Before the age of affordable, mass-produced paper, writers relied on expensive papyrus and parchment to set their thoughts down on the page. In medieval Europe, authors sometimes “recycled” sheets of used parchment by scraping off the words and writing new ones on top. These thick leaves, typically produced from stretched animal skins, then bore the traces of their former contents, creating a palimpsest: a manuscript with multiple sets of overlaid text.
Thanks to advances in imaging technology, modern researchers can easily identify medieval palimpsests that are all but invisible to the naked eye. Recently, a group of undergraduate students at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) used a self-developed, ultraviolet-fluorescence imaging system to discover long-lost handwriting hidden beneath a 15th-century script.
According to a statement, the trio—Zoë LaLena, Lisa Enochs and Malcom Zale—created the imaging system last school year as part of a 19-person course for freshman students. The researchers’ progress slowed when RIT switched to online learning in March due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but they received a grant to continue work over the summer and finished their project in the fall, per 13WHAM ABC.
As Jennifer Ouellette reports for Ars Technica, the students built a multispectral imagining system that exposes pages of parchment to non-invasive UV light, revealing chemical traces of inks and other clues. They then used their tool to inspect parchment leaves from the Cary Graphic Arts Collection at RIT Libraries for any hints of medieval reuse.
To their surprise, the researchers discovered the remains of an elegant French cursive script beneath an illuminated page of a Book of Hours, or devotional text popular with lay Christians during the Middle Ages. Per RIT Libraries, this page was probably scraped clean and repurposed by European monks around the year 1450 A.D.
“When we put one of [the parchment sheets] under the UV light, it showed this amazing dark French cursive underneath, which was amazing because this document has been in the Cary Collection for about a decade now, and no one noticed,” says LaLena in an RIT video.
LaLena adds that the parchment leaf comes from the collection of Otto F. Ege (1888–1951), an American bookseller and art historian who made a name for himself in the early 20th century as a “biblioclast”—literally, a “book destroyer,” as art historian W. Fiona Chen wrote previously for a Fordham University online exhibition.
According to Chen, Ege promoted the controversial practice of cutting pages of medieval manuscripts out of their bound tomes and selling them individually. Though critics pointed out that this process destroyed the integrity of the materials, Ege argued that he was democratizing knowledge and the study of medieval texts, as single pages were cheaper and easier for smaller libraries to acquire than full volumes.
Because Ege sold manuscript leaves individually, 29 other pages from this copy of the Book of Hours are scattered across collections in the United States, LaLena notes in the statement. These pages likely also contain palimpsests; the student researchers hope to analyze as many sheets as they can in hopes of discovering more hidden texts, per Ars Technica.
To date, the students have imaged two Ege collection leaves in RIT’s collections. They’ve discovered traces of earlier writings beneath both texts. Another analyzed page, an Ege Collection leaf from the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, also turned out to have hidden text underneath its surface.
“The students have supplied incredibly important information about at least two of our manuscript leaves here in the collection and in a sense have discovered two texts that we didn’t know were in the collection,” says Steven Galbraith, curator of the Cary Graphic Arts Collection, in the RIT statement. “Now we have to figure out what those texts are. … To fully understand our own collections, we need to know the depth of our collections, and imaging science helps reveal all of that to us.”