Labeculæ Vivæ. Building a Reference Library of Stains Found on Medieval Manuscripts with Multispectral Imaging

Heather Wacha (, University of Wisconsin-Madison and Alberto Campagnolo (, Library of Congress, United States of America and Erin Connelly (, University of Pennsylvania

The stains found on medieval manuscripts are signs that indicate a past life, more specifically the visible and invisible remains of human interaction over time. Reading these signals – in concert with conventional information such as script, collation, illumination, and size – can add to our understanding of their history and use. While recent work has been done on the uses of multispectral imaging in understanding the degradation and preservation of parchment, there is little pre-existing scholarship on the presence and nature of stains in medieval texts. Indeed, the significance of stains has traditionally been underestimated.


This project focuses on those very manuscripts that are often overlooked due to heavy soiling and damage, effects that diminish their perceived quality and value. We are a team of interdisciplinary postdoctoral scholars and collaborators working on constructing a
Library of Stains in order 1) to provide an online database that will allow scholars, librarians, and conservators to better analyze materiality, provenance, use and preservation of manuscripts/early-printed books; 2) to document and disseminate a methodological approach for analyzing stains; and 3) to provide a model for public-facing interdisciplinary collaboration. To our knowledge, this is the first interdisciplinary attempt to build a library of medieval and early-modern stains using the tools of medieval literature, medieval history, codicology and bibliography, multispectral imaging, chemical analysis, and data science.

Our presentation will include information about the the
Library of Stains project framework and methodology, as well as the dissemination of its data and results. The project timeline, supported by a microgrant from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), covers a one-year period. Imaging will be complete by December 15, 2017; processing and analyzing the images will follow and results will be documented by April 2018 and codified by August 31, 2018. Our presentation will report on the project findings, their broader implications, public engagement, and best practices for conservators, archivists and librarians who will use the project’s database.

This pilot study aims to provide an identified, open-access database of a number of common stains found on parchment, paper, and bindings in medieval manuscripts and early printed books in order to help researchers answer questions such as manuscript provenance, transmission, and material culture. It also highlights how using scientific technologies – in this case, multispectral imaging – aids in answering traditional arts and humanities questions. The database will hold metadata collected from the multispectral imaging (JSON files), as well as information about the processed image data leading to stain identification. The latter will take the form of tiff files representing images taken at different light wavelengths, ultraviolet and fluorescent settings, in conjunction with associated specific spectral curves, and the relevant data collected from XRF/FTIR/FORS scanning. The Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies will preserve the database and all files as part of their open-access Colenda repository.

Identifying the stains present in a book and understanding the relationship between the placement of the stain and its surrounding text brings to light new information about how manuscripts were used, read, and applied in situ. We have identified forty Western European manuscripts held in the University of Pennsylvania Libraries, the Chemical Heritage Foundation, the Library of Congress, the University of Wisconsin Special Collections and the University of Iowa Special Collections, with dates ranging from the twelfth to sixteenth centuries. The type of stains anticipated vary according to genre of manuscripts, and will likely indicate the presence of such elements as blood,


heavy metals, candle wax, urine, various oil-based concoctions, wines or spirits, and possibly zoological matter such as crushed spiders or flies. For example, it is our hope that once we have processed the results for a manuscript entitled “On the Colors of Urine,” (
De Coloribus Urinae, University of Pennsylvania Schoenberg Institute for Medieval Studies, MS Codex 133), it will show that the liquid stains throughout are indeed urine, perhaps stemming from a doctor or patient’s accidental spill when consulting the manuscript. This type of analysis builds upon the significance of intellectual and material analysis concerning written culture, and extends beyond current analytical approaches to text, illumination, and bibliographical description.

Once the results are verified and each type of stain has been characterized, other interested parties will be able to access the database and verify their own stains against the fixed dataset. A methodological approach will be documented, disseminated, and openly accessible to those wanting to work with unknown stains so that researchers can model and replicate the workflow and process when faced with an unidentified stain. With data gathered directly from multispectral images, it will be possible to create a graphic representation in the form of spectral curves of each identified stain so that when a user seeks to identify a stain in a particular manuscript, an image can be processed and compared to the graphics held in the Library of Stains database. In this way we engage the scholarly community in an on-going collaboration resulting in the continual growth of the Library and in the open access data it creates. This is a new way for researchers, conservators, librarians, and the public to access important information and gain a greater appreciation of the material makeup of old books, their historical uses, and new approaches for modern studies.

We envision that scholarly audiences will use our data and methodology to advance knowledge into the provenance of manuscripts, their uses within a historical context, their working environment, their transmission, and their circulation. For conservators and librarians in particular new information will help determine proper storage conditions, as well as health and safety issues, in particular the identification of heavy metal contamination, such as mercury residue in alchemical manuscripts or herbaria.


For librarians and archivists, the results of this project will also deliver a heightened awareness of the value of interdisciplinary research and model for future collaborations that can create new content and context for rare book and special collections.

Finally, bringing together multispectral imaging experts and humanists offers an opportunity to explore and develop a working model for best practices when engaging in interdisciplinary collaboration that will actively gain the attention of public audiences. There is an enduring interest in medieval themes as a broad concept within the public sphere. Even if these themes are often caricatures or historically inaccurate, this interest in the medieval period in the public imagination offers the perfect opportunity to invite the public in to experience the academic discipline of medieval studies through an engaging and public-facing project. Accessibility to primary sources through an online database like the proposed library of stains juxtaposed with descriptive metadata will contextualize the project, connect with public interest, and provide value in the form of education. Our focus on public engagement is supported through the regular dissemination of information on the project to both public and scholarly communities through a variety of social media platforms, including facebook, twitter (#StainAlive), instagram, flickr, and a blog. With frequent posts across all formats, we hope to engage and excite both academic and public audiences interested in the medieval world and the lived experiences of medieval scribes, scholars, and readers.

Appendix A

  1. Campagnolo, A., Giacometti, A., MacDonald, L., Mahony, S., Robson, S., Weyrich, T., Terras, M. and Gibson, A. (2016). Cultural Heritage Destruction: Experiments with parchment and multispectral imaging. In Bodard, G. and Romanello, M. (eds),
    Digital Classics Outside the Echo-Chamber. London: Ubiquity press, pp. 121–46 (accessed 19 May 2016).
  2. Giacometti, A., Campagnolo, A., Macdonald, L., Mahony, S., Robson, S., Weyrich, T., Terras, M. and Gibson, A. (2015). UCL Multispectral Processed Images of Parchment Damage Dataset.
  3. Giacometti, A., Campagnolo, A., MacDonald, L., Mahony, S., Robson, S., Weyrich, T., Terras, M. and Gibson, A. (2016). Visualising macroscopic degradation of parchment and writing via multispectral images.
    Care and Conservation of Manuscripts 15: Proceedings of the Fifteenth International Seminar Held at the University of Copenhagen, 2nd-4th April 2014. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press; University of Copenhagen and the Royal Library of Denmark, pp. 89–102.
  4. Giacometti, A., Campagnolo, A., MacDonald, L., Mahony, S., Robson, S., Weyrich, T., Terras, M. and Gibson, A. (2017). The value of critical destruction: Evaluating multispectral image processing methods for the analysis of primary historical texts.
    Digital Scholarship in the Humanities,
    32(1): 101–22 doi:
  5. Giacometti, A., Campagnolo, A., MacDonald, L., Mahony, S., Terras, M., Robson, S., Weyrich, T. and Gibson, A. (2012). Cultural Heritage Destruction: Documenting Parchment Degradation via Multispectral Imaging.
    EVA London 2012: Electronic Visualisation and the Arts. London: BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, pp. 301–08 (accessed 4 October 2012).
  6. MacDonald, L., Giacometti, A., Gibson, A., Campagnolo, A., Robson, S. and Terras, M. M. (2013). Multispectral Imaging of Degraded Parchment. Chiba, Japan.
  7. Purewal, V. J. (2012). Novel detection and removal of hazardous biocide residues historically applied to herbaria University of Lincoln Ph.D. (accessed 8 October 2017).

The multispectral imaging dataset and physical samples developed by Giacometti
et al. (2015) will be taken into consideration for comparison and as further reference material on staining substances on parchment. See also Giacometti
et al. 2012; MacDonald
et al. 2013; Campagnolo
et al. 2016; Giacometti
et al. 2016, 2017.


Confirming blood stains, such as those recorded on the
Declaration to the World by Agustin de Iturbide (see
– accessed 2017/11/26) is particularly interesting for obvious forensic and historical reasons.


Purewal (2012) has developed a UV-based methodology to identify visually the presence of mercury in herbaria.

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