Reading and Writing Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania LJS 101, c. 850–1100

This is a version of a paper I presented at the International Medieval Congress at Leeds on July 3, 2018, in the session “The Origins, Effects, and Memory of Caroline Minuscule, II” sponsored by the Network for the Study of Caroline Minuscule. 

Today I’m going to tell you about UPenn LJS 101, which is the oldest codex we have in the University of Pennsylvania Libraries by at least 150 years and which is one of only two codices in our collection which is written in Caroline minuscule (the other one being UPenn Ms. Codex 1058, dated to ca. 1100 and located to Laon) – we also have one leaf written in Caroline minuscule.

The bulk of the manuscript, folios five through 44 (Quires two through six), are dated to the mid-9th century, but in the early 12th century replacement leaves were added for the first four leaves and for the last 20 leaves. LJS 101 reflects the educational program set up in the Carolingian court by Alcuin, featuring a copy of Boethius’s translation of Aristotle’s De Institutiatione (which was commonly called Periermenias, the name also used in this text) and a short commentary on that text (also called Periermenias), along with a few other shorter texts.

I want to admit up front that I don’t have a serious scholarly interest in LJS 101. I’m not a Carolingianist, I don’t study Alcuin, or Bede, or Aristotle. I’m a librarian, and the focus of my work is manuscript digitization and visualization, so I spend a lot of time thinking about manuscripts, how they’re put together, how to digitize them, and how to visualize them in ways that reveal truths about the physical object, ideally without fetishizing them.

But I also love manuscripts. I wouldn’t be doing what I do if I didn’t. I love the way they look, especially books that have been well-used: the imperfect edges, worn ink, and the many and varied signs that people have had their hands on these manuscripts, that they were well-used and well-loved. And there’s no book I love more than LJS 101.

So what I want to do today is tell you about LJS 101, but I want to put my discussion within the context of that love, specifically I want to talk about LJS 101 within the frame of Transformative works.

A transformative work is a concept that comes out of fandom: that is, the fans of a particular person, team, fictional series, etc. regarded collectively as a community or subculture. We typically talk about fandom in relation to sports, movies, or TV shows, but people can be fans of many things (including manuscripts). As defined on the Fanlore wiki:

Transformative works are creative works about characters or settings created by fans of the original work, rather than by the original creators. Transformative works include but are not limited to fanfiction, real person fiction, fan vids, and graphics. A transformative use is one that, in the words of the U.S. Supreme Court, adds something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the [source] with new expression, meaning, or message.

In some fandom communities, transformative works play a major role in how the members of that fandom communicate with each other and how they interact with the canon material (“canon” being the term fans use to refer the original work). Transformative works start with canon but then transform it in various ways to create new work – new stories, new art, new ideas, possible directions for canon to take in the future, directions canon would never take but which are fun or interesting to consider.

Although it’s still quite niche there is a small but growing academic movement to apply the concept of transformative work to historical texts. Some of this work is happening through the Organization for Transformative Works, which among other things hosts Archive of our Own, a major site for fans to public their fanworks, and provides legal advocacy for creators of fanworks.

The Organization for Transformative Works also publishes a journal, Transformative Works and Cultures, and in 2016 they published an issue “The Classical Canon and/as Transformative Work,” which focused on relating ancient historical and literary texts to the concept of fan fiction (that is, stories that fans write that feature characters and situations from canon). There is also a call for papers currently open for an upcoming special journal issue on “Fan Fiction and Ancient Scribal Culture,” which will “explore the potential of fan fiction as an interpretative model to study ancient religious texts.” This special issue is being edited by a group of scholars who lead the “Fan Fiction and Ancient Scribal Cultures” working group in the European Association of Biblical Studies, which organized a conference on the topic in 2016. Closer to home, Dr. Juliana Dresvina at Oxford University is organizing a colloquium later this month on “Fanfiction and the Pre-Modern World,” and I understand she is planning to organize a larger conference next year.

You will note that the academic work on transformative works I’ve cited focus specifically on fan fiction’s relationship with classical and medieval texts, which makes a fair amount of sense. In her article “The Role of Affect in Fan Fiction ,” published in the Transformative Works and Cultures special issue of 2016, Dr. Anna Wilson places fan fiction within the category of textual reception, wherein texts from previous times are received by and reworked by future authors. In particular, Dr. Wilson points to the epic poetry of classical literature, medieval romance poetry, and Biblical exegesis, but she notes that comparisons between fan fiction and these past examples of textual reception are undertheorized, and leave out a major aspect of fan fiction that is typically not found, or even looked for, in the past examples. She says, “To define fan fiction only by its transformative relationship to other texts runs the risk of missing the fan in fan fiction—the loving reader to whom fan fiction seeks to give pleasure. Fan fiction is an example of affective reception. While classical reception designates the content being received, affective reception designates the kind of reading and transformation that is taking place. It is a form of reception that is organized around feeling.” (Wilson, 1.2)

Back to LJS 101. What I want to do here is look at LJS 101, not as a piece of data to be mined for its texts, but both as a transformative work in itself, and as an object for the transformative work of others, particularly digital versions, and I want to center this looking at the manuscript using a language of care. I’m not comfortable applying the concept of affective reception to the people who created and worked with LJS 101 over the past 1100 or so years – I don’t want to suggest that the person who took the manuscript from its original form to its 12th century form loved the manuscript the same way that I do – but I do want to explore the idea that this person or people cared about it, and that other people have cared about this manuscript over time enough that it survives to live now in the library at the University of Pennsylvania. Their interests may have been scholarly, or based on pride of ownership, or even based on curiosity, but whatever their reasons for caring for the manuscript, they did care, and we know they cared because of the physical marks that they have left on this book. The manuscript as it survives also shows some examples of lack of care, and I want to address those as well.

Binding: 19th-century English diced Russia leather, bound for Sir Thomas Phillips.

The first obvious mark of care on LJS 101 is the binding, which is a lovely 19th century leather binding done for book collector Sir Thomas Phillips, who purchased the book in or around 1826, and which was sold out of his estate in 1945, sold again in 1978 and 1979, and finally sold to Lawrence J. Schoenberg in 1997.

Formerly owned by Sir Thomas Phillips, ms. 2179 (stamped crest inside upper cover). LJS collection bookplate. Gift of Barbara Brizdle Schoenberg in honor of Amy Gutmann, President, University of Pennsylvania, 2014.

Phillips also left two owners marks on the inside front cover, a stamped crest in the upper part of the inside cover, and a second ownership stamp with his library’s number for the manuscript (ms. 2179). Another ownership mark is the Penn Libraries bookplate, showing that the manuscript belongs with the Lawrence J. Schoenberg collection. Phillips and Schoenberg both cared: Phillips cared enough to bind the book, they both marked it as their own, and Schoenberg gifted it to Penn in 2014 for long-term institutional care.

1r: Conclusion of a grammatical work, 7-line verse by Eugene II of Toledo, Isidore’s definition of rhetoric (12th c.)

The first quire – four leaves – is a 12th century replacement. Fol. 1r begins with the ending of a grammatical text on declensions, including some words in Greek and references to the Aeneid and the Thebais of Statius. This folio also contains a 7-line poem by Eugenius II of Toledo, “Primus in orbe dies…,” a poem on the seven days of Biblical creation (MGH, Auct. Antiq. XIV; Migne, PL LXXXVII:365-6) [1]. This implies that the first quire has not always been the first quire, and at some point there was at least one more quire before Quire 1. As we’ll see in a moment, the text on the last leaf of Quire 1 leads directly into the text on the first leaf of Quire 2, which makes it clear that the 12th century work was created in response to the 9th century piece, and it was not the case that two existing pieces were placed together without regard for the other. (Note that the first leaf in the manuscript also includes another ownership mark from Sir Thomas Phillips, noting the number of the manuscript in his collection, and the number it had in a catalog – yet another sign of care from Phillips.)

1v: Boethius’ translation of Aristotle’s De Institutione (Periermenias Aristotelis) 12th c. switching to 9th c. on fol. 5, back to 12th c. on fol. 45

The main text of the manuscript, the Latin translation of Aristotle’s De Institutione (called Periermenias Aristotelis generally and in the text), begins on fol. 1v. Boethius’s translation of De Institutione, along with his translation of the Categories and Porphyry’s introduction to Aristotelian logic, the Isagoge, formed the core of Alcuin of York’s logic textbook, De dialectica. These three works—as translated by Boethius—would become known as the logica vetus, and would dominate the study of logic until the twelfth century. This explains the why of this manuscript – this was an important text. The inclusion of the now-missing grammatical text also implies that this book was designed with care to be a sort of textbook. Note the striking illuminated initial P that begins the text – a visual sign of care taken in the design of this manuscript.

Folio 4v-5r, with the 12th century script on the left and the 9th century script on the right.

As noted above, the 12th century text from Quire 1, folio 4v, continues directly to the 9th century portion of the manuscript on Quire 2, folio 5r.

UPenn LJS 101, folio 27r, showing interlinear and marginal corrections and glosses.

The same hand that wrote out the 12th century full text here and from folio 45 through the end of the manuscript also went through the 9th century text and made many corrections, both deleting and adding text. As far as I know there hasn’t been a full textual analysis of the text in this manuscript, but it’s possible, if not likely, that the 12th century scribe had a more recent copy of the text and corrected the older version in comparison with it. For whatever reason the scribe, or someone supervising the scribe, cared enough to take the existing 9th century copy of Boethius, to complete it, and to bring it up to date with an improved version of the text.

36v: Diagram from 9th c. with color added in the 12th century

Also in the 12th century program of care, the scribe or someone alongside the scribe added green and yellow highlighting to the 9th century diagrams and to some of the headwords.

As we move on though the manuscript, note that the number of corrections drops precipitously after folio 45, when we are back with the 12th century scribe.

LJS 101, folio 44v and 45r, with the 9th century script on the left and the 12th century script on the right
LJS 101, folios 52v-53r; there are several leaves missing here.

There are several quires’ worth of leaves missing between Quire six (ending with folio 44) and Quire seven (beginning with folio 45, where the manuscript switches again from 9th century to 12th century) – 49 pages worth of edited text, from Prima Editio, I c. 9, p. 111 line 20 to Prima Editio, II c. 11, p. 160 line 15– and there are at least two quires missing between Quire seven (folio 52) and Quire eight ( folio 53), from Prima Editio, II c. 13, p. 188, line 5 to Prima Editio, II c. 14, p. 224, line 13, representing 36 pages of edited text. It’s unclear when, how, and why these pages were removed, although the folio numbering appears to be from the time of Thomas Phillips, so we can safely assume that they were removed at some point before he had the manuscript bound in its lovely leather binding.

53v: The last six lines of the unidentified text; Periermeniae (12th c.)

In Quire eight, the Boethius translation ends naturally on folio 53r, line 16, at the end of Prima Editio, II c. 14 (page 225 in the edition). There is another text between the end of that and the beginning of the next commentary that has yet to be identified. This unidentified text is the last six lines of 53r and the first six lines of 53v. The next text begins on line seven of 53v. This text is a short commentary on Aristotle’s De Institutione, the Periermeniae attributed to Apuleius, the second-century AD Platonist philosopher and Latin-language prose writer. (Emma Kathleen Ramsey, “A commentary on the Peri Hermeneias ascribed to Apuleius of Madaura“)

Commentary is a kind of transformative work, in which a writer expands on the thoughts of the original writer, expanding and explaining in order to create something new, but (hopefully) illuminating. In LJS 101, then, we have a physical expression of a canon work followed by a transformation, an order that was planned by someone who cared enough to organize them that way.

Fol. 59v: Ending of Periermeniae, beginning of commentary by Haymo of Auxerre.

After the commentary by Apuleius there is brief section of a commentary on Isaiah by Haymo of Auxerre (formerly attributed to Haymo of Halberstadt)[2] that is followed by “Versus de singulis mensibus” (a poem by Decimus Magnus Ausonius on the seven days of Creation). The poem itself has been laid out with care, the columns blind-ruled to keep them straight, and the large initials alternating between lighter and darker ink. Given the topic of the poem one could say this is yet another example of a transformative work – a poetic retelling of the Christian creation story originally told in the Bible. It also ties in with the poem by Eugenius II of Toledo, “Primus in orbe dies…,” from folio 1r – which is also on the topic of the seven days of Creation.

60v: Sample letter of a monk to an abbot

The next text in Quire eight is a sample letter of a monk to an abbot, on folio 60v. I want to thank Brother Thomas Sullivan from Conception Abbey for helping me with this text, which hasn’t been otherwise studied. This is the only section of the 12th century portion of the manuscript that is heavily annotated, the original letter being expanded by both interlinear and marginal glosses. The interlinear glosses expand the primary text into more intense or elaborate language, e.g., l. 8 inserts the Latin word valde (very). The marginal glosses are signaled by a system of thirteen different interpolative marks in the left margin and one in the right. The addressee appears to be one “Domno Luculemus,” and it is not clear if this is the name of an actual abbot, or an imagined character. The letter fits in with the medieval tradition of model letters and letter-writing guides, which is traditionally dated to the work of Alberic of Monte Cassino in the late 11th century and is well documented in the 12th century.[3] Is this model letter another example of a transformative work? Because this particularly letter hasn’t been studied we can’t tell if it’s a version of an existing letter, or written with “characters” featured in other letters. If not, going back to our language of care, we can venture that since it appears on the verso side of a bifolium it was placed here for some reason understood by the scribe or scribes planning the layout.

61r: Boethius’ translation of Aristotle’s De Institutione (Periermenias Aristotelis), 12th century

The Boethius text continues on Quire nine, folio 61r, and cuts off at the end of 62v.

63r: Miscellaneous verses, definitions, and biblical commentary

We finish up with folio 63r-64r, containing miscellaneous verses, definitions, and biblical commentary. Oddly, folio 63v is a continuation of the sample letter on folio 60v. We’ll return to Quires eight and nine below, where I’ll say more about signs of lack of care in LJS 101, and describe how these two quires are currently misbound.

Bern, Burgerbibliothek, Cod. 250, fol. 10v (9th c.)

Although LJS 101 is unique to Penn, it is not the only 9th century manuscript showing 12th century care. Bern, Burgerbibliothek, Cod. 250, begins with a 9th century section (folios 1-11) describing a meeting between Einhard and Lupus of Ferrières, at the time that Einhard gave Lupus a book of arithmetic by Victorius of Aquitaine along with a now widely known model alphabet for Ancient Capitals.

Bern, Burgerbibliothek, Cod. 250, fol. 12r (12th c.)

This is followed by a 12th century section, folios 12-18, including a commentary by Abbo of Fleury on the ‘computus’ (reckoning the date for Easter). Note the green highlighting, which is similar to the green highlighting added to the diagrams in LJS 101. As in LJS 101, the 12th century scribe did not just add to the existing manuscript. They marked the 9th century text to bring it up to date, and to incorporate it into what is essentially a new object, and, arguably, a transformative work.

Bern, Burgerbibliothek, Cod. 250, fol. 1r (11th c.)

They added an abacus table to folio 1r, which was presumably left blank in the 9th century, and, as with LJS 101, they also added interlinear glosses and corrections. As with the transformation of LJS 101, these modifications show a certain amount of care, both for the older sections of the manuscript and for the new object.

Bern, Burgerbibliothek, Cod. 250, fol. 10v: 9th c. text with 11th c. interlinear gloss

So we’ve walked through LJS 101 and looked at the transformative nature of the texts in the manuscript, and the physical object itself. I’d like to spend the last portion of my talk looking at another transformative physical aspect of the manuscript and how this aspect may illustrate a lack of care, while at the same time exploring LJS 101’s digitization as another potential for transformative work around the manuscript.

In addition to the missing quires between Quires six and seven and seven and eight, there are two quires in LJS 101 that have been misbound. In both cases it is clear that somehow bifolia were mixed up, likely during rebinding (whether during the last rebinding, under the ownership of Sir Thomas Phillips, or earlier, we don’t know) and care was not taken to ensure that the bifolia were put back together correctly with regard to the text contained on them. I can’t see any aesthetic reason for the quires to be rearranged as they are; antiquarians such as Matthew Parker frequently transformed the manuscripts in his ownership in ways that made them more attractive in his eyes, in various ways, but the changes made in LJS 101 appear to be accidental rather than purposeful.[4]

A study of the text in Quires two and three (the first eight leaves of the 12th century portion of the translation) makes it clear that the leaves were bound out of order.[5] Here is the current order, along with the text beginning and ending each folio (all are Prima Editio I c. 2, page and line numbers are from the edition)

Folio 5: ends with p. 38 line 2 [the text continues on folio 9]

Folio 6: begins with p. 41 line 5, [text continues on folio 7]

Folio 7: ends with p. 44 line 2 [the text continues on folio 11]

Folio 8: begins with p. 46 line 30, ends with p. 48 line 15 [the text continues on folio 13]

Folio 9: begins with p. 38 line 2, [text continues on folio 10]

Folio 10: ends with p. 41 line 4 [the text continues on folio 6]

Folio 11: begins with p. 44 line 2, [text continues onto folio 12]

Folio 12: ends with p. 46 line 30 [the text continues on folio 8]

Folio 13 (the first leaf of Quire four): begins with p. 48 line 15

Beginning with folio 5 and following the text through these eight leaves, we can find the original order: 5, 9, 10, 6, 7, 11, 12, 8   [13… 

What was originally a quire of eight leaves was made into two quires of four leaves. The current Quire two consists of the the innermost bifolia of the original quire nested in the outermost bifolia, and the two internal bifolia from the original quire form the current Quire three. This is our first example of a lack of care. How did this happen, and why wasn’t this error, assuming it was an error, discovered before it was bound?

It might be hard to picture in your mind exactly what has happened here, so it might help to look at some transformative digital work using a project designed specifically to visualize the physical construction of manuscripts, VisColl.  A couple of years ago a student in my Rare Book School class used VisColl to model both the current and previous structures of these leaves and generated diagrams to help us understand what exactly is happening here.

Correct arrangement of fols. 5-12. Jesse McDowell, “An Ideal Collation of LJS 101”

Here is a diagram and bifolia visualization of the original structure of what are now folios 5 through 12. Using current numbering, the order of leaves should be 5-9-10-6-7-11-12-8. You can see in this diagram that 5 and 8 are conjoin and the outer bifolio, followed by 9-12, then 10-11, then 6-7. Looking at the numbering here you can see already how they were rearranged.

Current (out of order) arrangement of fols. 5-12. Jesse McDowell, “An Ideal Collation of LJS 101”

But the next diagram shows the current structure, two four-leaf quires, with the middle bifolia grouped together and the outer and inner ones likewise. Viscoll, with its focus on modeling the physical construction of manuscripts and visualizing them in various ways, is a really good example of a system for building transformative works based on a medieval manuscript: It takes an existing character, expands on it, illuminates it, and in the process makes something new.

As I was preparing this paper for the blog, I discovered a second example of a misbound quire in LJS 101, illustrating another example of a lack of care in this book’s long history. As I mentioned above, the sample letter on fol. 60v actually continues on fol. 63r. Fagin-Davis notes this in her description of LJS 101, but until now no-one has investigated why this might be – it doesn’t make sense for a text to start on one leaf and end two leaves later. So why does this happen? While taking a closer look at this section – Quires eight and nine, from folio 52 (the end of Quire seven) through folio 64 – I discovered that, as mentioned earlier, there are at least a few quires of the Boethius text missing between Quires seven and eight. Quire eight, eight leaves, begins with folio 53, and the text starts with Prima Editio, II c. 14, p. 224, line 13. The text then ends naturally in the middle of 53r. But Quire nine (four leaves, starting with folio 61) picks up Boethius again, and when I checked the citation it begins with page 216, line 25 in the edition – this text comes before the text on fol. 53.  Folio 62 ends with the text from the edition page 224, line 13, which is exactly where the text picks up on fol. 53r:

Folio 53: begins with p. 224, line 13, continues through Folio 60

Folio 60: ends with the sample letter [text continues on Folio 63r]

Folio 61: begins with page 216, line 25, continues through Folio 62

Folio 62: ends with page 224, line 13 [text continues on Folio 53]

Folio 63: contains the rest of the sample letter, continues through Folio 64

Beginning with folio 61 (having the earlier text) and following through these 12 leaves, we can find the original order: 61, 62, 53-60, 63, 64

The manuscript originally had a quire of 12 leaves. The innermost eight leaves were removed and placed before the outermost four leaves, giving us two new quires. As with the example of Quires two and three, there’s no clear explanation of why, and I am assuming this was an error.

Transformative work in fandom is created by fans who take characters and situations from existing works and make new things with them. Transformative work differs from traditional scholarly work in that the focus is on affection. To quote Anna Wilson again, “It is a form of reception that is organized around feeling.” I don’t want to claim that 12th century scribes or Thomas Phillips loved the manuscript that we call LJS 101, but I do think it’s reasonable to suggest a language of care, and I think it’s a useful exercise to think about this manuscript and others within the theoretical frame of the transformative work. Doing this pushes the boundaries of current research in this area, which tends to focus on the relationship between fan fiction and earlier forms of textual reception. Moving beyond this, to consider a language of care when talking about manuscripts – bearers of text as well as physical expressions of their own history – and to the visualization of digitized manuscripts using new methods pushes traditional scholarship in new and exciting directions that also normalizes the affection we hold for the objects of our study.

[1] Identification of the texts on Folio 1r are from Lisa Fagin-Davis, Catalog record for LJS 101, March 2001

[2] Haymo Halberstatensis: HAYMONIS HALBERSTATENSIS EPISCOPI COMMENTARIORUM IN ISAIAM LIBRI TRES Ab eodem auctore dum viveret, multorum additione, quae in aliis plerisque exemplaribus desiderantur, passim locupletati et recognitione postrema ad unguem ubique recogniti. (Coloniae, per honestum civem Petrum Quentell, anno 1531 Liber Secundus, Caput LIII (from Patrologia Latina, Vol. 116, Col.0991C-Col.0991D)

[3] Malcolm Richardson, “The Ars dictaminis, the Formulary, and Medieval Epistolary Practice, Letter-Writing Manuals and Instruction from Antiquity to the Present, edited by Carol Poster and Linda C. Mitchell (University of South Carolina Press, 2007), pp. 52-66.

[4] Timothy Graham, ‘Matthew Parker’s manuscripts: an Elizabethan library and its use‘, in The Cambridge History of Libraries in Britain and Ireland, Volume 1: To 1640, ed. E. Leedham-Green and T. Webber (Cambridge, 2006), pp. 322-41

[5] The misbinding of Quires 2 and 3 has been noted by Fagin-Davis in her catalog record, and also by Jesse McDowell in his blog post An Ideal Collation of LJS 101

Is This Your Book? What we call digitized manuscripts and why it matters

This is a version of a paper I presented as a Rare Book School Lecture at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia on June 12, 2018, originally entitled “Is this your book? What digitization does to manuscripts and what we can do about it.” 

Good afternoon and thank you for coming to my talk today. The title of my talk is “Is this your book? What digitization does to manuscripts and what we can do about it.” However I want to make a small change to my title. I’m not entirely sure if there’s anything we can do about what digitization does manuscripts but I do think we can think about it, so that’s what I want to do a bit today. I want us to think about digitized books – specifically about digitized manuscripts, since that’s what I’m particularly interested in.

So, like any self-respecting book history scholar, I’m going to start our discussion of digitized manuscripts by talking about memes.


Definition of the word “meme” from the Oxford English Dictionary.

The word meme was coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene. In the Oxford English Dictionary, meme is defined as “a cultural element or behavioral trait whose transmission and consequent persistence in a population, although occurring by non-genetic means (especially imitation), is considered as analogous to the inheritance of a gene.” Dawkins was looking for a term to describe something that had existed for millennia – as long as humans have existed – and the examples he gave include tunes, ideas, catchphrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or building arches. These are all things that are picked up by a community, ideas and concepts that move among members of that community, are imitated and modified, and which are frequently moved on to new communities as well where the process of imitation and modification continues. More recently the term meme has been applied specifically to images or text shared, often with modification, on the Internet, particularly through social media: If you’ve ever been RickRolled, you have been on the receiving end of a particularly popular and virulent meme.

This is all very interesting, Dot (I hear you say), but what do memes have to do with digitized manuscripts? This is an excellent question. What I want to do now is look at a couple of specific examples of memes and think a bit in detail about how they work, and what it looks like to push the same idea through memes that are similar but that have slightly different connotations. Then I want to look at some different terms that scholars have used to refer to digitized manuscripts and think a bit about how those terms influence the way we think about digitized manuscripts (if they do). My proposition is that these terms, while they may not exactly be memes, function like memes in the way they are adapted and used within the library and medieval studies scholarly communities. So let’s see how this goes.

In the film The Black Panther, which was released back in February of this year, there’s a scene where a character has come to the country of Wakanda to challenge the king for the throne. This character, N’Jadaka (also named Erik Stevens, but better known by his nickname Killmonger), is a cousin of the king, T’Challa, but was unknown to pretty much everyone in Wakanda until just before he arrives to make his challenge. At the climax of this scene, during which Killmonger and T’Challa fight hand-to-hand in six inches of water, Killmonger – who is clearly winning – turns to the small audience of Wakandans gathered to witness the battle and exclaims, “IS THIS YOUR KING?” If you haven’t seen the film I’m about the spoil it for your: it turns out the answer to that question is NO.

This is a phrase that was born to be a meme, and within a month that’s exactly what happened.

According to the Know Your Meme website the first instance of the “Is this your king” meme appeared on March 20 on Twitter when @TheyWant_Nolan tweeted a screen shot of the scene with the caption “is this your spring”. If you think back to March, the weather was pretty terrible everywhere around the country. It was long and tedious going back and forth between snow and heat then back to snow. Is this your Spring? NOPE.

This type of meme is a snowclone, defined as “a type of phrasal templates in which certain words may be replaced with another to produce new variations with altered meanings, similar to the “fill-in-the-blank” game of Mad Libs.” I would like to note here that this term, snowclone, was coined in 2004 by American linguists Geoffrey K. Pullum and Glen Whitman specifically to describe this phenomenon. The concept of a snowclone has been around for much longer than the term – think of “I’m not an X but I play one on TV” which was the most hilarious phrase when I was a kid – and the “Is this your king” meme works the same way, where we replace king with some other word to make a phrase that is understood to elicit a negative response.

Here are some other examples of this meme featured on its Know Your Meme page. These all supply the identity of the question asker, they vary widely by topic, and one of them makes a slight modification to the image, but they all imply a negative response to the question.

I made one myself. My meme features a screen shot of my favorite manuscript, UPenn LJS 101, as seen through the Penn in Hand manuscript interface. In my meme, the question asked is, is this your book? As we know from the context of the original meme, the answer to the question is no. This is not my book. Or: It’s not my real book.

I’ve made a few other memes and for some reason most of them play with the relationship that a digitized version of a manuscript has with the physical object.

Memes such as “Is this your king” and this next one, the “Is this a pigeon” meme, enable us to ask questions with assumed answers. In this meme, the original scene is from an anime where a human-like android sees a butterfly and asks, “Is this a pigeon?” This is another snowclone, where the question asker, the object of the question, and the question itself can be replaced with almost literally anything else. I find these snowclone memes work well for my needs, though I find the differences between the emotions that these two memes elicit fascinating.

As before, I’ve replaced the object of the question with digital images of LJS 101 and specifically identified myself as the question asker. As with the previous meme, we know the answer to the question posed is no, although the context is different: while the king meme is used to express aggressive negativity, the pigeon meme is used to express mild but total confusion. The same idea can be pushed through both memes – is this digital thing a manuscript? – and while the answer is the same – no it’s not – the negative response of the pigeon meme is “oh you silly thing, thinking the digitized manuscript is the same as the manuscript” while the negative response of the king meme is “that thing is NOT the same as the manuscript, I’m offended you think so, and I’m going to throw it off a cliff so you don’t try it again.”

Although both of these memes can be used as a kind of mirror for us to view the relationship between a manuscript and its digitized version, they expect different responses and elicit different emotions, much as different words used to refer to the same situation or person might invoke different emotions. The memes are, in effect, acting as a kind of terminology, so now I want to pivot and talk about how terminology might act as memes.


I would like to take it as a given that that how we talk about things influences how we think about them; therefore, the terms we use to describe things matter. The terms we use to describe other people matter; the terms that we choose to refer to digitized manuscripts matter. I would also like to reiterate the proposition I made a few minutes ago that our terminology, while perhaps not memes themselves, are meme-like. In his 2016 article “’ut legi”: Sir John Mandeville’s Audience and Three Late Medieval English Travelers to Italy and Jerusalem,” Anthony Bale discusses Jerusalem as a meme in medieval English travel writings, but I find that his description of meme fits well with what I would like to do here. He says, “the meme proposes a model of cultural transmission based on audiences’ ongoing use and appropriation of the source, as opposed to the scholarly desire to return to the source as the “best” or “original” iteration.” (for a term, this would mean common usage points not to the original meaning of the word, but to the word as it is being used. That’s a bit of a circular argument but I think it makes sense) He continues, “Memes have not one stable author, no unitary point of origins, and are not retrospective, but rather change with their audiences, causing people to do things; stimulating actions and changing behaviors; leading people to take a particular route, see a particular site, notice one thing but not another, find new meanings in an old source.” (Bale, p. 210)

Following this theory, terms work like this:

  1. A term begins with a specific meaning (e.g., outlined in the OED, citing earlier usage),
  2. A scholar adopts the term because we need some way to describe this new thing that we’ve created. So we appropriate this term, with its existing meaning, and we use it to describe our new thing.
  3. The new thing takes on the old meaning of the term,
  4. The term itself becomes imbued with meaning from what we are now using it to describe.
  5. The next time someone uses that term, it carries along with it the new meaning.

Some scholars take time to define their terms, but some scholars choose not to, instead depending on their audience to recognize the existing definitions and connotations of the terms they use. For example, in her 2013 article “Fleshing out the text: The transcendent manuscript in the digital age,” Elaine Treharne (coming out of a description of how medieval people would have always interacted with a physical book) says: “for the greater proportion of a modern audience on any given day, one has necessarily to rely on the digital replication: the world of the ironically disembodied and defleshed simulacrum, avatar, surrogate.” (Treharne, p. 470) [emphasis mine] Here Treharne uses the terms simulacrum, avatar, and surrogate without defining them, and she groups them together, in that order, placing simulacrum first in that list. More than the other two, simulacrum has a negative connotation – as we can see from its entry in the OED, a simulacrum is a “mere image”; it looks like a thing without possessing its substance or proper qualities; it is a “specious imitation”. Although it is near identical in meaning and from related Latin roots as the term facsimile, which I’ll discuss in a moment, facsimile lacks the negative connotations that simulacrum has. Although the terms are undefined by the author, it seems that this was a purposeful word choice intended to elicit a negative response.

Compare this with Bill Endres, who in his 2012 article “More than Meets the Eye: Going 3D with an Early Medieval Manuscript” spends several paragraphs defining his terms and arguing for why he chooses to use some terms and not others. Endres says, “I will refer to 3D and 2D images as digital artifacts or digital versions, although not totally satisfied with either term as it relates to epistemology. I am tempted to refer to them as digital offspring, the results of a marriage between digital and manuscript technologies, with digital versions having unique qualities and a life of their own. This term is problematic but it speaks to the excesses, commonalities, and deficits when digital versions are measured against their physical antecedent.” (Endres, p. 4) Endres then discusses some other terms, including two of the ones I will consider in a moment, so we’ll return to his thoughts later. The point here is that Endres defines his terms and explains why he is using them, while Treharne relies on us to understand her meaning through the known definition of her terms.


For each term I will discuss pre-digital definitions of the term, using the Oxford English Dictionary as the source.[1] I’ll also include a few quotes where scholars refer to digitized manuscripts using that term, although these quotes are meant to be representative and not exhaustive (that is, I couldn’t tell you the first time that the term was used by someone to refer to a digitized manuscript, but I can give you an impression of how the term has been used or is being used currently).

Let’s begin with the term facsimile.


It is from the Latin meaning literally make similar. The earliest attestation of the term is from 1661, and refers to a transcribed copy of a text, and not necessarily something that looks just like the text it is being copied from. About 30 years later, facsimile is being used to mean an exact copy or likeness; an exact counterpart or representation, and the citations refer to written texts or drawings. The term continues to be used according to this definition into the later 19th century, by the time photography of books and manuscripts has become well-represented in the scholarly landscape. (David McKitterick, Old Books, New Technologies, pp. 117-118)

By the late 19th century, facsimile has been adapted to refer to the communication of images through radio, wire, or similar methods – the modern day “fax” machine, for example. This meaning maintains the previous definitions focusing on a facsimile as some kind of copy, but adds the meaning of communicating over distance, and I expect these combined uses of the terms – print facsimiles plus the sharing of images over distance – are why digital facsimile became an obvious term to use to describe these new representations of old objects.

The use of facsimile to refer to textual materials clearly varies over time and from individual to individual. In his 1926 article ‘Facsimile’ Reprints of Old Books, A. W. Pollard seems to use the term according to its 1661 attestation, not according to its 1691 attestation. He says “It is intended to cover any reprint the form of which has been influenced to any considerable extent by the form of the edition reproduced.” (Pollard, p. 305) Pollard’s ‘Facsimile’ reprints include “1) Photographic facsimiles, 2) Type-facsimiles, i.e. editions in which types of similar founts to those used in the original are set to follow the original setting as closely as possible; 3) more or less luxurious reprints which seek to reproduce the general effect of the original with such concessions to modern usage as the producer may think desirable.” (Pollard, p. 306)

Facsimile or digital facsimile has been, for as long as I can remember, the default term that libraries use to refer to their own digital copies, and that scholars use to refer to the digital images they incorporate into their online projects. In November 1993, Kevin Kiernan gave a presentation at a symposium of the Association of Research Libraries [Kiernan, “Digital Preservation, Restoration, and Dissemination of Medieval Manuscripts”] in which he says that the Electronic Beowulf  “will in its first manifestation make available in early 1994 a full-color electronic facsimile of Cotton Vitellius A. xv to readers in the British Library and at other selected sites.” He continues,  “As this electronic archive grows, it will incorporate facsimiles of many other documents that help us restore parts of the manuscript that were lost or damaged by fire in the early eighteenth century.” Kiernan is referring not only to straightforward digital images, but also to images taken under ultraviolet light that were included in the edition. As he says later in the presentation, because of the UV images “Readers of the electronic facsimile will thus acquire a reproduction of the manuscript that reveals more than the manuscript itself does under ordinary circumstances.”

The use of the term facsimile makes it possible for scholars to consider how digital facsimiles relate to older ways of making similar. In “The Ghost in the Machine: Digital Avatars and Medieval Manuscripts“, Sian Echard discussion of the restoration of manuscripts by Matthew Parker and his circle, which she interprets as a kind of facsimile. Dr. Echard says “Today, digital technologies continue to recreate medieval books for a variety of audiences, and the digital facsimiles, like the hand and machine produced examples … both reproduce and relocate their medieval objects. But our current attitudes toward facsimile differ from Parker’s and Dibdin’s, and may in fact inhibit our ability to see the extent to which we too are recreating medieval text objects according to our own tastes. As technology has enabled ever more exact reproduction, the cheerful refashioning proposed by Parker has been replaced by an emphasis on the photographic, on the exact, with at times an accompanying confidence that perfect reproduction can approach the revelation of an object’s truth.” (Echard p. 201)


The term surrogate is interesting because, unlike facsimile – which is a fairly straightforward synonym for a copy – the term refers to something standing in for, or perhaps replacing, something else.

It was first used in the 16th century to describe the act of appointing someone as a delegate or a substitute. In the 17th century the term is adopted to be a noun – to refer to a person who is thus delegated. Other uses of the term, meaning more or less similar things, are attested through through the 17th century,

until 1644 we have a general meaning substitute.




Since the 1970s the term has been used in a more intimate way, to refer to sexual surrogates and surrogate mothers. As my colleague Bridget Whearty pointed out to me while we were discussing the word surrogate, the term is almost always used to describe bodies – either a person having power delegated to them, or a body acting as a substitute for another body. So the implication is that using this term to refer to digitized manuscripts doesn’t only mean the digital is standing in for the physical, but it also – by virtue of previous uses of the term – may imply some sort of embodiment or materiality of the digital object that is acting as the surrogate.

Paul Conway has an extensive discussion of the digital surrogate in his 2014 article “Digital transformations and the archival nature of surrogates”, and although he is referring to archival materials and not medieval manuscripts, I would expect that the use of the term comes from the same place, so I will quote him here. He reflects my own thoughts about a surrogate being more than a copy, saying “The creation of digital surrogates from archival sources is fundamentally a process of representation, far more interesting and complex than merely copying from one medium to another. Theories of representation – and the vast literature derived from them – are at the heart of many disciplines’ scholarship and of particular relevance for scholars who work primarily or exclusively in the digital domain.” (Conway pp. 2-3) He then continues to cite several other scholars – Mitchell, Scruton, Geoffrey Yeo, Matthew Kirschenbaum, Michael Taussig, and Johanna Drucker – who discuss the relationship that digital copies continue to have with their sources well after they have been created, even as they have their own materialities.

Bill Endres, who I quoted above, continues his thoughtfulness in the same piece as he considers surrogate as a term for his own use in describing 3D images of manuscripts. He says, “a term that has gained some commonality in 3D is digital surrogate. Bernard Fischer uses the term for 3D renderings of archaeological sites, like the impressive Rome Reborn. Fischer’s interest in 3D is to construct digital cityscapes and large spaces, thus his use of surrogate, the virtual environment functioning as a substitute or proxy, a stand in for the likes of a dig site or what once was, like ancient Rome, as a means to generate and test hypotheses, fulfilling a specific epistemic function. Surrogate fits Fischer’s needs but does not speak as readily to the full range of epistemic considerations that I want to explore for a manuscript, particularly the excesses of a digital artifact that add to our knowledge in other ways and its effect on looking and knowing.” (Endres, p. 4) The excesses that Endres is referring to here are things like special lighting and the affordances of 3D imaging, and he feels that the term surrogate isn’t sufficient to include these things, although Endres’s excesses and are very similar to those things that Kiernan was thinking of in 1993 when he used the term electronic facsimile. However Kiernan did not use the term surrogate in 1993 – it would be interesting to see when the term surrogate was first used to refer to digital objects, and if it would have been available to Kiernan in 1993.


The third term, avatar, is relatively new to me, although Sian Echard used it in the chapter quoted above, and the term was also used by classicist Ségolène M. Tarte, in her 2011 presentation “Interpreting Ancient Documents: Of Avatars, Uncertainty and Knowledge Creation,” and is also mentioned by Endres and very recently by Michelle Warren, in a just-published article “Remix the Medieval Manuscript: Experiments with Digital Infrastructure.” This term is not yet common, but it may be gaining purchase because of its inherent complexity.

I really like avatar because of the connotations brought along with its original definition. According to Hindu mythology, an avatar is the incarnate, human manifestation of a deity. It is thus the avatar that is embodied, not the thing that the avatar represents. This can be contrasted with the term surrogate, which is also embodied, but the surrogate embodiment is in replacement of something else, while the embodiment of the avatar is the same thing, but in different form. And compare both of these again with facsimile, which again is a copy – these are three very different terms, and yet we have the desire to apply these terms to… if not the exact same things, than at least to the same kind of things.

The term avatar has also been used to mean more generally a manifestation, and I actually think that this is the usage of the term that is closest to its application to digitized manuscripts, although there is another recent usage that is relevant: avatar as a term to describe a character in a computer game on environment, a character that represents a person or a player within that virtual environment (think of Second Life, or, to use a more current example, Minecraft).

(There was also a popular movie by this name that came out in 2009, right around the same time Second Life was reaching peak popularity, and I can’t give short shrift to Avatar: The Last Airbender, an animated show that ran from 2003-2008.)

So what is an avatar when it comes to medieval manuscripts? Echard uses the term to refer both to physical objects and to digital ones, first describing the digital avatars of the Sherborne Missal included in the British Library exhibit celebrating its purchase. These include large-screen installations in the Library gallery, a CD-Rom available for purchase, an online version, and a 3D animation sequence that plays as an introduction to the CD-ROM. However as Echard says, “The avatars for these rare objects have … been books themselves- manipulable, tangible, physical … the physicality of the book is part of its cultural role, whether as public object or private delight. The digital facsimiles I have discussed here all attempt in one way or another to offer these medieval and early modem books to the fulfilling of both roles, and yet I would argue that they are ultimately stymied by the requirement to disembody the objects they display. The resulting tension, between access and absence, creates the ghosts that haunt the digital realm.” (Echard, p. 214) I’ve always loved this description of the tension of digitized manuscripts, and I am tickled to notice only now that the term avatar as attached to it.

I know that I keep quoting Endres, but I find here that again his thoughtfulness in exploring the terminology is really refreshing and I wish more scholars did this kind of intellectual work. He says,  “I find Ségolène Tarte’s impulse to call digital versions avatars most consistent with my needs, the digital version as an incarnation, the physical artifact crossing over and into a digital form. Since I am working on a gospel book, I cannot help but to think about this issue’s echo in early Christian prohibitions against depictions of Christ in the flesh, the prohibition motivated by the belief that physical matter is mundane, not divine, and therefore a painting or statue could not portray Christ’s divine nature, thus could not portray Christ and was blasphemous. In a similar vein, without the blasphemy, a digital version cannot portray all of the features of a physical artifact, but as mentioned, it also includes excesses. I appreciate Tarte’s choice of the word avatars, its recognition that digital artifacts have excesses and exist in a different reality and with different rules and potentials, offering unique advantages and experiences, a recognition that I want to carry forward in my sense of digital artifact or version.” (Endres, p. 4)

Before I conclude, I would like to remark on our apparent desire as a community to apply meaning to digital version of manuscripts by using existing terms, rather than by inventing new terms. After all, we coin new words all the time – just in this paper, I’ve mentioned snowclone and meme, so it would be understandable if we decided to make up a new term rather than reusing old ones. But as far as I know we haven’t , and if anyone has it hasn’t caught up enough to be reused widely in the scholarly community. I expect this comes from a desire to describe a new thing in terms that are understandable, as well as to define the new thing according to what came before. After all, both snowclone and meme are terms for things that have existed long before there were words for them, while digital versions of manuscripts are new things that have a close relationship with things that existed before, so while we want to differentiate them we also want to be able to acknowledge their similarities, and one way to do that is through the terms we call them.

Although we use these three terms – facsimile, surrogate, and avatar – to refer to digitized manuscripts, it is clear that these terms don’t mean the same thing, and that by choosing a specific term to refer to digitized manuscripts we are drawing attention to particular aspects of them. If I call a digitized manuscript a facsimile, I draw attention to its status as a copy. If I call it a surrogate, I draw attention to its status as a stand-in for the physical object. And if I call it an avatar, I draw attention to its status as a representation of the physical object in a digital world. Not a copy, not a replacement, but another version of that thing. Like pushing an idea through different memes, pushing the concept of a digitized manuscript through different terms give us flexibility in how we consider them and how we explain them, and our feelings about them, to our audiences. That we can so easily apply terms with vastly different meanings to the digital versions of manuscripts says something about the complexity of these objects and their digital counterparts.

Thank you.

Sincere thanks to Bridget Whearty, Keri Thomas, Johanna Green, and Anna Levine, for their help getting this paper ready for the public eye.

[1] In the paper presented at the Rare Book School (which was recorded; I will add a link here when it becomes available) I used the Historical Thesaurus of English as the source for the term definitions, but I found during further editing that the Thesaurus timelines weren’t doing what I needed them to. If I continue this work, I expect to bring the timelines back in again.