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Scrutinizing Medieval Manuscripts
August 29, 2013   
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Researchers from the Jagiellonian University in Cracow have deciphered some of the Romanesque manuscripts from the local ìBerlinkaî collectionóincluding the 12th-century Historia Regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain), the oldest surviving copy of a pseudohistorical account of British history written around 1136 by Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Historia Regum Britanniae is written in Latin prose and relates the legends of the pre-Saxon kings of Britain.

The Berlinka collection, started in the 17th century in Berlin, comprises about 500,000 archival items, including manuscripts of the likes of Boccaccio, Giordano Bruno, Martin Luther, and scores by the likes of Mozart and Bach. It is widely considered to be a gem of European art and culture. The collection reached Cracow’s Jagiellonian Library in the wake of World War II after it was found in a Cistercian abbey at Krzeszów in Poland’s southwestern Lower Silesia province. Before the war, most of that area was part of Germany and Krzeszów was called Grüssau.

The work on the manuscripts was conducted by 10 researchers from the Institute of Romance Language Studies at the Jagiellonian University led by Prof. Piotr Tylus.

As part of the project, the Cracow researchers have examined a total of 467 French, Italian, Spanish, Catalan and Portuguese manuscripts, beginning in 2008. They have established when and where these were created. They have also traced their history and even identified the owners of some of them. Before the scientists began to analyze the text, they carefully described the manuscripts, including their bindings (often pages of other works were used to make the backs of these manuscripts), the number of pages and illustrations. Most of the manuscripts are written in languages that are no longer used today such as old French, old Italian, old Spanish, old Catalonian and old Portuguese. The researchers’ job was made difficult by the fact that a system of abbreviations was used in those days to save on parchment and paper, which were expensive at the time.

The manuscripts examined by Tylus’s team are of high value to book collectors and librarians. Some of them are worth several million euros—though they are not up for sale.

Of special note is a 15th-century French manuscript with a unique leather and gold binding. A medieval master craftsman put thin flakes of gold on the leather and then engraved them. There are only three known works with such a binding around the world, according to the researchers.

In addition to literary texts, the Cracow researchers have managed to decipher medical and veterinary manuscripts about the treatment of horses as well as French cookbooks dating from the 16th to the 19th centuries.

The team conducted their research under the Financial Mechanism of the European Economic Area, securing 720,000 euros for this purpose. The project was also supported by the Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education. In the future, the researchers say they would like to focus on other manuscripts at the Jagiellonian Library.

Elżbieta Szumiec-Zielińska
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