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  • Lady Kimberly

Undergrads Find Hidden Text in Rare Manuscript

Updated: Jan 21

Three undergrads, while tinkering with an imaging system they had created for class at RIT, stumbled across long-lost handwriting in a 15th-century manuscript.

As part of a class project in 2020, a class of Freshmen at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in Rochester, NY, built an ultraviolet-fluorescence imaging system that used UV light to reveal chemical traces of inks on parchment. When the pandemic hit and the college switch to remote learning, the project was put on hold. But three students from the class were able to get a grant to finish building the system over the summer.

As the three students experimented with their newly built system on manuscripts from RIT's libraries, they were surprised when one day, beneath an illuminated page of a medieval Book of Hours, the UV light revealed a French cursive script that, until then, no one had noticed. The page was a palimpsest, whereby medieval illuminators would scrape off the ink from old but expensive parchment in order to repurpose them.

The manuscript page originated from the collection of Otto Ege, an American bookseller who cut pages out of damaged or incomplete medieval manuscripts and sold them individually. The students discovered that 29 other pages from the same Book of Hours are scattered across collections across the US and the students believe that they, too, likely contain hidden scripts. The students hope to now find as many pages from the original book as they can, so researchers can piece together what the manuscript originally said.

To date, the students have found two pages in the RIT collection and one from the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, and all three of which show traces of earlier writings beneath the text.

The students plan to share their results at the 2021 International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University (May 10-15, 2021) and at the Imagine RIT: Creativity and Innovation Festival (May 1, 2021).

For more info on how their UV imaging system works, check out this video.


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