Researchers have uncovered secret scribbles and sketches carved into a medieval manuscript more than 1,200 years ago. The hidden marks, made without ink, were found on the pages of an early medieval book kept in a library at Oxford University in England.
Researchers believe they are the work of a high-ranking, highly educated woman at a time when only the elite could read and write. Many of the doodles contain the Old English female name Eadburg, which researchers believe may be the identity of the person who took the notes.
While the meaning of the nearly invisible sketches on the pages isn’t clear – in one case they show a person with arms outstretched reaching out to another person who is holding up a hand as if to stop them – researchers believe that Eadburg may have them wrote names to emphasize passages of text – a Latin transcription of the “Acts of the Apostles” made in southern England between 700 and 750 AD.
“We have currently identified five instances of Eadburg’s name written entirely on five different pages of the manuscript,” Jessica Hodgkinson (opens in new tab), a history PhD student at the University of Leicester who made the discovery, told Live Science in an email. “Other abbreviated forms of the name — including E, EAD, and EADB — have been found ten times more in the margins of this and other pages so far.”
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Hodgkinson discovered the name Eadburg preceded by a cross while studying the rare manuscript in the Weston Library, part of the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford.
The manuscript was then examined using an imaging technology developed by the Bodleian’s Analyzing and Recording Cultural Heritage project in Oxford (ARCHiOx) in collaboration with the Factum Foundation (opens in new tab), a non-profit group based in Spain trying to preserve ancient works of art using digital technology. The project was funded by the British Helen Hamlyn Trust.
The researchers revealed the hidden words and drawings on the rare manuscript using a method called photometric stereo imaging, which examines the manuscript under different lighting conditions to create a 3D model of its surface, said John Barrett, Bodleian’s technical lead for the ARCHiOx Project, said in a statement (opens in new tab). The method can reveal marks as flat as one-fifth the width of a human hair, and the analysis revealed the intentional sketches left by the mysterious Eadburg.
Such inked markings, known as “drypoint,” have been discovered in other early medieval manuscripts, but they often consist of simple crosses to emphasize sections of text, Hodgkinson noted.
But the Eadburg additions to the manuscript are “unusual and exciting,” she said. “They contain a woman’s name on several occasions, including as part of a lengthy inscription that could have been written in Old English colloquial alongside a number of fascinating drawings.”
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It’s not possible to know if Eadburg made the secret writings himself, but it’s the most likely scenario. “At this time, that cannot be definitively determined,” Hodgkinson said. “I will continue to analyze the inscriptions to better understand their meaning and significance.”
A page at the end of the tome contains a handwritten prayer written from a woman’s perspective: “This suggests that the book was used by a woman or a group of women shortly after it was made,” Hodgkinson said.
She thinks the additions highlight areas that intrigued the author. “The inscriptions were intentional and intentional additions to the book, made by a reader interacting with the text,” she said. “It’s much less likely it was doodles or graffiti.”
She hopes to learn more about the mysterious writings and drawings, and maybe even who Eadburg was. One candidate is an Eadburg who served as abbess of a religious community of women in the mid-eighth century, but there are at least eight other contenders.
“The next steps for my research are to study the inscriptions further,” Hodgkinson said. “Part of that is thinking about the importance of where they are placed in the manuscript and how they relate to the main text,” she added.
“I hope this will shed more light on their meaning and may even provide clues as to who added them to the manuscript and why.”