The Goodspeed Manuscript Collection at the University of Chicago

A Conversation with Daniel Meyer

Daniel Meyer, director of the Special Collections Research Center at University of Chicago, talks with Choice about The Goodspeed Manuscript Collection, a recently digitized archive of the sixty-eight Biblical manuscripts collected by Edgar J. Goodspeed. This unique collection contains documents from the fourth to the twentieth centuries, written in a variety of languages such as Latin, Greek, Ethiopic and Arabic.

How would you describe the collection to a perfect stranger?

Picture of Daniel Meyer
Daniel Meyer is director of the Special Collections Research Center and university archivist in the University of Chicago Library. He received his PhD in American history from the University of Chicago. In addition to the Goodspeed Manuscript Collection, other special collections digitization initiatives he has managed include American Environmental Photographs, The First American West, and the University of Chicago Photographic Archive. He is currently collaborating in online and public programs for Chicago Collections, a consortium of Chicago-area libraries and museums, and planning events next year marking the seventy-fifth anniversary of the first controlled sustained nuclear chain reaction by Enrico Fermi and his colleagues on the Manhattan Project.

The Goodspeed Collection is a group of sixty-eight New Testament and other Biblical manuscripts dating from the fourth century to the twentieth century. The manuscripts are written on both parchment and paper in a variety of languages including Greek, Syriac, Ethiopic, Armenian, Arabic, and Latin. A number of them are richly decorated with colorful lettering, marginal illustrations, and elaborate painted images of sacred scenes known as miniatures.

What is the intended audience of the Goodspeed Collection? How do you envision undergraduates using the collection?

The Goodspeed Collection supports studies by advanced scholars from many fields, among them paleography, codicology, art history, Byzantine and medieval history, and religious and theological studies. Because of their richly illuminated leaves, the Goodspeed manuscripts have an immediate visual appeal for students in our Special Collections Research Center classrooms. Undergraduates will be able to see the many intricate connections between the texts and the colorful decorations and miniatures, and understand how these manuscripts reflect both religious piety and cultural expression. Showing a group of Goodspeed manuscript volumes to a class is also a very effective way to demonstrate the physical construction of the codex, from the careful scribal lettering to the sewing and binding of the parchment or paper quires, all part of the historical development of the bound book format.

Can you briefly explain who Edgar J. Goodspeed was and how he acquired these manuscripts? Who funded it originally? How were each of these documents found and selected for this archive?

Edgar J. Goodspeed (1871–1962) was a professor of New Testament and Early Christian studies at the University of Chicago. He was well known for creating a modern, American English translation of the New Testament and working with other scholars to produce the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. In searching for the best original sources for his translations, Goodspeed began acquiring early manuscripts of the New Testament and related liturgical texts. Goodspeed found the first of his manuscripts, a beautifully decorated Byzantine New Testament, in an antiquarian bookshop in Paris in 1927. This discovery led to a steady sequence of others in the following years. Supported by funds from the University of Chicago and its donors, Goodspeed and his faculty colleagues located and purchased manuscripts through rare book dealers or acquired them directly from private collectors. Goodspeed made his last additions to the collection in the 1950s when he presented three manuscripts, one each in Greek, Latin, and Ethiopic, as personal gifts in memory of his wife. Along the way, he became so intrigued by the pursuit of early manuscripts that he wrote The Curse in the Colophon, a mystery novel featuring an investigative scholar who seems patterned after Goodspeed himself.

What are some of the challenges—technical, logistical, personal—involved in converting what was originally an analog collection to a digital format? What, if anything, is lost in that transformation? What is gained?

Photograph of MS 965
Manuscript 965, Rockefeller-McCormick New Testament.”

The Goodspeed digitization project was the result of a collaboration among staff in four units of the University of Chicago Library. Special Collections provided historical narrative for the website and descriptive information for each manuscript; high resolution digital photography and technical metadata were created in the Preservation Department; the Cataloging Department contributed bibliographic expertise; and the Digital Library Development Center was responsible for building the Goodspeed Collection website with the zooming image technology that allows close study of the details of each manuscript leaf. Some of the digital photography proved challenging–parchment leaves become rippled or cockled over the centuries, and a great deal of skill and careful positioning by the photographer was required to capture high quality images in sharp focus. The end result is a remarkable set of more than 22,000 digital images that present the entire Goodspeed Collection online, manuscript by manuscript and leaf by leaf. Scholars and students can now easily compare texts, decorations, and miniatures in the Goodspeed Collection with manuscripts of the same historical period and geographic origin held in other libraries and museums worldwide. Researchers consulting these images will be able to make new connections and associations, tracing the development of texts and their visual presentation in ways that were not possible before. Using the digital images, it may also be possible to virtually reunite some of the manuscript fragments in the Goodspeed Collection with dispersed portions of the same manuscript held by other institutions. What cannot be conveyed online in a digital image, of course, is the tactile experience of handling the original manuscript, the sound of the cockled leaves being turned, the physical texture of the animal skin used to make the parchment, or the bits of color in the small flakes of pigment on the surface of a miniature. The Goodspeed manuscripts still have this unique interest, and visitors will continue to have the opportunity to experience a compelling encounter with the originals in Special Collections.

What specific manuscript would you suggest that online visitors to the collection begin their explorations with? Why?

There are so many riches in the Goodspeed Collection that it is difficult to select only one as a starting point. The Rockefeller McCormick New Testament (Ms. 965) is one of the best-known manuscripts in the collection because of its extensive Greek text and sequence of ninety-two full- and half-page painted miniatures. The Argos Lectionary (Ms. 128), also in Greek but a few centuries older than the Rockefeller McCormick manuscript, is a particular type of liturgical text that provides specific scriptural readings for different days in the Christian calendar. It does not have the colorful miniatures that distinguish many of the Gospels in the collection, but it is beautifully lettered with delicately rendered initial letters in the margins and between the columns of the text. The Red Gospels of Ganjasar (Ms. 949) is one of the most impressive of the Armenian manuscripts in the collection; it presents eleven richly colored, full-page miniatures, with red as the predominant tone, along with eight elaborately bordered and colorfully painted canon tables showing the relationship of parallel texts in different Gospels. These are just a few examples, and undoubtedly visitors to the website will soon find their own favorites among the textual and visual variety of the Goodspeed Collection.

What was the motivation behind including manuscripts in many different languages, such as Arabic, Ethiopic, and Greek, and what challenges arose from the multilingual aspect of the collection?

Photograph of MS 972
Manuscript 972, Archaic Mark.

All of the manuscripts in the Goodspeed Collection were created in order to preserve and transmit a sacred text and to direct the rituals and liturgical observances associated with the text. For scholars, the fascination is in seeing how the text is conveyed, how translation into different languages affects the focus and meaning of the text, and how the visual presentation of the text incorporates ecclesiastical or secular themes and images. The chronological outlier in the Goodspeed Collection is the most recent in date, the so-called Archaic Mark (Ms. 972). Chemical studies of the pigment used in the decoration of this manuscript, which were undertaken as part of the Goodspeed digitization project, have confirmed that it is not an ancient text and was instead created sometime in the early 20th century. Although the Archaic Mark is not an authentic historical text, we hope that scholars viewing the digital images of this manuscript online will give it further attention and perhaps be able to link it to similar pieces that were being fabricated and sold within the antiquarian book trade before and after World War I.

How is the collection currently maintained and funded? Are there any future developments/additions planned for the collection?

The Goodspeed Collection is part of the rare book, manuscript, and archival holdings of the Special Collections Research Center. Conservation treatment of the manuscripts, including rehousing in protective boxes and enclosures, has been supported by the preservation funds of the University of Chicago Library. Although we are not currently planning any additions to the Goodspeed collection, Special Collections continues to acquire early manuscripts on a selective basis to support the research and teaching mission of the University of Chicago.

Explore Goodspeed Manuscript Collection at

This interview was conducted by Emily Hilton. She is an editorial intern at Choice and a student at Wesleyan University.