Special Collections & Archives Blog

During March 2013...

Manuscript commentary on the gospels of Matthew and John, ca. 1240

Monday, March 25, 2013 2:18 pm

What’s the oldest book in your collection?

This is the question most frequently asked by visitors to ZSR’s Special Collections. Our oldest book is a manuscript codex dating from around 1240. Created two centuries before the invention of printing with moveable type, this book is a handwritten copy of a commentary on the Biblical gospel books of Matthew and John.

This volume has recently been the subject of study by medieval manuscript experts from some of our neighbor institutions, who have uncovered some interesting features.

Like the vast majority of medieval manuscripts, the text of this book is in Latin. However, physical features of the manuscript suggest that it was made in England. The text is a copy of a scholarly commentary on the gospels of Matthew and John, perhaps part of Hugh of St. Cher‘s Postillae in Universa Biblia juxta Quadruplicem Sensum.

The text has many features typical of manuscripts of this era. It is written on parchment (also called vellum), a specially prepared animal skin. The running heads in blue and red indicate the chapter title on facing pages. Here  MA THS  indicates that this part of the text is about the gospel of Matthew.

The commentaries on these two gospel books were bound together in their current form much later, probably in the 17th or 18th century. They appear to be pieces of a larger work, and some small notations in the manuscript suggest a reason for this.

This note at the bottom of one leaf includes the word “pecia” along with numbers (in Roman numeral form). The manuscript contains other such markings, which suggest that it might have been part of a 13th century system for copying books for Oxford University faculty and students. This pecia system was modeled after ones developed at Italian and Parisian universities.

Copying texts by hand was obviously a time-consuming process, and the rise of European universities in the 12th century created an increased demand for texts. The pecia system addressed this concern by lending out standard texts in parts (pecia is Latin for piece) to students or to the clergy who made up the university faculties. The borrower would copy the part of the text himself– or hire a professional scribe if he could afford it– and then return the piece to the university stationer (bookseller) for the next part. This system allowed for faster and more efficient production than the lending of lengthy texts in their entirety. Existence of a pecia system at Oxford is less well documented, but it is known that by the mid-13th century the local Dominican order had set up a proto-library of texts available for consultation and copying.

In the universities, the pecia system was also an attempt at quality control. Transmission of manuscript texts was a process prone to error: when texts circulated and copies were made from copies, the effect was like a game of telephone. Errors were transmitted and multiplied to the extent that it was sometimes impossible to determine the correct version of a text. In the Paris universities, the stationers were provided with exemplars– texts vetted by university officials for accuracy– which they lent to scholars for copying. With everyone copying from the same exemplar text, errors were at least reduced (though certainly not eliminated).

The page below shows one common form of correction in a manuscript text. The marginal notation on the left, outlined in red, is text that was accidentally omitted from the column next to it. A symbol in the main text indicates to the reader where the insertion should go.

The excerpt below shows the opposite type of error. In the last line of the left column, some words are crossed out in red and underlined with a series of dots. This indicates text inserted by mistake, which the reader should ignore.

ZSR’s manuscript appears to be an exemplar– a master copy  that was lent out for reproduction. The handwriting is skilled enough that it was likely produced by a professional scribe, or at least a skilled copyist. But it is not a deluxe manuscript. Decoration is minimal, and the parchment on which it is written is not high quality. The image below shows one large tear that would have occurred as the skin was prepared. The tear was once sewn up with thread (now disintegrated), as indicated by the tiny holes along the sides.

Smaller tears, holes, and discolorations exist throughout the text. Clearly this was a working textbook, not a luxury item.

Later owners’ marks in the text support the theory that the manuscript has English origins. Both probably date from the 16th or 17th century. One is by a Robart Emy.

The other is one Thomas How[e], who asserts that he “own[es] this booke.” Thomas, who one suspects was a rather young student, has used the margins of several other pages for doodling and practicing his penmanship.

We have little information on the provenance of this manuscript. There is no record of how it came to reside in ZSR’s collection, although a newspaper clipping in our files indicates that it was stolen in the 1970s by a part-time library employee and eventually resurfaced in the library at the College of William and Mary.

So our oldest book has led an exciting life. And it has many mysteries yet to be solved.

Medieval Manuscripts at ZSR, Part 1

Friday, March 8, 2013 1:58 pm

This week I attended  the third annual “Understanding the Medieval Book” symposium at the University of South Carolina. It was my first time attending this seminar, which is organized by Dr. Scott Gwara of the USC English department and held in USC Library’s Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. This year’s seminar was led by Dr. Eric Johnson, Curator of Early Books and Manuscripts at Ohio State University. Participants included teaching faculty, librarians, and students from various academic institutions. During the two-day symposium Eric described in detail the physical and textual features of medieval manuscripts, with a focus on religious texts. We learned about how manuscript books were created– from the making of parchment, to the scriptorium, to the bindery– and how they were used by their original owners. We also talked a lot about ways to use medieval books and fragments in the college (and even K-12) classroom.

ZSR’s Rare Books Collection does not have an extensive collection of medieval manuscripts. We have five manuscript codices (bound volumes) which I believe date from the late 14th/early 15th centuries. All are religious works in Latin. We also have a few manuscript fragments taken from larger works.

The image above is a page from one of ZSR’s manuscript codices. It is probably Italian (though the text is of course in Latin) and has many typical features of a manuscript from the 14th century. The red and blue ornamentation is not just decorative. Rubrication in medieval manuscripts served as a sort of punctuation, orienting the reader to line breaks and different sections in the text. Marginal notes and symbols, like the manicule (pointing finger), could be used to highlight important passages, add text or commentary, or correct errors in the text.

This very small New Testament manuscript from our collection is an example of the trend for “pocket Bibles” which began in the 12th century.

Most medieval manuscripts were written on parchment (also called vellum), which was specially prepared animal skin, usually goat, sheep or calf. Parchment was durable but very expensive, so bookmakers on a budget often made do with lower-quality skins. These might have uneven pigmentation, holes, or other flaws. The image above is a detail from another of ZSR’s manuscript books. The right margin shows a tear in the parchment, which was at one point repaired by sewing up the hole with thread.

Manuscript production in Europe fell off rapidly with the invention of printing from moveable type in the mid-1400s. Manuscript books were sometimes disbound and the parchment sheets put to other uses. One typical use was in the bindings of other books. Above is a manuscript page pasted inside the cover of a volume of the works of Horace, printed in Venice in 1490. Below, a page from a manuscript missal covers the outer binding of a 1532 Basel imprint.


Though the ZSR medieval manuscripts collection is not large, it gets a lot of use. I show the books to many medieval and Renaissance history and literature classes, and my History of the Book class uses the manuscripts extensively. And of course I pull them out every time someone asks the ever-popular “What’s your oldest book?” question. My goal in attending the USC symposium was to learn more about medieval manuscripts so that I could use them more effectively in teaching and so that I could create catalog records for our codices, which are currently undocumented. I definitely learned a lot, and I met some terrific medievalists. In fact, Dr. Gwara from USC and Dr. Jo Koster from Winthrop University have volunteered to make a site visit to ZSR next week, to look at our manuscripts and help me identify and describe them in detail. So check back for part 2 of this post, in which we’ll learn everything we ever wanted to know about medieval manuscripts at ZSR!

Featured Collections: Dean of Women and Women’s Government Association

Monday, March 4, 2013 4:43 pm

This post was written by Paige Horton, student assistant in Special Collections and Archives.

Women and Wake Forest have quite the colorful history. In honor of Women’s History Month we here at Special Collections dug around and found something very special for you: The Deans Record Group: Dean of Women (RG4.3), and Women’s Government Association (RG4.31) Collections.

The collection itself is made up of minutes, correspondence, and subject files that feature staff, student committees, and societies. The University Archives is home to the administrative paperwork available in the finding aid, and the Women’s Government Association handbooks can be found in the library catalog. Students can get a first-hand look at the Women’s Government Association (WGA) handbooks which details all the guidelines women had to live by at Wake Forest.

The History of Wake Forest provides an interesting look into the admission of women. Women of junior and senior status were officially admitted into Wake Forest College in 1942. The College came to this decision based on the amount of students they could potentially have:

From the Baptist junior colleges, young women were graduating and were going to other institutions to complete their college work. Among them were not a few who could not find the work desired in Meredith College or in any other Baptist college for women, and on that account they were going in increasing numbers to the University of North Carolina and other institutions, where they could get the instruction they desired. With them often went their brothers and friends, who normally would attend Wake Forest. If Wake Forest College would admit them they would go there, since they desired to be in a Baptist college. Another consideration was that for the duration of the war the income from students’ fees would be materially lessened by the drafting for the armed services of those who would be regularly among the students of the College, and that this loss might be reduced by the fees of the young women from the junior colleges who would not go to Meredith College in any event.

In 1943 a board member “presented a compromise which allowed women to enter Wake Forest in any class (previously they had been admitted only at the junior and senior levels); recognized university status for Wake Forest, giving it the right to develop as it thought best and committed the convention to greater support of Wake Forest through funding of development programs.”

The admission of women to Wake Forest College, along with the end of the war, had some unforeseen complications. In spring 1946 the campus total came to 1,000 students. There wasn’t enough space to house all the students but the college and the town worked together to “provide lodgings of some kind for everyone.” Women stayed in Bostwick and Hunter dormitories, “even in the basements and attics.”

The Women’s Government Association and the Dean of Women were created in response to the acceptance of women. According to the 1964 handbook, “The WGA is you. The officers are elected by you and will represent you in all matters pertaining to the life of the women of Wake Forest College. The WGA is not merely a law-making organization, but a group created to help give a sense of unity to all the women of Wake Forest College. The WGA desires to help you, and in turn, needs your support to make your years here a success.”

The WGA created a handbook instructing coeds on how they should conduct themselves while at Wake Forest. Some of the rules include:

Coeds could not ride in cars or airplanes without the written permission of their parents. They were forbidden to enter any man’s room or apartment, and fraternity houses were strictly off limits. Women could not smoke on the streets, and they were not allowed to possess or use alcoholic beverages. Only Seniors were permitted to date every night of the week and, in that activity, were forbidden to go to the stadium, the athletic field, and certain dark areas of the grounds.

The handbooks have a variety of codes of conduct but here are some of the more interesting ones!

1953-1954: Dating in parked cars during the evening is not permitted. A date is considered being in the company of a boy more than fifteen minutes.

Blue jeans are for picnics and hikes—not to be worn on campus or in the parlors except for unusual circumstances. Permission to wear jeans on the campus may be obtained from any member of the council.

Hose are worn when going to Raleigh.

1957-1958: Bermuda shorts may be worn to the phone booths, drive-in movies, miniature golf course, through the small parlor when leaving or entering the dorm to and form a car, on picnics, swimming, in the recreation room, and to the Farmer’s Dairy Bar. These rules apply except on Sundays. Bermudas may be worn on Sundays with raincoats or skirts.

1961-1962: A student may not go to the phone or be in the parlor without wearing shoes.

During serenades girls are asked to dress adequately and to be as courteous and considerate as possible. They are also asked to refrain from making excess noise whether they attend the serenade or not.

1962-1963: Second semester freshmen may go to the library any night, but must return to the dorm by 10:30. During this time she may go to the soda shop to get something, but may not sit down to eat it.

1965-1966: It’s a College rule that participation in or inciting a riot (and this includes panty raids) is subject to penalty.

You’ll be considered on a date if you leave the dormitory with a boy after 7:30pm. However, you are permitted to go to the library or to one of the science laboratories with a boy without being considered on a date.

1969-1970: You are asked to use good taste in what you wear both on and off campus. Sweat shirts and cut offs are discouraged! Slacks and shorts are not to be worn in administrative offices in Reynolda Hall, the Chapel, classes, or the Magnolia Room. Please do not wear slacks and shorts on the upper campus before two pm on Sundays.

1970-1971: Wake Forest students are expected to recognize that marijuana, LSD, and other psychedelic drugs are illegal…The University’s physicians, counselors, and chaplains are available to students who wish to discuss confidentially matters concerning drug use, subject to the legal limitations on confidential communication.

Naturally the inclusion of women on campus led to some unforeseen consequences. “Some of the campus hijinks over the years were coeducational in nature. The admission of women to Wake Forest had initiated an automatic rivalry which was sometimes friendly and on occasion somewhat sour.”

Some of these issues were explored publicly. One girl wrote into the OG&B saying: “It seems as if one must look like Liz Taylor to get a date. Have you boys ever realized that you don’t look like Clark Gable?…I believe that if given a chance the girls that aren’t so beautiful would prove cute enough for your adorable personalities…give the Wake Forest coeds a chance.” The newspaper received several responses from the male population in varying degrees of dissatisfaction. Winston-Salem also took notice to this ‘rivalry’. In 1966 a reporter for the Winston-Salem Journal surveyed the girls at 8 colleges and universities and reported that they found Wake Forest men to be “rude, crude, and unacceptable” and “retarded mashers.”  “Since admissions standards for men were lower, women tended to be more ambitious and intelligent, and they found it difficult to locate a marriageable man on the campus,” (History of Wake Forest IV, p.307-308).

Another aspect the collection provides interesting insight into is the creation and upkeep of the societies.  The societies the collection offers information on includes the Fideles, Rigels, Petales, Les Soeurs, S.O.P.H., Thymes, Laurels, and Strings. “The societies themselves are primarily social in their function. They hope to offer the coed a broader scope of social living and at the same time to make some contribution to the life of the College and the community as well as to the lives of the society members.”

The Student Affairs Committee held open-hearings in order to properly evaluate how the societies were functioning- around campus and this is what they found.

It appears that the societies are most important for the girls during their freshman and sophomore years: in other words, they apparently fill a need for entering girls as they orient themselves to ready-made identity groups and make minor loyalties and friendships within the larger loyalty to Wake Forest College. According to our findings, senior girls rank them at the lower side of the list of factors most important in their collegiate career. Apparently there is already operating an unconscious phasing-out of society-identity in the lives of some students who are most mature, more self-reliant, more scholarly. Therefore, we recognize the role of societies in this maturing process of the individual student and in their contribution to the loyalty to the academic community, but we think that for those girls who tend to outgrown them, we would encourage a procedure whereby their membership could relapse into an honorary status.

Overall The Deans Record Group, Dean of Women, and Women’s Government Association Collections offer an exemplary and unique inside look at the social lives of women at Wake Forest College. To access the collection students can view the finding aid to get a brief overview or make an appointment with Special Collection to view the collections.


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