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Fall 2017

ENGL 3892S: Fragments of the Past: Working with Medieval Books

Course Description

This was not your typical literature class in any sense of the word, because all of our study and writing was about the physical makeup of medieval books: their construction in the past and their care by librarians today. Critically, this was the pilot course for our scientific analysis unit, the first time we brought CAIS analysis equipment into the Special Collections libraries to use with the medieval materials. (A special thanks to the librarians for authorizing the non-invasive physical study of their items, and to Dr. Alice Hunt for so enthusiastically signing on for this project.)

The goals for the scientific analysis unit were modest: we simply wanted to identify the pigments and inks used on some of Hargrett Library’s manuscript fragments. (Is that blue lapis lazuli or something else? Is the red vermillion or lead red? Is the ink oak gall ink or carbon black?) The analysis equipment we used — a pXRF device — can only identify certain elements present in a small sample, though, so before we could do any sampling, students first needed to know what to look for in the sample. That meant learning how different colors were made, what elements would be present in those colorants, and which colorants were common when/where and which were rare. Armed with that historical knowledge, students developed research questions about the pigments on their fragments. (You can read more about the unit design if you’re interested.)

Once we had those research questions, Dr. Hunt took the samples from the fragments and helped the students interpret the pXRF’s graphical read-out, called a spectra. Depending on the results of the first round of sampling, students developed additional questions to resolve via a second round of sampling, hit the library to try to resolve weird results, and then wrote up their discoveries in scientific reports and for this blog.

Student Co-Investigators

Lauren Amidon, Alexandra Carlsrud, Michelle Chang, Bonnie Hester, Abraham Johnson, Katie Knickerbocker, Taylor Lee, Roma Parikh, Heather Starr, Nicole Todd.