21st-Century Imaging Helps Scholars Reveal Rare 8th-Century Manuscript

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In medieval times, Lichfield, England, was a thriving cultural and religious center. As time marched on, though, modern innovations left it behind. The canals of the 18th century, the railroads of the 19th, and the highways of the 20th all passed it by.

Now a literary scholar and a computer scientist from the University of Kentucky have brought 21st-century digital imaging to Lich­field, to study and help preserve one of its most ancient treasures: the eighth-century illustrated Latin manuscript known as the St. Chad Gospels.

The manuscript, most likely created by monkish scribes around AD 730, has staggeringly beautiful illuminations and introduces experimentation with different layers of pigment. The margins contain the earliest known examples of written Welsh. A detailed set of images will allow scholars to explore a manuscript that marks a significant point in the story of how people began to blend illustrations and words in elaborate, meaningful new ways, says William F. Endres, an assistant professor of English at Kentucky.

For instance, in an illuminated work like this, scribes would emphasize certain verses by beginning them in the left-hand margin and giving them specially ornamented letters. Beyond that, they used strategies like the one they called "a turn in the path" or "the head under the wing," where a line nips around to continue or end in an unexpected spot, Mr. Endres says. "It really messes with the quick efficiency of reading and forces contemplation," he explains.

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