"There is a
dissonance between these 1,000-year-old cultural artifacts and the technology we're using to make them available."

Charles Faulhaber

The widespread use of technology throughout the humanities has produced a synergy similar to that found in the multidisciplinary art centers discussed above. The Digital Scriptorium is an example of a far-reaching project that could spark a renaissance in medieval studies by greatly improving access to medieval manuscripts.

These manuscripts are essential to any serious scholar of the Middle Ages, but the task of finding and viewing them usually proves to be a formidable challenge. Carefully preserved in a handful of elite libraries around the world, medieval manuscripts are accessible only to those who can locate them in the first place -- a process that takes a good deal of sleuthing, mixed with patience and luck -- and who then have the means to travel to the library. Once there, the researcher may discover a document whose words and fine art would be of great interest to the public, but no one can view it outside the closely guarded reading rooms.

Charles Faulhaber, director of The Bancroft Library and a professor of medieval Spanish literature, is spearheading the Digital Scriptorium, a joint venture between Berkeley and Columbia University. Faulhaber and his counterparts at Columbia have spent the past several years building a vast database of digital reproductions and catalogue descriptions of manuscripts dating from the 8th to 15th centuries, whose words and illustrations were painstakingly copied by hand before the advent of printing. Some 10,000 images and accompanying descriptions are now available on a UC Berkeley web site at http://sunsite.Berkeley.edu/Scriptorium/.

Thousands of these manuscripts still exist and contain a wealth of details about the literature, religion, music, urban and rural life, customs, and scientific knowledge of the Middle Ages. They also contain page after page of well-preserved artistic works, as manuscript painting was considered a high art, yet they're virtually unknown to the public and generally receive only spotty attention from art historians due to the difficulty of viewing them.

Judas
Iscariot
betrays
Christ in the
garden of
Gethsemane.
See reference page

"This represents a democratization of scholarship," says Faulhaber. "Scholars at any institution -- not just a major university, but small liberal arts colleges, community colleges, and those working independently -- will now have access to these primary source materials without having to go physically to the major libraries. It makes the place much less of a factor than it used to be."

The project's name captures the odd juxtaposition of high tech and antiquity. "Digital," of course, refers to the mode of reproducing and transmitting the material on computers, while "scriptorium" refers to the anachronistic art of copying texts, which typically was done by monks in a room known as a scriptorium.

"There is a dissonance between these 1,000-year-old cultural artifacts and the technology we're using to make them available," remarked Faulhaber while loading a manuscript image on his computer. Within the frame of his web browser appeared a yellow parchment covered with neat columns of Gothic calligraphy. Initial letters were enlarged within the text and adorned with gold-painted flourishes, while multi-hued ornamentation and miniature illustrations decorated the margins.

The Digital Scriptorium, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, originally involved only select manuscripts housed at the Bancroft and Columbia's Rare Book and Manuscript Library. A recent grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, however, will allow Faulhaber and his collaborators to expand the project and digitize manuscripts at the Huntington Library, the New York Public Library, and the University of Texas Library. A primary goal of the project, says Faulhaber, is to convince other libraries -- particularly libraries in Europe, where most medieval manuscripts are stored -- that the Digital Scriptorium prototype works and is a worthwhile endeavor to emulate.

Faulhaber currently is at work with programmers to fine-tune the database so researchers can conduct searches based on an image's particular characteristics. For example, if a scholar found a manuscript with a certain number of lines, a specific page size, or a particular style of letters, then he or she could search to find documents with matching characteristics, which likely would yield additional manuscripts written in the same time and place.

Faulhaber has devoted much of his academic career to improving access to primary sources for the study of medieval literature, an interest that developed while he was working on his dissertation at Yale University in the late 1960s. He wanted to study literature from 13th- and 14th-century Castile -- in particular, the influence of classic authors on these works from the Middle Ages -- but his research yielded little at first. "I had this topic I wanted to work on and realized there was really no information to work with," he recalls.

He was able to track down original manuscripts, however, "and once I started looking at medieval manuscripts, I was hooked. They're incredibly beautiful, and you never know what you're going to find. The kind of handcraft that went into them creates a work of art, and because they've been protected and shielded from light, they still look the way they did when they were created."

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