Posted by Richard Higgins on 24th November 2018

Identifying pigments used in manuscripts

‘Team Pigment’ a group of historians and chemists from Durham and Northumbria Universities are currently analysing manuscripts from the 5th to the 15th century in order to ascertain which pigments are dyes were used in the creation of these splendid works. In a previous blog post, the reasons why ‘Team Pigment’ are researching this area were discussed. In this blog post I am to give an overview into ‘how’ pigments are analysed. Several methods can be used to identify pigments on the page, one of which is Diffuse Reflectance Spectroscopy (DRS). This method utilises the fact that visible light reflected from a sample produces an individual spectrum dependant on the nature of a sample. For example a white light shined on the blue pigment lapis lazuli will produce a spectrum as shown below on the left. This shows reflectance in the blue part of the spectrum but also some towards the red end of the spectrum. The diffuse reflectance spectrum of a different blue pigment, smalt, is shown below on the right. This spectrum again shows reflectance in the blue and red areas of the spectrum, but in a different pattern from that of lapis lazuli. In this way, and when compared to known samples, pigments in manuscripts may be discerned even when to the naked eye the samples look the same.
Diffuse reflectance spectra of lapis lazuli and smalt both identical to the human eye
However, diffuse reflectance has its limitations, as some pigments produce very similar spectra. Infrared spectroscopy is another tool that can be used and which works in a similar way to diffuse reflectance but in the infra-red portion of the spectrum. Yet another tool, and one which ‘Team Pigment’ are developing with high-specification and portable equipment, is Raman spectroscopy. This technique identifies vibrations in molecules to produce a Raman spectrum of bands at certain wavenumbers. When compared to library data the sample can be ascertained. Below is a manuscript from Durham Cathedral that has been examined. The Raman spectrum of the pigments gives us conclusive evidence about which pigments were used to decorate the page.
Raman spectra of an illustration in A.II.10, part of a 7th Century Gospel Book
Alongside these three techniques, multi-spectral imaging is also used. This is where light of different wavelengths are shone onto the page being examined, and a picture is taken using a filter at a specific wavelength. This can sometimes reveal under painting or writing, as well as providing further information about pigments. We can even see if anyone has sneezed on the page, as the sneeze shows as a luminous splatter in ultra-violet light! Louise Garner, Durham, October 2018  
Posted by Richard Higgins on 26th July 2018

Why analyse pigments in manuscripts?

In the next few months and years you may see more and more information on pigments available on the Durham Priory Recreated website.  Collected by ‘Team Pigment’ – a group of chemists and historians from Durham and Northumbria Universities  – this information aims to tell the viewer which exact pigments or dyes were used to create the splendid illustrations contained within the manuscript collection. In this blog post I try to answer the question of why ‘Team Pigment’ has such an interest in this research.

MS DCL C.I.9 under modified light

In the past few centuries, scientific techniques have been employed to understand further the technology that was employed in the making of these magnificent books.  At first, the field was invasive – samples were taken, books were unbound, and parchment was cut.  Some nineteenth century scholars even employed strange methods to learn more – in one case tipping strongly brewed tea onto the surface of a manuscript in an effort to reveal the secrets that lay beneath the surface!  However, these techniques have thankfully been recognised as damaging and detrimental and now there are an increasing number of non-invasive analytical scientific techniques that can be employed.

Professor Richard Gameson from Durham University and a member of ‘Team Pigment’ looks over The York Gospels, which is about to be analysed with The Raman Spectrometer



One area of manuscript studies that has benefitted immensely from this analysis is the study of the inks and pigments used to write and decorate these great works.  In the field of history, knowledge of which pigments were used to create illustrations can answer many questions. Individual illuminations and other artworks can be assigned to individual scribes or illuminators.  Knowledge of scribal practice can tell us more about how manuscripts were created, the transmission of manuscripts across the world, and the itinerary of scribes/illuminators. Trends in pigment use over time and place can show the creation of and changes in trade routes and the impact of cultural and religious events on commerce can be further established.

Aside from history, pigment analysis also has many conservation implications as correct identification of pigments used allows increasingly sensitive conservation techniques to be applied.  There are also wider applications of the use of pigment identification – to detect fraudulent works of art where anachronistic pigments are used, for example.

As the application of non-invasive analytical techniques on priceless manuscripts has become more commonplace, and more and more scholars are turning to science to answer the questions they are asking, technology has had to keep pace in order to provide the answers.  At the University of Durham, the capabilities of the Raman spectrometer that occupies an entire room and weighs half a ton, are replicated by a portable spectrometer that fits into two suitcases. Advances in this portability mean that the equipment can travel nationally and internationally to a manuscript, and examination can take place in situ rather than the manuscript having to move.

Louise Garner, a Durham PhD scholar and member of “Team Pigment” previews Douce 296 at The Bodleian Library, Oxford before the manuscript undergoes analysis

Whilst manuscripts are not quite as fragile as one might suppose (one could take a match to parchment and would have trouble keeping a fire burning) the illustrations themselves are sometimes not standing the tests of time.  Past exposure to sunlight, water damage, rough treatment and the passage of time itself can degrade the pigment colour or composition, or both, and pigments sometimes flake off the writing support.  Sometimes pigments can “eat” through the parchment itself, or react with other pigments to produce unfavourable effects, and it is conservation research that aims to halt this.

Louise Garner, Durham, July 2018

Posted by Matthew Hoskin on 29th June 2018

Law as Theology: Hypothesising about one of Durham’s canon law manuscripts

DCL B.IV.18, fol. 1r. 

Durham Cathedral Library, MS B.IV.18, written in the early twelfth century, begins with what canon law scholars call the ‘Canterbury Abridgement’ of Collectio Lanfranci, which would be the canonical collection Lanfranc of Bec brought with him to England and dispersed whilst Archbishop of Canterbury (1070-1089). This manuscript and the other one that contains the abridgement, Lambeth Palace MS 351, were written at Christ Church, Canterbury, based on palaeography. The abridgement is followed by a selection of letters from Gregory the Great.

As Martin Brett has discussed (see bibliography at bottom), the Canterbury Abridgement is not especially useable. The excerpts from papal letters and conciliar canons all just run together with no headings to help guide the interested reader. Not only this, I would also say it is not particularly useful, not, at least, the way we might expect a canon law book to be used by a reader.

Living in an age of reference works, handbooks, and manuals, we expect an abridgement of Lanfranci to be something that someone could take up, skim through, and find interesting bits of canon law, perhaps to help him in an upcoming trial or to sort out whether he could marry his deceased brother’s widow. Unfortunately for such a reader, not only is the Canterbury abridgement entirely unsuited to this task, it is likely to be completely useless, including as it does such unhelpful pieces of church regulation as Leo the Great’s statements on what to do if someone has been captured by pagan barbarians and forced to participate in feasts in honour of pagan gods.

My hypothesis is that the Canterbury Abridgement is not canon law. It is theology.

It is very common to say that canon law did not exist as a separate discipline from theology before Gratian and the rise of the schools of law, starting in Bologna in the mid-1100s. Yet we continually treat the pre-Gratian canonical collections and the body of church canons as ‘canon law’. Perhaps this is the wrong way of going about it.

The first step in testing this hypothesis is actually reading all of the Canterbury Abridgement (I’ve yet to do this). The second step I have already taken — considering the rest of the contents of the manuscript. These contents are what made my hypothesis arise. After the regulatory material, which also includes the Concordat of Worms (1122), DCL B.IV.18 includes the Cena Cypriani, which is a long, biblical allegorical amusement piece, the Canterbury Forgeries, Hugh of St Victor in a later hand, excerpts from Augustine, then more ‘canon law’ material.

What does all this regulatory material have in common with the Cena and Augustine?

That is a theological question. The canons of the church are the application of theological principles to concrete human situations, are they not? Theology, such as Augustine on the Trinity, is the application of human reason to the questions of God. Both of them seek order. The former seeks the right ordering of human relationships. The latter considers the ordering of divine relationships. They interact with each other more than one would think. (On this, think on Wei, Gratian the Theologian.)

Iustitia and rectitudo — these are part of the divine oikonomia, are they not? And they are meant to be part of the human oikonomia operating out of divine gratia.

What that means in the context of this manuscript — that remains to be seen.


Image provided by Durham Priory Library Project – a collaboration between Durham University and Durham Cathedral

Brett, Martin. ‘The Collectio Lanfranci and Its Competitors’, in Intellectual Life in the Middle Ages: Essays Presented to Margaret Gibson, ed. Lesley M. SmithBenedicta Ward (London 1992), 157-174, at 161.

Evans, G. R. Law and Theology in the Middle Ages. London, 2002.

Wei, John C. Gratian the Theologian. Washington, D.C., 2016.

Posted by Matthew Hoskin on 14th June 2018

Sorting out your Fulgentii

In the old catalogue of Durham Cathedral Library, Codicum manuscriptorum Ecclesiae Cathedralis Dunelmensis catalogus classicus from 1825, you will find the following Fulgentius entries:

The Homilia of page 56 is in DCL, A.III.29, folio 313, part of the Homiliary of Paul the Deacon (not the manuscript I blogged on before, that was B.II.2). The Homiliae of page 98 are the afore-blogged Homiliary in B.II.2 — two homilies this time, starting on folios 4v and 29r. The third set of homilies is in another Homiliary, B.II.31, three homilies starting on folios 26, 30, and 47 according to the catalogue. These are homilies of St Fulgentius of Ruspe, who lived c. 467 – c. 532.

The next item is the Epistola de Fide. This text is in B.IV.12, starting folio 1r:

Provided by Durham Priory Library Project – a collaboration between Durham University and Durham Cathedral

This is an anti-Arian tract by Fulgentius of Ruspe, Ep. 8 of his correspondance.

Then we have Comm. in Mythologiae, found in B.IV.38, starting folio 92, the Commentarius in Fulgentii Mythologias. This is a commentary on the Mythologiae of Fabius Planciades Fulgentius, a fellow African who live around the same time as the Bishop of Ruspe but is a different person altogether. Some have previously thought them the same, but, as I understand it, scholarly consensus today divides our two Fulgentii.

What is strange about this index is that, after the commentary on the other Fulgentius, we are directed to the De Fide ad Petrum in DCL B.II.27 by Fulgentius Ruspensis, as though this were a work by a different person. I assume the index was compiled by someone different from the catalogue itself, since it gives the impression that we have two Fulgentii, but divides the works wrong.

Why does this matter? Well, I have an interest in Fulgentius of Ruspe as someone who was influenced by the theology of Leo the Great and engaged in what some call ‘the Arian controversy 2.0’ — he shows the sixth-century synthesis of earlier theology. I am, perhaps, less interested Fulgentius the mythographer, but he is still worthy of interest for me as an intellectual historian whose work, when not analysing mediaeval canon law, looks at the fifth century.

For both Fulgentii, mansucripts are important. In fact, manuscripts are important for all pre-print authors. Studying them helps us understand the authors better. Textual criticism brings us closer to their own words as well as showing us how they were read and interpreted in history. Furthermore, in a library like Durham’s, it is worth knowing which authors were transcribed and read. One of my hypotheses I want to test is the idea of canon law as theology, and the only way to do that is to consider the non-canon law books from the same library.

If we can’t keep our Fulgentii straight, we’ll have trouble understanding the history of ideas and manuscripts.

Anyway, all of this to say: I do look forward to Richard Gameson’s catalogue when it is finished. And I look forward to the day when all of these opera Fulgentii are digitised and can be worked on from the comfort of my own office.

Posted by Matthew Hoskin on 30th May 2018

Dates, Popes, and Emperors

A common feature of many manuscripts of canon law is the papal catalogue. These catalogues list every pope from St Peter onward, either to the incumbent of the Roman see at the time of writing, or the incumbent at the time the document collection was put together, if the collection pre-dates the manuscript. They are not always interesting documents, and probably among the most overlooked aspects of canon law manuscripts. Nonetheless, they can give us insights into the world of these books.


Durham Cathedral Library, C.III.1, is a canon law book from the late 1100s that contains a papal catalogue amongst a small canon law collection at the beginning of the volume. The manuscript begins with a variety of canons (regulations) from the Decretum of Burchard of Worms (c. 1012ish) and, I think, some others, then the papal catalogue, followed by decretals of Pope Alexander III, a table of consanguinity (arbor consanguinitatis), then canons of the Council of Tours (1163) and more decretals.


The papal catalogue is on folios 7v-8r, a tidy two-page spread. It runs from St Peter to Pope Alexander III (pope, 1159-1181), who provides much of the decretal material in the volume. The episcopates of the popes are dated by emperor, from the death of Jesus under Tiberius and the death of Peter under Nero through the episcopate of Alexander III under Frederick. It also includes marginal numbers, I-X, then every ten popes for a while until the rubricator gives up. Moreover, certain events are noted in the margins in red, such as the Council of Nicaea or a ‘Romanum concilium’.


The feature I find most interesting in this particular papal catalogue is the choice of emperors included. First, after the death of Valentinian III, no western Roman emperor is included. One wonders what the source for the emperors is — is it eastern? Why no mention of at least Anthemius (r. 467-472), the only western emperor after Valentinian III whom we can definitively say had eastern support? He overlapped with popes Hilarus (461-468) and Simplicius (468-483), after all.


Second, on folio 8r, column a, western rulers return with Pippin III, the first Carolingian King of the Franks (r. 751-768), listed alongside east Roman (‘Byzantine’) Emperor Constantine V (r. 741-775). Constantine V is the last Byzantine emperor included; after the accession of Charlemagne (r. 768-814), son of Pippin, none of Constantine’s successors are listed in the catalogue.


Now, these emperors are not themselves listed exhaustively. They are listed as a device to date the popes. Using them, however, also serves to root the papacy firmly in the history of the Empire. In a way, it may even be seen to help legitimise papal authority.


What the removal of the Byzantines and the inclusion of the Carolingians shows us is how western Europe viewed its own imperial world — from Charlemagne to Frederick Barbarossa. It viewed this imperial lineage in the same manner as it viewed Roman Emperors from Tiberius to Constantine V. It saw them as the legitimate successors of Augustus. The Byzantines, however, it did not.


This may reflect twelfth-century views of the Byzantine Empire. It certainly reflects two shifts of the eighth and ninth centuries. The first of the shifts occurs in the first half of the eighth century, and it is the movement of papal attention from the eastern Mediterranean to northern Europe, from Constantinople to the activities of the Majordomos of the Merovingian palace (the future Carolingians) and the workings of papally-sponsored missionaries such as Boniface in Germania.


The second shift occurs in the reign of Charlemagne. Famously, on Christmas day in the year 800, Charlemagne was crowned emperor at St Peter’s in the Vatican. When we consider this alongside the Byzantine self-styling of the Carolingians, the late Roman-style art of various types (in mosaic, ivory, gold) made by the Carolingians, we can see their aspirations very clearly. They are thrown into sharp relief by the fact that from 797 to 802, the throne of Constantinople was in the hands of Irene who had overthrown her own son. Not only this, regardless of papal policy in this regard, Charlemagne was an iconoclast, whereas Irene was an iconodule.


Clearly the Carolingians did not consider Irene legitimate. And the popes, who needed Charlemagne’s help but who had long maintained at least the appearance of loyalty to the Byzantine emperors, did not either.


So maybe a list of popes is more interesting to reflect upon than you might think at first glance, after all.