Digital Humanities Libraries

How to Make Watermarks Speak?

Dr Sven Limbeck (Deputy Director, manuscripts and special collections, Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel) spoke on Wednesday, 18 November 2020 at the Michaelmas Term Lecture of the Queen’s College “Centre for Manuscript and Text Cultures”

In recent years the analysis of watermarks has become a standard method in dating paper manuscripts. This was made possible by the digital provision of watermark collections – the most important resource is now the database „Wasserzeichen-Informationssystem (WZIS)“ (Watermark Information System) which is mainly based on the digitization of Gerhard Piccard’s watermark index in the Hauptstaatsarchiv Stuttgart and which has been enriched by other collections and material from current manuscript catalogue projects.

However Piccard’s dating method – developed in the 1950s and still in use today – uses watermarks to an end that lies beyond themselves. The sense and purpose of watermarks has not been adequately clarified yet. Is there a way to make watermarks speak? And if so, do we have a grammar and a dictionary to understand what they tell us? Based on the aporias of classification, order and naming of watermarks I make a plea for the iconographic analysis of watermarks. The perception of watermarks as meaningful images and the knowledge of their grammar and semantics would be a new and powerful approach to the material tradition.

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