Rebecca Bartels Recounts A Lecture Given by Consuelo Dutschke at Colombia University

On October 28th, students of Dr. Hafner’s Manuscript Culture class attended a lecture at the Butler Library in Columbia University in order to hear a private seminar from Consuelo Dutschke, curator of the Medieval and Renaissance rare book collections. The Rare Book Collections seminar room stood behind a secret door which at first glance looked like a wall. The Rare Books Collection has under its control a locus of incunabulum; namely books and documents printed from early Western Europe up until January 1, 1501.

Once we were all ensconced in the lecture room, Consuelo brought to our attention approximately twenty documents and books laid out over a long wooden table. “Keep an open mind,” Consuelo said as we leaned forward to survey the documents, “or you’ll never find what’s out there.” With these words in mind, we began to participate in an interactive lecture that involved answering questions, translating passages, and experiencing the privilege of holding the documents and books themselves.

Since manuscript scholars can’t rely on colophons or script types to give us the place, date, and author necessarily, we must rely on nuances within decoration and textual format to give us some context. Consuelo highlighted and demonstrated the importance of decoration as a way of localizing each book, in some cases identifyingdown to its very city of origin. Before even opening some of the texts, Consuelo described how the original book bindings hinted at a book’s region of origin. For instance, if a book had clasps (do you recall what it was about the clasps that made them specifically Italian? I think it had to do with their being closed toward the back of the book, but I’m not sure), it was likely to have been made in Italy. With Consuelo’s tutelage, we were enlightened on the uses of decoration and the history of the manuscripts and books.

Consuelo shared with us the importance of manuscript culture history. In 1953, French Paleographers created the CIPL (Comité International de PaléographieLatine), an establishment that aspired to solve a fundamental question about manuscript culture: how do we go about studying these manuscripts? Though the CIPLlost momentum, their work was not in vain. Today, the most used book on manuscript identity is Tuscany’s version of the CIPL, which includes a method of dating the documents by means of comparison and contrast. In the United States, Columbia works alongside UC Berkley to produce the Digital Scriptorium. The strengths of a digital database include the use of vibrant color, a vast library, and the ability to correct inaccurate cataloguing and classification information.

As for Columbia’s Plimpton Manuscript collection, Consuelo described why so many manuscripts were broken off in scrappy segments instead of being retained as whole books. George Plimpton, the founder of the Plimpton collection, bought a myriad of cheap little items from 1925 to 1965. One hypothesis as to why these manuscripts were sold folio by folio instead of by book was because of their cheapness. Consuelo offered another imposing hypothesis: that libraries often accept and recognize volumes of one work, having difficulty classifying and describing a book containing multiple works or texts. Due to this, many manuscripts have portions in several localities.

The class was certainly an enlightening one. Not only did we learn about manuscripts and documents by reading and holding them, but we learned about manuscript culture history and how conservationists and curators locate the time and place of the manuscript. In addition, Consuelo’s generosity and warmth culminated in an exciting and welcoming experience that shall not be forgotten. On behalf of the Centre of Medieval Studies, I wish to thank Consuelo Dutschke and Columbia University for hosing such an enlightening class, for it provided indelible inspiration towards our quests to study manuscript culture.

Week in Review: Workshop on Databases for Medievalists with Dr. Maryanne Kowaleski

This past 5 February, Dr. Maryanne Kowaleski took a break from her appointment at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study to deliver a presentation and lead a workshop on how individual scholars may develop and prepare a database to assist in their research. While the workshop was specifically meant to aid in the Independent Crusader Database project the Center is currently undertaking, the main points of how to construct a database easily apply to nearly any study or field of research requiring the organization of vast volumes of data. Breaking the entire process down step-by-step, Dr. Kowaleski began with which database software program to use and what each offers the prospective user. Be it Microsoft Access or Filemaker Pro, of paramount importance is that the user spends the time necessary to read through whatever manuals come with the software, including such additional guides as the ubiquitous “For Dummies” series. While this point might seem an obvious one, diving into a database program without knowing what that program is capable of, as, frankly, many people do with many types of programs, will leave you at a severe disadvantage. Like a painter who does not know how to mix his colours effectively, a researcher, working either independently or with a group, who does not know what his or her database program is capable of will only be adding information into a table without being able to do anything with it: the data will be an amorphous mass on a screen.

As Dr. Kowaleski related, it is all too easy, when compiling a database of any kind, to fill it in with as much information as the researcher finds interesting. One must limit a database to a specific type of record (detailing a marriage, an indictment, a person, etc.) to serve as a basis of investigation, and stick to that specific type so that each entry in the database does not stray into areas superfluous to the topic of research. Just because a particular point found in a source is fascinating, that does not mean it must be noted in the database unless it modifies the frame of the research topic, as will inevitably happen over the course of one’s study. Focus and specificity are a database compiler’s greatest allies; time, as in most cases, is not.

Herself using databases she produced and continues to augment and adapt with new discoveries for well over a decade, Dr. Kowaleski showed that a properly assembled database can illuminate mistakes in assumptions made at the beginning of the research endeavour, and can serve as a continuing work in progress as one moves on to further studies in the same general topic, as the database can be adapted as new information comes to light and foci shift direction. Far from set-in-stone, a database is something which can be modified and augmented as time goes on, making it an ideal method of note-taking when working on a long-term project and when relating a process of analysis to a wider audience. This, of course, applies to far more than historical research. We are in constant contact with databases, both appearing before our eyes and employed behind the proverbial scenes. Every time one buys something online, that purchase is catalogued and incorporated into databases displaying your buying patterns both individually and as part of the entirety of a seller’s clientele. Demography relies entirely upon the employ of databases in order to present regional information collected in some coherent, useful way. The ability to chart and organize large quantities of information over a prolonged period of time is vital to any profession or academic discipline what requires the analysis of individual cases in relation to one-another under certain circumstances or within a specific context.

The Center thanks Dr. Kowaleski for her sharing her considerable knowledge and experience with us during her time on leave.


By Kevin Vogelaar