The Wellcome Library, one of the world’s foremost collections for medical history, holds around 300 pre-1500 European manuscripts relating to medicine, astrology, alchemy and many other subjects. As part of the Library’s ambitious digitization strategy, these manuscripts are currently being digitized (http://blog.wellcomelibrary.org/2014/05/digitising-the-librarys-medieval...), and will become freely available via a bespoke digital display tool, the player (http://blog.wellcomelibrary.org/2012/11/the-player-a-new-way-of-viewing-...). As the Library’s subject specialist in medieval and early modern medicine, I am closely involved in the medieval manuscripts digitization project, including the enhancement of catalogue metadata, which will appear alongside the digital object in the player. I am also developing an online learning and research resource on premodern medicine and health, in which a selection of the digitized manuscripts will feature, as well as cover-to-cover digital printed books.
The digitization of medieval manuscripts presents particular challenges, in terms of protecting fragile items from damage during photography, replicating their physical foliation digitally (so that users can navigate easily between pages), dealing with loose inserts, signifying separate works within a single codex, representing special formats like scrolls, and other issues. Some manuscripts are foliated in an idiosyncratic manner, necessitating the manual tweaking of digital foliation. My contribution at Roots & Routes will focus on a Wellcome manuscript to which several of these issues are pertinent, Western ms. 275. This volume measures 25 x 18 cm, and contains 16 vellum leaves, enclosed in a binding of thick wooden boards with a vellum spine. The text consists of inventories in Italian of the possessions of the hospital of San Giovanni Battista Decollato, Florence, from 1387 to the mid-fifteenth century.
Unusually, the manuscript has been begun from both ends, but the foliation added later is continuous from one end to the other, meaning that the text is upside down and in reverse sequence in relation to the folio numbers on some pages (fos 11v.–15v.). On the exterior of one of the wooden boards is a fine painting of St John the Baptist; there are no illustrations within the manuscript. Several leaves are missing from the volume’s centre.
This text is undoubtedly important to historians of hospitals, since medieval Florence was a leading centre of medical care. Since much of the manuscript material for Florentine hospitals remains in Florence, digitization will enable this manuscript to be studied alongside relevant documents housed outside the Wellcome Library. San Giovanni Battista Decollato, also known as the Spedale dei Portatori, was founded in 1297 and had 14 beds, making it a relatively small establishment. It functioned until 1542, meaning that these inventories mark its possessions while it was in regular use. The inventories reveal the kinds of objects required in a modestly sized hospital, from beds, to cooking implements, to chapel ornaments. They also evidence a continuous process of recordkeeping over an extended period. On one page (fo. 8r.), items are checked off, demonstrating how inventories were actually taken.
The manuscript is remarkable for the artwork on one of the boards, which is of interest to art historians and raises questions about the status of this object, since its contents are practical and unadorned, but care was taken to provide a beautiful binding. Artistic patronage was important in late medieval Florentine hospitals, and the manuscript refers to another image of the saint in the hospital’s possession, made of wood (fo. 15v.).
The decorated binding presents a challenge to photography, since it must be carefully protected during any handling. Once photographed, the digital presentation of the manuscript is complicated by its internal organisation. Since the text begins at both ends, it will be essential for users to be able to rotate the images so that they can read text that will initially appear upside down in our player. The accompanying metadata will need to explain clearly how the foliation works in relation to this peculiarity. The point at which leaves are missing should also be clearly signposted.
I have long been fascinated by the significance of documents as material objects within the societies that produced them. At the Roots & Routes Institute I hope to explore questions of materiality and sociability through dialogue with other participants, as well as to gain valuable skills in digital methodologies. I hope to gain feedback and advice regarding both this specific digital object, and the broader premodern digital projects I am working on.