October 7, 2015 § 1 Comment

We’re very excited to announce that vHMML is finally live! We took some time out from the public forum to refocus our energies and reboot the development process, and we have finally reached the day. You can read more about the whole project here.

You’ll find lessons for Latin and Syriac scripts in School, Latin and Syriac annotated images in Folio, answers to all of your terminological questions (“what IS rinceaux, anyway?”) in Lexicon, and lots of bibliography in Reference. For now vHMML will take you to our existing online catalog, OLIVER, but starting in early 2016 it will link to the new online Reading Room where registered users will be able to browse thousands of complete manuscripts for free.

We will be continually updating vHMML and adding new content. Later in 2015 there will be more Syriac lessons, including transcription practice, and in 2016 we’ll add Arabic and Armenian, and possibly more.

One change from our original plan is that Scriptorium, a collaborative working environment using digital images, will remain with our project partners at the University of Kentucky. We decided it made sense for Scriptorium to stay with those who had built it, and to be opened to digital collections from other libraries as a resource for  DH projects besides vHMML. Folio was its first creation, and a very nice one, too.

Please have a look, and let us know your suggestions for improvement or additions:

Eloquent Witnesses, Damaged Goods, or Teaching Aids? Filling the Gaps in our Research with ManuscriptLink, Fragmentarium, Broken Books, vHMML, Shared Canvas, Mirador, Digital Scriptorium, and all that

July 11, 2014 § 1 Comment

Apparently the initial in this leaf was more interesting than keeping it in context.

Apparently the initial in this leaf was more interesting than keeping it in context.

Much of what has found its way from the Middle Ages into the 21st century only comes to us in a fragmentary form. Such artifacts can be buildings, day-to-day items like utensils and tools, weapons, jewelry, art, literary works, historical records, or even manuscripts. Whether a manuscript was recycled hundreds of years ago in a book binding or more recently as items of value to sell in pieces, these remnants of the past arrest one’s attention and nourish an urge to restore what has disappeared. With works of literature, editors will often conjecture about missing parts that no longer exist, but for manuscripts one often hopes that such missing parts may some day be filled back in—thus the rising interest in fragments and broken books. A new (but not always popular) term has been suggested for such reconstructive research: Fragmentology.

A T-and-O map in a 13th-century fragment of Isidore of Seville's Etymologies.

A T-and-O map in a 13th-century fragment of Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies.

In June 2014, the Center for Digital Humanities at Saint Louis University ( hosted a series of meetings on manuscript fragments (in conjunction with the Symposium on Medieval and Renaissance Studies or “SMRS”), with representatives from a number of digital projects that seek to identify and reunite these witnesses to the past. I was delighted to represent vHMML at two of these meetings. Some attendees presented on their digital initiatives to re-unite manuscripts, while others spoke of the needs for content providers (institutions with manuscript fragments) and users of the resulting data. Other projects, like vHMML, were brought into the discussion as possible tools to help with the ambitious projects proposed by others. Several participants (including the author of this post) were also invited to participate on last day of the SMRS in a round table discussion about Digital Repositories for Medieval Studies: Challenges and Opportunities.

Useful for teaching about scripts. Detail of a leaf from a 12th-century Martyrology. Removed from a bookbinding.

Useful for teaching about scripts. Detail of a leaf from a 12th-century Martyrology. Removed from a bookbinding.

Themes that emerged from the meeting included the need to identify fragment collections around the world, what exactly is a fragment, how to describe a fragment consistently so items can be matched, and how to encourage widely based collaboration for such work.

Many institutions do not know what fragments they have (or even that they have such fragments). Some institutions specifically acquire fragments for teaching purposes—as examples of different scripts, art or materials—while others may simply place all fragments into boxes for later study. Another theme was the practical and difficult procedures needed simply to identify and match manuscript fragments that are often thousands of miles apart.

A selection from Aristotle as the cover on a 14th-century Gradual. More functional and showing wear.

A selection from Aristotle as the cover on a 14th-century Gradual. More functional and showing wear.

A beautiful leaf from the book of Ezechiel. Definitely not a binding fragment.

A beautiful leaf from the book of Ezechiel. Definitely not a binding fragment.




The question of what constitutes a manuscript “fragment” was also raised: in the United States, one often thinks of fragments as books that were cut up in the 19th and 20th centuries and sold as beautiful art pieces (the Hornby Bible or the Llangattock breviary), while in European terms, the most common manuscript fragments are those found in and/or removed from book bindings. The qualitative difference can also lie in the perceived beauty of the leaves from a broken book versus the mundane functionality of recycling books that were no longer needed (but made of sturdy and expensive reusable materials).

At the first meeting Prof. Federica Toniolo from Padua University shared with us the list of the known dispersed leaves of the Llangattock breviary, a precious liturgical manuscript made in Ferrara (Italy) for Lionelle d’Este (1441-1448).  She and her colleagues would be extremely grateful for further leads to the whereabouts of extant leaves from this broken book. Even our library (HMML) holds one leaf of this.

Music on the cover of an early modern printed book in the Saint John's collections.

Music on the cover of an early modern printed book in the Saint John’s collections.

Two major fragment studies efforts that seek to build on collaboration are ManuscriptLink and Fragmentarium. ManuscriptLink ( is largely the work of two scholars (at this time): Scott Gwara (University of South Carolina) and Eric Johnson (The Ohio State University). They have worked for some years gathering data on manuscript leaves in collections in their respective institutions and states, while also looking elsewhere for evidence of fragments. Some of this has grown out of interest in the more recent destruction of manuscripts through dealers who buy complete manuscripts and then cut them up and sell the leaves as artwork or teaching aids. Drs. Gwara and Johnson have been developing surveys of such leaves and are working on tools that would support the digital reunification of such manuscripts. Dr. Johnson gives an overview of their project and goals in a short video at: –

Another relatively early copy of the Bible. From a previous vHMML blog post!

Another relatively early copy of the Bible. From a previous vHMML blog post!

Fragmentarium is a parallel project from the developers of e-codices (, the outstanding Swiss site for digitized manuscript collections from Switzerland. Christoph Flueler (University of Fribourg) described the goals of Fragmentarium, which would aim especially at locating and identifying fragments of all kinds, including those from bindings. The e-codices project is inherently multilingual (French, Italian, German, and English), so Fragmentarium is already working with libraries across Europe (e.g., the British Library, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, and others) as well as at home, to try to identify and match manuscript fragments. Since e-codices is focused on complete manuscripts, this would go beyond the functionality of their existing service.

As for tools that can help with such projects, vHMML ( was introduced both as a place for those working to assemble information on the fragments can learn to read them (the School), but also as place (Scriptorium) where researchers could collaborate on the transcription, identification, speculation, etc., for eventual inclusion in the other projects. Ben Albritton (Stanford University) described Shared Canvas (, IIIF (, and Mirador ( as tools and standards that would help with annotating and viewing digital files from various institutions and web-based services. Finally, our host, Jim Ginther, described a new tool being developed at St. Louis—Broken Books—that is intended to help with processing of fragments such as possible collations and arrangements of matched items.


On the second day, discussion came from major potential content providers for the study of fragments: Raymond Clemens from the Beinecke Library at Yale University and William Stoneman from the Houghton Library at Harvard University, as well as from Consuelo Dutschke (Digital Scriptorium, and Debra Cashion (Vatican Film Library and Associate Director of the Center for Digital Humanities). Drs. Clemens and Stoneman proffered a list of eight practical considerations for the development of any digital humanities projects involving manuscript fragments, including: be careful about the strictness of standards (lest some collaborating institutions shy away); plan for maintaining a voluntary organization and not just starting it; consider your end-users and demonstrate wide-ranging impact of project; and start with well-chosen examples.

Along with the two sets of two meetings each (vHMML was only at the meetings on fragmented manuscripts, not the ones on broken books), the participants had ample opportunity to connect with their colleagues at SMRS sessions, over coffee, and at meals. I for one am extremely grateful to the organizers for bringing these meetings together and I look forward to ways that we might continue the dialogue over the coming months and years. In the meantime, dear readers, please check out the various sources that have been linked in the text of this article, and forward any thoughts or additional leads for Fragmentology to me ( or to this blog.

Arca Artium fragments (aap3090_0)

Just how fragmentary can you get? Initials glued into a scrapbook of sorts.

Finally, thanks are due to Saint Louis University for inviting the participants to this meeting and especially to the Vice-President for Research, Dr. Raymond Tait, and the Vice-President for Academic Affairs, Dr. Ellen Harshmann, for supporting the travel and room/board for the attendees. Also helping to keep us on track and oriented were Megan Smith, Donal Hegarty, and Patrick Cuba from the Center for Digital Humanities.






If you can spare the time, check out also my earlier vHMML post on 12th-century fragments!


Peace to all.

An Update from Kalamazoo

May 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

It’s well past time for another vHMML update. We had an opportunity to share the latest news with thirty keen medievalists at the Kalamazoo Congress last week, and were really gratified both by the turnout at our session and the obvious enthusiasm for what we’re doing. I introduced the project, and then some of the vHMML team described the various components. Matt Heintzelman from HMML talked about his work developing content for Lexicon and Library. Carin Ruff provided a great overview of her approach to Latin manuscripts for School. Ellen Joyce talked about ways in which she’ll be using School in her undergraduate teaching at Beloit College. Then Carin and I talked about Folio and Scriptorium. Our lead development partners Abigail Firey from University of Kentucky and Jim Ginther from Saint Louis University weren’t able to get to Kalamazoo this year, but we had Meg Smith from SLU in the audience, and HMML’s newly-hired developer William Straub on hand to help with the inevitable tech challenges at the session and to handle any questions that went more deeply into the software issues than the rest of us could manage.

The timeline for vHMML has slipped quite a bit, mostly because of a longer than anticipated search for developers at SLU and some database programming complexities. At this point we have a test site running for School, Lexicon and Library. Carin has finished her content for School, and we’re in the process of getting it loaded. Lexicon and Library have data, and we’re finalizing the functionality and doing some further editing of content. We hope to have these basic components available by the end of the summer.

Meanwhile the team at Kentucky is working on Folio and Scriptorium, partnering with the several institutions involved in developing Mirador, a fantastic new image viewer that facilitates side-by-side comparison of multiple manuscripts and includes a variety of annotation tools. Carin is creating the first set of thickly-described manuscript pages for Folio, and UK has a developer dedicated to the Folio project. Abigail is leading the charge on Scriptorium, which she describes in this way: “Scriptorium. The Scholar’s Study where the only mess is the one you make. Simple. Clean. Intuitive.” What that means for users is the ability to place multiple images and documents in relation to each other, in whatever arrangement works best. There will be an integrated text editor supportive of the kinds of things we like to do with transcriptions. And, most exciting of all, Scriptorium will be a collaborative workspace into which you can invite others to view or contribute to projects hosted there.

 We’re adding a new component to the original schema for vHMML, which we’re calling Reading Room. This will provide registered users access to complete manuscript collections digitized by HMML in recent years. Registration will be free. In time we hope to add scanned microfilms from our earlier projects as well. Ultimately Reading Room will provide access to more than 50,000 complete manuscripts and will continue to grow.

Carin’s presentation on her work for School will be the topic of an upcoming blog post, giving everyone a preview of what you’ll find in School this fall. 

Columba Stewart OSB

Location, Location, Location – Using Context to Decipher Old Script

April 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

From an 1890's German grammar book.

From an 1890’s German grammar book.

Without a doubt, learning German as a second language in the old days was a lot harder than today! Back in the 1890’s, when my grandmother had to learn German in a school in Indiana, she was given an introductory child’s grammar book–Neue Fibel, oder: erstes Lesebuch für die deutschen katholischen Schulen in den Vereinigten Staaten von Nord-Amerika. From it, she had to learn not only vocabulary, declensions, syntax, cases, and other linguistic standards that are still needed. No, beyond these she also had to learn how to read (and write) using very different character sets.

Fibel - 1

The Neue Fibel, my grandmother’s beginning German book (when she was about 10 years old).

As one can see immediately from the title page, the first task to learning German in those days was to learn to read the Gothic font or Fraktur. Without it, there would be no visual clues to remember spelling and vocabulary. This font, difficult still for many who are learning German as a second language (and today, perhaps even for those who learn it as their mother tongue), dates back to the earliest history of printing in the West. At first, all books were printed in Gothic fonts (there were several), but in some areas printers quickly abandoned Gothic for Roman fonts, which were closer to the Humanistic handwriting common in those areas. Thus, some parts of Europe continued to use Gothic fonts, while some changed to Roman and some used both (English retained “black letter” for specific situations). And, of course, other character sets were eventually introduced for languages that did not use the Latin alphabet.

Perhaps more daunting and jarring was the necessity for 19th-century schoolchildren to learn an entirely different way to write letters (and to be able to read these letters). Along with Fraktur and the grammar, children learning German as a second language also had to learn Kurrent, derived from Gothic cursive writing from the late Middle Ages, which was used from the 16th up to the early 20th century. Without this, they could neither read handwritten German, nor properly write it.


Learning common letter combinations in German: “pf,” “sp,” “tz,” and “ck.” Examples are given in both Fraktur and Kurrent.

Some basic letter forms in Kurrent.

Some basic letter forms in Kurrent.

The letter series above read: r v w k s j / p g z tz ß [or sz] / y f h ih sch

Note the similarities of the “h” and the “f” (and eventually, also the long “s” in “sch”). Note also that there is more than one “s” and that the initial/large “S” looks altogether different again!

In terms of longevity, Kurrent would have to be seen as one of the successes of the script world. However, it was always difficult to read for non-German speakers, and is still extremely difficult to read. The efforts to teach this script go back centuries, and HMML has writing manuals (made with engravings) that help depict this promotion:

Kurrent in the Neüw zugerichte Schreibkunst (1605)

Kurrent in the Neüw zugerichte Schreibkunst (1605)

Michael Baurenfeind, Vollkommene Wieder-Herstellung ... (1736)

Michael Baurenfeind, Vollkommene Wieder-Herstellung … (1736)

Alphabeti maioris (1782)

Alphabeti maioris (1782)

Indeed, German writing manuals in HMML’s collections show samples of Kurrent script from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Often presented in extremely ornate settings or styles. Note the elaborate initials given each of the examples above. The script is also often combined with Gothic script, in a hierarchy — titles and subtitles in Gothic script, and Kurrent for the text. Several of HMML’s manuscripts demonstrate this same hierarchical use.

A close-up of the page from the Alphabeti maioris demonstrates this difficult script:

1782 - IMG_026r1

[Gothic] Kommet her zu mir alle die ihr mühseelig und beladen seyd,
[Kurrent] Ich will euch erquicken
Nehmet auf euch mein Joch
und lernet von mir
dann ich bin sanftmüthig
Und von Herzen demüthig
So werdet ihr Ruhe finden
für eure Seele
Dann mein Joch ist sanft
Und mein Last ist leicht.  [from Matthew 11:28-30]

Already here, we learn one of the tricks to reading Kurrent, and for that matter, any unfamiliar script–location, location, location. Context is vital to our understanding of the written text in front of us. Not only does it help immensely to know German for making out the letters (very often you know what to expect from the spellings of the words), but it also helps to know what kind of text you are reading–prayer book, records of an association, personal letters, etc., etc.  In each case, the vocabulary will likely be limited by the context in which it was originally used.

Here is one more example from a printed work that demonstrates Kurrent, only this time in a letter-press book (i.e., printed from cast metal type — or real fonts), not from engravings as in the examples above.

Jais - IMG_008r1

Here we have a morning prayer from a book by a Benedictine author, Aegidius Jais (Kern des guten Saamens auf ein gutes Erdreich, 1818). As with the engravings, the lettering here is very regular and the vocabular quite limited. Both of these factors make the text actually relatively easy to read — once one has recognized the new forms for letters like “h,” “r,” “e,” and so on. The second paragraph reads: “Du hast mich diese Nacht erhalten, du hast mich wieder einen Tag erleben lassen; ich danke dir, Gütigster! Allmächtigster!”

Now let us look at some manuscripts in HMML’s own collections, to see how well the examples above prepare us for actual handwriting.


From Kacmarcik Ms. 14 (Prayerbook, 1778)

HMML has only a few codex manuscripts in German, along with a few letters signed by 16th to 18th-century emperors and an empress. The sample above comes from an 18th-century prayerbook and is, again, a morning prayer:

“O Gott! mein gott, zu Dir wache ich des morgens, und opffere Dir auf mein Leben. o Du gott meines Herzens, mein Herr! und gott in ewigkeit! Dir will Ich …”

One can see quite readily that the shapes of the letters are not quite so clean and simple as they appeared in the printed versions. The first letter of the second word — Gott — more closely resembles “Bott” or worse, but from context can only be “Gott.” The initial “G” is based a little more closely to the Gothic “G” that appears elsewhere in headings in this manuscript. The scribe has carried the form from one script over to the other.

One of the tricks to reading this script — in my mind, at least — is to figure out the core letters and then figure out what letters work in the context elsewhere. For example, the “e” often does not look like the standard “e” in Kurrent, but if one focuses on letters like “h” or “H”–which are usually consistent–then you see the word “Herr” in the middle of the fifth line. Indeed, only the “h” has a loop both above and below the line. Similarly, the “h” and the “i” in “ich” in the second line are fairly recognizable, so the “c” in-between them makes good sense.

Here is another example:


Kacmarcik Ms. 15

This time there are not just two scripts, but apparently three. The “V” in “Vater unser” and the “A” in “Ave Maria” look a bit like their Kurrent versions, but the rest of the words look almost identical to English handwriting! Aside from the long “s” in “unser,” which every school child knows was used in English up to the 19th century, the rest of the letters in the first line are perfectly legible to English readers. The second line shows a modified Gothic set, that also shares common elements with English (“O Gott, in dessen Angesicht”), but then the rest of the text continues in Kurrent:

“ich lebe, ich bethe dich an! –mit allen Heiligen Engeln, so wie Jesus, dein …”

And yet, how much more challenging the writing becomes when one moves away from an area in which they have some knowledge — in this case prayerbooks — to other subjects, like historical documents or notes on architecture:

Letter signed by Emperor Joseph I (1705-1711) in the early 18th century.

Letter signed by Emperor Joseph I (1705-1711) in the early 18th century. From the Kritzeck Collection.

Notes on Architecture, chiefly in German.

Notes on Architecture, chiefly in German. Kacmarcik Ms. 36.

Notes and sketches on architecture, chiefly in German with some terms in French (note the different scripts).

Notes and sketches on architecture, chiefly in German with some terms in French (note the different scripts). Kacmarcik Ms. 36.


Ultimately, one would like to be able to read the letters without having to piece the words together, but handwriting is rarely so consistently regular that one can always tell a letter outside of its context. Sometimes the “n” looks like an “e,” or sometimes (in the same line) one “e” might look like Kurrent and the next like an English “e.” Strangely enough, for the people who wrote the words, this writing was probably relatively clear, but then they also filled in the gaps of their reading from the context — e.g., does the word “Bott” mean anything in German? No. But within the context of a prayerbook, one can find that it makes sense as a mixed-script form for “Gott.”

But then again, context can only go so far — orthography has changed over the centuries, so that 16th and 17th-century spellings frequently may not answer our paleographical questions. Moreover, scribes sometimes simply misspelled words, and one goal of paleography is to recognize such mistakes and provide conjectures for what the correct spelling would have been. Recent work with 19th-century records from a Minnesota church has demonstrated to me the variability of a scribe’s spelling!

Yet that requires more context, I fear.

But then, you know, I never did hear my grandmother speaking German …


matt heintzelman



The Blessings of Modern Technology: Computers and Manuscripts

January 30, 2014 § 2 Comments

HMML in 1987. Brother Peregrine Berres, OSB, with an up-to-date XT computer, floppy disks, and a dBase manual.

HMML in 1987. Brother Peregrine Berres, OSB, with an up-to-date XT computer, floppy disks, and a dBase manual.

“The blessings of modern technology are enabling us to secure the existence of these ancient documents for future reference.” (Julian G. Plante, in Manuscripta, vol. 11 (1967))

One of the areas where the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML) has long labored lies in the efforts to make manuscripts more accessible through computerization. In fact, the first mention in our records of a computerized manuscript catalog comes already in 1966! Of course, digital photography was not yet a concept to be explored, so the focus remained on serving scholars by providing searchable descriptions of the manuscripts. The fairly new director of what was then called the Monastic Manuscript Microfilm Library–Dr. Julian G. Plante–wrote in a letter to Father Oliver Kapsner, OSB (field director in Austria):

“Father Ephrem, Assistant Director of the Institute [today’s Collegeville Institute], has asked me if we had considered the possibility of using the computer in connection with the microfilm collection. Our conversations led to a meeting with Father Fintan, who is in charge of the computers, and Frater Balthasar, who is at present computerizing the contents of the library’s biblical journals. Let me give you the results of that meeting. Father Fintan estimated that for $3,500.00 the provisional inventory (the cards you type) of the almost 5,000 projects now on hand could be placed on computer cards and provisional catalogs produced according to author, subject, incipit, title, date, project number, and codex number. This work could probably be completed by July of 1967.”(Julian G. Plante, December 15, 1966; emphasis mine)

Dr. Plante foresaw disadvantages in the inaccuracy of the information gathered from the provisional inventory cards on the films, along with the fear that having such information readily available might slow the progress of in-depth cataloging.  However, the advantages outweighed these potential problems:

“Now for the advantages: In the first place it will markedly expedite the work of producing an adequate catalogue. Our present plan, as you know, is to go through the films one by one, making out 3×5 cards for each item catalogued. The computer will supply the information from the inventory on sheets of paper with plenty of room for corrections. Instead of my having to write down everything with the great likelihood of errors in my transcription, I will only have to correct an existing text. This should involve considerably less work and be more accurate. I am told that it is astonishingly easy to make corrections on the computer cards.” The second advantage is that a provisional catalog will open up the collection for the use of scholars. Not only will they have available for use here the provisional catalogs mentioned above, but the computer will be able to pull for them any particular items in which they have a special research interest. From our point of view, the more the collection is used by scholars, the more accurate we will be able to make the catalog since every scholar who uses the provisional catalog will be helping us discover its errors.” (Julian G. Plante, December 15, 1966)

Father Oliver responded rather positively in a letter dated January 4, 1967:

“All told, balancing advantages and disadvantages, it looks okay to use the computer in order to make the material in the microfilm collection quickly available in some form. It will take a long time to catalog the microfilm collection, which is expanding rapidly, adequately.”

We have no pictures of the earliest computer work at HMML in the 1960's, but here we see cataloger Thomas Amos in 1990. He edited the catalog of HMML's Alcobaca (Portugal) collection on computer.

We have no pictures of the earliest computer work at HMML in the 1960’s, but here we see cataloger Thomas Amos in 1990. He edited the catalog of HMML’s Alcobaca (Portugal) collection on computer.

Encouraged by Father Oliver’s support, Dr. Plante proceeded to hire a consultant and student workers to set up a pilot project to test the feasibility of cataloging manuscripts with computers. The original optimism of 5000 manuscript descriptions in computer format by mid 1967 did not materialize, however. This is not the place to track all of the correspondence related to the project, but I would like to include a few notes here from the “first” report on “The Computerized Catalog of the Microfilms.” The project got underway in 1967 and work continued into early 1969. The goal was always to serve those who would use the manuscript microfilms:

“One of the most important tasks facing the Monastic Manuscript Microfilm Library is [to] render to the scholars and researchers using the facility an account of the contents of the already vast holdings. If the collection is to benefit its potential users an adequate alphabetical index-catalog must be made of the contents.” “Computerization, then, consists in assigning numeric designations to the various aspects of the material on microfilm in such a way that the computer can select any of these designations, either singly or in predetermined concert, for the purposes of printing and study.” (Report 1, May 1, 1969)

Mind you, “vast holdings” in 1969 amounted to about 15,000 manuscripts, nearly all from Austrian libraries. The planned fields of data seem quite scant by today’s standards:

“In practice, the computerization of the catalog of microfilmed manuscripts means coding for language, century, incipit or beginning words of a text, as well as the obvious things like author, title and subject classification.” (ibid.)

The hope was that scholars would be able to find pertinent manuscript entries “in a matter of minutes rather than the hours generally required.” Indeed, scholars could even make requests in advance and the staff could search for relevant manuscripts before the visitors arrived. The report outlines the technical aspects of the project:

“Discussions with members of the Computer Center on the St. John’s campus were begun in December, 1966. On June 30, 1967, an IBM 029-A22 Printing Card Punch was purchased. Computerization involves the use of an IBM 1620 computer with two IBM 1311 disk drives, operating in Symbolic Programming System (SPS) language. Each catalog entry is coded for the previously-mentioned areas and then the entire entry is punched onto cards. This allows printout of not merely numbers, but the actual entry containing complete information such as author, title, incipit, codex name, codex number, project number, date and subject classification (usually more than one heading). The designated manuscripts can be obtained from the collection merely by asking for those project numbers given by the computer.” (report 1, May 1, 1969; emphasis mine)

IBM 1620 computer. From Wikipedia Commons.

According to the report, in the approximately 1 1/2 years of the pilot project, the staff had created records for the manuscripts from Stift Wilhering (Austria), a collection of about 154 manuscripts.  This resulted in a collection of about 5000 computer punch cards. For me, this is a rather frightening concept, since the entire collection from Austria alone grew to about 30,000 manuscripts. Doing some quick-and-dirty math, I estimate that the Austrian films alone would have required about 1,000,000 computer cards! Is it possible that someday I will open a closet door in the HMML basement and find boxes of thousands of computer cards? Gulp. Dr. Plante announced HMML’s computer projects in various journals, including Computers and the Humanities, vol. 2: no.2 (1967) and Manuscripta, vol. 11: no.3 (1967). The latter report still voiced optimism:

“The possibilities offered by a computerized catalog are being investigated. General areas are assigned a numeric designation which allow us to control the vast amount of material by numeric systems. … It should be emphasized, however, that progress in this area is still at an early stage. ” “The success of the pilot project seems to confirm the validity of the direction that is being planned. The blessings of modern technology are enabling us to secure the existence of these ancient documents for future reference.” (Manuscripta, vol. 11 (1967))

So, Digital Humanities made an early appearance out here on the edge of the prairie. Unfortunately, this early attempt did not survive its first report by very long. Already in 1971, Dr. Plante related in a letter that the project had been deferred:

“The major difficulty involved in computerizing the catalogue of MMML [today’s HMML] holdings is that many of the collections on deposit here are completely uncatalogued, and as a result must be catalogued manually before any computerization of information can take place.” (Julian G. Plante, August 23, 1971)

Indeed, of this in-depth cataloging, only 1400 of the 27,000 manuscripts at HMML at that time had already been fully cataloged. Correspondence files at the Saint John’s University archives indicate that interest in computers continued throughout the 1970’s, but no further projects appear to have arisen.  In 1982, another catalog computerization project was designed, but that would be a story for another day.  By the late 1980’s, HMML had a regular, standing committee investigating the use of computers with manuscript studies. This long-term interest was eventually to blossom in the In Principio project and the Electronic Access to Medieval Manuscripts (EAMMS) project in the 1990’s.

Brother John Brudney learns how to input incipits from Sister Wilma Fitzgerald during the In Principio project in the 1990's.

Brother John Brudney learns how to input incipits from Sister Wilma Fitzgerald during the In Principio project in the 1990’s.

Indeed, it seems that computers are here to stay! But then, they seem to have been with us somehow from the beginning.


Matt Heintzelman

International Round Table Discussion in Krems, Austria

December 27, 2013 § Leave a comment

On December 12 and 13, 2013, I had the privilege of participating in an International Round Table Gespräch (Discussion) sponsored by the Institut für Realienkunde, based in Krems, Austria. The Round Table brought together Austrian, German, Dutch, and (one) American scholars to discuss their respective digital humanities projects–under the aegis of: “Digitale Medien–internetgestützte Forschung–Web 2.0. Herausforderungen und Potenziale für die Kulturwissenschaften” (“Digital Media–Internet-supported Research–Web 2.0. Challenges and Possibilities for Cultural Studies”).

The city hall in Krems, Austria, where the Round Table took place.

The city hall in Krems, Austria, where the Round Table took place.

I was invited to present on the various digital projects of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, including (of course) vHMML.  Our library has witnessed an ongoing evolution over the past 15-20 years in its digital mission to support manuscript studies–as it moved from supporting manuscript catalogers (In Principio) to supporting the use of our microfilm by scholars (EAMMS/Oliver), to the delivery of digital images from both microfilm and original digital photographs (Vivarium), and now the creation of a virtual manuscript studies environment (vHMML). A similar evolution can be found in other digital projects, as well.

As many digital projects have grown over the past 10-15 years, they have found their center at first in the delivery of content (“digital libraries”) and now in the creation of work environments, where scholars can utilize multiple electronic sources to conduct research in a new way–especially in the humanities and social sciences. By searching across databases, the scholar may experience the serendipity of finding related images or content in unlikely and separate places.

Since different aspects of the vHMML project have been discussed (and will be discussed) elsewhere in this blog, I would like to discuss below some of the other projects presented at the Round Table over the course of two days. This review is only to pique the interest of those pursuing digital humanities and lead such folks to review the sites themselves–much more can (and in the future will) be said about each of these initiatives!

Zuccaro (in German)

Zuccaro (named for Federico Zuccaro, 1542-1609) is a project of the Bibliotheca Hertziana and Max-Planck-Institut für Kunstgeschichte in Rome, Italy. It takes the historic “event” as its core element and works to integrate different databases (e.g., Lineamenta and ArsRoma) into an open-ended network of references for research.  There is a very brief English description of the project at:  The program brings together information on buildings, persons, locations, geodata, etc., to offer convergences of data to scholars.


ALMA is a extension of the services offered at the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.  The interface is in both Dutch and English.  The museum has a somewhat eclectic collection of early painting and art, as well as many artifacts of daily life from the medieval and early modern period (“realia”).  ALMA provides a means to link data and photographs of actual realia with their depictions in art (not just a cooking pot, but how it is depicted in contemporaneous art. See the neat article on “A Syrian Apothecary Jar in the Three Marys at the Tomb by Jan van Eyck” (at the website listed above).

Presentation on ALMA at the Krems Round Table (December 12, 2013).

Presentation on ALMA at the Krems Round Table (December 12, 2013).

Meta-Image (chiefly in German, but with English summaries)

Meta-Image (funded by the German Research Foundation) is similar to vHMML in that it seeks to create an online environment for the study of art history and visual culture. It is grounded on the image resource prometheus ( and a tool for image annotation (HyperImage). An English summary of the project (along with other helpful links) can be found at:


Kulturpool is an Austrian project to bring together several resources on Austrian culture under one search engine. Similar to the European initiative “Europeana,” but limited to Austrian resources. Much of the site is offered also in English translation, but the basic language is German. Some of the cultural institutions participating in kulturpool include: The Albertina (graphic arts collection), Imareal (Institute for the study of daily life in the Middle Ages), the Kunsthistorisches Museum,, Museum of Ethnology (Völkerkunde), the Naturhistorisches Museum Wien, the Austrian National Library, and several others. This allows for searching across collections in art, natural sciences, history, artifacts, books and manuscripts, and other areas.


The Krems Round Table was organized and hosted by the Institut für Realienkunde des Mittelalters und der frühen Neuzeit ( Their special niche has been the documentation of daily life as found in late medieval and early modern art, especially painting. Similar in concept to ALMA (see above), their database and website are largely in German, but the database does allow for searching by English-language concepts. HMML first became acquainted with the Institut through a session at the Kalamazoo medieval congress in 2004. We have remained in contact–largely through conferences–since then.

Started by the Austrian Academy of Sciences in 2009, the website (i.e., Austrian manuscripts) will soon be relaunched with a greatly expanded offering. This is the site that most closely approaches HMML’s general offerings–manuscript descriptions, digital photographs, and a great drive to make manuscript culture available through the Internet. If a manuscript in an Austrian library has been digitized, you should be able to find the digital images here. They also offer catalog descriptions (including copies of early, handwritten catalogs) and pertinent bibliographic references. In light of our shared core mission of preserving manuscript culture, HMML hopes to work closely with over the coming years. started as a local effort to provide digital access to archival documents from institutions in Lower Austria (the area around Vienna). Over the past decade it has grown rapidly to include institutions across Europe (including Eastern Europe). This is especially important for working with archival documents, which often refer to related institutions in areas that today are separated politically, but which were not in a previous era. With its expansive coverage, it provides access in several languages, including German, English, Spanish, Italian, French, Croatian, Hungarian, and Serbian. Those interested in medieval archival documents can also join the Monasterium Facebook group.

Mittelhochdeutsches Wörterbuch (in German)

As one might surmise, the online Middle High German dictionary is especially geared to the interests of those studying Germanistik and Central European history. As a result, its website is in German. This is the online version of the first new large-scale Middle High German dictionary since the classic 19th-century dictionaries of Benecke-Müller-Zarncke and Matthias Lexer. The online version has the added attraction (over the printed version) of being expandible and being able to link to the textual sources where terms appear. Of course, the definitions can also be linked to images of physical materials being described.

Mittelhochdeutsche Begriffsdatenbank

Linked to the Middle High German Dictionaries online (i.e., Lexer et al.), the Conceptual Database offer not just straight definitions, but points to the medieval contexts in which terms appear. As with the Institut für Realienkunde, HMML first worked with the MHDBDB at a conference session in Kalamazoo back in 2004. The database also provides a link back to images of realia at IMAREAL’s REALonline (see above).

Participants at the Krems Round Table (December 12, 2013).

Participants at the Krems Round Table (December 12, 2013).

It was exciting for me to represent HMML and vHMML at this international gathering of digital humanities projects. I look forward to learning more about them in the coming months–and possibly finding points of contact where collaboration would be possible!  My special thanks go to Dr. Ingrid Matschinegg and her colleagues at the Institut für Realienkundes des Mittelalters und der frühen Neuzeit for inviting me (and HMML) to participate.


Matthew Heintzelman (Collegeville, MN, USA)

Dragon Alphabets and the Joys of Pinterest; or, Pin the Dragon(s)

October 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

When I first mentioned to my daughter that I was considering writing a blog post about dragons in manuscripts, her immediate response was, “cool!”  But then again, I guess I sometimes appeal to the 10-year-old in all of us.

St. Michael battles a dragon in the letter "F" (Factum est).

St. Michael battles a dragon in the letter “F” (Factum est).

As I have shown in previous vHMML posts, the digital collections at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library offer impressive resources for studying manuscripts from various traditions, times, and places.  Last time I worked on images showing people writing and the tools they used. For a quick and easy review of these digital photos, go to:

This time, I thought I would look to those instances where dragons are used, especially as elements in the decoration of letters. The dragon is a particularly useful creature for this, since the dragon seems to be infinitely malleable and can form any letter or at least part of any letter.  In the manuscript samples I have worked with, these appear especially from the 11th or 12th century on.  HMML’s online image database provided scores of examples of these sometimes fierce, sometimes playful creatures.

The difficulty with finding such images is, of course, finding your way back quickly to them a second, third, or umpteenth time.  When the Web was relatively new and much smaller (remember those days–seems like two decades ago now), the means for finding your way back to an important page was the “bookmark.”  Unfortunately, as most of us learned, one very soon had so many bookmarks that they became difficult to distinguish (or became obsolete) and thus lost their usefulness.

Klosterneuburg 147

Enter one of the newest kids on the social media block–Pinterest.  A colleague at the library demonstrated how he tracks art images on the Web using Pinterest, and HMML hired an intern over this past summer who also promoted its use.  Between the two of them, I came to the understanding that this could be a great way to track images, not just whole pages. With this program, you can create your own “bulletin board” of images that you “pin” to it. Thus, you can create your own collection of images and even comment on those images, without actually copying the images from the other site.  Not only would the image be partially displayed on your “board,” but the pinned item also acts as a link back to the page where you first found it.  Fortunately, Vivarium has a “Share” button that includes Pinterest and scores of other social media that enable the viewer to share the manuscript image very widely.

For vHMML the ramifications are tremendous.  Our hope is that vHMML will work with various social media to enable scholars to find quick and easy contact to their community of peers–whether through Facebook, Twitter, blogging, or even Pinterest. One can post an image on Pinterest and ask others to comment on it, just as many scholarly groups today maintain an informal discussion site through programs like Facebook (e.g., scholars for Medieval German–my field–have their own Facebook group where they post calls-for-papers, questions, etc.).  My “pins” can function as a kind of bibliography of images–one of my boards provides links to digitized manuscripts of the Rule of Benedict that date before the 11th century. And of course, I can always add more links as I become aware of additional resources.

So, I searched Vivarium for images of dragons and then narrowed the search by including individual letters to find specific initials with dragons. So far, I have most of the first half of the alphabet, and eventually will probably add the rest.

Check out my dragon collection at:

You do not need a Pinterest account just to look at the “board,” but you will need one if you wish to comment on anything on my boards or even to “re-pin” any pictures you see to your own board. This sort of interoperability and access to social networking tools should also be a part of vHMML–if a manuscript is excerpted for one of the school lessons, then quick access to the full digitized manuscript could be maintained through a Pinterest page, for example.  The opportunities to expand on the lessons in the vHMML School or to provide a quick access for manuscripts to be used in the Scriptorium would be a benefit to many a scholar.

New digital tools are coming out frequently these days. Our hope is to keep vHMML current with these tools and provide access to a full range of online services to support scholarship.

My favorite example--a text on marriage with two dragons locked together by their stubborn biting of their own interwoven tails. The initial "E" in the German word "Eleichs leben" or "married life."

My favorite example–a text on marriage with two dragons locked together by their stubborn biting of their own interwoven tails. The initial “E” in the German word “Eleichs leben” or “married life.”

And yes, dragons ARE cool!

But then, so is (some) social media!

Matt H.


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