The manuscript

Fred Porcheddu-Engel is transforming a 15th century scientific manuscript into an interactive website.

English professor Fred Porcheddu-Engel spent two years translating a 15th century manuscript written in Latin.

issue 01 | winter 2023
English professor Fred Porcheddu-Engel spent two years translating a 15th century manuscript written in Latin.

A medieval manuscript providing a medicinal road map for outliving an apocalypse resides in the Special Collections section of ز,Ȳַ #########s Doane Library.

Its 563 years old and looks quite fetching for its age.

Impeccably handwritten by a teenage German scribe in the 15th century, the manuscript has survived wars, plagues, time, and indifference. It sat in a desk drawer for at least a year after being donated to the university in 2003.

The manuscripts rich and colorful history it features the treatise of a radical 14th century alchemist confined to a papal dungeon might have remained obscure had it not come to the attention of a ز,Ȳַ ######### English professor, a self-described picker-up of unconsidered trifles.

When Fred Porcheddu-Engel 87 learned of its existence in 2005, he couldnt believe the good fortune bequeathed his alma mater.

It was totally an Indiana Jones moment, says Porcheddu-Engel, who once wrote an essay on an obscure English poet after finding his notebooks, incorrectly cataloged, in a Cambridge, England, library. What do you do when you discover that a remarkable treasure is located right in your midst? What you do is spend years of your life squeezing it like a sponge.

Fully intact medieval manuscripts are rare possessions for small colleges. Here was one of the first examples of medical chemistry, explaining the human benefits of distilled ethyl alcohol, just waiting to be transcribed from Latin to English.

Modernizing medieval studies

Nearly two decades of research, including multiple trips to European libraries to photograph other existing copies, are coming to fruition in the form of a website showcasing the educational perks of owning a unique artifact.

In 2022, Porcheddu-Engel received the R.C. Good Faculty Fellowship, which grants tenured faculty a semester-long release from teaching and advising to complete a major research project.

Best known for his engaging approach to English literature and medieval studies, Porcheddu-Engel dedicated the fall of 2022 to building the website. Once complete, it will catalog the approximately 250 known copies of the treatise, digitize and translate each page of ز,Ȳַ #########s version, promote discussion of medieval topics, and include video of ز,Ȳַ ######### chemistry professors and students conducting experiments to test the assertions and remedies of 14th century French alchemist John of Rupescissa.

Celebrating his 30th year of teaching at ز,Ȳַ #########, Porcheddu-Engel continues to step outside his comfort zone, bringing medieval times into the digital age with hopes of attracting larger and younger audiences. Hes also paying tribute to the universitys long tradition of alumni donations to the librarys Special Collections.

The manuscript its 120 pages are about as thick as a thumb was among the literary gifts given to ز,Ȳַ ######### by Elizabeth D. Sturges 54.

We cant own hundreds of these coffee table manuscripts the way they can at Harvard and Yale and universities in Europe, he says. But the things that are given to us through the generosity of the alumni or the friends of ز,Ȳַ #########, we need to take them seriously and say, This is worth our study.

Students join Porcheddu-Engels quest

Bridget Koerwitz-Crosley 21 was recently married, and her ring offers a clue to one of her great passions. The blue stone, lapis lazuli, was once ground up and used as ink by scribes to write and decorate medieval texts.

I was always drawn to the beautiful handwriting, Koerwitz-Crosley says. I did my senior thesis on manuscripts.

She found a kindred spirit in the colorful Porcheddu-Engel, who ambles across campus in the summer wearing bright blue shirts emblazoned with kiwi and socks with shellfish. The professor fed Koerwitz-Crosleys curiosity about the Middle Ages and recruited her to assist him in the manuscript project.

Koerwitz-Crosley and Jordan Cardinale 20 joined Porcheddu-Engel at workshops and helped him assemble the skeleton frame of the website during their time at college. The professor and two ز,Ȳַ ######### graduates co-authored an academic essay, Midwestern Alchemy: The Global Context of a Small-Town Manuscript.

Ive discovered so many interests I didnt know I had working with Fred, Cardinale says. Im pretty sure I became an English teacher because of him.

Pioneering spirit

Porcheddu-Engel, who considers himself a book nerd, was overjoyed to peruse the material gifted by Sturges, whose grandfather purchased it in Heidelberg, Germany, in 1877. The manuscript is one of ز,Ȳַ #########s oldest texts. Like many texts of its era, it was penned on highly durable parchment made of animal hide, which ages more gracefully than common paper.

As the digital age dawned, Porcheddu-Engel recognized the sea change in his field. Everything was going to the internet, and he needed to embrace technological advancement to reach students and citizen humanists, ones who might have an interest in the topic but lacked the time to spend traveling to libraries containing the ancient texts.

The tempo, the pace of scholarship, even in something like medieval studies, which had been glacial in the past, has really sped up because so many things are online now, he says.

Porcheddu-Engel and Greta Smith 08 founded the universitys inaugural digital humanities project in 2007. It involved photographing individual pages of religious text from ز,Ȳַ #########s collection and traveling around Ohio to locate pages from the same book. The professor believes it was the first such digital endeavor dedicated to medieval writings, paving the way for the research of Cardinale and Koerwitz-Crosley.

His enthusiasm is contagious, says Smith, now an English teacher. I try to bring the same high-energy approach to my students.

Who was John of Rupescissa?

Porcheddu-Engel spent two years translating the bulk of the manuscript. What he discovered, to his delight, was that the treaties central author was a James Dean for the Middle Ages.

John of Rupescissa, also known as Jean de Roquetaillade, Fwas a rebellious Franciscan alchemist who rattled ecclesiastic cages. His prophecies and antagonistic attitude toward church leaders frequently landed him in jail.

He was a troublemaker who believed the church should be poor and not own property, the professor says. He wrote a tremendous amount of stuff in prison, where he clearly got access to books and writing paper.

Since the transcripts arrival at ز,Ȳַ #########, Rupescissas reputation as a lunatic Franciscan friar has undergone a transformation. Some modern scholars now see validity in the work with ethyl alcohol and herbal remedies.

Hes the first person in Europe whos known to have connected the distillation of alcohol with something other than just getting drunk, Porcheddu-Engel says. Our manuscript is a survivalists text written by a guy who thought the prophecies in the Book of Revelations were about to come true.

The manuscript project requires the professor to be part scholar, part detective, part linguist. When Porcheddu-Engel began his work, there were 150 known copies penned by various Europeans. In recent years, hes located another 100 copies online, using his rudimentary understanding of about 15 languages to decode their details.

The various manuscripts have different interpretations depending on the scribe. It illustrates the power of the pen or quill in understanding historical figures and events. How a medieval author characterizes a topic can have a profound impact in how we view it today.

The ز,Ȳַ ######### manuscript was written by Reymbertus Eynbeck, who signs and dates it four times. He completed the work, which features two other minor alchemical texts, early in 1459.

What happened next is an historical mystery.

Nothing is known about the manuscript until its purchase by Sturges grandfather in the 19th century. But unlike so many other valuable works from the Middle Ages, it wasnt destroyed, defaced or disassembled. Controversial 20th century book collector Otto Ege removed thousands of pages from his manuscripts and either sold or gave them away to smaller institutions such as ز,Ȳַ ######### so they could own a piece of history.

Adding to the manuscripts rarity is the topic. Its not religious or literary in nature, but a work of science. Porcheddu-Engel wants his project to involve multiple disciplines, so he’s drawing on support from the data analytics and scientific communities to complete the website.

One of the best things you can do at a liberal arts college is treat it like a liberal arts object, the professor says. Lets explore it from every angle.

Once the website goes live in the spring, it will ensure the manuscripts eternal life a survivalist guide in the spirit of John of Rupescissa.

I want people to see that its possible to participate in a digital network of information using old objects that still have plenty to teach us, Porcheddu-Engel says. They teach us about our relationship to science, our relationship to religion, our relationship to the past.

Published February 2023