Bridging past and present

As I hope Collation readers know by now, the Folger is committed to openly accessible resources. Last week provided one example of the exciting results from such a scholarly pooling of knowledge.

The story begins with a conference held at the Library on bindings, the culmination of a two-year project creating an online database of images of bindings at the Folger. That database, which Jim Kuhn described here last year, contains over 4,000 images of (mostly) early modern bindings from England, Italy, France, Germany, and the Low Countries, all freely accessible to anyone with an internet connection. The images show not only decorative aspects of bindings, but structural elements as well (a partial list of the fields and the vocabulary used gives you a sense of the scope of the project and how you can search the database). Users can interact with the database in a range of ways, including performing detailed searches, comparing images side-by-side, reading detailed cataloging information about the image and the book, and exporting the images under a CC-BY-NC license.

In wake of the conference and its related tweets, Dr Erik Kwakkel came across the binding database and started browsing it. A medieval book historian at Leiden University, Kwakkel’s current research focuses on twelfth-century European manuscripts, but he also maintains a lively Tumblr and twitter feed full of great images of manuscripts and bindings. So it’s no surprise that he would enjoy browsing the images and that in doing so, his attention was caught by these: 

inside front cover with paste-down and flyleaf of manuscript waste
inside front cover showing paste-down and flyleaf of manuscript waste
back endleaves with manuscript waste
inside back cover showing flyleaf and paste-down of manuscript waste

Luckily, for everyone involved, Kwakkel took a closer look at the manuscript and was able to identify it. The manuscript is from a codex of Constantine the African’s Liber pantegni, the first comprehensive medical textbook in Latin. Constantine, a monk and physician, compiled his work in the late eleventh century, drawing on Arabic sources including, primarily, the tenth-century Kitâb al-malakî (The Royal Book) written by the Persian physician ‘Alī ibn al ‘Abbās al Mağūsī. Constantine’s work became the leading medical textbook in Europe and remained in use for centuries. ((For a bit more context and for a transcript of the first part of the book, see Oulti Kalkio’s transcription of the Helsinki manuscript of the Theorica pantegni The standard edition of the work, Constantine the African and Ali Ibn Al-Abbas Al-Magusi: The Pantegni and Related Texts, eds Charles S.F. Burnett and Danielle Jacquart (Brill 1994), includes a list of Renaissance print editions and extant manuscripts.))

This manuscript in the Folger binding is of the first part of the work, the Theorica pantegni, which focuses (as its name suggests) on theory of medicine (the second part of the work, the Practica pantegni, focuses on practical aspects). By zooming in on the text, Kwakkel identified the manuscript leaves in the front of the book as coming from a section containing the start of Book 5, Chapter 18, while the leaves at the back of the book include the start of Book 5, Chapter 28: “Ergo potus ex duabus causis est necessarius” (highlighted in red, below).

the beginning of Book 5, Chapter 28
the beginning of Book 5, Chapter 28

More excitingly, Kwakkel’s knowledge of scripts leads him to believe that this manuscript is a fragment of a very early copy. As he described it in the email he sent to the Folger,

The script of the fragments suggests Italian origins, likely 1150-1200; the penwork is at home at the very end of the 12th century, or perhaps in c. 1200 at the latest. Dating these leafs to 1175-1200 seems highly appropriate (these dates are based on a method that is developed in my current Turning Over a New Leaf project). With this 12th-century date the Folger fragments are part of the early reception of this important medical text, an early medical handbook and a classic in university education until well into the 16th century.

The Folger Bindings Image Database records have now been updated to include Kwakkel’s findings about the parchment endleaves, and he’s looking at other medieval fragments in our database to see what else might turn up. ((This isn’t the first time Kwakkel has dated an early Liber pantegni, incidentally: he and Francis Newton established the manuscript codex held at the Koninklijke Bibiotheek as having been made during Constantine’s lifetime at his monastery (see the fully digitized copy and a press release describing the discovery).))

So, what book is this and how did a 12th-century manuscript become part of it? The binding is on a copy of Erasmus’s Declarationes ad censuras Lutetiae vulgatas sub nomine Facultatis Theologiae Parisiensis, published in 1532 in Basel. ((The Bayerische StaatsBibliothek has a fully digitized copy of the work at According to Frank Mowery’s examination of the book, the binding was done in the 16th century, which is to say, roughly contemporaneous to the printing. Perhaps the former owner of the manuscript felt it had been superseded by the more recent editions of Theorica pantegni, printed in Lyon in 1515 and Basel in 1539, and so the parchment became waste. It’s far from unusual for scraps of manuscript and print to find their way into bindings. It’s not even unusual to find extraordinary things in bindings. (I love this post from Kwakkel about finding a trove a medieval scraps in the binding of a 1577 book, showing that what was the detritus of ordinary life becomes extraordinary centuries later.)

What strikes me as exciting about the identification of this particular manuscript waste is its bridging of the material of the past with the social and digital present. By building an open collection of binding images, the Folger created a place for scholars to play and discover; by treating the internet as a place of scholarly community, Kwakkel not only identified something new but shared it with everyone else. It’s a powerful argument for the vibrancy of open access and scholarly exchange around material library collections and to the reach of digital connections.