From manuscript fragments to book history

Conference report

Fragmentary Christian Texts of the Middle Ages: Contents, Methods, Challenges, University of Bergen, 11-12 April 2016

In April 2016, the project From Manuscript Fragments to Book History invited scholars to a two-day conference on fragmentary texts from different medieval Christian cultures. The first day was dedicated to papers, in which speakers gave an insight into the current state of research in their fields: medieval liturgical studies and Latin paleography, Byzantinology and linguistics, studies from the Slavonic, Coptic and Nubian literary milieus. On the second day, methodological and technical questions were discussed in a round table. This report sums up thoughts, results and perspectives from this discussion.


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Definition of a fragment

A fragment might be anything between a tiny piece of a manuscript leaf, several pieces that can be puzzled together to leaves spread throughout a manuscript, and incomplete manuscripts, in which entire quires are preserved. There are parchment and paper codices, papyrus rolls or codices, and inscriptions on various materials. The degree of fragmentation as such varies according to the reasons and techniques involved in the fragmentation (for instance as remnants of accidentally damaged codices or the result of book-binding), and the conditions of preservation and archiving.

Representativeness of fragments

The chances of the preservation of a manuscript are very unequal even within the same region. A good example is Egypt, where there are no finds from the humid Nile Delta, while there is a richer corpus of literary and documentary fragments from the upper parts of the Nile and Nubia. How representative fragments are of the entire corpus of literature largely depends on which region we work on and the individual conditions of preservation and recovery. For instance, Christian texts from medieval Nubia are almost exclusively preserved in fragmentary form. From medieval Norway, there are many more fragments than there are complete Latin codices, as is the case for Coptic literature. Conversely, the proportion of fragments to complete codices is comparatively small in Italy. Accordingly, scholars might estimate the information value of textual fragments differently depending on how fragmentary witnesses relate to the whole. In addition, access to the material or even ethical restrictions (see below) might have led to different research priorities. We would like to stress that fragments are worth studying in their own right and add unique informational value even within the context of larger corpora.

State of preservation

The state of the preservation depends on factors such as the material the text was written on, storage conditions such as climate, the type of use and re-use over time, the veneration with which manuscripts were treated (for instance as objects of worship and carriers of spiritual meaning), the changing ability of users to understand the texts, ways of discarding the material, and not least political circumstances. Many of these factors have not been investigated sufficiently. Text witnesses can be preserved in fragmentary form because they are the remains of manuscripts accidentally destroyed over time, but they can also have been fragmentised intentionally after the text became inappreciable while the material value of the carrier was highly estimated. Even within the first group, fragments can have been re-purposed before being exposed to corruption. Supposedly, the chronology of re-purposing and corruption must be evaluated from case to case. We need more studies to find constants in size, form, intent and so on before we can answer these questions for a given corpus.

Fragments as manuscript witnesses

Between different medieval Christian cultures, we find a surprising similarity in the character of the manuscript as an object and its treatment. This can partly be explained by the unifying effect of Christendom as a book culture, as well as by cultural contacts between people of similar (i.e. often clerical) professions, but also more generally by the common ways in which humans treat culturally significant objects. In all study areas, we found a gap between the production of liturgical books connected to worship and a productive theological discourse. This is paralleled by the mostly conservative nature of the liturgy as opposed to the innovation associated with theology. The spheres of production and use must therefore be separately considered and analysed. It must be noted, though, that the non-liturgical appearance of a text witness can be deceiving. From the medieval West, there are many instances of literary manuscripts employed in the liturgy. On the other hand, little is known of how far literature was read inside monastic cells, also because contemporary accounts often describe an ideal rather than depict reality, and because the implementation of such ideals depends on the management of institutions. There are also a number of literary manuscripts that was never intended to be read, or that simply remained unread. While this can be estimated from the as-good-as-new condition of a codex, the poor preservation of fragments renders such statements impossible in most cases. Fragments are often an unreliable indicator for the size and composition of the medieval libraries or collections they once were a part of. Judging by book lists and the preserved fragments, Egyptian monasteries for instance often held only a selection of biblical books and no full Bible. To which degree this selection was guided by the use of the books in the liturgy or affected by the fragmentary state of the monastic records remains to be found out.

Identification of texts and book types

A major issue in fragment studies is the identification of individual texts and book types. There are different levels of identification, such as the text(s) or text-parts contained (as detailed as possible) and the specific contents which determine the book type, the sociocultural context in which the fragment is preserved and which might indicate the use of the manuscript. Depending on the size of the fragment, it is often difficult to judge the scope of the complete codex. This can be illustrated by biblical manuscripts, which can come either in several volumes, a two-volume set or a single volume. A small fragment with biblical text may represent a liturgical compendium such as lectionary, missal or breviary, or the text can be incorporated into other works. In such cases, the codicological and paleographical features such as the x-height or a certain type of script can be indicative. Also, musical notation can provide crucial information. It is wise not to hasten with labelling a fragment as a certain book type, as this judgement will be difficult to correct even if proven wrong. One should therefore not publish on individual fragments too quickly, but consider the fragments in the context of the fuller corpus. At the same time, scholars should bear in mind the necessity to publish in order to promote the field and enable others to access the material. Images should be provided in all cases. It is necessary to acquaint oneself with the genesis of the archival context and to draw as much information as possible from the fragmentation and preservation process in addition to material-innate information such as the paleography and codicology of the fragment. This includes an understanding of how a particular collection was formed, as this can reveal a fragment’s relation to its carrier as well as to other fragments within the same collection.

Qualifications in fragment studies

For scholars working on text fragments, qualifications and methods from their immediate field of interest will not suffice, be it textual studies or paleography. Since a major part of the text can be missing, a fuller picture can only be obtained by drawing on as much information as we can gain: the content, the materiality, the archival context, and so on. This often demands that a single scholar is acquainted with basic methodology from adjacent as well as remote fields, for instance linguistics, liturgical studies, art history, history, musicology, care and conservation of manuscripts, and archival science. Depending on the area that we deal with, knowledge of political circumstances and diplomatic skills necessary in the frame of diplomatic exchanges are beneficial. Practical knowledge can help us in understanding fragments better and should therefore be part of our training. This pertains both to the production of the text witnesses, their use, for instance during liturgy, and their treatment as resources, which leads to their fragmentation. However, we must be aware that resources have changed over time (for instance the breeds of cattle) and that the chemicals in our daily environment can affect how well we are able to imitate medieval processes. In addition, it takes long practice and repetition to gain optimal insight into the production of the material we study. Due to the complexity of fragment studies, it is crucial to build reliable networks not only with the scholars working on the same corpus, but also with experts from adjacent fields and not least with fragment scholars from other disciplines and technical experts.

Fragments in the context of university teaching

Text fragments are very well-suited to work on as a beginner of paleography: a corpus of fragments can contain testimonies to different styles, formats and book types, and still be manageable and accessible to students. This makes them ideal for university teaching. However, the changing conditions of the academic world offer hardly any opportunities to integrate fragments into present curricula. Therefore, fragment researchers should take the initiative to offer classes to their departments. Classes should fit well into several curricula in terms of credit points, duration and interest. In this way, one might be able to establish paleography and other fragment-based fields in the long run. In addition, web pages and the use of new technologies might help to attract a wider audience and trigger students’ interest in the field. Still, paleography and fragment studies can seem unattractive fields because they are rather time-consuming. The ultimate goal can therefore not be to turn as many students as possible into paleographers or fragmentologists, but to create awareness of our corpora and the challenges and benefits connected to their study.

Access to collections and the treatment of fragments

Although much has changed during the past few decades, access to collections can still improve. Especially private fragment collections are usually difficult to track down and investigate. Research is impeded further by the spreading of the corpus across several collections in remote places.

Online access to digitised fragments could be a good solution. Not all institutions and scholars have an equally positive attitude towards digitisation, as there are certain caveats. First of all, digitisation is almost worthless if the resolution of the images is low, if the images cannot be downloaded, if there is no information on the materiality and archival context of the fragments, and if the database has no advanced search functions. Databases must also be maintained and kept up to date not only with scholarly, but also technical progress. In all of this, funding is of course a crucial factor, and we fear that funding for further images (for instance Multi-Spectral Imaging) might be denied once a collection has been digitised, no matter how useful this first digitisation actually is. Digital access to the fragments can also be useful to spare the material. Still the materiality of the fragments is often a decisive element in our studies. Therefore, we want to stress that the digitised image must not replace the object as such or prevent its direct consultation.

Another problem especially among earlier generations of scholars is that some scholars considered fragment material as “theirs”. As long as they reserved material for themselves, no other scholar could gain access to it or even information about it. Although there is understanding for individual reasons, we find that such praxis hampers the progress of research to a large degree and should be avoided.

Finally, we are of the opinion that the treatment and storage of fragments should improve. Luckily the preservation of the current state of fragments has now come into focus, so that restoration, the taping or sewing together of fragments or the notation of shelfmarks on the fragment has become rare. Storage conditions, however, are still far from ideal, although climatic requirements are usually taken care of. Plexiglass framing can lead to condensation, which is extremely damaging to the fragment material. In addition, the fragment itself is difficult to examine or photograph because of reflections, and the materiality cannot be evaluated at all. Storing in envelopes and boxes is not to be recommended either, because the material is compromised every time that a fragment is taken out. The direct contact with paper also leads to constant abrasion of ink and writing surface. For parchment, guard books are the best solution for the time being, as they are gentle to the material. Best of all is where a fragment is secured with threads in a window mount, for the threads ensure flexibility towards the natural expansion of the fragment. This might also be a good solution for leather and papyrus fragments.

Fragmentology and computer-aided techniques

During the past few decades, computer-aided techniques have been developed from which the study of fragments can benefit greatly. They must be understood as a tool, which assists the scholar in his work. They should be used alongside more traditional methods and based on the experience gained by working directly with the material. In this way, computer-aided techniques complement our skill portfolio and can provide invaluable support in dealing with large corpora, while leaving the eye of the scholar as the ultimate arbiter of the computer-generated preliminary results. The results from computer-aided analyses have to be evaluated and interpreted by the scholar, and this part of the research cannot be taken over by machines.

The successful employment of computer-aided techniques goes hand in hand with our ability to understand their potential and weaknesses and to use them in the right manner. A basic understanding of the employed technologies can be helpful and might prevent dependence on individual members of technical staff. It is also important to provide sufficient technical documentation and communicate the techniques in our publications accordingly.

Ethical dilemmas with the study of manuscript fragments

Ethical dilemmas pertain to all aspects of fragment studies. Many of these have been discussed above, such as access to the material, and treatment of the material by both archivists and scholars. Researchers must be aware of the potential for invasiveness of the methods they use. This applies equally to the light used for imaging, the use of gloves, the handling of the fragment and so on.

Not least, there are different attitudes towards publication and accessibility. This largely depends on the immediate fields we work in and the corpora we work on. We welcome that the attitude towards private ownership and intervention in the physical state of the fragments has changed during the past years. It has become less and less acceptable to fragmentise manuscripts and sell the fragments for revenue. The overall focus has turned towards preserving the fragment in its present state, both in public collections and among private collectors. Yet witnesses frequently disappear from collections because of theft or misplacement. Others appear on the market from questionable sources. While we cannot neglect the presence of this material, we do not intend to encourage a black market of fragments. Therefore, one must weigh up benefits against dangers carefully before deciding whether to integrate such material in a study.