Writing over Medieval Texts in Renaissance Europe

By Tiffany Miller, Reference Assistant

         MS 47 located in the Special Collections Research Center at Syracuse University is a breviary on vellum, or a book that contains daily services recited by members of the Roman Catholic Church. This manuscript is spectacular in that it contains its original 12th century text underneath a more recent 16th century writing, which are both visible together almost in a double-text display. The idea of re-using and writing over older texts is known through the palimpsest, a manuscript page that has been scraped away and removed of its text in order to be re-used. The term palimpsest comes from the Greek word palímpsēstos, meaning, “again scraped” as this was a commonly practiced technique throughout the ancient world. The 16th century scribe of this palimpsest attempted to erase its 12th century origins through scraping; however, this manuscript clearly shows traces of the past.

This unique gem in Special Collections sparked my interest from the moment I heard about it. As a graduate student in art history and museum studies here at Syracuse, my specialization is in Italian Renaissance art and the history of objects in museum or library collections. The utilitarian writings in these institutional books fascinate me in how they read today in the 21st century. They inspire us to place ourselves into the mindset of the original readers. This manuscript offers a unique glimpse into the past in two ways: through the 21st century view of Renaissance Europe and the Renaissance view of Medieval Latin texts.

The manuscript leaf in the above photograph provides a great example of the overlapping texts. There is almost a sfumato effect, or a smokiness, about the page. There are approximately 106 leaves on vellum and 2 leaves on paper, rebound in 1514 when the manuscript was re-written. At 31 by 24 centimeters, it is slightly larger than a piece of standard letter paper. Keeping the size in mind, it is marvelous how much text is placed on each page; the scribe(s) was obviously skilled in calligraphy. There are also occasional music annotations on the pages that tell us how lines of text would have been sung. This manuscript does not contain the gilding and illuminations of other manuscripts in our collections, but as an art history student, I found beauty in the pages that had been scraped away and in the holes and blotches in the text. Multiple individuals had written and designed these texts for religious institutions or noble patrons, and the patrons ultimately decided how they wanted the pages to look. Due to the condition of this manuscript, it can be inferred that the text has been held and used by many over the centuries, which demonstrates its necessity.

This type of manuscript can be read today in many ways. One way is through the mind of the average citizen during the Renaissance. The other is contemporarily through the 21st century. For example, with current technological advancements such as radiography, institutions are now able to piece together information to learn more about manuscripts in hopes of learning more about the past. Through this technology, fingerprints could become legible, along with the textual changes, in order to see how they were made on the pages to create the final result. It would be fascinating to see what this process might reveal about the breviary at SCRC, should we ever get the chance to try this process at Syracuse University.

The use and reuse of this text continues today as it has been rebound with a 20th or 21st century binding. This manuscript has been altered multiple times over approximately nine centuries, which is incredible, and gives this text a rich history. Studying and handling this palimpsest, I realized how much it could provide insight into the lives of both the Renaissance and Medieval population, especially members of the Catholic Church. My art history background and my training here have allowed me to perform this research at the capacity of a graduate student staff member, which has in turn helped me prepare for a career working with collections.

The palimpsest manuscript is part of our rare books collection (Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries).


Bailey, Geoff. “Time Perspectives, Palimpsests and the Archaeology of Time.” Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 26:2 (June 2007): 198-223.

Bornstein, George, and Ralph G. Williams. Palimpsest: Editorial Theory in the Humanities. Ann Arbor (Mich.): University of Michigan Press, 1996.

Dillon, Sarah. “Reinscribing De Quincey’s Palimpsest: The Significance of the Palimpsest in Contemporary Literary and Cultural Studies.” Textual Practice 19.3 (Fall 2005): 243-263

“Palimpsest, n and adj.” Oxford English Dictionary.

Marchant, Jo. “Archaeologists Are Only Just Beginning to Reveal the Secrets Hidden in These Ancient Manuscripts.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, December 11, 2017.  https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/archaeologoists-only-just-beginning-reveal-secrets-hidden-ancient-manuscripts-180967455/.

Happy New Year from SCRC!

William Wallace Denslow’s New Year’s Eve party invitation.

Happy New Year from SCRC! We are excited to ring in the New Year and new decade at SCRC! The featured party invitation comes from our William Wallace Denslow Collection. Denslow was an artist and illustrator, best known for his collaborations with L. Frank Baum on Father Goose (1899) and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900).

Denslow sent this invitation to Baum for a party held on December 31, 1900 to ring in the “New Century,” as there was some confusion at the end of the nineteenth century whether the new century officially began in the year 1900 or 1901.


The full text of Denslow’s invitation to the new century reads:

A Happy New Century to You: 1900 – 1901

Time! – Wind up! The 20th century starts at Rector’s Tavern between the hour of 12, 1900 & 1901, come & assist Ann Waters & Hippocampus Den. to help the Old Man out. Time will be called promptly at 11:30 Dec. 31st 1900.

N.B. As usual, no speeches will be tolerated, so come unprepared: to enjoy yourself and in “Ali-Baba”-full-levant.

W.W. Denslow

The William Wallace Denslow Collection (William Wallace Denslow Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries) are part of the Special Collections Research Center’s manuscript collections.

Boxing the Collections with a Box Making Machine

Can you tell us about your job and what you do?

David Stokoe, SCRC’s Conservation Librarian.

I began my career in 1982 with a 3 year apprenticeship in Archive Conservation in my home city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (UK), moving to the Isle of Man in 1993, Carlisle (UK) in 1997, NYC in 2001 and then Syracuse University in 2006.

My job has many different facets but focuses on two primary functions, the preservation and conservation of books, paper, parchment/vellum, leather, papyrus, wax seals and most other library formats.  I’m also responsible for exhibition preparation, disaster planning/reaction, conservation education and lab management.

My preservation efforts include the use of archival quality housings (boxes, folders, sleeves and folders), together with environmental control measures (temperature, humidity and light) to reduce or arrest further deterioration.

My conservation activities involve the treatment of individual items – cleaning (dry and aqueous), chemical stabilization, and the physical repair of paper, bindings and skins. All work must comply with professional standards, do no harm and be reversible wherever possible.

Why does an academic library need boxes?

An example of a box made by the box maker specifically for an item in SCRC’s collections.

The Special Collections at SU are not just a treasure of information, they’re also valuable assets with considerable resources invested to ensure their longevity and access.

Creating boxes for archival materials helps prevent unnecessary bright light, dust, and humidity from causing deterioration to these documents.

Ever expanding collections and limited suitable storage have prioritized some collections for high-density off-site storage when appropriate. Any off-site items needed on main campus must be securely housed for transportation by our dedicated staff.

What’s the history of the box making machine at SU Libraries?

We purchased the box machine in September 2017, previously we handmade a variety of custom boxes but it was labor intensive and not always the best fit! The proposed relocation of some collections to offsite storage necessitated radical measures, and thinking outside of the box! Although a costly investment, users estimate the machine breaks even at 2 – 3 years and the supplied bespoke box designs provide flexibility to quickly construct enclosures that fit perfectly. We also acquired a digital measuring device that scans the call number and inputs catalog record information, which includes book dimensions, into a spreadsheet. Data is imported into the box cutter and processed to maximize book templates per 60” x 40” board, averaging 6-8 books with little waste. The box machine creases, cuts and prints call numbers so all we have to do is assemble the finished product. The equipment is mainly used for special collections material but is also used to box general collection materials as well.

What are the advantages to using a machine like this?

A box with individual sections for objects in SCRC’s Plastics Artifacts Collection.

The book measuring device and box cutter have streamlined our rehousing efforts, eliminating human factors such as measuring, creasing and cutting errors. Handmade boxes also take more time, use more board, and can be exhausting for one person to work on all day everyday to produce at scale.

The prospect of making 18,000 book boxes without some kind of mechanized production was a daunting and overwhelming prospect!


Can you make custom designs?

Sleeves for one of the LP records in SCRC’s holdings.

Yes, the software has a draw package so I can design and produce new options when the bespoke options aren’t suitable.

The software’s 57 bespoke templates include book and document boxes, a photographic slide box, rolled map boxes (square or triangular) and many others so we can usually identify a suitable design without starting over.




What unusual items have you designed boxes for using the machines?

SU has a huge collection of 7”, 10”, 12” and 16” audio disks, which we are rehousing and digitizing for long term preservation. Fragile or broken audio disks have always been a problem until now as keeping any parts together and protected can be challenging.

Using the machine and software, I’ve designed circular sink-mat enclosures in various sizes that allows safe storage and handling during digitization.

The most challenging item to house in a new box, a parchment document with an attached pendant seal.

Compartmentalized boxes have been designed for our Plastics collection, outer box dimensions based on shelf size with adjustable dividers according to content size.

A similar design is used for boxing wax cylinders and can be customized to fit various sizes.

The most challenging item was a parchment document with an attached pendant seal.  The parchment was tightly folded and needed to be flattened using controlled humidification, the seal lived in its original padded metal box and was in great condition. The design has recessed areas to accommodate the various parts so figuring out the numerous dimensions was not easy and a couple of prototypes were produced before I got it right!

See the box making machine in action in the video below!

Computerized box-making machine

The Libraries recently purchased a computerized box-making machine for our Preservation Services that creates custom archival book boxes in seconds. Take a look!

Posted by Syracuse University Libraries on Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Marketing and Publicity and Press, Oh My!

The two-page “Oz” spread that featured in the July 17, 1939 issue of Life Magazine.

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” the Wizard of Oz announces in a harassed tone toward the end of the eponymous 1939 film. At this moment, the main characters – Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion – are presented with two realities: Oz, the Great and Powerful, a terrifying confection of amplified sound and green smoke, and Oz, a humble and humbled Kansas man. The pair live on the screen simultaneously for a moment. Then, the smoke disappears and Oz’s voice retreats to that of a humbug.

An MGM poster for The Wizard of Oz prominently featuring Judy Garland, who starred as Dorothy Gale in the picture.

The marketing campaign for The Wizard of Oz film, based on L. Frank Baum’s 1900 highly successful and popular children’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, seems to take its cues from this scene in the movie, presenting the picture as both a grand fantasy adventure and an incredible technical achievement in film making. At SCRC, we are lucky enough to hold some of the marketing materials from The Wizard of Oz film, both from the film’s original 1939 release, as well as its first reprint in 1949, in our L. Frank Baum Papers.  Baum was a native of Chittenango, NY and spent time working in Syracuse as well.

The materials in Baum’s papers include behind-the-scenes articles written about the film, movie posters and leaflets, and MGM promotional materials. One of the posters for the Technicolor musical proclaims, “It took 2 years just to plan it!” and “9,200 living actors thrill you!” and features a circus-style advertising board that includes:

  • The Tornado: Actual photographs of the inside of the tornado that whirled Dorothy to a land more excitingly real than life itself!
  • Munchkinland: A whole city in miniature populated entirely by hundreds of midgets gather from 42 cities in 29 states!
  • Flying Monkeys: Attack by the monkeys! Amazing camera effects!

In all of these entries, the spectacle (tornadoes, Munchkinland, and flying monkeys) is juxtaposed with the practical (“actual photographs,” “gather from 42 cities in 29 states,” “amazing camera effects”), all to create “a land more excitingly real than life itself!”

The Judy and Joy! promotional poster featuring a circus-board advertisement with references to all of the great technical achievements of the film.

The L. Frank Baum Papers also include magazine articles with behind-the-scenes stories about the film, including an article written for the August 1939 issue of Good Housekeeping. Many of the standard pieces of trivia recited today about The Wizard of Oz come from the information provided in early press coverage of the film. Those stories include the following: The silver slippers from L. Frank Baum’s books were transformed ruby red to take full advantage of the Technicolor technology in the picture. Several cast members, including the original Tin Man, Buddy Ebsen, and the Wicked Witch of the West, Margaret Hamilton, suffered injuries due to the heavy makeup and extensive special effects in the film. Hollywood executives thought “Over the Rainbow” was slowing down the pace of the story and the song was nearly cut from the picture.

MGM’s Publicity Magazine proclaims PUBLICITY along the right-side, interweaving cartoon depictions of “Oz” characters within the letters of the word.

Some of the press coverage, created by MGM and other reporters, however, leaned closer to myth-making than fact. One well-worn bit of trivia that has always fascinated me, but never seems to have been fully proved or disproved, however, is the story of Professor Marvel’s coat. Typically, this anecdotal bit is told as follows: The costume department needed to find an old, tattered coat that could be worn by Frank Morgan as Professor Marvel in the sepia-toned Kansas portion of the film (Morgan also plays the Wizard of Oz on the Technicolor side). Picking a coat off a rack at a second-hand store in the Los Angeles, the costume designer, or Frank Morgan (depending on the version of the story you are hearing), discovered “L. Frank Baum” stitched into the lining of the coat, or discovered L. Frank Baum on a piece of paper inside the coat (depending on the version of the story you are hearing).

In the Good Housekeeping article, however, a similar story is related, but in this version of the tale, the story is told as follows:

“Last fall, when they were getting costumes ready for The Wizard, a messenger was sent out to scour the secondhand stores for a ragged old topcoat to use for the Scarecrow. He bought one in the first pawnshop he tried. Big, tattered, just the thing. It was okayed by the Wardrobe department. Then–not until then–did they find the initials, sewed fast in the lining: ‘L.F.B.'”

This Oz article announces, “It’s True!” and notes, “Truth is stranger than fiction. The old coat Frank Morgan wears as the Wizard, was found to be one once owned by L. Frank Baum, author of “The Wizard of Oz.”

While this cannot be taken as definitive proof that L. Frank Baum’s coat was never actually found or used in the film, either worn by Professor Marvel or the Scarecrow, it certainly points to some cracks in the story’s construction. Perhaps it was thought to make a better story that the Wizard’s coat had once been worn by the “Wizard” himself, the author of the story, rather than the Scarecrow, and the story was altered to reflect this telling. It may be that this story, sometimes considered to be crafted to create additional publicity for the film, is itself a fable.

What is definitely true, however, is the amount of time, money, and publicity, that were spent on making The Wizard of Oz come to life: 9,200 actors participated in the film and MGM spent $3 million dollars to make the film ($55.5 million dollars today).

This year marks 80 years since The Wizard of Oz’s release, which debuted in cinemas in 1939, a year that is regularly demarcated as one of the greatest years in film history.  A slew of highly regarded and commercially successful films were produced that year – Gone With the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Dark Victory, Ninotchka, The Women, Of Mice and Men, Wuthering Heights – and, of course, The Wizard of Oz.

A still featuring Judy Garland as Dorothy and Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow, part of MGM’s press materials for the film.

The L. Frank Baum Papers (L. Frank Baum Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries) are part of the Special Collections Research Center’s manuscript collections.

Page 1 of the Life Magazine two-page “Oz” spread.

Page 2 of the Life Magazine two-page “Oz” spread.

Getting Pulled In

By Nicole Wright, University Archives Graduate Assistant

The first image that pulled me in.”Squadron Sweethearts Present Guidons” Photograph from Vol. 1, No. 3 of The Fledgling. (August, 1943) From the Syracuse University World War II Collection.

When I process a new collection, or reprocess an old one, our University Archivist cautions me at least once with the same phrase: “Nicole, don’t get pulled in too far.” She wants to make sure I don’t spend too much time on extraneous details, since my primary goal is organization. I always need the reminder. No matter what I’m working on, I’m inevitably drawn to figuring out as much as humanly possible about the person or organization and the context of the collection. I love making connections and crafting a narrative. Sometimes, I’m overwhelmed by the idea of so many stories collected in one place, but most of the time I can’t resist taking that deep dive into a collection.

A recent collection that pulled me in was the Syracuse University Military and World Wars Reference Collection. I was reprocessing it and split it into three collections: Syracuse University ROTC CollectionSyracuse University World War I Collection, and Syracuse University World War II Collection. History, especially military history, doesn’t hold much interest for me, but I still found myself engrossed in the collection. In The Fledgling, a yearbook-style publication documenting military aviation activities on campus during the Second World War, there are several pictures of servicemen with their significant others at dances, on dates, and saying goodbye. I looked at all the different couples and thought to myself, “I wonder what their story is.” I’d ravenously read any documentation of social activities for those in the service. I even read all of the rules for women working in the social clubs at Hendrick’s Chapel (yes, ALL of them). I couldn’t get enough of all the materials, which painted pictures in my head and inspired musings about how often the rules may have been broken. I went so quickly down the rabbit hole because my husband is a Marine Reservist on a deployment to the Pacific. I saw myself in these pictures from the past and, as I pieced together a narrative of an era, I couldn’t stop myself from contemplating the minutia of the day-to-day lives of these couples.

The image that made me wonder about all the potential drama. Photograph from Vol. 1, No. 6 of The Fledgling. (October, 1943) From the Syracuse University World War II Collection.

The picture that first pulled me in was a cropped photograph inside a heart with an arrow through it titled “Squadron Sweethearts Present Guidons.” The romantic in me instantly saw the connection between the two featured individuals and I thought of the times I’ve picked my husband out of a crowd of identically dressed Marines. I asked myself what my life might be like if my husband and I had lived during those times and met at a place like Syracuse University. Flipping through the pictures of dances, I wondered if there was as much drama about the dress selections of the women as there can be at military balls today.

The image that pulled me in emotionally was a picture of a couple saying goodbye. Being sent to fight in World War II is not the same as being sent for training in the Pacific, but I felt the emotion of that couple’s embrace. I felt present in that moment almost 75 years later and wondered if 75 years from now another military couple might stumble across a similar photo of my husband and me and feel present in that same way. I wonder if some graduate student worker would contemplate the minutia of my day to day life and put herself in my shoes, wondering about the drama at the military balls I’ve attended. I wonder if she’ll be pulled in by my story.

My husband and me at his boot camp graduation after 13 weeks apart. Photograph by Dawn Morello of Nicole and Eliott Wright at boot camp graduation, August 2017

The image that pulled me in emotionally. Photograph from Vol. 1, No. 5 of The Fledgling. (September, 1943) From the Syracuse University World War II Collection.

As I said, history is not my strong suit. While processing the collection, I had to continuously look up dates to make sure I was sorting things into the right time period. I can’t tell you anything about the military structure of the time or list any battles Syracuse University students may have fought in. Despite that, I still feel like I understand the history of the collection because of the connections I’ve made to the people who lived during that time and their stories. I love that my job gives me the opportunity to explore primary source artifacts, but my favorite part of my job is not the history, the preservation, or the organization of a collection. My favorite part of my job is the stories that pull me in.

The Syracuse University ROTC Collection, the Syracuse University World War I Collection, and the Syracuse University World War II Collection are all part of the Special Collections Research Center’s University Archives (University Archives, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries).