Cambridge and Heidelberg announce major project to digitise treasured medieval manuscripts
Hundreds of medieval and early modern Greek manuscripts – including classical texts and some of the most important treatises on religion, mathematics, history, drama and philosophy – are to be digitised and made available to anyone with access to the internet.
In a major collaboration announced today (March 28), Cambridge University Library, 12 Cambridge colleges, the Fitzwilliam Museum, Heidelberg University Library and the Vatican Library have come together as part of a two-year £1.6m project, funded by the Polonsky Foundation, to digitise more than 800 medieval manuscripts.
The project between two of Europe’s oldest universities, both renowned for their medieval collections, will see the digitisation of every medieval Greek manuscript in Cambridge and all those belonging to the Bibliotheca Palatina collection, split between Heidelberg and the Vatican. It will provide a unique insight into the chronological range of Greek manuscript culture, from the early Christian period to the early modern.
Dr Suzanne Paul, Keeper of Rare Books and Early Manuscripts at Cambridge University Library, said: “The Cambridge and Heidelberg collections bear witness to the enduring legacy of Greek culture – classical and Byzantine – and the lasting importance of Greek scholarship.
“The works of Homer and Plato were copied and recopied throughout the medieval period and the early biblical and liturgical manuscripts are profoundly important for our understanding of a Christian culture based on the written word.
“These multilingual, multicultural, multifarious works, that cross borders, disciplines and the centuries, testify to a deep scholarly engagement with Greek texts and Greek culture that both universities are committed to upholding.”
Once digitised, the Cambridge manuscripts will join the works of Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Stephen Hawking and Alfred Lord Tennyson on the Cambridge Digital Library. Since its launch in 2010 – with the digitisation of Newton’s Principia Mathematica making headlines around the world – the treasures of Cambridge’s Digital Library have been accessed more than 13.5 million times.
Dr Veit Probst, Director of Heidelberg University Library, said: “Numerous discoveries await. We still lack detailed knowledge about the production and provenance of these books, about the identities and activities of their scribes, their artists and their owners – and have yet to uncover how they were studied and used, both during the medieval period and in the centuries beyond. The meanings of the annotations and marginalia in the original manuscripts have yet to be teased apart. From such threads, a rich tapestry of Greek scholarship will be woven.”
With more than 38,000 volumes digitised to date, Heidelberg’s Digital Library has been visited by scholars and members of the public in 169 countries, outlining the global appetite for digital access to collections which would be impossible for most to access directly.
The current status of these collections presents significant challenges to scholars both in terms of cataloguing and conservation, with the medieval bindings of many manuscripts in a fragile state. The current catalogues for them date from the nineteenth century; many of those for the Cambridge manuscripts were written by the scholar M.R. James, Provost of King’s College, Cambridge, but best known for his ghost stories which remain popular to this day.
Of the Cambridge Greek manuscripts, around 210 are held at the University Library, 140 at Trinity College, and a further 60 spread across 11 other colleges and the Fitzwilliam Museum. Of the Bibliotheca Palatina Greek manuscripts, 29 are in Heidelberg and 403 are in the Vatican Library, having been transferred there from Germany as a spoil of war in 1623.
Dr Jessica Gardner, Cambridge University Librarian, said: “Opening up some of the most important Greek medieval manuscripts to not just scholars, but the widest possible audience, is another key milestone towards our goal of sharing Cambridge’s treasured collections with the world.
“I would like us to get to the stage where the University’s entire medieval collections are digitised. This project is testament to what can be achieved when Cambridge’s libraries, colleges and museums work in tandem – while at the same time building ever-closer relationships with a distinguished European research library like our own.”
Dr Leonard S. Polonsky CBE, Founding Chairman, The Polonsky Foundation said:“Our Foundation is proud to support this important collaboration between the ancient universities of Cambridge and Heidelberg, which represents a significant development for both institutions. For Heidelberg the project will complete the virtual reconstruction of the Palatine Library that is being carried out with the Vatican Library.
“For Cambridge it is the first phase of a collaboration among the University Library, Cambridge colleges and the Fitzwilliam Museum to digitise their collections of Western medieval manuscripts. Benefiting from the extraordinary opportunities afforded by digitisation, the project brings together the treasures of these great institutions and makes them available to researchers and the wider public in innovative and attractive ways.”
Press release from Cambridge University, by Stuart Roberts