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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medieval and early modern period, it was a common practice for bookbinders to cut out the sturdy parchment leaves of outdated or unwanted handwritten books to reuse those leaves as covers or binding reinforcements in new “cutting edge” printed books.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 traces manuscript waste in a set of volumes back to a dark origin in Frankfurt

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

It was a bitterly cold day in Frankfurt when my wife and I stepped off the plane. Being from Texas, we quickly found that our bodies were not acclimated to the bitter winter winds of Europe. Our cab dropped us off near the central square of the city so we could get some hot spiced wine at the market. On our way back to our apartment, we spotted a public building across the street, the Museum Judengasse, and decided to take a tour and thaw out before braving the rest of the journey.  The museum contained the archeological remains of the Frankfurter Judengasse—the Jewish Ghetto of Frankfurt—one of the earliest ghettos in Germany.

About two years later, I encountered something in the stacks of the Harry Ransom Center that brought me back to that cold day. While conducting a search for medieval manuscript fragments used in bindings of early printed books, I came upon a set of four small volumes of German poetry printed in Frankfurt in 1612 and bound in parchment. The parchment contained medieval Hebrew script.  I had not yet encountered this phenomenon (I was used to finding texts in Latin), and, although I posted images of the volumes on Flickr, I received no immediate comments. Several months went by and I had almost forgotten about them when one day I happened to mention the fragments to a colleague who suggested that I contact a Hebrew specialist cataloger.  I was then put in touch with the proper authorities and within a few days the fragments had been identified. Included are a fragment from a series of commentaries on late antique Hebrew liturgical poetry (dating anywhere from the twelfth to fifteenth century), a page from the table of contents from a circa fifteenth-century copy of a work by Isaac ben Joseph of Corbeil, and fragment from a twelfth–to-fourteenth-century commentary on the Talmud. Having them identified was an exciting example of international collaboration between scholars, but it is the historical context of the fragments that brings this story full circle.

In the sixteenth century, the Jewish community of Frankfurt was one of the most important centers for Rabbinic teaching and spiritual thought. It was also one of the largest Jewish communities in early modern Europe. In 1612 tensions between the town guilds and the patrician class over urban and fiscal policies led to a riot known as the Fettmilch Rising. During the course of the riot the Judengasse, or Jewish Ghetto, was attacked and looted and the Jewish inhabitants were expelled from the city. The volumes at the Ransom Center were printed in the same year as the Fettmilch Rising (1612). Given the looting that took place it is highly probable that the fragments used to cover the printed volumes were sourced from Hebrew manuscripts that had been taken during the riot and then cut up and sold for a variety of purposes—including bookbinding. And so here the volumes now sit, deep in the heart of Texas, a tragic reminder of early modern anti-Semitism in Germany. As an American, it’s often difficult to place these priceless objects in context, and when one does, it tends to have a dramatic effect on the psyche.

Our set happens to be missing two volumes. One can only hope that the other two volumes are still out there intact. This situation underscores why it is important to avoid removing medieval fragments from their bindings. When we do so, the historical context of their use as binder’s waste may be lost. With the power of crowdsourcing and online collaboration, all of the fragments from the original manuscript may someday be reunited in a virtual environment—a happy conclusion to the tragic circumstances of its dispersal many centuries ago.

The post author would like to thank Kevin Auer, Uri Kolodney, Elizabeth Hollender, Ezra Chwat, and Pinchas Roth for their assistance in identifying the Hebrew fragments.

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.