Doodles and sketches are nothing new in the realm of medieval manuscripts, as is evident from Dr. F. (Erik) Kwakkel’s entire catalog of such interesting and funny specimens. However, this time around, things have rather taken a cryptic turn with the unveiling of seemingly invisible texts and even ghostly faces in the oldest extant manuscript written in Welsh. Known as the ‘The Black Book of Carmarthen’, the compilation done by an unknown scribe, dates from around 1250 AD, while its texts (mainly poems) come from the period of 9th century to 12th century. To that end, some of the writings do relate to very early references to the feats of both Arthur and Merlin. But beyond heroes and poetic musings, the chronicle also seems to have a host of ghostly graffiti – most of which had almost been intentionally erased from the book.
In terms of history, the Black Book of Carmarthen might have originally belonged to Sir John Price of Brecon, who supposedly claimed the manuscript as a booty after raiding ruined monasteries. After this incident, the book surely had passed through many hands, and then ultimately made its way to the ownership of a man named Jaspar Gryffyth in the 16th century. So, the historians think that these inconspicuous doodles and passages were most likely the handiwork of the long series of owners starting from 13th century. However, Gryffyth perhaps took upon himself to erase many such ‘unworthy’ additions, thus ridding the manuscript of the seemingly whimsical drawings.
Such doodles do include the aforementioned ghostly faces (of beasts and even fish), including a stylized visage of a greyhound dog. These visual treats are complemented by texts, like a poem (unrelated to Welsh mythology) that was inserted into one of the pages and an inscription that doubled as a gift label. Unfortunately for Gryffyth, he could not keep up with modern technology – since the researchers from Cambridge’s department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic (ASNC) were able to decipher many of the erased ‘artworks’. For this analysis and subsequent discovery, the scientists used UV light and photo-editing software, with the resultant technology successfully unraveling the lost doodles.
And more importantly, their analysis is not just limited to the studying of the hidden graffiti; it also pertains to the historicity of the Black Book itself. According to Myriah Williams, one of the researchers in the project, and a professor at ASNC –
Furthermore, I hope that I can use the information that we have gained from the margins and gaps to continue to develop a picture of the life of the ‘Black Book’ after the ‘Black Book’ scribe had completed his work.
Images Credit : National Library of Wales.