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F&M Researchers Unravel A Medieval Manuscript Mystery

Associate Professor of Classics Shawn O'Bryhim approached two of his Franklin & Marshall College students last spring with a mystery for an independent study project -- uncover the meaning of a short manuscript that dated to the 15th century.

Seniors Deanna Miserendino and Caitlin Brust accepted the challenge to transcribe, translate, and comment on a Latin manuscript that was written in the Gothic script. It would test their academic skills in new ways.

"I thought it was an awesome opportunity," said Miserendino, a classics and Latin major who is planning to attend graduate school in order to teach.

  • Medieval Manuscript
  • Franklin & Marshall College's Associate Professor of Classics Shawn O'Bryhim challenged seniors Deanna Miserendino (right) and Caitlin Brust to uncover the meaning of a  manuscript that dated to the 15th century. (Photo by Peter Durantine)

Brust, an English and philosophy major and a Latin minor, said the work was equal parts exciting and daunting. "It was something different, and we could use our skills differently, but when we started, it was intimidating."

For the research project, O'Bryhim purchased the yellowed parchment on eBay for $60. The seller found it pasted inside the cover of a book from a later date. The professor said that the parchment was originally part of a book that was likely carried into court by medieval judges.

It was not just researching the text of the manuscript, but handling the manuscript itself that made the project an exceptional opportunity for the students, O'Bryhim said. "You get to see and work with the actual document. That doesn't usually happen."

The students spent the spring semester in a conference room in F&M's Gothic-inspired Goethean Hall, poring over Latin reference books, comparing letters and words with the script, trying to match them, trying to deduce what secrets the manuscript held.

"You could be missing five or six different letters in a word and not know it," Miserendino said. "It was kind of like a puzzle."

"We read different manuscripts and compared variations in the script," Brust said.

They also used a modern device: search engines. The students plugged phrases they transcribed into Google Books. "If we didn't have the Internet, this would have been a billion times more difficult," O'Bryhim said.

  • Medieval Manuscript
  • Franklin & Marshall Associate Professor O'Bryhim said the 15th century parchment was originally part of a book that was likely carried into court by medieval judges.

After months of work, the students finished the transcription, but then they had to determine the accuracy of the text. To accomplish this, they compared it with later manuscripts of the same text.

"The modern editor has to decide which manuscript contains the right reading," O'Bryhim said.

In their research papers the students concluded the manuscript is a fragment of "In regulas iuris pontificii," or "On the rules of pontifical law," which addressed ecclesiastical -- or church -- criminal law, which is based on ancient Roman law.

Part of the manuscript reads: [If it is agreed that someone committed violence and if it is not known whether it was with] weapons or without weapons, we interpret more leniently that the defendant perpetrated violence without weapons so that he is punished less for this.

"Nothing like this has never been done here before," O'Bryhim said of the students' work. "It's normally done by graduate students, so Deanna and Caitlin did very well. This took a lot of different skills and a lot of detective work."