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Undergrads Find Hidden Text in Rare Manuscript

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

As part of a class project in 2020, Freshmen at the Rochester Institute of Technology 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 the project was halted when the college switch to remote learning, three students from the class were able to get a grant to finish building the system over the summer.

As they experimented with their system on manuscripts from the college 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. According to researchers from the RIT library system, the page was a palimpsest, whereby illuminators would scrape off the ink from old but expensive manuscript pages in order to repurpose them.

The parchment originated from the collection of Otto Ege, an American bookseller who cut pages out of damaged or incomplete medieval manuscripts and sold them individually. It’s been discovered that 29 other pages from the same Book of Hours are scattered across collections across the US and they, too, likely contain hidden scripts. The students hope to now find as many pages from the original book as they can.

To date, they found two pages in the RIT collection and one from the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, and all three contain 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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