Europeana Regia and the royal road to medieval manuscripts

A few days ago the Europeana Regia project with digitized medieval manuscripts from five major research libraries came suddenly to my attention in a discussion of the search interface at the Europeana portal, a gateway to digitized sources from many European cultural institution. At present Europeana Regia offers no search interface at all, only a number of filters such as the present repository, the presumed historical collection, century and language. The user interface can be used in six languages – English, French, German, Spanish, Catalan and Dutch – and it is understandable that not every manuscript title has yet been translated in all featured languages, nor are all general pages translated or even available.

In this post I want to look how you can find and use manuscripts in Europeana Regia with legal texts. In the absence of a search interface it is difficult to search for a particular text. Can other websites help you to find a digitized manuscript more quickly? What is the exact scope of Europeana Regia and what can scholars and the proverbial general public get from it?

Logo Europeana Regia

The five libraries in Europeana Regia

The five libraries working together in the consortium behind Europeana Regia which aims at the virtual reconstruction of three royal collections are two national libraries, the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) in Paris and the Bibliothèque royale de Belgique in Brussels, and three research libraries, the Biblioteca Històrica of the Universitat de Valencià, the Herzog-August-Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel and the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich. What do these libraries offer themselves in the field of medieval manuscripts? I will give an overview of the most important online resources.

The French national library has a separate website to search manuscripts, there is a general image collection and for illuminated manuscripts you can use the Mandragore database. You can tune the Catalogue collectif de France, a service of the BnF, to search only for manuscripts. The BnF participates in Europeana. For the current manuscript exhibition Miniatures flamands in cooperation with the Belgian Royal Library you can consult the online version which features in particular the Grand Armorial of the Order of the Golden Fleece (Toison d’Or) (BnF, ms. Arsenal 4790), the heraldic guide to the blazons of the knights of this Burgundian order.

The manuscript catalogues of the Belgian Royal Library have been digitized at Belgica. Some manuscripts of particular interest have also been digitized for Belgica. Legal historians will welcome the digital version of the Vieil Rentier d’Audenarde (ms. 1175), a late thirteenth-century register of rents, and the manuscript 14689-14691 with both Der Könige Buch and the Schwabenspiegel, the “Mirror of the Swabians”, a legal treatise. The manuscript was written in the Alsace region between 1430 and 1440. Here, too, a fifteenth-century illuminated armorial is featured (ms. IV 1249).The library prepares a new catalogue of texts in Middle Dutch of which you find a summary list on the website.

The university library at Valencia presents digitized items in the SOMNI digital library. 67 manuscripts are at present available also through Europeana Regia, four manuscripts can be seen only using SOMNI. Manuscripts are included in the TROBES general online catalogue which you can filter for digitized items, for manuscripts and other special collections such as incunables.

At the website of the Herzog-August-Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel you will find a manuscript database and digitized manuscript catalogues. The manuscript database allows you to search directly in the data on nearly 500 digitized manuscripts. The library has created a useful list of its digitized manuscripts with direct links to them.

In the last few years the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek has concentrated much of its digitization projects at the special website for digital collections, the Digitale Sammlungen of the Münchner Digitalisierungszentrum. The range and number of digitized works is stunning as already the summary list indicates. This list allows you to filter for the several manuscript collections such as the Clm (Codices latini monacenses) and the Cgm (Codices germanici monacenses). The Bavarian State Library has published a substantial number of catalogues describing the manuscript collections. You can search for medieval manuscripts in this library and also for those at Wolfenbüttel at the Manuscripta Medievalia website. Manuscripts with texts in Old German and Middle German can be searched using the Handschriftencensus at Marburg.

It is safe to submit that all these libraries have done a considerable effort to catalogue their medieval manuscripts, to work at their digitization and to present their manuscript catalogues online, be it in digitized versions of printed catalogues or in databases. Europeana Regia has been designed to make in three years, from 2010 to 2012, the virtual reconstruction possible of three more or less historical collections with royal connections, the Bibliotheca Carolina with manuscripts from the Carolingian age (8th-10th centuries), the library of the French king Charles V, said to have consisted of some nine hundred books in 1380, and the library of the kings of Naples from the house of Aragon.

Searching and presenting medieval manuscripts: a comparison

Some years ago I have added to my old website a page on medieval manuscripts where you can find many manuscript catalogues and examples of digitized manuscripts and manuscript collections. More recently Gero Dolezalek has created a very well-informed webpage about online information on medieval legal manuscripts. Dolezalek had already provided space at Leipzig for the list of incipits in medieval canon law created by Giovanna Murano (Florence) and several other invaluable lists of legal manuscripts. With Hans van de Wouw Dolezalek published one of the earliest computer aided catalogues, the Verzeichnis der Handschriften zum römischen Recht bis 1600 (4 vol., Frankfurt am Main 1972), and with Laurent Mayali the Repertorium manuscriptorum veterum Codicis Iustiniani (Frankfurt am Main 1985). On my webpages on medieval canon law I try to offer further guidance. Anyone looking for manuscripts with texts concerning medieval canon law will have to consult for example Lotte Kéry’s Canonical collections of the Early Middle Ages (ca. 400–1140) : a bibliographical guide to the manuscripts and literature (Washington, D.C., 1999) and Stephan Kuttner’s Repertorium der Kanonistik (1140-1234). Prodromus Corporis Glossarum, part I (Città del Vaticano 1937; reprints 1973, 1981).

In order to assess the qualities of Europeana Regia it is not necessary to lead you along a large number of manuscript websites. For convenience sake and in practice it will suffice to use the websites mentioned in the paragraph above and a few examples of guides to specific manuscripts, the catalogue of medieval manuscripts in Dutch collections (MMDC) and Luxury Bound, the database created by Hanno Wijsman (Leiden) concerning illuminated manuscripts from the Netherlands in the period 1400-1550. As examples of digitized manuscript collections I have chosen the project Codices Electronici Sangallenses (CESG) for the manuscripts at Sankt Gallen, and another Swiss project, e-codices.

Much effort has gone worldwide into the cataloguing of medieval manuscripts. These very catalogues make projects for the virtual reconstruction of a library or the overview of a particular manuscript genre possible, such as medieval legal texts or texts in a particular medieval language. The digitization of these catalogues both at their respective homes and in projects demanding close cooperation has resulted in some particular interesting results. One of the bottlenecks in these projects is the way the information about manuscripts has to be not only consistently collected and checked, but also faithfully transmitted in a way which permits digital harvesting and use – through recoding and other techniques – in several formats. It seems logical to accompany a digital collection of medieval manuscripts with a searchable catalogue or descriptions, however summary, and this is common practice. In technical terms it involves the presentation of both data – in this case the digital images – and meta-data, the description of the digitized items.

Europeana Regia proves to be exceptional in doing without a user led search interface. Instead one can only use predefined filters. If you cannot search yourself in an efficient way in a digital collection you are faced with what can be termed in a friendly way as a showcase, and not the treasure room in which you can find your way at your will. The Europeana Regia is only loosely connected with the main Europeana project, even if you can search in Europeana solely for items appearing in Europeana Regia using the relation parameter, which however yields only 144 manuscripts, an incorrect number. For all purposes the Europeana Regia project could very well be a temporary solution which therefore lacks a specific search mask, apart from the predefined set of filters mentioned at the start of this post. The Europeana Regia project is said by Europeana officials to last three years. It started in 2010, and perhaps 2012 will bring more for those wanting to search at Europeana Regia, and not ony to admire the manuscripts.

Hanno Wijsman’s Luxury Bound database features both a simple search and an advanced search mode. You can choose a number of genres to select manuscripts, but today for some silly reason searching for the genre “legal and administrative” does not work; other genres appear correctly in the search results… The MMDC website, too, has both a simple and advanced search. You can even save your searches. Searching in MMDC for manuscripts with canon law texts brings you nearly 400 results, for “local law” 90, and for Roman law 67. The MMDC database is strengthened by a rich offer of extra tools, such as a palaeographical atlas, an online version of the Manuscrits datés conservés dans les Pays-Bas and information on bookbindings.

Choosing CESG with its famous holdings in Carolingian manuscripts adds more perspective to the comparison with Europeana Regia with its Bibliotheca Carolina. The virtual library of CESG is in fact presented as a subsection of e-codices. You can but need not select one of the Swiss libraries participating in e-codices. One can add a particular search field in the simple search, and filter the search results by a number of fields appearing in the right sidebar of the website. You cannot select any text genre. You can view both a detailed description of the manuscripts with often extensive reference to relevant literature and view the digitized manuscripts. Let’s end for this moment with the Catalogue of Digitized Medieval Manuscripts (CDMM) which offers search possibilities with five fields (location, shelfmark, author, title and language). For each of these search fields works an automatic suggestion for completion of the search term. With at present some 3,100 digitized manuscripts CDMM is surely not complete. Putting the data into a correct and uniform way is just one of the tasks facing the team behind this project.

Europeana Regia and the Europeana portal

David Haskiya, one of the product developers at Europeana, wrote in October on his personal blog about the recent changes in the user interface and functions of the Europeana portal. What impresses me is the fact that some of the changes are literally user-driven, following from the way of use visitors to the portal have shown. Only a very small number of users used the advanced search mode. Mr. Haskiya kindly reacted in two comments on my latest post where I expressed in a postscript my amazement at the disappearance of Europeana’s advanced search. Haskiya briefly mentions new functions such as the suggestion of similar items in a carrousel presentation. I had not yet thought of using Europeana on a tablet, but this, too, is taken into account in assessing the quality of the website’s performance.

Europeana Regia is currently not featured on the Europeana portal. On Europeana’s own blog the whole project has not been mentioned at all. At Delicious you will find just a few institutions who have listed the project in their link selection. The project for the reconstruction of three royal libraries from the Middle Ages is certainly not unique. Klaus Graf has made a useful list of projects for the reconstruction of monastic libraries. Among them is Sankt Gallen, which is also served in the Early Medieval monastic project started by Albrecht Diem (Syracuse University).

In the Europeana newsletter for June 2010 the late Thierry Delcourt of the BnF spoke about the project, stressing the practical advantages of the project, in particular bringing together manuscripts held in libraries in different corners of Europe. Delcourt mentions two specific manuscripts, one an evangeliary written for Charlemagne and his wife Hildegard, the other containing the Mustio, a gynaecological treatise. As for now I cannot search directly for those very manuscripts at Europeana Regia. You can only find them after completing a more or less long search viewing all the items in one of the preset presentation modes. Luckily Delcourt said the manuscript with the Mustio is held at Brussels, and by sheer luck it is featured at the first page with manuscripts from the Belgian Royal Library, ms 3701. The other manuscript is only shown on the thirteenth page of the manuscripts from Paris, and turns out to be the Evangeliary of Godescalc, written between 781 and 783, BnF, ms. NAL 1203. I should have used the selection for manuscripts from the eight century with less results to find it quicker… When you use the Dutch interface many manuscripts are not shown at all.

In a presentation at the eChallenges 2011 conference Matthieu Bonicel (BnF) gives a very clear overview in English of the problems facing Europeana Regia. Integrating data from very different systems, dealing with a fair number of languages, addressing the general public, school teachers and scholars in an equally satisfying way, dealing with different standards for the description of manuscripts, and having to choose a standard for iconographic description without having one international standard are only the major problems he mentions. It would be fair if this information was also presented at the Europeana Regia website. Explaining the difficulties in this project would not be amiss. The general public, people working in education and scholars will be thankful for such explanations. By now it is also clear that for further research you will have to use the resources provided at the websites of each library involved with the project. A commented list of these resources with the respective links can be easily added to the project website. A very simple search function for the website would already be most welcome.

As for iconography, choosing between the systems of the Index of Christian Art, Iconclass and the Art & Architecture Thesaurus, is indeed a challenge. It will help when one looks for the most successful implementation with medieval manuscripts, but even success can be disputed. The Dutch Royal Library and its website Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts is for Iconclass probably the best example, but in this consortium a Dutch view might be ruled out of court.

The royal road

For my part I do not want to leave you here with just a bunch of critical remarks about a remarkable project. I did not write this because I presumably like the role of a sour Dutch reviewer who delights in stressing faults, I am always looking for positive elements. Blogs like Digital Medievalist, BibliOddysey and Medieval Manuscripts Online have until now scarcely mentioned Europeana Regia. Surely it is not the first multilingual pilot project running into difficulties, but I have good hopes at least some of these problems will be solved. Scholars doing research in the field of medieval law will need to use the repertories of relevant manuscripts, the online resources indicated by Dolezalek and the specific online resources of the five libraries working together for Europeana Regia to study with most profit the digitized manuscripts of this project. It is only ironical that scholars need to go the royal road when others can simply enjoy their encounter with these witnesses from medieval royal libraries. If it is feasible to make a simple list of the legal manuscripts included at Europeana Regia, it is probably just as well possible to do this for other subjects. Let’s wait and see what 2012 brings!

A postscript

The question of the diversity of the public visiting or wanting to use Europeana Regia and the variety of user-driven wishes is addressed in a study by Philippe Chevalier, Laure Rioust and Laurent-Bouvier-Ajam, La consultation des manuscrits en ligne, Bulletin des Bibliothèques de France 56/5 (2011)  17-23.


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