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What is a Facsimile?

Medicina Antiqua 69v-70r.JPG

Medicina Antiqua or "Ancient Medicine"

The facsimiles in this exhibition, all taken from the Special Collections at UNT’s Willis Library replicate misshapen folios, defects, tears, patron marks, flyleaves and pastedowns, wear and tear, exterior binding decoration, and diverse materials, such as leather, velvet, or gilding. The result of such detail is an object that re-creates the original book to the best technological capabilities at the time of production. The Medicina Antiqua, or Book of Ancient Medicine, made in Italy in the first half of the 13th century, simulates the size and feel of the original. A glance along the perimeter of the closed book reveals the misaligned folios that have become torn or loose over centuries of use in the original. Thumbing through the pages of the facsimile all the content of the original book, including grease marks, thumbprints, and various phases of owner manipulation can be seen. Just as we mark and manipulate our paperback and hardback books, owners of Late Antique and Medieval Manuscripts frequently modified their codices. The Medicina Antiqua shows remarkable phases of annotations. These are visible along the bottom margins in which brown ink figures were drawn that help to show how each plant might be administered and cure a given ailment. Along the side margins little heads with large pointing fingers call the viewer to note well (nota bene) a particular passage. These additions were added 50 years after the manuscript was made, which is itself a compendium of sources compiled in antiquity. Thus the original manuscript is important because it demonstrates how texts would be compiled to make a new whole and how such collections might be copied over and over again throughout the Middle Ages. We don’t call these facsimiles because each copy was hand-made, and without the original we can’t be sure to what degree the copy replicates the original. But perhaps we should. Indeed, throughout the Middle Ages, manuscripts were copied routinely in monastic and then later commercial scriptoria, producing numerous extant copies that can be charted according to redactions, or tracing successive generations of copies from an original “parent text.”

        Adding to the complexity of the role of the facsimile in the study of book history is that not all feature the same degree of replication exactitude. Some are bound in modern bindings, some use low-grade ink and just provide access to every folio of a book. Some are significantly reduced in size and are quite affordable. The Harvey Miller publishers, for example, offer for a fraction of the cost of the deluxe facsimile, a miniaturized reproduction of the Medicina Antiqua that also includes a scholarly commentary on the original. The deluxe facsimiles shown in this exhibition most demonstrably blur the boundary between original and new works of art. Many are hand-made, some with hand-gilding, sewing, or leather stamping. Yet, these book facsimiles are also artifacts that speak to a modern and post-modern reverence for objects of history and information.



Alexander, Jonathan J. G. Medieval Illuminators and Their Methods of Work. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

de Hamel, Christopher. A History of Illuminated Manuscripts, 2nd edition. London: Phaidon Press, 1994.

Medicina Antiqua: Codex Vindobonensis 93, Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek. Introduction by Peter Murray Jones. London: Harvey Miller Publishers, 1999.

Pearson, David. Books As History: The Importance of Books Beyond Their Texts. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2008. 

What is a Facsimile?