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Medieval grace in the digital age

SCHOLARS have been pondering the “Roman de la Rose” for several centuries. A French allegorical love poem begun by Guillaume de Lorris around 1230, continued by Jean de Meun about 40 years later and preserved in some 300 illuminated manuscripts, it’s packed with romantic adventures, social and historical insights, and advice to the lovelorn. Popular and controversial through the 15th century, the illustrated story of a young man hopelessly enamored of a flower still captivates many people who delve into medieval studies.

But now anyone with access to a computer can learn a great deal about “Roman de la Rose” by visiting the website rose.mse.jhu.edu. Launched by Johns Hopkins University as a prototype for testing ways to present medieval manuscripts in digital form, the site offers rare and valuable works in the collections of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Bodleian Library at Oxford University in England -- providing opportunities for side-by-side analysis of texts and illustrations.

Those who page through the manuscripts online discover that the Morgan Library’s version is particularly sumptuous, with two full-page illuminations, 67 large images and 38 smaller ones, along with decorative borders, gold initials and text. The Getty’s manuscript has 101 half-column illuminations executed in shades of gray with touches of brighter color by a highly skilled artist yet to be identified.

And what’s posted on the website is just the beginning. Johns Hopkins has received $717,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to enhance the prototype. Plans call for digitizing additional versions of “Roman de la Rose” and updating the technical infrastructure to make the information more readily available, says Sayeed Choudhury, director of the university’s Sheridan Libraries’ Digital Knowledge Center.

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Funded in its first phase by the Samuel H. Kress and Gladys Krieble Delmas foundations and the Getty Trust, the project was driven by “scholarly need,” Choudhury says. Hopkins French and humanities professor Stephen G. Nichols has done extensive research on “Roman de la Rose,” but the university does not have a copy of the manuscript.

Initially used primarily for research, the digitized manuscripts have become an active teaching tool, Choudhury says. And the prototype is likely to have broad implications. “This grant focuses on ‘Roman de la Rose,’ but a lot of lessons we will learn from interacting scholars and building the technology to support this could be applicable and relevant to other digital manuscript projects.”

Suzanne Muchnic


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