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Digitisation of the Jena Martyrology

Dr. Joachim Ott, Head of the Department of Historical Collections and subject specialist for art and music at the Thuringian University and State Library reports on the Jena Martyrology:

The Jena Martyrology is considered the oldest German-language martyrology. It has survived in only one manuscript, the late 13th century Ms. Bos. q. 3 of the Thuringian University and State Library (ThULB) Jena. The manuscript comprises 113 parchment leaves. We do not know who had the Jena Martyrology made. In any case, it was produced in Thuringia, as its language reveals. The scribe was a Thuringian; he probably wrote for a Thuringian audience. The wooden, leather-covered binding is more than 200 years younger than the book block. In Wittenberg, the manuscript belonged to the Bibliotheca Electoralis founded around 1500 by the Saxon Elector Frederick the Wise (1463-1525). When and how the manuscript came to Wittenberg cannot be reconstructed. In 1549, the vast majority of the Bibliotheca Electoralis, and with it the Martyrologium, arrived in Jena. The Bibliotheca Electoralis is the founding collection of today’s ThULB Jena.

Martyrologies are lists of Christian martyrs, i.e. saints who gave their lives for their faith during the centuries of persecution of Christians, arranged according to the calendar. The calendar determined the recurrence of the commemoration days. In the churches, the martyrs were preached in German. In the tightly organised daily routine of the monastic orders, the reading of the martyrdoms was given a fixed place after Prim, the common morning prayer.

It is assumed that from the 13th century onwards, the Jena Martyrology was read out by a reader to a clerical audience in Thuringia, who understood Latin only insufficiently, integrated into regular clerical activities, probably after the common choir prayer, in sections that matched the respective feast day of the martyrs. In the Jena Martyrology, the martyrdoms of the saints are not only presented in narratives, but also illustrated in pictures, which makes the manuscript very special. Each day’s entry can be assigned to a strip of pictures, vividly composed and coloured, which depicts selected scenes from the respective legends. Almost every one of the 365 daily entries in the Jena Martyrology is assigned a miniature. Following the martyrology, on the last pages of the manuscript, is a short “Instruction for Perfection”.

The Jena Martyrology is by far one of the most valuable manuscripts in the important historical collections of the ThULB Jena. In cooperation with the library and the Belser publishing house, a facsimile edition of the manuscript of the highest quality has now been realised, accompanied by a commentary volume by the author Dr. Tobias Ertel. In this way, one of the most remarkable illustrated German-language manuscripts of the Middle Ages can be made accessible to a wider public.

Our task was the 2D digitisation of the almost 750-year-old work. The problem was that books slope towards the binding and both texts and images run far into the binding. This makes flat reproduction on one level impossible, or some image information would remain hidden. With the help of specially developed repro technology and our experience from other digitisation projects, we were able to digitise the work first and thus create the basis for a reprint of the work.

The animation clearly shows how much more can be represented from a bound work with the right technology and expertise.

This article is also available in: German French

Frank Bayerl

Quote Frank Bayerl: "The digital capture of cultural heritage is in exactly the right hands with us because, coming from the "black arts", we have been dealing professionally with strip-light scanning processes, photogrammetry, colour management, databases and the presentation of assets for decades."