Discovering Visigothic Script Manuscripts

Dr Ainoa Correa Castro, Marie Curie Fellow, Department of History, September 2015-August 2017

Regardless of our field of expertise, we are all historians and as such we cannot help but admire medieval manuscripts. We find ourselves bemused by medieval manuscript handwriting, handmade books, wondering about the scribe who wrote them, the person or institution who commissioned the work, when it was made and where. As a former web developer and now enthusiast palaeographer, I have devoted my academic career to find an answer to all these uncertainties by engaging in the study of early medieval Spanish manuscript production and the best ways to combine it with digital tools.

I am fond of Visigothic script, the primary carrier of Latin writing in the Iberian Peninsula from the 8th to the 12th century. I am amazed by the exceptional quality and quantity of information its study provides to understand medieval Spain. When the Muslims arrived in 711 causing political disorganization once the Visigothic kingdom fell, Visigothic script was already being practised. Its formation phase, studied through the only 5 extant documents from the Visigothic chancery and the large and interesting collection of slate tablets produced under Visigothic rule, speaks of Roman heritage and still graphic links with Merovingian soil that firmly survived the upheaval. Only a decade later, around the 720s, the first codices (manuscript books) preserved written in an already distinguishable Visigothic script reveal to us not only the graphic process of evolution it went through but how its cultural context changed.  In the early 8th century scholars fled from southern Iberian Peninsula seeking asylum in southern France, taking their books with them and spreading Visigothic script and style abroad. Others stayed in the south under Muslim control, grouped in Mozarabic communities that developed their own culture and variant of Visigothic script, whereas others went to the north, to the incipient Christian realms that will become the kingdom of León-Castile. There, in northern Iberian Peninsula, Visigothic script continued to develop and come to maturity, keeper of Roman and early medieval peninsular knowledge through the centuries to come, treasured by medieval peninsular scholars as a symbol of its own character and culture. I find that the combination of palaeography, history, and digital applied techniques, offers the best way to explore all these different cultural contexts in where to find Visigothic script manuscripts.

After obtaining my PhD from the Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona in 2012, in Historiographical Sciences and Techniques for the Study and Conservation of Bibliographic and Documentary Heritage, I have continued my research and training in North America and Canada. I have been Astrik L. Gabriel fellow at the Medieval Institute – University of Notre Dame, Indiana, working on early medieval monastic education, an Andrew W. Mellon fellow at the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Toronto, where I gained the License in Mediaeval Studies, and a Virginia Brown fellow in Latin Palaeography at the Center for Epigraphical and Palaeographical Studies at the Ohio State University, studying the regional variants of Visigothic script. All these awards, and the support of the academic community of each of these institutions, allowed me not only to move forward in my research and also to refine my profile as a digital medievalist.

Right after concluding my PhD, I began to build a network for the study of Visigothic script and its manuscripts centralised in my professional site While in Toronto, I developed the only existing Online Catalogue of Visigothic script Manuscripts, listing almost 400 of the surviving examples of codices written in this script, and continued expanding the network by adding to my site resources for teaching and research purposes; my own and others. By opening the study of Visigothic script to the world through digital platforms, I soon realised the need – and benefits – to continue merging palaeography and digital tools, and not just for cataloguing purposes but for analysing the script. The research I am going to be carrying out here at King’s College for the next two years focuses exactly on that, tackling the current problems in the field. It opens an exciting new step in my professional career and constitutes a breakthrough to the study of Visigothic script manuscript production.

The European Commission has recognised the urgent need to move forward in conducting palaeographical research by taking advantage of specific software developed for analysing medieval script. In that sense, it has granted me with a Marie Curie research fellowship to develop the project ‘ViGOTHIC Towards a typology of Visigothic script: the Beatus British Library Add. 11695 and its potential for dating and localising Visigothic script manuscripts’ (H2020 Grant Agreement No. 656298). The project, about which I will write at length in, is based at the Department of History, with Professor Julia Crick as mentor, and aided by the assistance of the research team that created the DigiPal software. It is aimed at establishing a point of reference for the analysis of Visigothic script through the systematic study of the collection of late eleventh-century Visigothic script codices kept at the British Library. For that purpose, I will create a computerised database of quantitative data, applying an especially designed palaeographical methodology, as a starting point to allow codices written in Visigothic script to be described, compared and placed in their socio-cultural context, establishing criteria upon which advanced studies can build.

During the development of ViGOTHIC a new website will be launched, openly sharing with all the scientific community, as well as with the general public, the palaeographical, textual, historical, and, to sum up, cultural significance of the Visigothic script codices preserved. It will be a pilot project that aims to continue growing in the forthcoming years as a meeting point for anyone interested in conducting research upon Visigothic script material or, in general, in knowing more about medieval manuscripts.


British Library Add. 11695, f.8r © The British Library (online)


Site (online)


Samuel Butler’s The Elephant in the Moon, (c. 1670)

Tom Colville, PhD candidate in the KCL History department, considers the value of satires for a historian seeking to understand early modern concepts. The particular source in question is Samuel Butler’s The Elephant in the Moon (c. 1670) which features in his thesis on “Mental Capacity in the Early Royal Society and Beyond: Intelligence and The New Science in England c.1650-1750”.

The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, formed in 1660, was a contentious institution. Anyone who has ever studied early modern natural philosophy, or indeed any aspect of Restoration society, will no doubt have come across one of the vitriolic pamphlets that attacked the Society in its early years. Some of the more brazen of these have been extensively discussed by historians, for example Henry Stubbe’s inflammatory Legends no Histories (1670). However, I believe one of the most interesting criticisms of the early Royal Society has largely flown under the radar.

The frontispiece to Samuel Butler, The Elephant in the Moon, (London: N. Merridew, c.1670).

The frontispiece to Samuel Butler, The Elepehant in the Moon, (London: N. Merridew, c.1670).

Samuel Butler’s The Elephant in the Moon must be one of the most wonderfully simple yet beautifully conceived satires of the seventeenth century. Essentially, Butler’s poem tells the story of a group of self-congratulatory Royal Society virtuosi gathered around a telescope. These gentlemen scientists take turns to examine the moon through the looking glass and discover the regaling sight of open warfare taking place on that celestial body, with two opposing armies in the heat of battle. Most astonishingly of all, an enormous elephant emerges from one of the lines of soldiers and rampages across the surface of the moon at a blistering pace, travelling from one side to the other in a matter of seconds. Amazed at the brilliance of their own discovery the virtuosi set about writing up their findings for publication, certain in the belief that this will finally put all questions about their lack of productivity to bed at last. Leaving the telescope unattended, a simple footman decides to experience the Royal Society life-style and steals a quick look through the eye-piece; he sees the truth of the situation immediately. Some gnats and flies have found a gap in the telescope and made a home on the lens; these are the virtuosi’s warring armies. And the elephant? A mouse has got trapped and squashed against the internal glass.

‘For he had scarce apply’d his eye
To Th’ engine, but immediately
He found a mouse was gotten in
The hollow tube, and, shut between
The two glass windows in restraint,
Was swell’d into an Elephant’

For my own research into conceptions of intelligence and mental capacity in the social milieu of early modern natural philosophy this poem offers some really valuable insight. The subversive twist is really effective because there is a perceived difference in expected intelligence between the footman and the virtuosi. Let us consider the significance of the mouse in the story. The fact that the footman’s mouse discovery conquers the Royal Society Fellows’ elephant discovery represents the victory of the small over the large, the seemingly insignificant over the bloated and loud. That size difference corresponds to an idea about the size of intellectual ability between the two groups. To leave his reader in no doubt at all, Butler composed an ode to his mouse as a footnote to The Elephant in the Moon. The Royal Society, and particularly their oversized appreciation for their own mental ability, is the real elephant in the room. And ‘the Mouse, that, by mishap,/ Had made the telescope a trap’, ‘though he appears unequal match’d, I grant,/ In bulk and stature by the Elephant,/ Yet frequently has been observed in battle/ To have reduc’d the proud and haughty cattle’.

Butler’s work has prompted me to think about the value of satires as primary sources for historians. The success of satirical work rests on a shared set of ideas between the author and his/her readers. Unlike a polemic (such as Stubbe’s above mentioned work), which can forcibly impose ideas onto the minds of their readers in acts of persuasion, a satire is dependent on the reader already sharing certain conceptions with the satirist. Satires might therefore – if we are able to decipher them – be able to demonstrate core concepts and ideas which are not only important to one author but are genuinely expected to resonate with an audience.

Swift's word machine, included in, Travels into several remote nations of the world. In four parts. By Lemuel Gulliver[...], Volume 2, (1727, London), p. 74

Swift’s word machine, included in, Travels into several remote nations of the world. In four parts. By Lemuel Gulliver[…], Volume 2, (1727, London), p. 74

Moreover, the power of imagery to articulate concepts which are not neatly encapsulated by a simple phrase or term is an interesting off-shoot from examining satires closely. I do not believe it to be a coincidence that a number of references to mental capacity which I have come across in early modern satire also rely heavily upon clear images. In Butler’s case, what could be more emblematic of the misrepresentation of intellectual size than a mouse distorted into an elephant? In Gulliver’s Travels, one of the very few images is included to demonstrate the writing machine that allows a group of unlearned idiots to randomly turn wheels until intelligent words start to appear. It may well be the case that difficult-to-articulate concepts, and those with an uncertain and contested vocabulary (such as intelligence or mental capacity), are the ones which imagery-heavy satire are best suited to representing.

‘The Mystery of Time’: Film and Science in the ‘Atomic Age’

Dr Caitjan Gainty is Lecturer in the History of Science, Technology and Medicine in the History department at King’s College London. Alongside her book project on the concept of efficiency in twentieth century American medicine Dr Gainty is also working on a comparative (US/UK) history of instructional and entertainment films of childbirth and on the aesthetics of science in post World War II American life. Here she explores these themes through the films of Irwin Moon.

In 1957, The Mystery of Time introduced audiences to the fantastical instruments of the Moody Bible College’s Institute of Science. Written, produced and hosted by Irwin Moon, the film ushers the viewer into the Moody Lab, where the typical tools of laboratory science are replaced by instruments of perspectival manipulation. There, “time microscopes” and “time compressors” – time-lapse and high-speed cameras – capture and replay images too fast or slow for the naked eye. But after an arrow slowly shatters an egg, and a rose blossoms and dies in quick succession, the lesson in temporal perspective shifts to the grander scale of relativity. With the aid of a special Panavision lens, Moon seems to bend and compress space and time, relishing the challenge their interconnected elasticity poses to human perception. He clarifies that we have just witnessed a lesson in divine omniscience and omnipresence, and in his performance he hints at the immortal soul. As the camera slows in a lesson on lightspeed travel, Moon’s voice slows and distorts. “My heart would cease to beat,” he tells us, “and I wouldn’t die.”

Irwin Moon, visually demonstrating the time- and space-elasticizing qualities of his Panavision lens.

Irwin Moon, visually demonstrating the time- and space-elasticizing qualities of his Panavision lens.

The Mystery of Time was not a new venture for Moon, whose Moody Institute of Science film series explored the overlap between science and religion throughout its run. The idea of the film series was itself inspired by Moon’s “Sermons from Science”, a series of live performances put on in the 1930s and 40s at public venues across the United States. He also traveled abroad, joining the likes of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in the United Service Organization (USO) entertainment program for American troops serving overseas in World War II. Billed as the “Million Volt Preacher,” Moon put on shows that were by all accounts far more exciting than those of the Hollywood stars. For his finale, Moon darkened the stage, removed his shoes, placed thimbles on his fingers and stood on top of a transformer as the promised one million volts of electricity coursed through his body. The sparks that shot out of his outstretched hands reached up to six feet in length: a dramatic display that Moon would finally capture on film in his 1954 Facts of Faith.moons thimbles

How Moon has been remembered in the years since his evangelical film forays has been very much a matter of perspective. To some, he was an evangelist who successfully used science to save souls; to others, a filmmaker who won a significant number of science awards for his film work. For still others, he represented the vanguard of “intelligent design,” or stood mainly as the unintentional director and and star of a collection of quirky films that flirt with cult status. Moon and his films have not, however, received the scholarly attention deserving of such an important nexus between science and religion in the “atomic age.” Indeed, The Mystery of Time makes one immediately aware that Moon’s evangelical stylings were not merely a generic invocation of science in pursuit of religious ends, but rather a very particular exploration of what Moon described as the great advances of science of the atomic age. In The Mystery of Time, the theory of relativity is explicitly recognized as having made the atomic age possible while also at the same time enabling a new age of metaphysical understanding. Einstein’s theory offered not only a key to the power of the atom, but also a language that described the profundity of time, space and interconnectedness through which one might finally comprehend the existence of the divine.

But given my work on films of science and medicine more generally, The Mystery of Time and indeed nearly all of Moon’s film are interesting to me also for their reliance on cameras as tools of science. Moon’s cameras are nearly exclusively about looking, about shifting and manipulating perspective, and finding in those shifts the crucial nexus of science and religion. In their use of cameras, however, Moon’s films also recall a much earlier tradition of using still and motion picture cameras as proper scientific instruments that relied precisely on shifted perspectives to make new claims about the natural world. Phenomena too fast, too slow, too small, or too large to be appreciated by the naked eye could be captured and manipulated, played and replayed, forward and back ad infinitum (or at least until the film gave out). Placing Moon in this tradition suggests a different kind of significance for his evangelical practice and its use of scientific spaces. His films have something new to tell us about science, not just in terms of the proposed profundity that Moon himself claims for the scientific ideas he explores, but also about the more basic role of the visual and the spectacular – and aesthetics more generally – as intrinsically enmeshed in the very making of modern science.

Thomas Bush Kennington, Homeless, 1890

KCL’s Dr Simon Sleight reflects on a source that he had found especially compelling in the writing of his recent book, Young People and the Shaping of Public Space in Melbourne, 1870–1914 (Ashgate). Here he offers his thoughts on the painting below which you can also see on the walls of Bendigo Art Gallery in Australia.


Thomas Bush Kennington, Homeless, 1890

Homeless, helpless, a passive victim of the urban environment – this is a dominant image of youth at large in the late-Victorian city. Raised up from wet paving stones by a compassionate passer-by, this fallen child appears feeble, an object for pity and necessary rescue. The portrait’s tone is elegiac: the female figure is dressed in ‘widow’s weeds’, the garments of mourning, and the child’s limp posture and vacant gaze suggest that death may be near at hand. In the distance the grey gasworks, belching chimney and diagonal crane frame the location as industrial. Nature is a sparse commodity here; even the solitary tree in the painting is leafless, its lower branch snapped, its stone casing restricting room for future development. Nothing, we are invited to infer, can grow normally in this setting. No visual clue is given by the artist regarding the precise whereabouts of these characters. It could be any street in any industrial city of the Victorian era.

This gloomy streetscape in fact belongs to London. Composed here in 1890 by British artist Thomas Kennington, Homeless soon transcended national boundaries by arriving in Melbourne in 1892 for a large Anglo-German display at the city’s Exhibition Building. The painting attracted considerable critical acclaim: Melbourne’s Argus stated that it was ‘full of pathos … both a poem and a sermon’ (2 March 1892, p. 2), while the Age drew attention to the face of the child, describing it as ‘a chef d’œuvre of artistic power and human sympathy … a face … that expresses all the patient suffering of a whole class, amongst whom the inheritance of sorrow and privation is patiently accepted and endured’ (3 March 1892, p. 6). Homeless serves to illustrate the traffic of ideas around the British world in the late-Victorian era and the international frames of reference in which discussions about young people and the urban environment took place. The painting implies – like so many other cultural artefacts from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – that the fates of youth and the city are intertwined. Equally significant, it presents a compelling manifesto for outside adult intervention into the lives of children.

Like Thomas Kennington, lately I have spent much time thinking about and researching the public presence of young people in a metropolitan setting. Yet my findings challenge Kennington’s rendering of the urban scene, and dispute the child savers’ image of the outdoor city as intrinsically detrimental to children’s growth. Episodes and experiences retrieved from the archives and examined throughout my recent book instead tell other stories. For the children who built their own adventure playground from found objects in 1896, for example, the public domain represented a space of fun, not danger. In sight of the (still standing) Exhibition Building where Homeless had hung four years earlier, the children’s seesaws and contented play signified a sense of possibility rather than fatalism. For Melbourne’s newsboys and their fellow street traders, the city likewise served as a resource. To them it was an open-air workplace, a setting where a living could be made and a sense of solidarity acquired. Scurrying along the streets to meet a customer’s needs, or bellowing out the particulars of the day’s events, the lively newsboy presents a striking contrast to Kennington’s pallid child. Similarly, for young Elaine Macdonald or May Stewart – whose written accounts cast a crisp light on the experience of growing up in this era – the public realm promised adventure, independence and the chance to develop relationships on their own terms. At large in the city, they found room to explore their desires and extend their horizons. In turn, they shared the street corners and laneways with the ‘larrikins’, those bands of working-class youths who regarded the city as a series of rival territories and who publicly refuted the quiet compliance that their age and class position might have entailed (for more on this, see the recent co-authored journal article here). Eluding adult control in such circumstances, some young people inevitably went astray. Others found no solace in the public domain or met with tragedy when the metropolis proved unforgiving. But the desire for outdoor activity could not be contained. Young Melburnians staked claims to space all across the city.

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