On Feb. 13-14, 1945, a firestorm consumed large parts of Dresden, reducing much of the German city’s baroque treasures to charred rubble. British and American bombers dropped 3,900 tons of bombs and other incendiary devices in the infamous two-day World War II attack.
More than six decades later, a professor and three seniors from the University of Mississippi are trying to restore a literary treasure lost in the bombing.
Gregory Heyworth, associate professor of English, received a $25,000 grant from the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training to develop a portable, high-power, multispectral digital imaging laboratory to reveal writing in a unique medieval manuscript. The document, called “Les Esches d’Amour” (The Chess of Love), is a long 14th century Middle French poem, thought until recently to have been too badly damaged to be recovered.
Ivo Kamps, UM professor and chair of English, said the project is “an enormously important contribution to the field of medieval studies. Dr. Gregory Heyworth is using his sabbatical leave from the English department to bring to conclusion a landmark edition of the Old French romance.”
Three students spent much of June working with Heyworth and his team in Dresden. They are Emilie Dayan, an international studies and French major from Oxford; Sarah Story, an art major from Jackson; and Marie Wicks, an international studies major from Ocean Springs. All are enrolled in UM’s Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College.
To help assemble the technology needed for the restoration, Heyworth contacted a group that has been restoring the Archimedes Palimpsest, a 10th-century manuscript containing the oldest copies of seven of the Greek mathematician’s treatises. Roger Easton Jr., professor of imaging science at the Rochester Institute of Technology; Michael Phelps, executive director of the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library; William Christens-Barry, chief executive and technical officer of Equipoise Imaging LLC; and Ken Boydston, president of MegaVision Inc., helped create a lab both smaller and more advanced than the one being used for the Archimedes project.
The Dresden manuscript actually survived both fire and flood. On March 2, 1945, just weeks after the first bombing, American bombs breached water mains, sending torrents sluicing into the city. Most of Dresden’s art and treasures had long since been spirited away to deep caves and castles in the nearby Ore Mountains, but not its vast collection of medieval manuscripts.
After the firebombing, the head librarian of Dresden’s State Library of Saxony ordered Russian and Polish prisoners of war to transport the ancient books to the deep cellars of the Japanese Palace in Dresden and store them in watertight cabinets. Suction from the blasts, however, slammed the cabinets against the cellar walls, breaking the seals. For two weeks, some of medieval Europe’s greatest treasures drowned in sludge. Among these lay the only nearly complete copy of “Esches d’Amour.”
In its day, the poem had been read and imitated by such great authors as Geoffrey Chaucer, and owned by Mary of Burgundy, the world’s richest woman of the 15th century. But with most of its ink washed away, the poem was nearly illegible and feared to be lost forever. It sat neglected in East Germany until Germany’s reunification in 1990.
In 2005, two medieval scholars from UM – Heyworth and Daniel O’Sullivan, associate professor of modern languages – arrived. Over the next five years, they returned regularly to work under UV light, trying to decipher the poem’s nearly 30,000 verses. The work was cumbersome and frustrating.
“We kept coming up against entire blank passages, leaving huge holes in our transcription,” Heyworth explained.
With funding from his grant and a sabbatical from UM, Heyworth is in Dresden transcribing the poem that, when printed in a modern edition, will reach more than a thousand pages. Using the portable lab, his team is photographing the most damaged portions of the text. Shot under light of various wavelengths, the images are being mixed, manipulated and digitally enhanced.
“We don’t know yet what wavelength the text on any given page will respond to, so it’s a matter of trial and error until we can see the hidden writing,” Heyworth said. “Hopefully, there won’t be any gaping holes left, once we’re done with the lab.”
During her time in Dresden, Story, 22, took the photographed images, combining the 12 different wavelength shots (in black and white), through a triple-layering process to achieve greater legibility.
“We’re learning how to use new imaging programs from the people who invented them,” Story said. “Not many people get that chance.”
Dayan, 21, and Wicks, 21, used the program Photoshoot, which coordinates light emissions from two lamps with the camera.
“I was surprised to learn that art and color, the things that I find so beautiful, are so mathematical,” Dayan said. “Being with these very bright people, I realized that everything is intertwined with math. That’s what makes this project so fascinating. The manuscript is art, but we are discovering it through physics. We’re using light that you can’t see – to see (the text).”
Alastair Minnis, a Yale University English professor, called the poem “one of the most culturally significant works of the 14th century.”
“Study of this poem has been hindered by misunderstandings concerning its manuscript tradition and particularly by the difficulty of reading the war-damaged manuscript,” he said.
Minnis is confident that this new edition will rescue “Les Esches d’Amour.”
“It’s a text of the first importance for our understanding of the emergence of a courtly pedagogy in late-medieval Europe,” he said. “The poem deployed pagan mythology in the service of high-ranking Christian readers and sought to reconcile the conflicting demands of erotic desire and social responsibility.”
The value of the lab, however, goes beyond one manuscript and even beyond pure research.
“Ideally, I want the lab to be a teaching tool for UM students,” Heyworth said. That’s why he invited the Honors College students to work on the project this summer in Dresden.
“What an incredible opportunity to witness history and to participate in its recovery,” said Douglass Sullivan-Gonzalez, dean of the Honors College and associate professor of history. “Once again, honors students are participating in the moment rather than watching from the sidelines.”
Story agrees: “We’re working on an old manuscript in Germany! We never would have had that chance if the Honors College had not sent us. The whole experience in Dresden has been surreal.”
Sullivan-Gonzalez likens his students’ work in Dresden to “doing graduate work as undergraduates.” He gets no argument from them.
“I’m allowed to be much more hands-on (in this project) than I thought,” Dayan said. “The experts are passing on so much responsibility.”
And Dresden is only the beginning. The lab is to be made available to U.S. researchers to use in recovering other manuscripts at home and around the world. Already, the imaging team is planning trips to the Sinai and Tbilisi, Georgia, to recover of some of the earliest copies of the Gospels, hopefully with the help of UM students.