Students Discover Medieval Manuscripts

This spring, students are discovering the medieval Latin manuscripts and early printed books, or incunabula, at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library. Beverly Kienzle's class on Latin paleography recently visited the library to study the medieval handwriting, transcribe texts, and appreciate early books as works of art.

Travis Stevens (HDS) and Jennifer N. De La Guardia (GSAS) are focusing on an early-seventeenth-century parchment that once served as a portable altarpiece for a Roman Catholic chaplain. The altarpiece is part of the library's manuscripts and archives collection and is numbered bMS 500/3 (4). Travis and Jennifer carefully opened the folded triptych to transcribe the manuscript as an editor would prepare a text for publication, including applying Latin language skills to interpret the abbreviations. Travis commented, "It is so great to have access to these collections."

Paleography is the study of ancient writing and inscriptions. Through skilled examination, script styles provide clues about a manuscript's origin, and may be traced to a specific period, place, and sometimes even to a scribe. Professor Kienzle commented, "The thrill of touching and turning the actual pages of a manuscript or an early printed book transports us into the cultural and private world of readers from centuries past. Examining the physical object in its entirety teaches us what a photograph cannot: how people made, wrote, organized, and used books; how they read and how they prayed. The size of the book and the expense of the materials tell us about the book's function and its ownership. The pages most worn and most annotated show us what captivated the readers most. Experiencing the physical object gives insight into the intellectual and religious world of the day."

The chaplain's altarpiece dates back to the Thirty Years' War. A Swedish supply master acquired the parchment at the Second Battle of Breitenfeldt in 1642. A Protestant chaplain then delivered it to the church in Delitzsch, a German town then ruled by the Swedes. Much of the manuscript's history before 1642, and its path from Delitzsch to the library, remains unknown. Maybe Travis and Jennifer will tell us more.