Philadelphia Inquirer: Scans Reveal Secrets of Medieval ‘Harry Potter’ Book and Medical Texts at Penn

The study of unsightly stains on old manuscripts may show the hands of early doctors and chemists at work.


Excerpted from an article in The Philadelphia Inquirer, by Tom Avril.

The slim volume bound in animal skin represented the best the field of medicine had to offer 500 years ago: a compilation of remedies made from such ingredients as rabbit bones, ox tongue, and chicory.

Yet at some point before the manuscript reached its current resting place, a library shelf at the University of Pennsylvania, an unknown liquid was spilled on its carefully lettered pages. Many of the words are no longer legible.

A book-lover’s nightmare? Not for Erin F. Connelly. She sees the unsightly blotches as a research opportunity.

Connelly, a postdoctoral fellow at Penn’s Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies, is on a quest to identify old stains in medieval texts. Moldy old stains. Mysterious blemishes that might be traces of the very ingredients written down on now-faded pages, spilled by some early practitioner of the healing or chemical arts. Or could they be remnants of blood from a patient? Drippings from the candle of some scribe from long ago?

Using high-tech scanning equipment, so far Connelly and her partners—from the Library of Congress and the University of Wisconsin-Madison—have begun to analyze stains in two dozen medieval manuscripts.

The team members realize their quest may seem odd to some, but they feel that the essence of a written work lies not only in the words themselves, but in how it was used and passed down through the ages. Even some scholars, Connelly said, need to be reminded that there is value in centuries of grime.

“These are manuscripts that have traditionally been pushed aside and dismissed due to their dirty or stained appearances,” she said.

From a practical standpoint, identifying a stain in an old manuscript also would help a conservator determine the best way to handle and preserve it. Some of the stains are expected to contain acids and heavy metals, for example.

But in order to shine a light on these historic dribbles and blobs, the first step was to plunge them into complete darkness.

Harry Potter and a basilisk

The weathered, red-leather volume, its cover studded with nails in the shape of a six-pointed star, looks like something from a sorcerer’s lair.

At the Science History Institute—the Philadelphia museum and research institution formerly called the Chemical Heritage Foundation—librarians jokingly call it the Harry Potter book.

They are not simply judging the 600-year-old book by its cover. Along with recipes for distilling wine and making black hair dye, the manuscript contains instructions for conjuring up a basilisk—the mythical serpent that played a memorable role in one of J.K. Rowling’s best-selling books.

At least it used to contain the basilisk instructions. They are listed in the table of contents but—Merlin’s beard!—the pages are missing. Voldemort, anyone?

Read the full article on The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Image credit: The Philadelphia Inquirer/Michael Bryant