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Student Research Illuminates Manuscript Mysteries

December 03, 2018

by Franchesca Schrambling BA ’22


Chemistry 365 and English 281—at first glance, the two classes have little in common. Physical Chemistry Laboratory is dedicated to student research projects, while From Scroll to Codex: Working With Medieval Manuscripts offers English students the chance to work with early printed materials.

Yet the two courses are intertwined thanks to a rare tome acquired in 2014 by Aubrey Watzek Library’s Special Collections: an illuminated book of hours from the 15th century, written in both Latin and French and detailing devotional prayers for lay people. Small, portable, missing a few pages, and packed with mystery, the book is a perfect object for interdisciplinary study. Karen Gross, associate professor of English, and Julio de Paula, professor of chemistry and codirector of Pathways to Success in STEM, are teaching the two courses.

Gross and de Paula hope to answer many questions about the well-used and rebounded book’s origins and past. There are still many unknowns about who owned this book, how the book changed hands over the centuries, and even where and when it was printed exactly. Gross says right now that the date of the book is based on style, but if an erased date or otherwise verifiable date could be found, it would greatly propel their search.

Associate Professor of English Karen Gross“What’s been exciting to me is to see how much people have been shaped by their encounter with the manuscript,” Gross said. “My own research these last few years has been very manuscript based, so it’s been a treat to share this side of me with students. I’ve often thought that using archival materials is a great opportunity for all the liberal arts to come into play—students of language, chemistry, religious studies, art, and history. The work draws on so many different sides.”

De Paula supervises his chemistry students as they conduct non-destructive chemical analysis on materials in the library. This year, his students analyzed the book of hours using x-ray fluorescence to provide information about the chemical composition of pigments. The research falls under an area of chemistry not normally taught in undergraduate chemistry curricula: archaeology and chemistry based on analysis of artifacts. According to de Paula, students love the research, equating it to detective work.

“You have to interpret the data in a way that makes sense and come up with your own meaning,” de Paula explained. “That’s a key challenge of research: you’ll end up with findings that no one else has at their disposal.” For students at an undergraduate level, this is an enormous opportunity—and a huge enigma to try and decode.

Camille Wong BA ’19, Jonathan Boddie BA '18, and Valerie Walters examine a page in the book o...Camille Wong BA ’19, Jonathan Boddie BA '18, and Valerie Walters examine a page in the book of hours.Camille Wong BA ’19, a chemistry major with a minor in studio art (ceramics), studied the paints within the book’s illumination. The San Francisco native focused on testing the authenticity of the paints by examining their chemical compositions. She then compared the findings with historically documented paint formulas and confirmed that the illuminations did indeed match 15th-century materials. While her previous experience using chemicals in ceramic glazes gave her an edge over her chemistry peers in understanding the process, she asserts that the interdisciplinary approach gave her new insights and perspectives.

Arista Engineer BA '19Arista Engineer BA '19Arista Engineer BA ’19, an English major from Pune, Maharashtra, India, recalls a similar experience.

“I was fascinated by the additional knowledge and skills that other students brought to the table. A few examples include Latin, calligraphy, history (specifically the regional wars and disputes in that time period), fashion (armor, military crests, etc.), and weaponry.”

Engineers’ English 281 class consisted of seven to eight weeks of gathering background information, visiting several local archives, and researching questions that arose in group discussions in the library. There were many different focuses, usually leading to similar conclusions about the manuscript and moving one step closer to understanding its origins. “We worked to uncover the past, and future students will receive that same chance.” Gross hopes to conduct the class again in 2020 or 2021, focusing on historical perspectives or even on another recently acquired book of hours.

With his new group of students in the spring, de Paula will be changing techniques. This time, raman spectroscopy and infrared reflectography will take the reins. Infrared reflectography could make visible layers of paint, possibly discovering if the pages within the book have ever been painted over.

Emily Price BA ’18 studied manuscripts during her time at L&C. The English major, who graduated with honors, is now a doctoral student in English literature at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City.

“It’s rare for undergraduates to have the chance to work with a medieval manuscript that’s been completely transcribed and investigated, let alone do original research on one whose origin and ownership are still largely a mystery, so this project was really an incredible opportunity,” said Price.

Chemistry Department

English Department

Special Collections at Watzek Library

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