British Library MS Cotton Otho B. x, fol. 13(54v)r

Cotton Otho B. x, an early eleventh-century collection of mostly saints' lives by the monk Ælfric, was left in ruins after a devastating fire in 1731. The fire destroyed or seriously damaged nearly one quarter of the approximately one thousand manuscripts amassed by Sir Robert Cotton following the dissolution of monasteries in the sixteenth century. After the fire, Cotton's collection became a foundational library of the British Museum. In the mid-nineteenth century the Keeper of Manuscripts, Sir Frederic Madden, initiated a restoration program for the burnt manuscripts.

The meticulous restoration process entailed tracing each burnt leaf on heavy paper, cutting out the unique tracing with a retaining edge, and pasting and taping the burnt leaf in place in the paper frame. Some leaves, as in this case, were burnt beyond recognition, so its placement as the 54th leaf in the restored manuscript was merely a guess.

Compounding the disaster, for some of the later projects, including this manuscript, acidic paper was used for the paper frames. Here the acidic paper has absorbed stains from the facing fragmentary leaf. After the acidic frames grew brittle and broke at the binding, a secondary restoration was needed to place the brittle acid frames in non-acidic frames.

At the beginning of the Electronic Beowulf project, we experimented with ultraviolet, first scanning fol. 54 verso under an ultraviolet lamp with a Kontron digital camera, which allowed us to examine the revealing results in real time. On the screen we were able to read much of the text that had formerly been invisible. However, the saved image surprisingly carried an obscuring dark indigo artifact of the ambient light in the darkened room from the blue and violet ranges of the spectrum.

Standard contrast enhancement routines in Photoshop, however, restored the readings we were able to see while digitizing the manuscript under the ultraviolet lamp. In the last six lines, for example, one can clearly discern the following letters, words and phrases:

ða go ... tius þa cwæð ...
... gewurþe godes willa ...
... begen begirndon hi ...
... 7 to ... þa anlic....
... t[w]a hund micclum ...
... matius hæfde beh... his dig ....

As ultraviolet is outside the color spectrum, a greyscale image is a better representation of the effects of ultraviolet.

These vestiges are from Æfric's Life of St. Sebastian, as a comparison with W.W. Skeat's edition of Æfric's Lives of Saints (Early English Text Society 76:1881) makes clear:

                                                        ... ða godas .
Chromatius þa cwæð to þam cenum godes þegnum .
gewurþe godes willa and eower eac æt þysum .
Hi þa sona begen begyrndon (sic) hi caflice .
and to gode gebædon . and to-bræcon þa anlicnyssa .
má þone twa hund micclum gode þanciende .
Chromatius hæfde behidd on his digolnysse .... [lines 244-250]

(“...the gods. Then said Chromatius to the brave servant of God, 'God's will, and yours also, be done in this.' Then forthwith they both begirt (begyrdon] themselves vigorously, and prayed to God, and brake in pieces the images, more than two hundred, greatly thanking God. Chromatius had hidden in his secret chamber...,” Skeat's translation).

Ultraviolet also disclosed readings on the opposite side of this leaf, which revealed that the binder had mistakenly reversed the order of the text. After analysis of all the fragments in Otho B. x with the help of ultraviolet, it turned out that fol. 54 verso was really fol. 13 recto in the correct order of surviving leaves. A convenient way to represent both the correct and incorrect foliations is therefore to label this leaf “fol. 13(54v)r.”

Further Reading on Damaged Texts in Cotton Otho B. x

Lee, Stuart D., “Two Fragments from Cotton MS. Otho B. x,” British Library Journal 17.1 (1991), 83-87.

Prescott, Andrew. “‘Their Present Miserable State of Cremation’: the Restoration of the Cotton Library.” Sir Robert Cotton as Collector: Essays on an Early Stuart Courtier and His Legacy. Editor C.J. Wright. London: British Library Publications, 1997: 391-454.

Kiernan, Kevin, Brent Seales, and James Griffioen. “The Reappearances of St. Basil the Great in British Library MS Cotton Otho B. x.” Computers and the Humanities 36:1 (2002), 7-26.

Kiernan, Kevin. “Odd Couples in Ælfric’s Julian and Basilissa in British Library Cotton MS Otho B. x.Beatus vir: Studies in Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse Manuscripts in Memory of Phillip Pulsiano. eds. Kirsten Wolf and A.N. Doane. Tempe, AZ: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies (MRTS), 2005: 85-106.

Cantara, Linda. “Saint Mary of Egypt in British Library, MS Cotton Otho B.x.” In Anonymous Interpolations in Ælfric's Lives of Saints. Robin Norris, Editor. Old English Newsletter Subsidia 35. Medieval Institute Publications. Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI, 2011, 29-69.

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