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Lost medieval bibles found in library’s basement

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July 13, 2010

Complete microfilms of two early medieval Spanish Bibles dating from the 9th and 10th century that were damaged or destroyed during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) have been found in the microfilm vault of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML), Collegeville, Minn. Before the discovery of the microfilms, scholars thought the two Bibles, known as Codex Complutensis I and Codex Complutensis II, survived only in fragments or in one or two slides.

The two manuscript Bibles, which belong to the Library of the Universidad Complutense in Madrid, are considered important examples of Mozarabic art, a style that combined Visigothic and Muslim elements and was produced by Christian communities who lived under Muslim rule after the Muslims conquered Spain in 711.  The decoration of the manuscripts shows such Arabic influences as zoomorphic initials and Arabic arches.

"Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros was one of the most learned persons of the Renaissance whose influence on biblical scholarship is immeasurable" said HMML's acting director Father Michael Patella, OSB.  "For HMML to have the world's only known copy of a biblical text that played such an important role in his Complutensian Polyglot Bible exemplifies the unparalleled value of HMML's mission.  We are all proud and deeply happy to be a part of this important find."

In addition to their artistic and cultural importance, the Bibles are two very important sources for the Latin Vulgate text of the Bible. The Vulgate, translated by Jerome in the late 4th-early 5th century, was the standard Latin version of the Bible used in the Middle Ages. Concerned that almost a millenium of copying had corrupted the text of the Vulgate, Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros collected the oldest Latin manuscript Bibles he could find to prepare the Latin Vulgate text of the Complutensian Polyglot Bible, one of the most important editions of the Bible ever printed. A team of scholars working under the direction of Cisneros collated and edited Latin, Greek and Hebrew manuscripts to publish a new version of the Bible for scriptural study. The Complutensian Polyglot, which was printed in 1514-1517, consisted of parallel columns of text in Hebrew, Latin and Greek (Old Testament) and Latin and Greek (New Testament). Codex Complutensis I played an important role in the creation of this new edition.

Cardinal Cisneros left his library to the Universidad Complutense. There the two manuscript Bibles remained until the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) overran the university's Madrid campus. Many thousands of books were destroyed, including the two priceless manuscript Bibles. The Universidad Complutense had no visual record of the manuscripts. And that was all, until Hugh Houghton of the Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing at the University of Birmingham, England, found that HMML listed among the microfilms in its collection, Madrid Complutense Codex 31, a 9th/10th -century Latin Bible.  He wrote to HMML and asked if the microfilm showed a complete manuscript or a badly damaged one. HMML staffers checked the films and found not one but two complete manuscripts of Bibles that had been destroyed over 70 years ago.

"I was flabbergasted," said Theresa Vann, curator of the Malta Study Center and director of electronic cataloguing at HMML . "First, these manuscripts had to have been photographed not only before HMML existed, but before it was standard preservation practice to microfilm manuscripts. Second, I couldn't believe that HMML had the only surviving complete microfilm copies of two such important manuscripts."

HMML exists to preserve ancient and endangered manuscripts for future generations to study. The library began microfilming manuscripts in Austrian and German monasteries in 1965; then expanded its preservation work to Spain, Portugal, Ethiopia and Malta. Since 2003, it has digitized the manuscripts of eastern Christian communities in the Middle East.

The library acquired the microfilms in 1979, when then director Julian Plante decided to purchase microfilms of all the significant liturgical manuscripts cited by Klaus Gamber in Codices liturgici latini antiquiores. Gamber cited Codex Complutensis I, by then known as Madrid BUC 31, so Plante wrote to the Library of the Universidad Complutense for a copy of the microfilm. The director of the Library, Fernando Huarte, replied that Ms. 31 had been almost totally destroyed during the civil war, and that it could be studied in the photographic copy made by the Benedictine monks of St. Jerome in Rome. Plante ordered the microfilm of Ms. 31 from the Centro Nacional de Microfilm in Madrid, anyway. The film arrived in three boxes, and Ms. 32, which was Codex Complutense II, happened to be on the end of the last reel of Ms. 31. For some reason, the National Microfilm service in Madrid can no longer provide microfilms of these two manuscripts.

Since microfilm was still an emerging technology during the Spanish Civil War, the HMML staff examined the films carefully to determine their origin. They found three rolls of positive safety film, dating from the 1950s. Each frame shows a negative image of one half of one folio of the manuscript. Closer examination revealed that the film is a microfilm copy of a series of 35-mm films. The staff suspects that the manuscripts were originally photographed with a large-format box style camera that used glass plate negatives; that someone photographed the glass plate negative (approximate size 5x7 inches) with a 35 mm camera, and that these negatives were later microfilmed.

Upon the request of Houghton and the Library of the Universidad Complutense, HMML digitized the microfilm using a custom rig that photographed each frame of the microfilm with a digital camera. It sent the digital copies to the Universidad Complutense and to Houghton, who plan to share this important manuscript with the world.