British Library digitises 600-year old Malmesbury Bible

Digitising the Malmesbury Bible

The Friends of Malmesbury Abbey commissioned the British Library to digitise four volumes of its bible, known as the Malmesbury Bible, this summer. Malmesbury had one of the most important libraries in Europe in the Middle Ages and was home to 12th-century historian and monk William of Malmesbury.

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Eugenio Falcioni, one of our experienced heritage photographers was despatched to Wiltshire to undertake the challenge of digitising the medieval bible preserved in the Abbey.

Professional photography of manuscripts requires a surprising amount of equipment, and the assembly and disassembly of this whole kit requires time and attention. Eugenio packed all the equipment he would need: camera, lighting, stand, tools, and spent almost a whole day assembling all the kit once he arrived at the Abbey. It took two weeks to do the photographing and post-processing.

The Malmesbury Bible is divided into four large volumes, preserved in one of the Church's knaves in glass cases that allow visitors to admire some of the splendid illuminations. 

Every morning Eugenio removed a volume and took it to the part of the Abbey where he had set up a photographic studio. It was not the usual type of studio he is accustomed to, but certainly the most fascinating one Eugenio ever worked in, with the portraits of William of Malmesbury and other important monks on the windows watching him work!

Before starting photography, a meticulous calibration of all the equipment is needed. Everything must be carefully set up, as even a small detail left out at the beginning could prolong the schedule by days.

Attention to the originals is paramount. Manuscripts are more fragile than modern books and the greatest of care is taken when handling them, positioning them carefully on a cradle so as to avoid an opening of more than 90 degrees which otherwise could damage the binding.

A correct light exposure and a faithful chromatic reproduction are crucial aspects and British Library photographers are trained and very specialised in this area. We use the state-of-the-art photographic imaging systems for digitisation, and for the Malmesbury Bible a Phase One medium-format camera and a Schneider 55mm lens were used.

A digital copy cannot replace the original, but we are committed to creating a work that reproduces the photographed manuscript as accurately as possible. This places a heavy responsibility on our photographers, who can be said to be doing a similar job to monks, who during the Middle Ages meticulously copied the manuscripts, handing down knowledge over the centuries.

The four manuscripts of the Malmesbury Bible are almost 600 years old, yet they are in an amazing condition: all the sheets are intact and in their place, the ink has not faded, the colours are still vibrant and the gold leaf is still firmly attached to the parchment.

After imaging, every single page is carefully checked to make sure that nothing is missing and that every image is perfect, without problems of focus, page orientation or light exposure.

The quality standard of digitisation at the British Library is extremely high. Every image has a size of about 200MB and the size of each Malmesbury volume is almost 80GB. The images succeed in rendering even the smallest details of the manuscript with extreme accuracy. Gold and colours are faithfully reproduced and thanks to strong enlargements, it is possible to observe details of the decorations that escape the naked eye, which would be visible only with a magnifying glass.

Thanks to digitisation we have given a new life to the Malmesbury Bible, promoting the knowledge of a heritage otherwise limited to where it is located, while at the same time preserving its physical integrity. In conclusion we reconcile the two pillars of the cultural heritage sector: the preservation of the original and its availability for public use.

'The Malmesbury Bible is nearly 600 years old and we preferred to not have it moved. We were delighted with the British Library service offering onsite photography at our convenience: it was efficient and enjoyable, and produced the most beautiful images.'

John Sunderland, Friends of Malmesbury Abbey.

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British Library digitises 600-year old Malmesbury Bible

23 October 2019

The Friends of Malmesbury Abbey commissioned the British Library to digitise four volumes of its bible, known as the Malmesbury Bible, this summer. Malmesbury had one of the most important libraries in Europe in the Middle Ages and was home to 12th-century historian and monk William of Malmesbury.