UK researchers move from Roman scrolls to ancient gospels

Preservation efforts lead to England, Spain

jwarren@herald-leader.comMay 24, 2010 

The University of Kentucky's computer sleuths are taking on a new challenge, even as they keep working to unlock ancient Roman scrolls.

In late June, experts from UK's Computer Science Department will take their equipment to England, where they plan to make digital copies of two ages-old religious manuscripts stored at Lichfield Cathedral. These are Gospels of St. Chad, written in Latin about 725; and a copy of a Wycliffe Bible, handwritten in Middle English around 1410.

In July, UK team members also will visit El Escorial, a Spanish palace and monastery outside Madrid, where they hope to record computer images of two 1,000-year-old copies of Homer's Illiad. These manuscripts are thought to have been spirited out of Constantinople just before it fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

The UK project has two main goals: Producing digital copies would preserve the priceless originals and bring back to life art work and fine details that have faded over the centuries. Once completed, copies could be made available on computer for study by classical scholars or by students at UK.

"It would be a fabulous resource for our students," says William Endres, an assistant professor of English at UK. "It's also a chance for us to learn new things about Middle English and the design of the manuscripts themselves, as well as getting a visual sense of how the word of God was being presented in those times."

Endres will be the lead scholar on the Lichfield portion of the project. UK will partner with Harvard University on the Madrid part of the effort. The UK computer team will be led by Brent Seales, Gill professor of engineering in UK's Computer Science Department.

The Gospels of St. Chad contain the New Testament books of Matthew and Mark and part of Luke, handwritten in Latin. The manuscript is named for St. Chad, a Catholic bishop generally credited with christianizing Central England in the seventh century. Chad, however, did not write the manuscript. The true author is unknown.

The Wycliffe Bible is named for John Wycliffe, a 14th century English theologian who preached church reform a century before Martin Luther, and campaigned to have the Bible translated from Latin into English. His followers, called Lollards, made many handwritten translations that came to be called Wycliffe Bibles.

UK's Endres notes that when the Wycliffe Bible stored at Lichfield Cathedral was made, it was illegal in England to translate the Bible from Latin. The Lichfield copy is particularly interesting because it has received little scholarly study until now. It was given to Lichfield Cathedral in 1940 but didn't turn up on lists of Wycliffe Bibles until about 2007, Endres said.

"We've learned a tremendous amount about Middle English from studying Wycliffe Bibles, and we could learn more from the copy at Lichfield," Endres said. "In this copy, the text is in a very small hand. So having a digital version where you could blow it up and see the text very easily would help tremendously."

The Gospels of St. Chad also are of interest among scholars because they contain marginalia written in Old Welsh. They are considered some of the world's oldest examples of written Welsh, according to Endres.

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