Monday, January 20, 2014

Welcome to Medieval Identity Theft!

            My name is Carl Garris, and I am beginning my second semester at the University of South Carolina, majoring in history. As a mere freshman walking into an honors course discussing Medieval Manuscripts last August, I could not have expected to receive a research grant involving priceless medieval manuscripts. Now, several months later, my colleague Aaron Sanders and I are doing that very thing. In this first blog post, I will explain how we reached this point.  

            One day in early autumn, Dr. Gwara showed the class the Breslauer Bible, a medieval “Pocket Bible” which contains an erased ownership inscription. You could barely make out the faint remnants of two lines of text on the margin of one of the first pages. Dr. Gwara explained that he had used ultraviolet light in order to read part of the inscription, but the rest remained indecipherable. Part of the readable text, he explained, read Frater Ricardi, Latin forBrother Richard.” Such a title, Dr. Gwara continued, could indicate orginal monastic ownership of the text. English monastic manuscripts are very rare; Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, and the scattering or destruction of their vast manuscript libraries, saw to that.  Proving Monastic ownership of the Breslauer Bible, he concluded, would make it a priceless connection to pre-dissolution English monasticism. He then asked, somewhat to my surprise, for volunteers to apply for a Magellan Grant (a type of student research grant offered to University of South Carolina students) to work on a project devoted to reading the rest of the inscription using advanced technology. I asked to join in. Aaron, a junior and fellow history major, also volunteered.

The erased ownership inscription inside the Breslauer Bible 

After a few meetings spread over the course of a week, Aaron and I began to work on the Magellan proposal. We used earlier grants for inspiration and read up on appropriate sources on our research. On such source was The Archimedes Codex, a book about the team which deciphered the Archimedes Palimpsest, a medieval copy of a text by Archimedes which had otherwise been lost. This particular text had not only been erased, but a Byzantine monk had also written prayers over the original writings! However, using X-rays from the Stanford Synchrotron, the team managed to decipher the original inscription through a map of the iron contained on the vellum of each page. Dr. Gwara believed that the same synchrotron could be used to read the inscription in the Breslauer Bible.

Aaron (right) and I with the Breslauer Bible in Thomas Cooper Library

Over the course of several weeks, Aaron and I met numerous times over coffee, in the Thomas Cooper Library, and even once or twice (accidentally) inside elevators in order to discuss our proposal. We divided the work, with Aaron writing the historical background information on the Breslauer Bible and with me writing about the scientific procedures we planned to use. We worked together on our budget, making sure to follow Dr. Gwara’s instruction to include great detail, including everything down to the estimated taxi prices in Palo Alto. After exchanging our proposal with Dr. Gwara to make the edits which he suggested, we submitted it almost a day before the deadline.

I spent a good portion of the past two months taking the appropriate steps to request beam time with the Synchrotron. When I called the director of the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource, she did not seem very confident that our proposal would receive time as it was very different from most of the work (typically advanced physics, chemistry, and materials science) which scientists conducted there. However, Dr. Gwara encouraged me to apply anyway, and by quoting the support of the appropriate people from the Archimedes Palimpsest team with whom Dr. Gwara had spoken and worked with before, as well as by explaining the small amount of time which our project would require from the Synchrotron, we were able to make a convincing enough case in our letter of intent that we received beam time, which we tentatively scheduled for this upcoming June.

Aaron and I are both very excited about this project, and now we will begin the extensive background reading required for us to prepare for potential analysis of the ownership inscription. We will also begin designing an apparatus with which to isolate the inscribed page of the manuscript.

Check in for further reports of our progress; we are looking forward to sharing the project with you!