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.

Unhide That Hidden Text, Please

claude80By Claude Almansi
Staff Writer

Thanks to:

  • Marie-Jeanne Escure, of Le Temps, for having kindly answered questions about copyright and accessibility issues in the archives of the Journal de Genève.
  • Gabriele Ghirlanda, of Unitas, for having tested the archives of the Journal de Genève with a screen reader.

What Hidden Text?

Here, “hidden text” refers to a text file combined by an application with another object (image, video etc.) in order to add functionality to that object: several web applications offer this text to the reader together with the object it enhances – DotSUB offers the transcript of video captions, for instance:


Screenshot from “Phishing Scams in Plain English” by Lee LeFever [1].

But in other applications, unfortunately, you get only the enhanced object, but the text enhancing it remains hidden even though it would grant access to content for people with disabilities that prevent them from using the object and would simplify enormously research and quotations for everybody.

Following are three examples of object-enhancing applications using text but keeping it hidden:

Multilingual Captioning of YouTube and Google Videos

Google offers the possibility to caption a video by uploading one or several text files with their timed transcriptions. See the YouTube example below.

yt_subtYouTube video captioning.

Google even automatically translates the produced captions into other languages, at the user’s discretion. See the example below. (See “How to Automatically Translate Foreign-Language YouTube Videos” by Terrence O’Brien, Switch,

yt_subt_trslOption to automatically translate the captions of a YouTube video.

Nov. 3, 2008 [2], from which the above two screenshots were taken.) But the text files of the original captions and their automatic translations remain hidden.

Google’s Search Engine for the US Presidential Campaign Videos

During the 2008 US presidential campaign, Google beta-tested a search engine for videos on the candidates’ speeches. This search engine works on a text file produced by speech-to-text technology. See the example below.

google_election_searchGoogle search engine for the US presidential election videos.

(See “Google Elections Video Search,” Google for Educators 2008 – where you can try the search engine in the above screenshot – [3] and “‘In Their Own Words’: Political Videos Meet Google Speech-to-text Technology” by Arnaud Sahuguet and Ari Bezman. Official Google blog, July 14, 2008 [4].) But here, too, the text files on which the search engine works remain hidden.

Enhanced Text Images in Online Archives

Maybe the oddest use of hidden text is when people go to the trouble of scanning printed texts, produce both images of text and real text files from the scan, then use the text file to make the image version searchable – but hide it. It happens with Google books [5] and with The European Library [6]: you can browse and search the online texts that appear as images thanks to the hidden text version, but you can’t print them or digitally copy-paste a given passage – except if the original is in the public domain: in this case, both make a real textual version available.

Therefore, using a plain text file to enhance an image of the same content, but hiding the plain text, is apparently just a way to protect copyrighted material. And this can lead to really bizarre solutions.

Olive Software ActivePaper and the Archives of Journal de Genève

On December 12, 2008, the Swiss daily Le Temps announced that for the first time in Switzerland, they were offering online “free access” to the full archives – www.letempsarchives.ch (English version at [7]) – of Le Journal de Genève (JdG), which, together with two other dailies, got merged into Le Temps in 1998. In English, see Ellen Wallace’s “Journal de Geneve Is First Free Online Newspaper (but It’s Dead),” GenevaLunch, Dec. 12, 2008 [8].

A Vademecum to the archives, available at [9] (7.7 Mb PDF), explains that “articles in the public domain can be saved as


images. Other articles will only be partially copied on the hard disk,” and Nicolas Dufour’s description of the archiving process in the same Vademecum gives a first clue about the reason for this oddity: “For the optical character recognition that enables searching by keywords within the text, the American company Olive Software adapted its software which had already been used by the Financial Times, the Scotsman and the Indian Times.” (These and other translations in this article are mine.)

The description of this software – ActivePaper Archive – states that it will enable publishers to “Preserve, Web-enable, and Monetize [their] Archive Content Assets” [10]. So even if Le Temps does not actually intend to “monetize” their predecessor’s assets, the operation is still influenced by the monetizing purpose of the software they chose. Hence the hiding of the text versions on which the search engine works and the digital restriction on saving articles still under copyright.

Accessibility Issues

This ActivePaper Archive solution clearly poses great problems for blind people who have to use a screen reader to access content: screen readers read text, not images.

Le Temps is aware of this: in an e-mail answer (Jan. 8, 2009) to questions about copyright and accessibility problems in the archives of JdG, Ms Marie-Jeanne Escure, in charge of reproduction authorizations at Le Temps, wrote, “Nous avons un partenariat avec la Fédération suisse des aveugles pour la consultation des archives du Temps par les aveugles. Nous sommes très sensibilisés par cette cause et la mise à disposition des archives du Journal de Genève aux aveugles fait partie de nos projets.” Translation: “We have a partnership with the Swiss federation of blind people (see [11]) for the consultation of the archives of Le Temps by blind people. We are strongly committed/sensitive to this cause, and the offer of the archives of Journal de Genève to blind people is part of our projects.”

What Digital Copyright Protection, Anyway?

Gabriele Ghirlanda, member of Unitas [12], the Swiss Italian section of the Federation of Blind people, tried the Archives of JdG. He says (e-mail, Jan. 15, 2009):

With a screenshot, the image definition was too low for ABBYY FineReader 8.0 Professional Edition [optical character recognition software] to extract a meaningful text.

But by chance, I noticed that the article presented is made of several blocs of images, for the title and for each column.

Right-clic, copy image, paste in OpenOffice; export as PDF; then I put the PDf through Abbyy Fine Reader. […]

For a sighted person, it is no problem to create a document of good quality for each article, keeping it in image format, without having to go through OpenOffice and/or pdf. [my emphasis]

<DIV style=”position:relative;display:block;top:0; left:0; height:521; width:1052″ xmlns:OliveXLib=”http://www.olive-soft.com/Schemes/XSLLibs&#8221; xmlns:OlvScript=”http://www.olivesoftware.com/XSLTScript&#8221; xmlns:msxsl=”urn:schemas-microsoft-com:xslt”><div id=”primImg” style=”position:absolute;top:30;left:10;” z-index=”2″><img id=”articlePicture” src=”/Repository/getimage.dll?path=JDG/1990/03/15/13/Img/Ar0130200.png” border=”0″></img></div><div id=”primImg” style=”position:absolute;top:86;left:5;” z-index=”2″><img id=”articlePicture” src=”/Repository/getimage.dll?path=JDG/1990/03/15/13/Img/Ar0130201.png” border=”0″></img></div><div id=”primImg” style=”position:absolute;top:83;left:365;” z-index=”2″><img id=”articlePicture” src=”/Repository/getimage.dll?path=JDG/1990/03/15/13/Img/Ar0130202.png” border=”0″></img></div><div id=”primImg” style=”position:absolute;top:521;left:369;” z-index=”2″><img id=”articlePicture” src=”/Repository/getimage.dll?path=JDG/1990/03/15/13/Img/Ar0130203.png” border=”0″></img></div><div id=”primImg” style=”position:absolute;top:81;left:719;” z-index=”2″><img id=”articlePicture” src=”/Repository/getimage.dll?path=JDG/1990/03/15/13/Img/Ar0130204.png” border=”0″></img></div>

From the source code of the article used by Gabriele Ghirlanda: in red, the image files he mentions.

Unhide That Hidden Text, Please

Le Temps‘ commitment to the cause of accessibility for all and, in particular, to find a way to make the JdG archives accessible to blind people (see “Accessibility Issues” above) is laudable. But in this case, why first go through the complex process of splitting the text into several images, and theoretically prevent the download of some of these images for copyrighted texts, when this “digital copyright protection” can easily be by-passed with right-click and copy-paste?

As there already is a hidden text version of the JdG articles for powering the search engine, why not just unhide it? www.letempsarchives.ch already states that these archives are “© 2008 Le Temps SA.” This should be sufficient copyright protection.

Let’s hope that Olive ActivePaper Archive software offers this option to unhide hidden text. Not just for the archives of the JdG, but for all archives working with this software. And let’s hope, in general, that all web applications using text to enhance a non-text object will publish it. All published works are automatically protected by copyright laws anyway.

Adding an alternative accessible version just for blind people is discriminatory. According to accessibility guidelines – and common sense – alternative access for people with disabilities should only be used when there is no other way to make web content accessible. Besides, access to the text version would also simplify life for scholars – and for people using portable devices with a small screen: text can be resized far better than a puzzle of images with fixed width and height (see the source code excerpt above).

The pages linked to in this article and a few more resources are bookmarked under http://www.diigo.com/user/calmansi/hiddentext