Manuscripts and physicality

Cover image: The Reliquary of St. Ignatius of Loyola on display at the Mdina Cathedral Museum, Malta. Photo credit: Niġel Klemenčič-Puglisevich, 2021.

Materiality and physicality cannot be taken for granted. That’s one thing I’ve learned thus far while working with (digital) manuscripts at Carleton. 

Digital facsimiles are extraordinary in their potential and usability for research, and digitization projects are nothing if not absolutely necessary. Digitised manuscripts present many opportunities that cannot be exploited with material manuscripts. Working with these sources digitally allows for experimentation with all kinds of digital tools, which I won’t be going into now. There is an irreplaceable value, though, to the material document—one that is sometimes more clear in some situations than others.

There is, of course, the benefit of working with the material itself—feeling the weight of the parchment, shining a light at different angles, feeling the texture of the writing and ornamentation on the page. The material culture of manuscripts is something worth dedicated studies. These studies inform us about resources, economy, cultural values, trade relations, and more. Material culture also lends itself to the study of the value of the manuscript as an object.

This has come up many times before during in-class conversation and reflections on actual manuscript creation. But it hadn’t really sunk in until I came face-to-face with an example of a manuscript completely inseparable from its physical importance.

At the Mdina Cathedral Museum in Mdina, Malta, I came across the above reliquary, in the form of manuscript leafs. The manuscript was signed by Saint Ignatius of Loyola and therefore contained a physical touch of a saint, making it a holy relic. Prior to seeing and engaging with this manuscript, I knew of the importance of physicality in manuscript studies thanks to our work with Archives & Special Collections at Carleton and our work in the Books Arts Lab, but this opened up a new dimension for me in terms of the spiritual importance that physical manuscripts can hold. There are many, many qualities that cannot be reproduced digitally.

About the Author

Niġel Klemenčič-Puglisevich

MA Public History student at the University of Western Ontario.

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