Ghostly images have been discovered in one of the UK’s most important medieval manuscripts.
The phantoms were found in the Black Book of Carmarthen at the National Library of Wales — the earliest surviving text written in Welsh, containing the oldest poems about King Arthur and the wizard Merlin. They appeared when Myriah Williams, a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, was doing some research for her thesis. She subjected the 750-year-old manuscript to a newfangled ultraviolet light scan that revealed faces and writing invisible to the naked eye.
In a release published April 1 (though not a joke), the university gave a simple explanation for these eerie drawings. They’re essentially the erased, medieval manifestations of modern marginalia — a practice we tend to associate more with the previous owners of college textbooks than with those of rare and precious books.
The tradition, it turns out, goes as far back as the 5th or 4th century B.C., when ancient Greek readers responded to the authors they were reading within the blank spaces of text. With the Black Book, the idea of that type of imaginary, literary communion occurring is particularly powerful, considering that it was written by a single, lonely scribe over the course of his life.
“[That it was written by one author] is readily visible on the manuscript pages themselves; the first pages feature a large textura script copied on alternating ruled lines, while in other parts of the manuscript — perhaps when vellum was scarce — the hand is very much smaller and the lines per page tight and many,” the release explains. “That the Black Book may have been something of a labour of love is also reflected in its content by the breadth of genres represented. These range from pieces of religious verse to praise poetry to story poetry.”
Jaspar Gryffyth, the 16th century owner of the Black Book of Carmarthen, was unmoved. He erased all the marginalia that had been scribbled within its 54 pages through the centuries, which the university says included “snatches of poetry … previously unrecorded in the canon of Welsh verse,” as well as comments that tell us what early readers thought about the text. “The Black Book was particularly heavily annotated before the end of the 16th century, and the recovery of erasure has much to tell us about what was already there and can change our understanding of it,” Williams said.
She also explained that the findings illustrate the exciting new possibilities that imaging technology has opened for the scholarship of ancient books.
“It’s easy to think we know all we can know about a manuscript like the Black Book but to see these ghosts from the past brought back to life in front of our eyes has been incredibly exciting,” Williams said. “The drawings and verse that we’re in the process of recovering demonstrate the value of giving these books another look.”