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)


The Colonial Archives of Brazzaville – Website and Online Inventories

I never thought that my research would take me to the basement of the building where the conference of Brazzaville took place in 1944. The room smelt of moisture and hundreds of documents created by the French colonial administration were stacked in front of me on rusty shelves. Even if most colonial files are not decaying in the basement but are located in an arguably safer room, the colonial archives of Congo are not in a good shape.

Knowing the relationship between France and its former colonies (especially Congo-Brazzaville), it might be necessary to ask why these documents are still quite hard to access. The slow disappearance of these archives might be in everyone’s interests. The building in which they are located is only a temporary building shared with the Congolese Centre for Dramatic Arts. Compared to other archives in Africa, the situation seems concerning to say the least.

Congolese National Archives - January 2015

Congolese National Archives – January 2015

This is exactly why I planned to travel to Congo at the beginning of January 2015. I have worked on the history of borders in the north-eastern corner of Nigeria but because of the Boko Haram insurgency, going back to Borno in Nigeria was out of the question. My aim was to determine whether future studies on Congolese borders were feasible but I also wanted to help future researchers to study Congo or French Equatorial Africa.

I did not travel there on my own. I went to Brazzaville with Jean-Pierre Bat from the French National Archives. With the support of the director of the Congolese archives, Brice Owabira, and the head of a Congolese ministerial agency in charge of the archives, Raoul Ngokaba, we digitised sample documents taken from the archives. The Institut francais of Brazzaville also helped us digitise the inventories of the files. Cataloguing can take quite a long time and if researchers can have access to the inventories before even setting foot in the archives, this could save us precious time.

The next logical step was to create a website dedicated to the colonial archives of French Equatorial Africa. The site gives details on access conditions for potential researchers and retraces the history of the colonial archives kept in Brazzaville. More importantly, users can find a few sample documents and the inventories of the Gouvernement Général and the Inspection Générale de l’Enseignement. A pdf file containing the reference numbers for a document is always a good way to start a research project.

This project was a pilot project to determine whether this experiment should be repeated in other archives centres in Congo or in the rest of Africa. The answer is yes and, clearly, this is how digital humanities can help researchers to learn more about the African past.

Vincent Hiribarren