Manuscripts and Special Collections

Wives, Widows and Wimples

May 4th, 2010 at 11:05

Detail from WLC/LM/6

The story of Silence, a girl brought up as a boy; the imprisonment of Elizabeth Swillington, mistreated to get her to sign over her inheritance; John Gower’s poem ‘Traitié…pour essampler les amantz marietz’, praising fidelity in marriage; devotional literature presented as a moral alternative to tales of knights and their quests; controversy over women dressing and adorning themselves to make themselves more attractive to men; lax standards in the nunnery at Markyate; and the inspirational stories of female saints – just some of the glimpses of life in the middle ages which appear in Wives, Widows and Wimples, our new web resource based on our medieval collections.

Decorative flourish from the Wollaton AntiphonalWives, Widows and Wimples’ features full-size digital images of 46 text extracts from original medieval manuscripts, 11 details of illuminations, miniatures or bindings from those manuscripts, and 5 extracts from later printed volumes, all relating to women, and their place in the society and literature of the middle ages. ‘Zoomify’ technology allows you to see the digital images in detail, and to scroll around each page. Many of the pages are decorated with miniature illustrations or decorative flourishes, and are very attractive to look at.

The web resource is a core activity of the Lottery funded Wollaton Library Collection project, and a collaboration with academic colleagues from the University’s Institute for Medieval Research. I co-ordinated work on the resource, and started to source extracts in June 2008. The manuscripts in the Wollaton Library Collection are written in the medieval languages of 13th-century French, Anglo-Norman, Latin and Middle English, so I was indebted to published editions of the texts (especially to those which were also translated!) and to the expertise of academic colleagues who suggested passages.

Our job is all about providing access to the material in our care – and this can mean helping people to understand the documents, as well as simply allowing them to see the originals, or microform or digital surrogates. We wanted the web resource to be accessible to all, so the language barrier was something that had to be surmounted. Reading old handwriting is also a skill that takes some practice to master. Most people who have done some historical research – perhaps in tracing their family tree – are only confident in tackling handwriting from the 17th century onwards. It was therefore important that every handwritten extract was accompanied by a transcription (so that users can see exactly what’s on the page, if they want to), and a summary of the contents in modern English (so that they can understand what it’s about).

Example of transcript and translation

Details of the team of people who worked on the transcripts and summaries between September and December 2009 are available on the credits page of the web resource.

Because of the fragility of the originals, the manuscripts from the Wollaton Library Collection will not normally be brought out in the Reading Room. Most researchers use the microfilm versions – as we did to produce the transcripts and summaries. It’s therefore a rare treat to see the original items from the Wollaton Library Collection on display in the exhibition Saints, Sinners and Story Tellers: Medieval Wollaton Manuscripts at the University of Nottingham, at the Weston Gallery, Lakeside Arts Centre. The exhibition runs until Sunday 8 August. Don’t miss it!

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