Research topics

Orval abbey manuscripts

Thanks to the financial support of the Fondation Roi Baudouin, scientific researches are carried out on parchment manuscripts and charters of the Orval abbey. Tiny amounts of collagen are collected using a non-invasive sampling method on thousands of folios from 68 codices dating from 12th -13th c. as well as on single leaf charters. Samples are analyzed by proteomic methods in order to identify the animal species in each sample. The analyses are performed in collaboration with the BioArCh laboratory of the university of York, UK. It is the first time such a vast and systematic study is undertaken on almost the entire library and all the extant charters of a single medieval Cistercian monastery. The goal of the project is to shed a new light on the work of a Cistercian scriptorium through possible correlations between animal species distribution among parchments and their presumed place of production.

The Orval abbey is located in the south of Belgium where a community of Cistercian monks is still in activity nowadays. The presence of a religious community on the site is attested since 1070. After the canons asked attachment to the Order of Cistercians, seven monks arrived at Orval on March 9th 1132.

The history of the Orval scriptorium is well documented. The scriptorium was active in the 13th century mainly. A local production for parchment codices (books) and charters is attested. A  complete catalog of Orval manuscripts (conserved at the Luxembourg national library) was issued in 2017. Orval charters are conserved at the State Archives in Arlon (Belgium).

Among 74 extant re-bound manuscripts from Orval library, 68 manuscripts were made available for the study. All the 59 charters were analyzed as well. Proteomic analyses were performed on the 59 charters at MaSUN (University of Namur) and on the manuscripts (1490 samples in total) at BioArch (University of York, UK).

The results of the study are reported in details in an article published by the Royal Society UK (see Publications).


Parchment book (Orval abbey  collection, Luxembourg national library)

Optical analysis methods

Light is the ideal probe for analyzing parchments in a non-invasive manner. Optical methods are developed in the laboratory for various applications in parchment studies.

A method combining optical spectroscopy and data processing using principal component analysis was developed for the identification of the animal species and successfully validated by proteomic analyses on tens of historical parchments. A portable fiber-optic version of the method, using an integrating sphere, is under development. A birefringence quantitative imaging method is currently developed for stress analysis in parchments. The optical setup relies on a polarizing optical microscope combined with a laser diode and liquid-crystal devices. 

Recreation of historical parchment manufacture

Changes occur as animal skins are transformed into parchment and affect its overall quality. Historical parchment manufacture was recreated and an histological study was conducted on processed sheep skins at the different steps of the manufacturing; before and after lime treatment, hair removal, and stretching. The results reveal surprisingly few histological changes in most steps in the production process. However, very visible changes in the supramolecular ordering of skin macromolecules (elastin, collagen) occur during the final stage of parchment production when stretched on the frame. We believe this study will help compensate for the lack of sources on microscopic changes in parchment during the recreation of its historical manufacture.

The skins from four lambs (Ovis aries) were taken from the Ovine Center of the University of Namur (natural deaths*). Parchments were fabricated by Marc Fourneau according to historical recipes and the transformation of the animal skin was studied by histological analysis at the different stages of the manufacturing process. More details can be found in the article entitled "Histological study of sheep skin transformation during the recreation of historical parchment manufacture" (see Publications).

* The animals were cared for according to procedures conforming to the European requirements on farm animals (EC directive 86/609).