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Boethius Manuscript Added to Transcription Center

The Smithsonian Libraries has been contributing manuscripts from our collections to the Smithsonian Transcription Center for digital volunteers (or Volunpeers) to transcribe for over a year now. We’ve featured a variety of materials, from a vocabulary of the Potawatomi language, to shipboard diaries, to natural history field books and aeronautical scrapbooks. These works have all been quickly and enthusiastically transcribed, and now we’re offering up a much more challenging item, sure to warm the heart of anyone who has an interest in medieval Latin: the De institutione arithmetica (On the principles of arithmetic) of Boethius, handwritten during the 15th century, from the collection of the Smithsonian Libraries’ Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology, located in the National Museum of American History.

Illustrated page from Boethius' De Institutione Arithmatica
Illustrated page from Boethius’ De Institutione Arithmatica

The Roman philosopher Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (480-524 A.D.) is probably best known for writing the De consolatione philosophiae (The consolation of philosophy). He wrote De institutione arithmetica as an effort to preserve the teachings of Greek and Roman writers on logic and mathematics such as Euclid, Nicomachus and Ptolemy, and to provide an introduction to number theory. Widely read among scholars of the Middle Ages, De institutione arithmetica exerted some influence on the medieval European academic curriculum and the evolution of music, visual arts and architecture during this period.

Illustrated page from Boethius' De Institutione Arithmetica
Illustrated page from Boethius’ De Institutione Arithmetica

The Dibner Library’s manuscript of De institutione arithmetica was given to the Smithsonian Libraries by Bern Dibner, inventor, avid book collector and philanthropist, in 1976 and is briefly described as item number 5 in the printed catalog of the Manuscripts of the Dibner Collection. Based on the appearance of the handwriting, the manuscript is thought to be of European origin and to date from the 15th century. Little else is known about its origins and provenance.  We’re hoping that by making this scanned volume available through the Transcription Center, knowledgeable scholars will be able to take a look and help us pin down the date and geographic area of the manuscript’s creation.

Although the De institutione arithmetica is not a particularly beautiful example of a medieval manuscript, it is elegant in its simplicity, with lovely rubricated initials in red and blue ink and a few diagrams and tables outlined in red. Curving flowered vines and the occasional odd little creature adorn some of the pages. The script is neatly written and generally legible, but it is filled (as is typical of the period) with many scribal contractions and abbreviations that helped save time, ink and paper in an era when lengthy volumes were very expensive to produce. This posed a practical and philosophical problem for us in posting this manuscript on the Transcription Center, however: as the instructions on the site say, “Reproduce what you see on the page, including notes in the margins, calculations, and sketches. Please do not correct spelling and grammar.” But how do you reproduce the squiggles and dashes and curlicues used by the scribe (or scribes) for this particular manuscript? In other projects on the Transcription Center, brackets are always used to designate any letters or words not in the text which are provided as interpolations by the transcriber for things like abbreviations. But if brackets get added every time a missing letter is supplied based on the scribal markings in the Boethius manuscript, the transcription would be so riddled with brackets that the text would not be keyword searchable or easy to read.

To help resolve this dilemma, I contacted Professor James J. O’Donnell of Georgetown University, a trustee of the International Boethius Society for advice on what would be the most useful approach for scholars. In his opinion, the greatest value in having the Smithsonian Libraries’ Boethius manuscript transcribed is allowing scholars to see the places where our text diverges from the standard versions of the Latin text of De institutione arithmetica (for instance, the 1867 Teubner edition edited by Gottfried Friedlein). O’Donnell recommended that we omit the brackets and silently expand the words that have scribal abbreviations and contractions, which will make it easier later for scholars to scan the text for phrases and words that are different from published Latin texts. Who knows, maybe the differences will be enough to interest someone writing a scholarly paper or dissertation. We are hoping the transcription of our Boethius manuscript, when it is finished, will be useful for just such a project.

Illustrated page from Boethius' De Institutione Arithmetica
Illustrated page from Boethius’ De Institutione Arithmetica

In the meantime, there is still a lot left to do in transcribing and reviewing the manuscript in the Transcription Center. We have created a special FAQ and Guide for Volunpeers working on Boethius, giving links to some helpful websites for reading medieval scribal abbreviations, with examples reproduced from this particular manuscript. Although familiarity in reading Latin is not required, it is definitely an advantage since this project will challenge your best abilities at transcribing old handwriting that’s chock-full of esoteric markings.

Note: This manuscript of Boethius’ De institutione arithmetica has been digitized as part of the program Making Dibner Library Manuscripts Available to the World, sponsored by a member of the Dibner family.

Boethius. De institutione arithmetica. 15th century.  MSS 000286 B Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology, Smithsonian Libraries

Project page for Boethius’ De institutione arithmetica on the Smithsonian Transcription Center

Diane Shaw, Special Collections Cataloger





One Comment

  1. Keanu

    The main language of the Latin science. both mysterious and flamboyant language. I want to learn. How do I know?

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