Surprise Paper

In the last couple of days I’ve been conducting a rapid survey of particular measurements in a group of manuscripts. Today I was looking at one of these together with an easily accessible online manuscript catalogue description. The description said that it was a parchment manuscript, and I had carefully copied this down in my notes. I was therefore somewhat surprised when I encountered some paper leaves in the middle.

Had that been all, the experience would simply have been a salutary reminder that the people who write manuscript descriptions are fallible like the rest of us. But I trotted over to the reference shelves in the Bodleian’s Special Collections, pulled out the 150-year-old quarto catalogue for the relevant collection, and saw that its otherwise very brief description said (in Latin) that the manuscript is paper and parchment mixed.

I’m not outraged by the inaccuracy of the more recent description. People make mistakes; it happens. I’m still very grateful that something is available online so that I can access it anytime and anywhere! But the reminder, it turned out, was not so much about the fallibility of cataloguers as it was about the value of old catalogues. Perhaps a medievalist shouldn’t feel so surprised at that, but there you go.

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