The Book of Nunnaminster as Digital Reproduction and Material Object

by Kate R. Falardeau (@kate_falardeau)

Fig. 1

In March 2020, I was preparing to visit the British Library to examine the Book of Nunnaminster (London, British Library, MS Harley 2965) for my MPhil dissertation when the first Covid-19 lockdown began.[1] I’ll be honest— during those first few weeks of lockdown, the accessibility of research material for my dissertation was not exactly at the forefront of my mind. By the time I was able to think about my research project again, almost 3,000 miles and a litany of Covid-19 restrictions had separated me from the manuscript. Luckily, the Book of Nunnaminster had been digitised.[2] I first encountered the manuscript in digital reproduction and would return to it during four lockdowns spent in two different countries. The MPhil dissertation chapter morphed into a conference presentation that became a draft journal article, and I had still never seen the manuscript in person.

As I realised when I was finally able to examine the Book of Nunnaminster in the Manuscripts Reading Room this summer, a digital medieval manuscript is not analogous to the “real thing”. This is not, in fact, a problem when one considers the digitised manuscript as an entity in and of itself rather than as a copy. We therefore need to push against the knee-jerk reaction to classify the physical manuscript as “real” in a way that the digital manuscript is not. Considering the physical object the “real thing” implicitly defines the digital reproduction as just that, a (re)production that is in some way divorced from the aura of the book.[3] Following recent scholarship in medieval manuscript studies and digital humanities, a digital medieval manuscript is neither an inferior version nor an exact copy of the manuscript-as-object.[4]

When I was able to compare my experience of the digital manuscript with that of the physical object, I realised that each Book of Nunnaminster necessitated different research methods and highlighted different facets of the two tenth-century additions I was studying (fig. 1).[5] In the British Library manuscript viewer, I was able to focus on a single page, a folio, or use “open book” view to approximate the physical book. The zoom feature was incredibly useful for transcription: I often had the Word document containing my draft dissertation open next to the manuscript viewer.

In the digital manuscript I found myself focusing on the text of the additions, but my encounter with the physical manuscript drew my attention to the material aspects of the book and its contexts. The ability to turn the pages in 3D space lead me to think more about how the book was put together. I took notes on its codicological structure in a notebook, open next to the manuscript. The variable quality of light on its pages as I moved them enabled me to identify and question patterns of damage on fol. 41r (fig. 2).[6] Although traces of use were apparent in the digital manuscript, holding the physical book turned my thoughts to its past users.

Fig. 2

It was only when I had examined both digital and physical manuscripts that I developed an understanding of the significance of the tenth-century additions. As a postgraduate historian in the era of Covid-19, I understand that of course sometimes one is limited to the digital manuscript. I would argue, however, that wherever possible, it is necessary to consult the digital alongside the material, and vice versa. Multiplicity of format engenders multiplicity of meaning. 


[1] See Walter de Gray Birch, ed., An Ancient Manuscript of the Eighth or Ninth Century: Formerly Belonging to St. Mary’s Abbey or Nunnaminster, Winchester (London: Simpkin & Marshall, 1889).

[2] The manuscript is digitised at http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_2965.

[3] On aura, see Walter Benjamin, ‘L’œuvre d’art à l’époque de sa reproduction méchanisée’, Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung 5 (1936): 40–68.

[4] The recent conference hosted by the Centre for the Study of Medieval Manuscripts and Technology at the University of St Andrews, ‘The Digital Medieval Manuscript: An Expert Meeting’ illustrates that the digital medieval manuscript is receiving more attention as an object of study in its own right: https://events.st-andrews.ac.uk/events/the-digital-medieval-manuscript-expert-meeting/. See also Matthew Evan Davis, Tamsyn Mahoney-Steel, and Ece Turnator, eds, Meeting the Medieval in a Digital World (Leeds: Arc Humanities Press, 2018); Bill Endres, Digitizing Medieval Manuscripts: The St Chad Gospels, Materiality, Recoveries, and Representation in 2D and 3D (Leeds: Arc Humanities Press, 2019); Bridget Whearty, Digital Codicology: Medieval Books and Modern Labor (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2022) (forthcoming).

[5] The additions (a vernacular account of land boundaries, on fol. 40v, and three confessional formulae, on fol. 41r) are printed in de Gray Birch, ed., Ancient Manuscript, 32 and 96–7. On the additions, see Kate Falardeau, ‘Gender, Space and Communal History in Tenth-Century Additions to the Book of Nunnaminster’, The Journal of Medieval Monastic Studies 11 (2022) (forthcoming); on the confessional addition, see Katie Bugyis, ‘The Practice of Penance in Communities of Benedictine Women Religious in Central Medieval England’, Speculum 92, no. 1 (2017): 36–84, at 51.

[6] Discussed further in Falardeau, ‘Gender, Space and Communal History’.

Image credits:

Fig. 1: London, British Library, MS Harley 2965, fols 40v–41r (https://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/ILLUMIN.ASP?Size=mid&IllID=26375)

Fig. 2: London, British Library, MS Harley 2965, fol. 40v (https://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/ILLUMIN.ASP?Size=mid&IllID=15610)

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