The process of digitising Mathew Paris’s ‘Book of St Albans’

TCD MS 177 f37v-f38r the martyrdom of St Alban, Matthew Paris, the Book of St Albans

The digitisation of the Book of St Albans manuscript by Matthew Paris was quite possibly the most anticipated step within the Medieval manuscript digitisation project currently being conducted within the Library of Trinity College Dublin. This high value manuscript was first photographed as black and white collotype prints for the M.R. James Facsimile edition in 1924 and in the 1980s a selection of images from the manuscript were captured on colour transparency film and scanned. The colour transparency slides show the pastel green hues well. Furthermore, considering a comparison between the resolution of fine grain film and high-resolution digital imaging is still contestable, I do not believe I can immediately say the resolution of the digital surrogate images taken on a medium format digital back camera is well and truly above what can be captured with fine grain film in terms of image resolution. However, the high dynamic range, colour accuracy and ease of use and speed of a medium format digital back camera makes the true hues and gold highlights seen within the miniatures throughout the Book of St Albans manuscript much easier to render correctly.

Digitising a high value manuscript such as the Book of St Albans involves slightly more planning than other medieval manuscripts as multiple people need to be involved throughout the process to ensure the safety and security of the manuscript. My role first off was to calculate how long I anticipated the digitisation to take place and whether there was a possibility to be able to also capture extra images of a selected number of illustrations using raking light to show the texture within the illustrations. Considering multiple expertise needed to be involved throughout the process and the manuscript is permanently stored in high security, I had a limited amount of time to complete all the digitisation. Although, the fact that this manuscript only has 77 folios made the planning slightly easier. Overall, the most difficult part of the digitisation process was creating the correct lighting to accurately show the course gold highlights which are seen within many of the illustrations, whilst not washing out the pastel green colourisation.

Lighting set up for pastel colours and gold

For most of the photography conducted within our Digital Collection studios we use a standard twin lighting set up with one flash head placed on either side of the subject positioned 90 cm above the subject and placed at a 35-degree angle towards the subject plane. The standard lighting set up was used for the lighting set up whilst digitising the Book of St Albans manuscript. In addition, a large silver reflector was placed over the top of the camera and over the top of the two flash heads and directly above the subject plane. The large silver reflector covered the entire diameter of the subject area and lighting circumference. The large reflector was kept in place directly above the subject throughout the entire shoot. Whilst shooting the miniatures with gold illumination an extra light was placed in front of the subject and pointed directly upwards towards the large silver reflector, this light was also set to the lowest setting. The purpose of using the extra light whilst photographing the miniatures with the gold illuminations was to help bring out the gold highlights which are often hard to capture with the standard lighting set up alone. The large reflector was kept in the same position throughout the shoot to avoid image exposure and the white balance changing too much once the extra lighting was temporarily added. The extra light was kept on the lowest setting also for this reason and to avoid flattening the green pastel colourisation seen throughout the manuscript.

TCD MS 177 f57r, example of gold illustration

The raking light set up

There are some distinct features in the illustrations in the Book of St Albans that are not easily seen by the unaided eye and are not obvious on the collotype facsimile. These hidden features are the modeling of the surface of parts of the uncoloured vellum. This effect can be seen on the folds of draped clothing, the necks, and haunches of the horses (fol. 49r, Figure 3b.3) as well as the brick work of the abbey church (fol. 60r, Figure 3b.4) and on the laths of the boat (fol. 62r). These effects that were created by Matthew Paris can only be seen by casting a raking light across the illustrations. (Wogan-Browne & Fenster, 2010).

From left, raking light image of folio 60r and close-up of the hidden texturing in the brick work, which can only be seen when using raking light.

The idea behind the raking light set up was to show the hidden texture and detailing in the tinted illustrations which have hidden modelling effects that cannot otherwise be seen with standard lighting. When using the raking light set up the raised parts of the parchment and detailing in the illustrations facing the light are illuminated whilst the parts facing away from the light are shadowed. This allows one to see how rough and rigid parts of the illustrations are, which can give researchers a better insight into the techniques used to create parts of the detailing in the illustrations.

Senior Digital Photographer Caroline Harding with raking light set up and with TCD MS 177 the Book of St Albans on the motorised cradle,

At the very end of the shoot where I was using the original lighting set up, I still had a small bit of time with the manuscript to capture a selected number of folios with a raking light set up. Alison Ray, the Archivist/Project Manager on the Carnegie Medieval Manuscript digitisation project created a list of the selected folios with illustrations showing the unique surface modelling, which I referred to. To capture the raking lighting images the manuscript was positioned on the motorised conservation cradle in the exact same way as it was in the previous set up, whilst only one flash head was used with the diffusing soft box removed. The flash head was positioned to one side of the manuscript 15 cm (about 5.91 in) above the surface of the manuscript. The raking light was pointed downwards slightly, for the light to be skimming across the page. To carry out a raking light shoot it is ideally best to have a light set up on either side of the manuscript and take a shot with each light individually. The two shots would then be comparable in what extra detail and texture they show. Unfortunately, we were quite limited in our lighting set-up and extremely limited on time with the manuscript, therefore we did not have the flexibility of using an extra raking light at a different angle. However, in future this would be our raking light set up of choice. In addition to having two flash heads set up on either side of the manuscript with extra time I would like to experiment with capturing raking light images with the flash heads set up at slightly different angles and distances from the subject to determine which set up produces the most ideal results.

By Caroline Harding

Senior Digital Photographer Manuscripts for Medieval Studies Project

The work of the Manuscripts for Medieval Studies project has been supported by a grant from Carnegie Corporation New York.

Virtual Trinity Library is a digitisation initiative of the Library of Trinity College Dublin’s most valued collections. It will conserve, catalogue, curate, digitise and research these unique collections of national importance, making them accessible to a global audience, from schoolchildren to scholars.
https://www.tcd.ie/virtual-trinity-library/

References

Wogan Browne, J., Fenster, T. S., (2010), The Life of St Alban by Matthew Paris, Vol 2.

Eileen C. Booth, Cuala Press artist.

Billy Shortall.

In 1927 an English newspaper referred to the “Cuala group of artists”, these were artists mainly women who provided designs for Cuala Industries, primarily for prints published by the Press. 1 Of the nearly forty artists in this group over two-thirds were female. A number of these artists have faded from Irish art historiography and the visual history of Cuala Press is often only discussed in terms of the Yeats family members, Elizabeth the Press’s founder, her sister and Cuala embroideress Lily, artist brother Jack who provided designs, and William the Press’s literary editor.

One of the most prolific designers for Cuala during the 1930s was Eileen Constance Booth (nee Peet) (1906-2000) who created more than twenty illustrations for reproduction on cards and for individual prints. Born into a Quaker family in Dalkey, Co. Dublin in 1906 she studied at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, and for a short period at the renowned Slade School of Art in Britain’s capital, and most interestingly from a Cuala Press point of view as a printmaker specifically in photo-engraving, the method of reproduction used by the Press for its prints. The Cuala Press Business archive holds Booth’s student card associated with the “London County Council School of Photo-Engraving & Lithography” for 1931/2 (TCD MS 11535/9/11/4). The card records that she won first prize for a landscape design in a student exhibition. Traditional Irish rural scenes would become a mainstay in her work and was her preferred subject matter for the Press. It is likely the Eileen first came to Cuala’s attention when she won first prize at the 1926 National Art Competition in ‘Illustration in colour’.

Continue reading “Eileen C. Booth, Cuala Press artist.”

Transcontinental Threads

Adam MacKlin and Billy Shortall.

Lily (1866-1949) and Elizabeth Yeats (1868-1940), pictured above, originally moved to Dublin from London to join Evelyn Gleeson (1855-1944) in her newly established arts and crafts enterprise, Dun Emer Industries in 1902, where the printing of high-quality books and prints was overseen by Elizabeth and embroidery by Lily. The enterprise was named after the Irish mythological figure, Emer, who was renowned for her artistic and needlework skills, and Cúchulainn’s wife. However, after an acrimonious split with Gleeson, the sisters established Cuala Industries in 1908 taking their own areas of production with them. The ideology of both organisations was espoused in the original Dun Emer prospectus, which stated its desire to “make beautiful things” using honest and native materials in “the spirit and tradition of the country”. Both were female enterprises and almost exclusively employed and trained young women as assistants in arts and crafts

The Press, the dominant part of Cuala’s business, published handcrafted books by leading members of the Irish literary revival including Nobel prize-winning sibling William (1865- 1939), and prints designed by Irish artists, chief among them another sibling Jack Yeats (1871-1957). Lily’s embroidery department was also notable, but its output was smaller and its legacy harder to track as many of the domestic embroidered items, such as, clothing, tablecloths and bedspreads are no longer extant. Framed embroidered art works such as those in the National Gallery of Ireland and in private collections indicate the artistry and technical quality of the embroidered work of Lily and her assistants. Before moving to Dublin, Lily had established herself as a skilled artistic embroiderer working for six years in the late 1800s with May Morris, daughter of William Morris, in their world-renowned Arts and Crafts scheme.

Continue reading “Transcontinental Threads”

‘Babbling in the Vernacular’: The English Language in the Middle Ages

Among the riches being digitised as part of the Manuscripts for Medieval Studies project funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York are three codices containing English, one eleventh-century, one thirteenth- or fourteenth-century and one fifteenth-century. Collectively, these three manuscripts give us an interesting snapshot of the status of English in the Middle Ages and the complex history of its emergence as a written language.

We now take reading and writing in English for granted. Netflix sends us emails telling us what we should next stream, we can buy a range of daily newspapers, or browse their websites, to find out what is going on in the world, and we can visit a library to borrow a novel to make the commute seem painless. Our primary and secondary educations habituate us to reading, writing and a life mediated through the medium of text.

All this rests, however, on a long process of technological, linguistic and ideological innovation that, for English at least, took perhaps 1,500 years. It requires a conviction that English ought to be written; an alphabet; a set of accepted mappings between the sounds of speech and these symbols of writing; upgrades to the vocabulary and syntax of spoken language so that abstract concepts can be conveyed clearly and without circumlocution; and a highly-developed set of conventions for the presentation of text on the page.

Continue reading “‘Babbling in the Vernacular’: The English Language in the Middle Ages”

Ghost Records: A 19th-century manuscript copy of lost chancery rolls

TCD MS 177, p. 1

Many may wonder why the Manuscripts for Medieval Studies project at Trinity features a 19th-century manuscript of reports relating to the Court of the Exchequer (TCD MS 1747), yet this work provides a fascinating insight into Ireland’s medieval history and contains unique copies of medieval records that no longer survive today in their original form, making these copies in effect ‘ghost records’. This post explores the creation of the report, how the medieval texts were destroyed and what work is being done to resurrect them.

Title page of the Irish Record Commission’s Report of Searches, dated 1816 (TCD MS 1747)

The medieval Irish Chancery was the secretariat of the kings and queens of England, responsible for issuing royal letters under the Great Seal of Ireland. The lord chancellor of Ireland was the keeper of this Great Seal, which authenticated documents on behalf of the crown. The chancery issued legal documents relating primarily to property rights, grants of land, appointments to office, pardons, and fines. Outgoing letters were also recorded by chancery clerks, who copied the text onto long rolls of parchment known as the chancery rolls. The chancery rolls suffered loss, damage, and neglect over time through multiple fires and poor storage conditions in Dublin Castle. In 1810, the Irish Records Commission was established to survey the surviving rolls and produce a calendar of the medieval records up to the year 1600. By 1816, the rolls were moved to the Record Tower of Dublin Castle and the IRC had produced this remarkable report on the chancery rolls.  

(Left) Introduction to the Irish Record Commission’s Report of Searches signed by Secretary William Shaw Mason on 27 April 1816 in the Record Tower of Dublin Castle (TCD MS 1747, p. 3), and (right) a present-day view of the Record Tower (image via Wikipedia)

The Secretary to the IRC, William Shaw Mason (1774-1853), and a team of sub-commissioners undertook the challenging task of searching the chancery rolls and other documents to identify and transcribe records relating to the Clerk of Common Pleas in the Court of the Exchequer, Ireland. Mason presents the findings of their searches, with listings of the Clerks of Common Pleas and Chancellors of the Exchequer, followed by the record extracts in chronological order from the reign of King Edward III of England (1327-1377) to 1805, the 45th year of the reign of King George III (1760-1820).

Rolls extract in Latin (left) and English translation (right) relating to a petition of John Penkeston, Clerk of the Common Pleas, dated 6 June 1377 (TCD MS 1747, pp. 56-7)

In 1867, the Public Record Office of Ireland was established under the Public Records (Ireland) Act and over a period of several years the documents held in the Records Tower of Dublin Castle, including the chancery rolls, were moved to the new building located in the Four Courts. However, these records were largely lost in the fire of the Public Records Office of 30 June 1922 in the opening engagement of the Civil War. Ranging in date from the 13th to the 19th centuries, only a handful of these historic documents survive today in their original form with many more known through copies, transcripts, and other records like the 1816 IRC report. The report itself was deposited in Trinity Library in November 1920, thus avoiding the fire.

(Left) Detail of the front cover of the Report featuring the stamp of the Public Records Office of Ireland (TCD MS 1747), and (right) Model of the interior of the Virtual Record Treasury, from the Beyond 2022 project

The Irish Record Commission’s Report of 1816 is now fully digitised and available to view here on the Digital Collections website. The manuscript will feature in Beyond 2022: Ireland’s Virtual Record Treasury, the all-island and international collaborative research project to create a virtual reconstruction of the Public Records Office of Ireland. The project is being led by Programme Director Dr Peter Crooks (Department of History, Trinity College Dublin) and will launch on the centenary of the Four Courts blaze in 2022.

Dr Alison Ray

Follow us on Twitter @TCDResearchColl

The work of the Manuscripts for Medieval Studies project has been made possible by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Further reading:

Beyond 2022: Ireland’s Virtual Record Treasury project website: https://beyond2022.ie/

CIRCLE: A Calendar of Irish Chancery Letters c. 1244-1509 project website: https://chancery.tcd.ie/content/irish-chancery-rolls

P. Connolly, Medieval Record Sources (Dublin, 2002)

Virtual Trinity Library is a digitisation initiative of the Library of Trinity College Dublin’s most valued collections. It will conserve, catalogue, curate, digitise and research these unique collections of national importance, making them accessible to a global audience, from schoolchildren to scholars.
https://www.tcd.ie/virtual-trinity-library/