Home Digital art A student specializing in art history selected to participate in the Digital Dirty Books project

A student specializing in art history selected to participate in the Digital Dirty Books project


Arsenal Library

On this page, the owner of the book kneels in reverence to the suffering Christ. The coat of arms indicates that the patron was a member of the Lévis family. Arsenal Library. Ms-439, folio 97r (detail).

Since January, art history major Kate Hodgson has been spending a lot of time poring over dirty books — to launch graduate studies in illuminated manuscripts. She is one of two undergraduates selected to participate in an international research project led by art historian Kathryn Rudy, author of the groundbreaking article “Dirty Books: Quantifying Patterns of Use in Medieval Manuscripts.” (Journal of Dutch Art Historians2:1-2, Summer 2010).

“Dr. Rudy traveled around Europe with his densitometer, a small device that measures the darkness of a reflective surface; it’s a great tool for measuring dirt on manuscripts,” Hodgson said.

Since the publication of Rudy’s article, libraries have digitized thousands of manuscripts, both to preserve the parchment, gold leaf and natural inks of these precious artifacts and to share their contents with scholars around the world. whole.

“So now we have Dirty Books 2.0,” Hodgson said. She is one of more than 20 scholars helping Rudy expand the scope of his research, and credits Lynn Jacobs, professor emeritus of art history at the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, for connecting her with Rudy.

“I am very grateful to Dr. Jacobs for involving me and helping me navigate this project,” Hodgson said. “It’s so exciting – I feel like I’m solving a mystery.”

“Being part of this research team gives Kate entry into a professional environment and a whole network of support for her interests in manuscript illumination,” Jacobs said. “The Dirty Books project applies digital technology to the study of medieval manuscripts, allowing us to discover how people actually used these prayer books in their daily lives. It’s fantastic that Kate can contribute to this project of cutting edge and incredibly fascinating field of manuscript study.”

Rudy’s team focuses on Books of Hours, a lay prayer book often characterized by small dimensions and lavish decoration. Hodgson begins each case study by describing parts of the manuscript. Then, to document the soil on a digital manuscript, she uses a digital colorimeter built into every Macintosh computer. It measures the lightest part of the page to establish a baseline, then measures the darkest part of the page – often the lower right corner, where the user has turned the page. The resulting graph reveals the most used pages, providing clues to the daily life and concerns of the book’s original owner.

Bar chart showing most used manuscript pages

“Suffrages to saints are the most used; they can read prayers to specific saints for help with relationships and day-to-day issues or ask for the saint’s intersession,” Hodgson said.

In the first manuscript she studied, the measurements indicate that the patron of the book lingered on the page where he is depicted, kneeling in reverence to the Suffering Christ – evidence of devotion and perhaps a healthy esteem for self.

Hodgson plans to complete several case studies for Rudy and will co-author the resulting publication. During the first two weeks of work, she also came across her honors thesis topic: a painting of the Virgin Mary, inserted into a manuscript, which differs in style from the rest of the paintings in the book.

“I think we might be able to make an attribution to a specific illuminator,” she said, a venture that will require a trip to France to study the manuscript in person. “I’m so excited!”