We take for granted so much these days. The web has transformed the life of the researcher. But sometimes we see something and we just marvel; because we remember how things once were, only a few years ago.
Long ago, maybe almost twenty years ago, I led a collaborative project online to translate the Chronicle of Jerome. The work ends with the disaster of Adrianople in 378, and was written a year later, when everything was still in confusion.
We worked from a printed Latin text, which I scanned and placed online in a custom editor.
But it became clear, during the project, that the original work was colour coded. Headings and columns were put in red. There seemed no reason for our online edition not to show those colours. But the printed text did not report this information.
Even then, the possibilities of online access were clear to some. The Bodleian Library had a few manuscripts online, which was very unusual. So we had access to a 9th century manuscript at Merton College Oxford. But this was four colour, while Jerome’s preface only mentioned two.
However, at Oxford, in the Bodleian Library, there is a manuscript written around 450 AD. It was written within a couple of decades of Jerome’s death, which is quite amazing. The shelfmark is Ms. Auct. T. 2. 26. As it happens, I have a reader’s card for the Bodleian, thanks to my student days. So without much hope, in much fear and trembling, I wrote to them and asked if I might examine it.
A gracious reply was forthcoming. So soon after, I printed out the draft translation on paper, took my pencils, and drove to Oxford. There I was received kindly in Duke Humphries Library, and the volume was brought out. The librarian actually said that they were glad of an opportunity to bring it out of the vault. And there I sat, little old me, marking up the print-out with the colours from a manuscript that had known the days of imperial Rome.
I had already laid out the complicated text in HTML, and I had made mistakes along the way. I was amused, as I worked through the manuscript, to discover that the scribe had evidently made some of the same mistakes. You always tended to write the year numbers first; and sometimes you kept writing them too long. His erasures made clear that he had done the same.
At the time I had no real idea of just how valuable this item was, or how decent the librarians were being in letting a random chap rock up and handle it. It is probably priceless. It is an actual ancient book, written when there was still a western Roman emperor on the throne in Rome. The first hundred pages are modern, relatively – 15th century, replacing lost original pages. But then the stiff old parchment appears of the old book. The book also contains the only copy of the Chronicle of Marcellinus, which is a continuation of Jerome.
These memories came back to me today when I discovered that, at the Digital Bodleian site, the whole manuscript is online, and can be downloaded in full colour in PDF form. The permalink to the manuscript is https://digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/objects/71e1863f-9c42-4461-b948-393cd976765a/. In fact I had a problem with the download, and the Digital Bodleian staff quickly fixed it (thanks Tim!).
Here is part of a random page (f.110v). The left hand numbers are the years of the ruler “of the Romans”, the right hand “of the Jews”. Tiberius appears, and the regnal years reset to 1. The Olympiad is shown also. The work is in columns on two pages, but this is the left side.
I can say, from my own memory, just how amazing this is. When I remember, less than twenty years ago, that access to this volume was basically impossible. Nobody ever saw it. But now… anybody can consult it, anywhere in the world.
It is hard to find words to say just how wonderful this is, and how overwhelming it feels, to see the PDF appear on my PC. Unbelievable; and so very, very marvellous.