A Library of Stains: Using Multispectral Imaging to Analyze Stains in Medieval Manuscripts

For April 25, 2018

Hi WN@TL Fans,

“It is written” are three of the most momentous words in English.  

Something powerful, authoritative, and permanent happens when the spoken word is conjured by pen with ink on papyrus, vellum, or paper.  Spoken words are here and heard, and then they are gone with the wind.  But the written word is a lasting record that can reverberate over the aeons. 

What an impact has the simple act of taking feather in hand.   On a manuscript, information is imaged in letters, glyphs, characters or numerals, which also means the information can be stored, retrieved, edited, copied, transcribed, translated, analyzed, distributed, and shared over space and time.  

As a former student-employee at the Dixon Public Library who enjoyed finding old posters and even older books tucked in nooks and squirreled away in crannies behind false walls up in the attic, I know that few pursuits are more intriguing than the prospect of handling, collecting, cataloging, curating and analyzing documents that were already ancient when Henry VIII or even Charlemagne trod this Earth.

But with manuscripts come the possibility of stains: spilt ink, smears from dirty scribes, or blots of blood or beverage. Then there’s the issue of erasures by razors, along with write-overs if not do-overs. 

What text might lurk beneath the murk of stained pages?  How can we use edgy technology to parse a text blurred or obscured by the enemies of ink, or to gain insights from the stains themselves?  

Heather Wacha, postdoctoral fellow in data curation for medieval studies, Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR); and Leah Parker, PhD candidate in English, will highlight the Stained Book Project with their talk entitled, “A Library of Stains: Using Multispectral Imaging to Analyze Stains in Medieval Manuscripts.”

Here’s now Heather and Leah describe their talk:

The Library of Stains project is a pilot study that uses multispectral imaging to gather scientific data from stains found on parchment, paper, and bindings. The data will provide a new way for researchers, conservators, librarians, and the public to approach and access information concerning the material makeup of medieval manuscripts and the environment in which they were used. 

The team consists of three CLIR postdoctoral fellows in data curation for medieval studies: Alberto Campagnolo, Library of Congress; Erin Connelly, Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies; and Heather Wacha, University of Wisconsin–Madison. This talk by Wacha and Parker will trace the one-year project from its beginnings and highlight its conception, imaging process, data analyses, and preliminary results that reveal new information about the stains found in special-collections manuscripts from the UW’s Memorial Library and the University of Iowa.

About the Speakers

Wacha is a CLIR postdoctoral fellow in data curation for medieval studies at UW–Madison. Her research focuses on women’s economic activities during the 12th and 13th centuries in Picardy, France, and incorporates material evidence found in the documents she uses as primary sources: charters and cartularies. She is associate editor of Virtual Mappa, a collection of 11 medieval maps from England published in Digital Mappa, a digital environment created by Martin Foys, a professor of English at the UW. Wacha also teaches an undergraduate course on the history of the book at the University of Wisconsin iSchool and works with iSchool graduate students on digital humanities projects centered on the history of the book.

Parker is a UW–Madison PhD candidate in English, with specialties in early medieval English literature and disability studies. She is currently completing her dissertation, “Body Eschatology: Disability, Death, and the Afterlife in Early Medieval England,” and she has essays forthcoming in the Journal of English and Germanic Philology and a volume on Disability, Monstrosity, and the Posthuman in the Medieval and Early Modern World. Her work also encompasses manuscript studies through the analysis of scribal errors, handwriting, textual transmission, manuscript illumination, and now stains.


Next week (May 2) Charles Konsitzke of the Biotech Center, and Dhanu Shanmuganayagam of Animal Science, will share their work in using CRISPR to edit pigs to serve as avatars for sick kids.   With CRISPR each pig can be tailored to be indistinguishable in certain genetic traits from those of an individual child, enabling the pig to be a proxy for the child in testing treatments for diseases such as neurofibromatosis type 1.

This is the kind of work that’s hard to imagine happening at a university that doesn’t have a College of Agriculture cheek-by-jowl with a Medical School. Sometimes, the collaborations are even closer than cheek to cheek: for example, the Genetics Biotech Center building, where WN@TL is held, is a facility of both CALS and the School of Medicine and Public Health.  The synergies are extraordinary. 

Or as I like to say:  there are few silos at the University of Wisconsin-Madison—and every one of them is full of silage.

Hope to see you soon at Wednesday Nite @ The Lab!

Thanks again,

Tom Zinnen
UW-Madison and UW-Extension