Rare Ancient Manuscripts Online at E-codices


By Claude Almansi
Staff Writer

Thanks to Rafael Schwemmer, Project Manager/Web Developer of e-codices, and to Sylviane Messerli, scientific collaborator in charge of the library of the Bodmer Foundation, for their help and explanations.

cb-0078_049rCologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. Bodmer 78, p. 49r (www.e-codices.unifr.ch).

Historia Destructionis Troiae

This manuscript page is from Guido de Columnis’ Historia Destructionis Troiae (or History of the Destruction of Troy). This text is an interesting knot in the rich tapestry of the Troy stories told and retold from Homer to our days. (This tapestry can be explored from Category:Trojan War literature – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia [1], for instance.)

In fact, Historia Destructionis Troiae is an early 14th century Latin translation of the late 13th century French Roman de Troie by Benoît de Sainte-Maure, itself based on several classical sources. This Latin version led in turn to further translations – among these, John Lydgate’s Troy Book (downloadable in several formats from the Internet Archive: see the pages for volume 1 and volume 2), which was one of the sources of Chaucer’s Troilus and Cryseide (see Troilus and Cryseide – Wikisource [2]) and of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida (see Troilus and Cressida – Wikisource [3]), among other works.

chaucer“Chaucer reading from Troilus and Cryseide.” From Jane Zatta’s Chaucer The Canterbury Tales.

Thus Historia Destructionis Troiae raises interesting questions: What was a “translation” back then? Is our “post-modern” mash up and remix culture as post-modern as is sometimes claimed? What are these Troy stories and these manuscripts to us?

E-codices Virtual Manuscript Library of Switzerland

Before July 2007, when this manuscript of Historia Destructionis Troiae was digitized and put online within the e-codices – Virtual Manuscript Library of Switzerland [5], non-scholars were only able to see it open at a given page by going to the Fondation Martin Bodmer’s Museum and Library [6] in Cologny (Geneva, CH). True, the Bodmer Foundation is one of the most interesting cultural venues of Geneva, with exciting temporary exhibitions alongside its ancient manuscript collections: presently, you can read there letters sent by some of the most important 20th century French authors to Gaston Gallimard, the editor of the Nouvelle Revue Française, which crucially shaped French literature for a century.

Nevertheless, a story in a glass case is a dead story. But now, the manuscript of Historia Destructionis Troiae – together with 362 other manuscripts from 16 Swiss libraries gathered by e-codices – can be viewed in full facsimile. And from any page of the facsimile, with one single click, you can access a scholarly yet highly readable description of the manuscript, provided in turn with links to specific pages of the facsimile.

The description of the Historia Destructionis Troiae manuscript draws our attention, for instance, to f. 88, where a note in Hebrew tells us that it got pawned in 1646.

hdt_f_88r_pawnbrokerScreenshot of the pawnbroker’s note on f. 88 of Historia Destructionis Troiae.

And further down the page, someone, in the 17th c., wrote a love declaration and a poem in Venitian dialect.

The description also points to the instructions for the illuminator scribbled by the editor on some pages, like the ones at the bottom of the page 49r at the beginning of this post:

cb-0078_049r_det_note_circledCologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. Bodmer 78, p. 49r (www.e-codices.unifr.ch).
Author’s note: Screenshot of the editors’ notes; the one I circled in red says: “fa qua de sovra Troia como lo re Priamo xe (?) in lo so palazo in una gran sala . . . et fa li con le gran barbe” (above, do [paint] Troy, how King Priamus is in his palace in a big room . . . and to them with long beards).

Moreover, from any page of an e-codices digital manuscript, with just one click, you can browse and search all the e-codices collections, or e-mail that page to yourself or others. The correct bibliographical reference gets added automatically to the e-mail.

Innovation and tradition

The e-codices project also highlights eerie similarities in how people dealt with “text objects” back when manuscripts were created and in our electronic era. Just as the editor, scribe, illustrator, and owners of the Historia Destructionis Troiae collaborated in the creation of the manuscript and added their notes to it, you can now add notes – as relevant or irrelevant as the original ones – to any part of a digitized page with tools like Diigo. You can keep these notes to yourself or share and discuss them further with a group or with all readers (see “Links” below).

One thing has changed, though: as we saw, the manuscript of Historia Destructionis Troiae was pawned by one of its owners. This cannot be done with its digital version.

Usability and durability through openness

Of course, this does not mean that digital content cannot be monetized. It can, but not by putting proprietary electronic barriers around it: as I showed in Unhide this Hidden Text, Please about the ActivePaper software and the archives of the Journal de Genève, such barriers only hamper study – and access by people with disabilities. But they are a totally ineffective “intellectual property protection.”

Conversely, the useful features of e-codices are made possible by a judicious combination of several OpenSource software programs, as explained in the New Web Application [7] page of e-codices. Moreover, this choice of OpenSource also ensures the durability of the e-codices archives because, even if the programs evolve, they will always be able to reconstruct them from their source. Whereas archives powered by proprietary software only last as long as the applications are supported by the firms that produce them.

Like the archives of the Journal de Genève, e-codices does not have a commercial aim. However, the absence of proprietary electronic barriers does not mean that others are free to exploit its material commercially. Instead, in its Terms of Use [8], the e-codices team explains very clearly what can be done under what conditions for noncommercial use; it also explains that permission must be requested for commercial use. This approach is also more effective in that users who benefit from it are more likely to defend it (see Wikipedia: Wikipedia Signpost/2006-01-02/Reporter plagiarizes Wikipedia [9]) than if they are hampered by technological “protections” that are insultingly assuming their dishonesty.


The links in this post and a few other pertinent ones have been gathered under http://www.diigo.com/user/calmansi/e-codices+innovate. Some of the links are to pages with annotations, as described in the “Innovation and tradition” section above. You can see the annotations either by clicking on “Expand” on the right of the link, or on “All Annotations” below – which also allows you to add your own comments.