Purdue Libraries and School of Information Studies News

The Secret Lives of Medieval Manuscripts

May 8th, 2023

By: Ayn Reineke

Associate University Librarian for Special Collections at Princeton University, Dr. Will Noel, recently brought his expertise on medieval manuscripts to Purdue’s West Lafayette campus for a lively lecture and workshop hosted by Libraries and School of Information Studies. During this special event, students, the campus community, and interested members of the public were afforded the rare opportunity to view and appreciate medieval manuscripts from Purdue University Archives and Special Collections (ASC) up close, with Dr. Noel and University archivists on hand to answer questions and provide guidance.

Dr. Noel’s visit was made possible with full support from the Libraries’ Digital Humanities Program Fund and the generosity of its donor, Purdue alumnus Stephen Pater (BSAE 1965, MSAE 1966). The idea to invite Dr. Noel to Purdue came from a positive experience Professor Kristin Leaman remembered from her own days as a student, long before she became an assistant professor in Libraries and went on to propose and organize this event. 

“When I was a graduate student at Indiana University many years ago, Will Noel came to the Lilly Library to give a lecture and a workshop,” Professor Leaman said. “I attended both and absolutely loved the experience. It drew together people from several different backgrounds and demonstrated how we can all work together to learn more about medieval manuscripts and rare materials. I wanted people at Purdue to have the same valuable experience.”  

Collaboration is both an outcome and a theme of Dr. Noel’s work. In his lecture, he spoke of the importance of digitization, the ongoing scientific analysis of medieval manuscripts, and open access to materials. Remarkable connections and discoveries are made when more people have access to rare manuscripts, which can lead to solving long standing historical and scholarly mysteries. In one of many riveting examples, Dr. Noel described how the granddaughter of a book’s former owner was able to identify her grandfather’s signature when she discovered it online, and in doing so, revealed a critical piece of the book’s history that was previously unknown to researchers. When medieval manuscripts are digitally accessible to the public, more people are able to provide potentially valuable information about these materials to the people who study and preserve them.

It is in that spirit of new discovery that medieval manuscripts offer a unique opportunity to tell a story of the past in the context of the present, a story which extends beyond the text, to the history of the manuscripts as physical objects themselves. With new advances in technology, researchers and scholars are now able to learn more about the storied lives of these books than any time since they were first created. DNA testing on manuscipt parchment can determine what type of animal was used to make it, the geographic location of that animal, and the time period in which it lived. 


Dr. Will Noel, a professor, stands at the front of a room and points to a hand-drawn animal skin on a whiteboard.
Dr. Will Noel discusses the use of parchment in medieval manuscripts and the mathematical methods people used to measure and cut the parchment in order to maximize the use of the animal skin. Using a white board, Dr. Noel drew an animal skin that he measured and marked with lines in a lively demonstration of how this was done. Purdue Libraries, April 2023.


Ink holds additional clues. It can be analyzed to further reveal geographic information about the manuscript’s origins and the time period in which it was created, and sometimes, that it was revised. Through ink analysis, scholars have discovered medieval manuscripts containing illuminations with inks from the 19th century, an indicator that these manuscripts were touched-up relatively recently. Further analysis can also reveal the text behind the text (also known as a palimpsest), where a scribe once scraped off the original text on parchment to write over it. These hidden histories are of particular interest to Dr. Noel, who is well-known among historians for his groundbreaking work on the Archimedes palimpsest

All of these technologies help today’s scholars better understand the secret lives of medieval manuscripts, trace their journeys through centuries of unknown hands, and identify forgeries. This merging of historical and modern, tactile and digital, came together in Dr. Noel’s workshop, which incorporated a medieval manuscript from ASC’s collections, Gregory the Great, Homilies on Ezekiel. Participants uploaded and manipulated images from this manuscript in VisColl, a digital system for modeling and visualizing the physical collation of medieval manuscript codices, data which is then used to create collation formulas. For those unfamiliar with the term, a collation formula describes the sequence of the leaves within the gathering in a codex. 


A professor stands in front of a group of standing students and faculty and shows them a medieval book in a classroom.
Dr. Noel introduces workshop participants to the medieval manuscript “Gregory the Great, Homilies on Ezekiel” from Purdue University Archives and Special Collections. He tells them that this is a magnificent and important work and that they are going to try to collate it together in the time they have for the workshop. Purdue Libraries, April 2023.


Dr. Noel then worked with the physical medieval manuscript live and in-person, while his colleague, Ms. Dot Porter, the curator of Digital Research Services in the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, worked with the digitized version in VisColl concurrently via livestream. Workshop attendees gathered around Dr. Noel and worked alongside him to help determine the collation formula. They then told Ms. Porter which pages of the digital manuscript to upload to VisColl, so that the gatherings could be digitally visualized. “That was my favorite moment of the event,” Professor Leaman said. “It was a glowing example of why both physical and digitized materials are vitally important to the research we do. We can accomplish so much when we have both.” 

The finished product from the workshop can be viewed online, allowing people around the world to see conjugate leaves together. To understand what makes this incredible, consider that before the development of this technology, studies of this nature simply could not happen without the fragile, priceless medieval manuscripts being disbound. Now, scholars are able to learn more about these manuscripts and share them with a wider audience without risking further damage to the fragile materials. 

New technologies result in new discoveries, and they are happening all the time. In the course of working on Gregory the Great, Homilies on Ezekiel during his workshop, Dr. Noel identified several important things about the manuscript that were not part of its official record. This was a thrilling moment for Purdue archivists and historians because it meant that ASC could add the newly discovered information to the metadata in the manuscript’s catalog record. 


A professor and students stand in front of a long table that holds open rare books from the medieval era.
While viewing the medieval manuscripts up close, Dr. Noel asks workshop participants what they should be able to see in the middle of each gathering. When someone suggests “thread,” Dr. Noel replies, “Yes! We should be able to see the thread. And that’s what we’re going to look for right now.” Purdue Libraries, April 2023.


As a highly collaborative space for research and teaching, Libraries was the perfect host for this event, which brought people together from digital humanities, book history, library studies, archives and special collections, textual studies, medieval studies, history, English, philosophy, computer science, and engineering. Dr. Noel’s lecture and workshop demonstrated the results and impact of collaborative work among humanities’ scholars, librarians, digital humanities, and STEM. “The event was a wonderful combination of exciting theoretical material and hands-on projects,” said one attendee. “I think the book studies/manuscript community was very pleased, but the event was exciting for lay people, too! A hard balance to achieve.” Or, in the words of one Engineering student, “I never get to do these things in my engineering classes. This is so exciting! Am I allowed to come to the Archives to see the medieval manuscripts again?” 

The answer, of course, is yes. If you would like to learn more about medieval manuscripts and other collections in Purdue University Archives and Special Collections, please visit or email for more information.


Libraries would like to thank the faculty and staff who contributed to the tremendous success of this event: Kristin Leaman, Adriana Harmeyer, Matthew Hannah, Michael Fosmire, Neal Harmeyer, Cliff Harrison, Allen Bol, Michael Lewis, Mandi Gramelspacher, and Ashley Fawcett.