Scientific Analysis of medieval manuscripts

Scientific Analysis of medieval manuscripts
by Marie Annisius

By the end of this section, you should be able to…

  • Demonstrate how the research requirements are structured
  • Demonstrate how Digital Humanities and Scientific Analysis can be used to address the unique research requirements

The Canterbury Roll

The Canterbury Roll is a five-metre-long genealogical roll of English kings and queens. The video describes the historical context of the Canterbury Roll as well as the research requirements. The Roll, which includes a Latin text of approximately 8000 words, was written in the 1430s, the early years of King Henry VI’s reign, by an unknown individual who we have designated the “Lancastrian Scribe”. In its original form, the Roll traced the origins of English kings from the biblical figure of Noah via classical and British myth down to the Lancastrian dynasty who ruled England in the early fifteenth century. In the half century following its creation three scribes revised and extended the Roll. The Roman Numerals Scribe translated the Indo-Arabic notation of the original Lancastrian Scribe while the Yorkist and Margaret of Burgundy Scribes modified the content making it more favourable to King Edward IV, who usurped the English throne in the 1460s. The Roll entered an Aotearoa New Zealand library collection in 1918 but research into it remained limited in the twentieth century. It was identified in the 1980s as part of a wider group of related manuscripts and, along with the recent identification of two of the four scribes, this has made the Roll the focus of renewed interest.

Tools to assist historical research

This section shows how the tools provided by both the Digital Humanities and the Cultural Heritage Infrastructures are used to assist the research on the Canterbury Roll.

Digital Humanities for the research of the Canterbury Roll

This video discusses a Digital Humanities approach to research into the Canterbury Roll. In order to investigate both the Canterbury Roll and the wider “Noah” group of manuscripts, the Canterbury Roll Project was founded in 2012 as a collaboration between the University of Canterbury’s History Department and its Arts Digital Lab. The first stage of a new digital edition and translation of the Roll was launched as part of the project in December 2017. The edition is based on the standards for digitizing medieval manuscripts set by the Text Encoding Initiative. The most important benefit of digitization is the opportunity to bring the modern reading experience of the Roll closer to the medieval experience. The Canterbury Roll Project couples a student-led edition/translation project with an attempt to recreate the experience of viewing the manuscript as a roll. Unlike many existing digital projects, where rolls are presented in sections, this one presents the Canterbury Roll as one continuous manuscript. We use a series of 42 images presented via tiling software to achieve this effect while maintaining the option of employing a high powered zoom. Rather than present a series of paragraphs arranged in a set order, which is the inevitable consequence of publishing an edition of a roll in a book, the project uses a “zoned” approach to enable the reader to view any roundel or paragraph in any order. It also identifies each scribal hand in the underlying code. This means we can reconstruct a version of the text that reflects each stage of its development.

Video 2

Scientific Analysis of the Canterbury Roll

The importance of the scientific analysis as well as the contribution of the Heritage Science infrastructure in research into the Canterbury Roll are presented in the video below. In 2017, the Canterbury Roll Project formed a partnership with the Imaging & Sensing for Archaeology, Art History & Conservation (ISAAC) Mobile Lab at Nottingham Trent University. This opened up the possibilities for non-invasive imaging and spectroscopic analysis of the Roll. Non-invasive spectroscopic analysis enables the identification of pigments and allow us to “strip away” layers of the manuscript to reveal “hidden” writing and images. The ISAAC Mobile Lab visited Christchurch, New Zealand in January 2018 to carry out an initial study using their in-house developed spectral imaging camera, PRISMS, for large area imaging and initial identification of the pigments, high spatial and spectral resolution reflectance spectroscopy to identify red organic pigments which are also complemented by X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy to identify the elemental make-up of the materials. Among the many findings, were a clear image of Noah’s Ark at the start of the manuscript hidden behind a later addition, a red rose, and traces of a “missing” passage that would once have described King Henry V. In addition to uncovering features such as guide letters, these discoveries provide us with new insights into the way the manuscript was constructed and the way in which it was modified.

Video 3

Digital Edition of the Canterbury Roll

  • Chris Jones, Christopher Thomson, Maree Shirota, Elisabeth Rolston, Thandi Parker, and Jennifer Middendorf, ed., “The Canterbury Roll – A Digital Edition.” Canterbury: Canterbury University Press, 2017. Open Access:
  • For a detailed bibliography and a project to catalogue all such scrolls, please consult the Harvard database Medieval Scrolls.

For the Canterbury Roll in its Medieval Context

  • Alison Allan, “Royal Propaganda and the Proclamations of Edward IV.” Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research 59, (1986): 146–154.
  • Alison Allan, “Yorkist Propaganda: Pedigree, Prophecy and the ‘British History’ in the Reign of Edward IV.” In Patronage, Pedigree and Power in Later Medieval England, edited by Charles D. Ross, 171–192. Gloucester: A. Sutton, 1979.
  • Chris Jones, “The Canterbury Roll.” In Treasures of the University of Canterbury Library, edited by Chris Jones and Bronwyn Matthews with Jennifer Clement, 85–90. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 2011.
  • Thandiwe Parker, “A Woman’s Role: How Scribes Depicted Women On The Fifteenth-Century Canterbury Roll.” Comitatus 48, (2017): 95–115,
  • Maree Shirota, “Royal Depositions and the ‘Canterbury Roll’.” Parergon 32, no. 2 (2015): 39–61,

For Digitization of Pre-Modern Manuscripts

  • For TEI: The Text Encoding Initiative
  • Jasmine Elizabeth Burns, “Digital Facsimiles and the Modern Viewer: Medieval Manuscripts and Archival Practice in the Age of New Media.” Art Documentation: Bulletin of the Art Libraries Society of North America 33, no. 4 (2014): 148–167.
  • Arianna Ciula and Tamara Lopez, “Reflecting on a Dual Publication: Henry III Fine Rolls Print and Web.” Literary and Linguistic Computing 24, no. 2 (2009): 129–141,
  • Jock Phillips, “A Click to the Past: Digital History in New Zealand.” New Zealand Journal of History 47, no. 2 (2013): 232–248.

For Heritage Science & Pre-Modern Manuscripts

Congratulations!  You have completed the “Digital Humanities and Heritage Research Infrastructures” section of this module!

You have completed the "Digital Humanities Research Questions and Methods" module!