Heather Wacha with old manuscript

Heather Wacha, CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow in Data Curation for Medieval Studies at UW-Madison, is part of a pilot project analyzing stains in old manuscripts to see what secrets they might reveal. 

They might be blood. Or red wine. Maybe candle wax, ink, or medicinal potions from another time, another land, another way of thinking.

They’re stains — soaked into manuscripts many centuries old, and Heather Wacha is on to them.

Wacha, a postdoctoral fellow in data curation for medieval studies at UW-Madison, and colleagues in the field have launched a pilot study to try to identify mysterious marks on parchment and paper that have endured until the present day.

The project, in poetic Latin, is titled “Labeculae Vivae.”

Translated: “Stains Alive.”

Stains could give clues to how particular books were used many hundreds of years ago. Who touched them. Where they traveled.

13th-century Latin Bible

The pages of a Latin Bible from the 13th century, part of the rare books collection at UW-Madison's Memorial Library, show stains that are being analyzed using multispectral imaging.

“They are so common” in medieval manuscripts, Wacha said.

“Nobody even talks about stains in books. If you go on ‘medieval Twitter,’ you’re going to see images from manuscripts (that are) the beautiful illuminations, the beautiful pictures, because the public loves them.

“Of course they do — but books where there are no images, just a bunch of stains — people don’t think about studying them,” she said. “One of the things we wanted to do was take the ordinary, dirty book and bring it to the forefront — and give it some press.”

“Labeculae Vivae” grew out of a retreat where Wacha was talking with Erin Connelly of the University of Pennsylvania and Alberto Campagnolo of the Library of Congress.

“We all have postdoctoral fellowships in data curation for medieval studies” funded by the Council on Library and Information Resources, or CLIR, “and we’re all at different institutions,” Wacha said.

Paging through Latin Bible

Heather Wacha, part of the "Stains Alive" team, pages through a 13th-century Latin Bible in the Special Collections Library of UW-Madison's Memorial Library. Stains in the Bible were analyzed using multispectral imaging.

“We were chatting and it turned out that the confluence of all of our interests arrived at stains. Erin does medieval medicine, so she works with lots of manuscripts that are stained, always thinking, ‘What are those stains? Is that blood? Was the manuscript right next to the surgery that was happening? Was that some of the chemical in the medical recipe?’ We were all intrigued by this.”

Centuries-old music manuscript

The cover of a centuries-old music manuscript, photographed in the Special Collections Library of UW-Madison's Memorial Library, shows yet-unidentified stains. A group of researchers hopes that a new technology will yield clues to the source of the mark.

Wacha is a specialist in the “materiality” of manuscripts. “The parchment, the script, how the book is put together, how it’s cropped at different points in its lifetime,” she explained. “The binding – is it the first, second, third binding? … The object and its story can help inform what’s actually in it.”

Light wavelengths reveal residues

The three post-docs, aided by Campagnolo’s technical skills, saw potential in using multispectral imaging to find out more about stains in old books.

Multispectral imaging uses light wavelengths – some from beyond the visible light range, such as infrared and ultra-violet — to reveal residues in an object that cannot be seen by the naked eye. Multispectral imaging has been used to find text in old manuscripts that has been “erased” in order to re-use the parchment for another purpose.

The process does not harm the manuscripts.

“It’s the equivalent of having your manuscript out on exhibit for three days,” Wacha said. “So it’s a very minimal impact on the books themselves. That’s one of the reasons it’s being used widely, because it does not damage the manuscripts.”

So with a special set-up of lights and a camera, plus help from multispectral imaging expert Mike Toth and a $10,000 CLIR microgrant from the Mellon foundation, the Stains Alive team recently took images that were digitally processed and then “stacked,” or combined to show what normally cannot be seen.

Multispectral imaging

Heather Wacha, left, works with Alberto Campagnolo, CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow at the Library of Congress, to analyze a manuscript using multispectral imaging last winter at UW-Madison's Memorial Library.

The study looked at western European manuscripts – from Italy, France, Germany, England and Spain – dating from the 12th to 17th centuries. They included hand-written medical manuscripts, many manuscripts related to the church, and some that were university-related, where students had copied out great works to study.

More than a thousand images were made through the fall and winter during an “imaging tour,” with stops at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., the University of Pennsylvania and Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia, UW-Madison and the University of Iowa. Leah Parker, a graduate student in English at UW-Madison, was also deeply involved in the study, Wacha said.

A demonstration of the project at Memorial Library in December drew an enthusiastic, standing-room-only crowd, said Special Collections curator Robin Rider.

That interest is “a good measure of the project’s potential both to engage specialists and to encourage broader audiences to take a fresh look — aided by powerful and yet portable technologies — at cultural artifacts that ‘show their age,’ ” Rider said.

Wax intrigue

Once the manuscripts were imaged, the researchers had to come up with a way to analyze the stains.

“Nobody’s ever done this before. So there’s no set methodology,” Wacha said.

They devised a process (explained in depth on the project’s website, labeculaevivae.wordpress.com) to find a reflectance level for each image, which is then put into an Excel spreadsheet to create a graph. The images from each stain create a curve, which is “the signature curve for that stain,” she said.

Then, the curves can be compared. Stains sometimes share a pattern even though they come from different centuries or different geographies, adding to the intrigue.

One stain, for example, still contained a drip of wax. Images of that stain created a particular curve; similar curves from other stains could lead one to believe that the other stains are also from wax.

“Looking at where it was on the folio, (we could say), ‘Yes, that makes sense. It’s along the edge, where you’d have your candle. It’ll drip down on to your manuscript,’ ” Wacha said.

Portrait of Heather Wacha

Heather Wacha, CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow in Data Curation for Medieval Studies at UW-Madison, went through shelves of manuscripts and books in the Special Collections section of Memorial Library to find works with intriguing stains to analyze in a current research project. 

“That kind of moment is really interesting to me, as somebody who is interested in how these books are being held, how they are being stored, and who’s using them.

“The one psalter that did have the actual wax still in it had wax on so many pages,” she said. “Which says to me that (it was) written, or more likely read, when it was dark out, because you’re using a candle. In Italy that means one thing, because your daylight hours are way different than in England, where it means something else.”

From tea

to ammonia

The group made some “control” stains on paper and parchment, using water, olive oil, red wine, iron gall ink, black tea, mold and an ammonia solution meant to mirror human urine.

Why ammonia?

“We have a manuscript called ‘The Colors of Urine.’ This was in the Middle Ages; doctors would look at the color of your urine to tell a lot,” Wacha said.

“This manuscript was just completely covered with yellow stains, and we thought, ‘This has just got to be where the urine vial tipped over or something.’

“So we were trying to create an imitation of urine, because for health and safety purposes it’s not very kosher to use real human bodily fluids,” she said. “Same with blood; we couldn’t use blood.”

The Stains Alive team is awaiting the results of that control group. Then they’ll be able to compare the curves for the known stains to the actual ones found in the manuscripts.

In the meantime, Wacha is finding stains everywhere she looks.

“Once you’ve spent days looking for stains, you can never look at another book without seeing stains,” she said with a laugh.

“Every time I look through a manuscript, I think, ‘Oh – this has got a stain. Oh, I wonder what this stain is?’

“Now it’s in my head, and I can’t un-see it.”


Gayle Worland is an arts and features reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.