sessions across the two-day event focused on the teaching of common markup languages and the Text Encoding Initiative.
Subsequently, this expertise was used to mark-up and encode UCL Special Collections’ Confessio Amantis. The fragment itself reflects issues frequently encountered by digital editors of manuscripts and fragments. Most significantly, the fragment’s leaves are actually bound in the wrong order, an observation unrecorded in the manuscript catalogue itself.

Students and instructors examining the Confessio Amantis fragment and discussing its features.

The first folio ranges from lines 775 to 966 of Bk. V while the second one jumps to line 1735 continuing to 1926, before returning to lines 1159 to 1541 over the last two folios. Additionally, the fragment includes numerous small illuminated initials and marginal Latin glosses, separate from the main body of the text, and this raised questions across the weekend as to what the workshop participants should mark up and thus include in their edition itself. Such issues prompted the students to think about the nature of the text and the materiality of medieval manuscripts, and to consider fragments as objects rather than simply illustrated books.

Special Collections provided invaluable high definition images of the fragments. This helped students to prepare their own transcriptions of each manuscript page, and in addition better grasp the necessity for scholars of medieval manuscripts in the digital age. Digital reproductions can indeed alter our experience of the text in different and unforeseen ways. The finished digital edition of our own fragment will be published online at the end of this year, accompanying an edition of another item in Special Collections, a medical manuscript (MS / Lat / 7), transcribed and encoded during a similar workshop that took place during the summer.

The December workshop was made possible thanks to the support of UCL Doctoral School, the Octagon Small Grant Fund, the UCL English Department and Yale Beinecke Rare Book & Music Library. We’re especially grateful to Katy Makin (UCL Special Collections Archivist), for allowing us access to the fragment collection and assembling these materials on the day, and to Dr. Alex Lee (UCL SELCS), for all her palaeographic expertise and help in the transcription of the document itself.

The DEMMF workshop was coordinated by Dana Kovarik (UCL PGR English). The team of instructors included Ph.D. students from a number of different departments and institutions. From UCL’s Arts & Humanities and Social & Historical Sciences faculties: Calum Cockburn (UCL PGR English), Lauren Rozenberg (UCL PGR History of Art), Agata Zielinska (UCL PGR History). From Yale University: Gina Marie Hurley (Yale PGR Medieval Studies) and Mireille Pardon (Yale PGR) as well as Stephanie Azzarello from Cambridge University (Pembroke College, History of Art).

Advent Definitions: Holiday fragments

By Helen Biggs, on 22 December 2017

Contributed by Katy Makin, UCL Archivist

R 221 DICTIONARIES ANON 1779 – A pocket dictionary : or, complete English expositor (London, 1779)

References to ecclesiastical festivals, or ‘holy-days’ feature strongly in our collection of manuscript fragments. These are around 150 pieces of medieval and early modern manuscripts, primarily leaves from liturgical texts such as missals, breviaries, psalters, and bibles, but also including biblical commentaries and key legal and philosophical texts of the medieval period.

They exist as fragments because they were recycled as decorative covers and endpapers or to reinforce the binding of printed books, which was common practice from the end of the medieval period onwards. Most of our fragments were probably ‘rescued’ from bindings in the 20th century.

Unsurprisingly, both the recycling and the rescuing caused a great deal of damage to the leaves. Helpfully, this damage now provides clues as to how the pieces were used. Here is a piece that was used as an outer cover:

MS FRAG/LAT/30 Fragment of a Missal, C13th

Note the shape – it has been cut so that the edges form tabs to wrap around wooden boards. The tabs are much cleaner than the rest of the page because they were protected by being inside the book.

MS FRAG/LAT/4 Fragment of a Breviary, C13th

Unfortunately, being on the inside hasn’t protected this piece, which was used as an end pastedown. The brown patches around the edges are remnants of leather binding from where it was glued to the inner surface of the board and some of the large decorated initial N has been lifted away by the adhesive.

MS FRAG/LAT/62 Fragment of a Missal, C14th?

This piece has a special relevance to this advent blog because it is a page from a missal (a book containing prayers, chants, readings and rubrics for the celebration of Mass) showing the text for the Mass on Christmas Eve.

The text for Christmas Eve begins at the red writing, or rubric, a little over half way down the first column, which says “In vigilia nativitatis. Intro[itus]” – i.e. “The Vigil of the Nativity. Introduction”

On the next line, and elsewhere on the page, you’ll notice a large gap where a decorated initial letter should be. This is because when manuscripts were made it was normal for the main text to be written first and the rubrics, initials and decoration to be added afterwards, sometimes by different people. In this example, the scribe has left a space for the capital H of “Hodie scietis” and other large initials but these were never completed.

This raises questions about the original manuscript. Why was it left unfinished? What would it have looked like if it had been completed? Was this page ever used by a religious community to celebrate Christmas Eve? Whatever the answer, the fact is that this page, intended for use during Advent and Christmas, may be the only surviving piece of the original manuscript. Whether Christmas is to you a “holy day” or a “holiday”, it’s a poignant link to the past and the traditions that we continue to celebrate centuries later.

The whole of the MS Fragments collection has been digitised and will be available online soon.

In the meantime, extended descriptions of all the fragments can be found in our catalogue

Advent Definitions: Jingling books

By Tabitha Tuckett, on 12 December 2017

UCL Special Collections R 221 DICTIONARIES WEBSTER 1869 – Webster, The people’s dictionary of the English language (London, [1869?])

Does today’s Advent word leave you humming seasonal songs, whether you like Jingle Bells or not? If so, UCL Special Collections can offer you the comfort (or irritation) that people have been singing for centuries. To get you into the spirit, here is what might look very like a singer or musical scribe, perched inside an initial letter in one of our illuminated manuscript Bibles from the late 13th or early 14th century:

UCL Special Collections MS LAT 9

Before you attempt to climb inside a book and start singing, it’s worth saying that this is in fact most likely to be a representation of Baruch, scribe of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, hard at work in the many days before computers.

To see what Mediaeval musical scores actually looked like, find out about our musical Mediaeval manuscript fragments. They are fragments because almost all were re-used at a later date for non-musical purposes, such as book covers, paste-downs to secure leather book-bindings, or hidden reinforcement elsewhere in the bindings of books. Now salvaged, one of the earliest in our collection, from 11th-century Germany, might not look much like today’s sheet music (the little ticks above the words, known as ‘neumes’, are the musical notation):

UCL Special Collections MS FRAG/MUSIC/8

but, as an antiphonal intended to be sung by two alternating voices or choirs, it would probably have made a sound closer to the corresponding jingle of our 18th-century Advent Definition (even without the English rhymes you’d dread in an advertisement jingle):


UCL Special Collections R 221 DICTIONARIES PERRY 1778 – Perry, The ro[yal] standard English dictionary (Edinburgh, [1778])

To go back to our studious figure above, the rare book we found him in is a Latin Bible with a particularly interesting history: at some point before being given to UCL, it belonged to a refugee who came to England fleeing persecution in Spain, carrying the family Bible with him on mules, its original binding having been ripped off to make the book lighter to transport in a hurry. This at least is what we learn from a dramatic account of the book’s condition given in a letter dated 1859 that now appears inside the front cover. The refugee and the book arrived safely, the latter now handsomely protected in a beautiful, neo-Mediaeval binding from WH Smith probably dating from 1904. Read more about this book and its story in Treasures From UCL.

If I’m honest, one of the closest things to a jingle that I could find among UCL’s rare books was the sound this chained book makes every time I bring it out. The book (MS LAT 4), containing various manuscripts from the 14th and 15th centuries, was probably part of the chained library of Würzburg, and the chain would have been used to attach it to the shelves to make sure nobody walked off with it.

If all this talk of jingles and Christmas music is the last thing you want to hear at this time of year, you’re probably feeling like stamping on the nearest piano, in which case you might take comfort from the great Nicholas brothers doing just that in 1943 or, if this doesn’t help and you’d prefer to see cats rather than carols emerging from musical instruments in December, try Fred Astaire taking it one step further with his ‘piano dance’ from the 1950 film, Let’s Dance. I’ll leave you to search for a clip of that while I go off for a spot of carol-singing.

Dr. Tabitha Tuckett, Rare-Books Librarian

Volunteers’ Week – A Day in the Life

By Vicky A Price, on 1 June 2017


Its the start of Volunteers’ Week today and we would like to say an emphatic THANK YOU to every single person who has offered their time and expertise over the past year to UCL’s SCAR department, without whom many a project would have been difficult or even impossible to complete.

There is a wide range of roles that volunteers can take up within SCAR: helping with events, sorting through new collections, enhancing cataloguing, assisting in exhibition preparation, helping with our media and online communications (the list goes on!).  Throughout Volunteers’ Week we intend to share a snapshot of some of these roles with you.  Each week day from today to the 7th June, a guest volunteer writer will bring you a ‘day in their life’.

Our first blog is from Calum Cockburn, who recently started to help us improve our understanding (and therefore cataloguing) of some of our manuscript fragments.

Calum Cockburn: Manuscript Fragment Volunteer

Part of MS Frag/Lat/7, a twelfth century manuscript fragment

Part of MS Frag/Lat/7, a twelfth century manuscript fragment

My work as a volunteer involves studying and transcribing Special Collections’ manuscript fragments, checking their catalogue references, and identifying the texts they might contain. My current project is MS Frag / Lat / 7, a twelfth-century Latin manuscript, composed of six loose folios, apparently taken from different parts of the book. The manuscript is full of wonderful details: two columns of Latin text, with many unusual scribal abbreviations; long-fingered manicules pointing to specific lines; large decorated initials; blue and red paraph marks and rubrication; many examples of later fourteenth- and fifteenth-century annotations and stains on both flesh and hair sides, suggesting that at one time it was well-used.

The texts the manuscript contains have proven difficult to identify – not least because the surviving pages are not always consecutive – though at least one appears to be a copy of a treatise on vomiting and stomach purgations by Pietro d’Abano, an early medieval Italian astrologer, professor of medicine and infamous compiler of magic texts.

Excitingly, the manuscript is also the subject of the latest in a series of workshops jointly run by Yale and UCL: ‘Digital Editing and the Medieval Manuscript Roll / Fragment’ (DEMMR/F). This two-day event happening in the first week of June will use the manuscript fragments housed in Special Collections as a means of training attendants in palaeography and manuscript studies (their original purpose when they were first bought by UCL almost a hundred years ago), and at the same time consider the issues around creating digital editions of such texts.