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Rare French “Cisiojanus” fragment identified in bookbinding through crowdsourcing project

Farley P. Katz is a tax lawyer in San Antonio who collects rare books, manuscripts, and “too many other things.” He is one of the contributors to the medieval fragments project, a crowdsourcing research project headed by archivist Micah Erwin to identify fragments of medieval manuscripts bound into rare books at the Ransom Center. Katz describes a recent discovery below.

Recently, I identified a very unusual and interesting manuscript waste fragment on archivist Micah Erwin’s medieval fragments project Flickr site. The fragment was used as a pastedown inside the rear cover of some collected works of Cicero printed by Aldus Manutius in Venice, Italy, in 1514. Its call number at the Ransom Center is Uzielli 99, referring to Giorgio Uzielli. The Ransom Center holds a collection of books printed by Aldus and his successors.

The Flickr posting noted only that the fragment includes a calendar possibly from a book of hours (a medieval devotional book containing prayers, hymns, and religious calendars and often painted miniatures). There was text below the calendar that included French words. I could make out “C’est mon” and “Et tout,” but little else was easily readable. The fact that each line began with a capital letter, however, suggested that it might be a poem.

Usually if a text is well known, it can be identified by searching on Google with a few strings of words (using quotation marks so that only the exact phrase is sought). While reading the words may not be so easy given the antiquated scripts and condition of the fragments, it helps to have some knowledge of the languages the texts are written in and the nature of the manuscripts themselves. Here, I tried a number of searches, but the few phrases I could make out were insufficient for this purpose. Then, I tried searching “C’est mon” and “book of hours.” Success! I found an article by two scholars, Kathryn M. Rudy and René Stuip, about a French prayer book that contained a calendar for each month that was followed by rhyming lines of poetry. Those for March appear to be close or identical with the first four lines on the Ransom Center’s fragment:

Au-bin dit que mars est pril-leux.  (1 Albinus)
C’est mon, fait Gre-goir, il est feux. (12 Gregory)
Et tout prest de don-ner des eaux.
Ma-ri-e dit: il est caux. (25 Annunciation, Lady Day)

They translate as: “Albinus says that March is changeable. That’s right, says Gregory, it’s fire, and quite ready to give water. Mary says it’s hot.”

Rudy and Stuip explained that these are not mere amusing rhymes, but actually a complex mnemonic device known as a “Cisiojanus” (from Circumcisio Januarius, referring to the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, celebrated on January 1).  The number of syllables in each poem equals the number of days in the month. So for March, which has 31 days, there are 31 syllables. The most important saints or holy days of each month are identified by name and numerical position in the poem. Thus, the first syllable of the March rhyme starts with the name Aubin and St. Albinus’s day was March 1. Similarly, the twelfth syllable of the rhyme starts with Gregoir, whose feast day was March 12.

Cisiojani (the plural form) originated in Germany in the twelfth century in Latin and were later produced in vernacular languages, ultimately making it into early printed books. Manuscripts written in French of Cisiojani, however, are quite rare. It’s difficult to date the manuscript fragment because the text is obscured, but an educated guess would be fifteenth century.

Although I have not seen the book “in person,” the catalog states that it has a “Fanfare” binding. Fanfare bindings are ornate bindings in which the covers are divided into many compartments often filled with gold tooling. They originated in France in the sixteenth century and spread throughout Europe. Since Uzielli 99 contains manuscript waste from France, it most likely was bound there.

Identifying this manuscript fragment at the Ransom Center thus not only adds to the limited body of knowledge about French Cisiojani but also provides evidence of where an early bookbinding was probably made.

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Archivist declares medieval manuscript fragment crowdsourcing project success

Image: Detail of Uzielli 99 manuscript.

Archivist declares medieval manuscript fragment crowdsourcing project success

During the late medieval and early modern period, it was a common practice for bookbinders to cut out the sturdy parchment leaves of outdated or unwanted handwritten books to reuse those leaves as covers or binding reinforcements in new “cutting edge” printed books. This practice lasted until roughly the seventeenth century, when the sources of handwritten books began to dry up and binding practices continued to evolve.  Today, many of these medieval fragments—or “binder’s waste”—can still be found within the bindings of early printed books in collections throughout the world.


In July 2012, Cultural Compass posted a story about a project in the archives and visual materials cataloging department to survey medieval binders’ waste. As an outgrowth of this project, we took images of those fragments and posted them to a Flickr account in an attempt to “crowdsource” the identification of their texts. We also created a Twitter and Facebook account to broadcast our progress. At the time of that 2012 blog post, the response was promising but not conclusive. Around 16 of the 40 items had been identified in the first few months, but there were many more fragments to identify.


Now, 369 images, several conference presentations, and more than 67,000 views later, there’s evidence that crowdsourcing can work with even the most archaic of subjects. Twenty-eight individuals (from amateur enthusiasts to established scholars) contributed to the project by providing input via comments on the Flickr page. A number of other individuals assisted through emails or phone calls. Thus far, 94 of the 116 identifiable fragments have been identified, and nearly 57 percent of those were identified through crowdsourcing (by date, region, or the text itself).


The fragments span several centuries, regions, and genres. Ranging from choirbooks to Hebrew commentaries to philosophical and legal texts, they provide valuable insights regarding the fate of handwritten books after the introduction of printing. And, thanks to the number of views, a relatively obscure subject has received generous attention. Readers may be interested to note that Google Books played a significant role in identifying many of the texts. While a few items remain unidentified and we come upon new fragments with some regularity, the bulk of the work is complete.


I would like to take this opportunity to express our deepest gratitude to all those who followed or contributed to the success of this project.  We did take the time to confirm each and every attribution, and the degree of accuracy has been quite impressive. It is my hope that people will continue to assist in this effort when new fragments are uncovered.


Crowdsourcing is now moving beyond the introductory phase. And although it is not an appropriate solution for every problem, there is no question that it has the power to bring together diverse groups of individuals to collaborate in ways not previously thought possible. There are many more fragments of medieval manuscripts scattered throughout the world’s great libraries—collaboration and discovery await!


Related content:

Rare French “Cisiojanus” fragment identified in bookbinding through crowdsourcing project


Image: These four volumes of German poetry are wrapped in manuscript waste materials written in Hebrew. Photo By Alicia Dietrich.

Archivist seeks help in identifying manuscript waste material

Ransom Center Project Archivist Micah Erwin holds one of the books with manuscript fragments that he's hoping to identify through a Flickr site he created. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Ransom Center Project Archivist Micah Erwin holds one of the books with manuscript fragments that he's hoping to identify through a Flickr site he created. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.

Because manuscript waste is particularly difficult to identify due to its fragmentary nature, I started early on to think of ways to harness the knowledge of other rare book and manuscript enthusiasts to help describe these objects. Inspired by individuals who had made extraordinary discoveries about historical photographs by sharing them on the popular image-hosting site Flickr, I hoped that something similar could be done with images of medieval manuscript waste. This served as the inspiration for posting quick, point-and-shoot digital camera images on Flickr and inviting members of the rare book community to examine and share insights they might have about the items.

The response has been promising. Out of the 65 images (from about 40 items) posted thus far, we’ve had a total of 2,422 views, 26 comments and–thanks to the work of some very diligent people–more than 16 partial or full identifications of the fragmentary texts. This page is a great example of how users have offered up expertise on transcribing and dating one fragment. It’s likely that a majority of all known fragments in our collections will have been identified by Flickr members by the time this project is complete. Notifications about new images are posted on a related Facebook page. But plenty of work remains, and there are many fragments to be commented on.

Crowdsourcing is a popular buzzword these days and for good reason. By placing images of these rather obscure, archaic objects on a popular image hosting site, a twenty-first-century technology brings together the skills of a highly specialized and niche community and opens up these medieval objects to interpretation by potentially anyone.

* The author would like to add that although digitization and image sharing has many benefits, nothing compares with up close physical examination of medieval manuscripts. It should also be noted that the images we are posting are primarily for identification and rapid dissemination and are not publication-quality, high-resolution photos. Researchers may request high-resolution images through the Ransom Center’s website.