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 were collected using a non-invasive sampling method from more than a thousand of folios (a selection of 68 codices dating from 12th -13th c.) and analyzed by proteomic techniques in order to identify the animal species in each folio. The analyses are performed in collaboration with the BioArCh laboratory of the university of York, UK. This is the first time such a systematic study is undertaken at the scale of a Cistercian scriptorium. 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 Orval library manuscripts, 68 books were selected for the study, among which 20 books contain codicological units attributed to the Orval scriptorium. Proteomic analyses are performed at MaSUN and in collaboration with BioArch laboratory.


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. 

Parchment fabrication

Transformations occurring as animals skins are transformed into parchment take place at the different stages of the manufacturing process on the parchment and affect its overall quality. This kind of information is helpful to better understand parchment properties.

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.