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February 8, 2008
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Medieval French Manuscripts to Go Digital in Virtual Collection

Grants of $779,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation will allow The Johns Hopkins University and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France to provide scholars with virtual access to more than half the known versions of Le Roman de la Rose, a medieval poem on the art of love that was the most-read work of French literature for hundreds of years.

The two grants will enable the pioneering Roman de la Rose project at Johns Hopkins' Sheridan Libraries to digitize 90 manuscripts of the poem held in the BNF and another 40 manuscripts from university and municipal libraries throughout France.

As he pursues the Rose, the dreamer Amant catches sight of the reflection of the rosebush in a fountain.
(15th century illuminated French manuscript. Français 12595 folio 13v. By special permission of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.)

The French national library's holdings of one of the most popular and widely reproduced vernacular works of the Middle Ages constitute not only the most extensive collection of Rose manuscripts, but also the most varied in format, text, illumination and decoration. In all, just over 250 widely varying manuscripts are thought to survive today, scattered primarily in libraries and museums throughout Europe and North America.

One of the two grants, for $731,000, will fund the transfer of all 130 French manuscripts to an electronic format, boosting the Sheridan Libraries' virtual collection to a total of 150 manuscripts.

"The Mellon grant enables us to make available for worldwide scholarship more than half of the Rose manuscripts known to be extant today," said Winston Tabb, Sheridan Dean of University Libraries at Johns Hopkins. "We are delighted and honored to collaborate with our colleagues in France to provide an integrated approach to digital access and preservation of these incomparable manuscripts, especially the five in Paris that have served as the basis for the critical editions produced over the last 200 years."

Working with colleagues at Stanford University Libraries, the Rose project team will use a second Mellon award of $48,000 to make its digital library and Stanford's more compatible. Parker on the Web is a collaborative venture between Stanford and Corpus Christi College at Cambridge University to produce an interactive virtual library comprising more than 500 manuscripts from the 6th to the 16th centuries from the Parker Library at Corpus Christi. Stanford's Parker on the Web is also a Mellon-funded project.

Le Roman de la Rose, or The Romance of the Rose, is a poem of more than 20,000 lines composed by two 13th-century poets working about 50 years apart. The first poet tells of his dream of an enchanted garden where he sees and falls deeply in love with a young woman, whom he allegorizes as a perfect "rose." The much longer second half of the poem transforms the allegorical dream adventure into a philosophical commentary on the difficulty of distinguishing between illusion and reality in life.

From 1285 (well before the invention of the printing press) to about 1620, the Rose was the most popular vernacular French work, better-known in its time than Dante or Chaucer. No doubt some of that popularity derived from the explicitly sexual images introduced by the second poet and intended to expose the hypocrisy of the doctrine of courtly love, which portrayed human sexuality in spiritual terms.

The poet's frank language inspired artists of some manuscripts to paint highly erotic images, provoking horrified responses and sparking a controversy that continued throughout much of the period. Christine de Pisan, one of the leading poets of the 15th century and an advisor to the queen of France, led one of the most spirited denunciations of the Rose. Her critique of the poem as anti-feminist has been echoed by some modern scholars.

Amant kisses his allegorical lover, the perfect rose, in the walled garden of love.
(15th century illuminated French manuscript. MS. Douce 195, folio 26r. By permission of the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.)

"Rose scholarship has long focused on a few manuscripts available in Paris," said Stephen Nichols, James M. Beall Professor of French and Humanities at Johns Hopkins and co-director of the project. "The idea was to study the text of the work, but not the colorful and informative paintings found on many manuscript pages.

"Access to a wide variety of manuscripts produced over a period of 250 years," Nichols said, "will now allow scholars to study the paintings and poetry together, as well as revealing evolving styles of manuscript painting and linguistic change. Students will experience the variations of the work as medieval people would have known it. The Rose digital library makes possible cross- disciplinary scholarship by literary scholars, art historians, philosophers, historians, and anyone interested in the history of medieval books."

The collaboration with the French national library boosts the scale of the Rose project exponentially, which is particularly gratifying for Thierry Delcourt, director of the Department of Manuscripts at Bibliothèque Nationale.

"This project is of special importance for the French national library, for it will supply, for the first time, a comprehensive digital library of one of the most important French medieval texts," Delcourt said. "Scholars will be able to study the textual tradition and the iconography, and to compare easily manuscripts from different countries and various libraries. Thus, they will establish a better text and improve the old editions.

"And the Rose Web site will also provide access to these treasures to a wide audience," Delcourt said. "The French national library is very proud to be chosen as the main partner of this splendid project."

Since the inception of the Rose project 10 years ago, advances in cyberinfrastructure have transformed research in science and engineering by enabling the exploration of datasets housed in multiple data repositories. Sayeed Choudhury, associate dean of the Sheridan Libraries' digital programs and co-director of the project, sees the same potential for the humanities.

"Designing an open source toolkit that would allow scholars to interact with the contents of multiple collections using a common set of software tools would offer a model for transforming humanities scholarship, similar to what the scientific community has demonstrated," he said.

The preservation and dissemination techniques developed for the Rose project will yield strategies for digital versions that can be applied to a broad range of cultural heritage artifacts, he said.

"Imagine the research potential of these digital collections if multiple sets of software tools can be created to access and explore them," Choudhury said. "We are excited at the prospect of contributing to innovations within the digital library world that can revolutionize way humanities scholars in a number of fields conduct their research."

To date, Rose manuscripts from the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, the University of Chicago, Bodleian Library at Oxford University and two private collectors have been digitized, providing scholars around the world an online comparative analysis of works produced centuries apart, and creating a new paradigm for digital scholarship. Grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Samuel H. Kress and Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundations, and the Getty Trust have funded earlier phases of Project Rose development. To visit the Rose site, go to http://romandelarose.org/.

The Sheridan Libraries encompass the Milton S. Eisenhower Library and its collections at the Albert D. Hutzler Reading Room, the John Work Garrett Library, and the George Peabody Library.