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Treasures known and unknown in the British Library

Knowns and unknowns Passio of St Margaret Kissing Images Textiles and Books Tall Narrow Books Egerton 1900 Journey of Unknowing

Knowns and unknowns


This tour began life as the keynote address at a conference ‘Treasures Known and Unknown’, held at the British Library Conference Centre, 2-3 July 2007. The paper is reproduced here substantially as it was delivered. Because of its genesis, therefore, it may be most rewarding to ‘take the tour’ in sequential order. That having been said I admit to a strong counter-suggestive streak, which means I often explore exhibitions in the reverse of the order planned by the curator. So I cannot complain if you do likewise. One element of the lecture that could not easily be reproduced, unfortunately, was the direct appeal from speaker to audience for a show of hands as to how many of those present knew each of the ‘unknown’ manuscripts as they came up on the screens. I will not tell you how many hands were raised in each case, but I can report that the results were both surprising and entertaining.

When AHRB-funded research on the British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts began in 2004 there were 175 manuscripts in the digital catalogue, and 837 images online. By the end of that phase of the project, in February 2007, a further 2,000 manuscripts had been catalogued, 12,000 images had been added to the site, and the average number of searches had risen approximately twentyfold, to around 1700 per day, with over 4,000 searches on some days (doubtless on the days on which I was preparing this paper). I begin, therefore, with an expression of thanks on behalf of all users of the catalogue to the Arts and Humanities Research Board (now Research Council), and in particular to those who did the work: project manager David Ganz, co-project managers (in succession) Michelle Brown, Scot McKendrick, Peter Kidd, and Claire Breay; project officers Peter Kidd, Alixe Bovey, Kathleen Doyle, and Mara Hofmann; and interns Severine Lepape, Maureen Quigley, Jessica Berenbeim, and Beatrice Keefe; not forgetting the indispensable technical expertise and support of Adrian Arthur and Chris Wootton at the BL.

This text was commissioned as a celebration of some of the possibilities opened up for researchers by the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. As I compared manuscripts with the catalogue descriptions of them produced by the project officers, as part of the editorial process, many and varied aspects of those books piqued my interest, many more aspects, to be sure, than could be explored in one lecture or tour. What follows, therefore, is an investigation of certain aspects of a dozen or so seemingly unrelated manuscripts, linked together primarily by the theme of ‘known and unknown’. Of course no manuscript in a catalogued collection can truly be said to be unknown; but by the same token few manuscripts are so well-known as to offer to the systematic researcher little or nothing that is new. It follows, then, that as we look at the twelve selected manuscripts together, my unknowns will sometimes be your knowns, to adapt ‘Donald-Rumsfeld-speak’, just as my knowns may sometimes be your unknowns; nor is the situation stable, for my purpose in preparing this text has been by research to make my unknowns my knowns, and by extension to make my unknowns your knowns.


Professor John Lowden, Courtauld Institute of Art.
Chair, Project Board of the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts


Knowns and unknowns Passio of St Margaret Kissing Images Textiles and Books Tall Narrow Books Egerton 1900 Journey of Unknowing

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