History's Greatest Mysteries

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Five special episodes of the World History Podcast (hosted by BBC History Magazine) introduce listeners to five of "History's Greatest Mysteries" as determined by a poll of magazine readers. Among them is a mysterious manuscript (now known as the Voynitch manuscript) that has been actively explored in Bruce Peel Special Collections by students, faculty, and staff, and was the subject of one of the most popular in our series of Peel Workshops, a workshop led by Prof John Considine (English) and Prof Greg Kondrak (Computing Science).

In the podcast episode treating the Voynitch manuscript, Dr Elma Brenner, a specialist in medieval and early modern medicine, provides an effective introduction to the layers of mystery that surround the 500-year-old manuscript, which is written in an unknown cipher (or code) in an unknown language and filled with illustrations of otherworldly plants and galaxies. In the 20-minute podcast, Dr Brenner has time to mention only a small sampling of the extensive list of leading researchers who have tried to unlock the manuscript's mysteries over centuries, so she does not mention some of the more outlandish theories including the idea that the manuscript was produced by Leonardo da Vinci as a hoax or that it was produced by extraterrestrials. Nor does she have time to explore some of the more recent work, including the groundbreaking AI research recently conducted at the University of Alberta.

The Voynitch manuscript is housed in the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University and can be viewed digitally here

Bruce Peel Special Collections recently acquired a fine art reproduction (or "facsimile") of the Voynitch manuscript.  We look forward to being able to once again share this special object with students and researchers, and continuing to theorize and debate over one of "history's greatest mysteries," when it is possible to once again safely gather together over a special rare book.


Bruce Peel Special Collections offers limited service

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Bruce Peel Special Collections expects to remain closed to the public throughout the 2020-2021 academic year due to COVID-19 restrictions and a large facilities project that began in September 2020. 

We will continue to do our best to serve researchers' needs remotely by answering questions about rare materials, providing researchers with images of materials not otherwise available (whenever possible), and providing links to digital resources that may help to meet current research and teaching needs (see "Working with primary materials from home (Digital Peel)."  If you have questions that relate to materials housed in Bruce Peel Special Collections, you can send us an email at bpsc@ualberta.ca and you can be assured that we will respond on a timely basis.

In the winter term (2021), we are hoping to be able to accommodate researchers whose needs cannot be met with digital resources by offering a limited number of research appointments in Peel's reading rooms. Any such arrangements will require compliance with social distancing and other protocols intended to limit the spread of COVID-19. This plan may change at any time on short notice, depending on the status of facilities work in the library, the health of our staff, and the evolving pandemic response outlined by governments and the University of Alberta. Information about appointment bookings will be added to this NEWS post and provided on the forms that are normally used to request materials in advance.

To find out whether other University of Alberta Library locations and service points are open or closed, please check the University of Alberta website for current COVID-19 information.  

If you require general reference support from University of Alberta Library, please consider using the chat service through the University of Alberta Library website.  

Take care!


Working with primary materials from home (Digital Peel)

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We know that some research methods require hands-on access to print originals, and we look forward to being able to accommodate this kind of research when it is safe to do so, but it seems that COVID-19 may require us all to have contingency plans in place for some time. 

Researchers will want to consider using digital resources where possible, and professors who are planning classes for the coming academic year are encouraged to make use of rare materials that can be examined either as print originals or using digital reproductions, so that all options are available to your students.  

In order to help you to identify digital reproductions of primary source materials, we are working to add relevant links to the Research Collections page on Peel's website. Such links will help you to find digital content that has been created by U of A Library, by our colleagues at other institutions, and through collaborative projects, such as the very extensive HathiTrust database.  Also, please note that University of Alberta Library subscribes to numerous online databases, including many that offer digitized primary source materials.

Here are some highlights of Peel's digital resources:

  • Peel's Prairie Provinces database - This database offers digital access to materials from many institutions, much of it from Library & Archives Canada, but it also features some materials housed in Bruce Peel Special Collections, including Prairie Postcards and the Sam Steele Family Archive (Canadian police, military, and Klondike gold rush history).

Good luck with your research and please take care!


Where do ideas about witchcraft come from?

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Explore early ideas about witchcraft by learning about a very rare (and sinister) fifteenth-century manuscript housed in University of Alberta's Bruce Peel Special Collections.

Tinctor's Foul Treatise is an award-winning digital exhibition that unlocks the secrets of this special manuscript. Curated by Andrew Gow, Rob Desjardins, and Fran├žois Pageau, the exhibition was mounted in October 2016 by University of Alberta's Bruce Peel Special Collections, and it is the winner of the prestigious 2018 Leab Award (Electronic Exhibitions) from the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) and the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section (RBMS) of the American Library Association.

The Arras Witch Treatises is a full English-language translation of two important fifteenth-century source texts (Tinctor's Invectives and the anonymous Recollectioprepared by Andrew Gow, Rob Desjardins, and Fran├žois Pageau and published by Pennsylvania State University Press (2016) as part of their Magic in History series. This edition is available through University of Alberta Libraries (BF 1582 A155 2016) and is widely available for sale.

Get a close look—through Archive.org—at the copy of Tinctor's Invectives housed in University of Alberta's Bruce Peel Special Collections.

You can still check out Tinctor's Foul Manual, a very interesting one-hour documentary produced by Paul Kennedy for the CBC's Ideas that has been aired numerous times, most recently on 2 August 2016.


Read "The Travels of a Fifteenth-Century Demonological Manuscript: The University of Alberta's Copy of Jean Taincture's Invectives contre la secte de vaudrie," by Robert Desjardins, Francois Pageau, and Andrew Gow. Florilgelium 33 (26 Aug 2019).

Check out the story entitled "Rare Book was Catalyst for Witch Hunts," by Michael Hingston in U of A's alumni magazine, Thought Box (21 Oct 2016).

Check out Paula Simons' fascinating exploration of the ways that old ideas about witchcraft continue to haunt us today: "Politics, Powerful Women and Hunting Witches in a New Age of Superstition," Edmonton Journal (29 Oct 2016).  This story helpfully links to a relevant story by Simons: "Witch History takes flight in Rare Manuscript at U of A," Edmonton Journal (27 Oct 2012), and a related blog post "The Witch-Burner's Mein Kampf: Excerpts of Evil" (Oct 2012).

Or this recent article: "300 years on, will thousands of women burned as witches finally get justice?" The Guardian (13 Sept 2020).