A decorative catchword in “Supplementum Summae Pisanellae,” a 15th century guide to confessions. Credit: Jack Long | Special Projects Director

On a shelf in a black box, in a vault below Thompson Library, behind four locked doors and a security keypad, sits a book with a peeling, marbled-leather cover.

The paper edges are stained a faded green-blue with pocks of white, resembling bacteria growing in a petri dish.

Written in Latin, “Supplementum Summae Pisanellae” was used as a guide for priests who heard confessions in the 15th century, Eric Johnson, a curator at Ohio State’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, said. It was donated Tuesday to the library by J.C. Hanks, a lawyer in Columbus, Ohio.

Johnson said it will be preserved for research alongside thousands of other printed works, and the manuscript offers insight into social life during that time period, which will help inform researchers interested in religious culture.

The rare book library holds unique, often first-edition, printed works, rare book curator Jolie Braun said.

It is the most diverse special collection at Ohio State, Johnson said. Medieval texts are stored alongside modern American literature. Dozens of languages are represented, and topics range from UFO literature to cookbooks.

Hanks has collected medieval and Renaissance manuscripts since 2012, and parts of his collection are stored at the library but remain his own property, Johnson said. With this donation in particular, the book is university property.

The 1/4-inch-tall black letters written by a scribe form two columns of black text on each page. Red and blue accents were later added for clarity and decoration, Johnson said, and the nearly 400 bound pages encompass “every possible sin known to humankind.”

Priests and confessors would use the book to decide a penance for sinners, Johnson said. It acted as a sort of “Choose Your Own Adventure” book for sin forgiveness. 

“It’s not enough for you to confess that you got into a fight,” Johnson said. “You have to really drill down and give context.”

At the back of the manuscript, the date and location of completion are written in the margins: Oct. 29, 1449, at the Church of the Holy Spirit, in Ferrara, Italy.

“It’s really neat to be able to see exactly when the manuscript was finished,” Johnson said. “Very often [it’s] not there.”

Tiny brown dots—hair follicles—freckle the pages. Credit: Jack Long | Special Projects Director

Geometric designs, a fish, furniture, a mushroom or a scene of a dog chasing a cat illustrate the bottom of some pages. Catchwords that told the bookbinder how to order the pages are set inside of these small pictures, Johnson said.

“More often than not, there is no decoration added to the catchwords,” he said. “This is just an idiosyncratic thing for this manuscript.”

Tiny brown dots hair follicles smaller than the size of a pinhead, freckle the pages. The manuscript used animal skin, not paper, which allows researchers to use the follicle patterns to determine what animal was commonly used at this time, Johnson said.

The hair follicles, type of paper, catchwords, date and location of publication and marginalia are considered paratext, Braun said.

“It’s all the stuff around the actual text,” she said. “All of that is working together to create this cultural artifact.”

“Supplementum Summae Pisanellae” can give researchers a snapshot of daily life in medieval times with how it details attitudes on drunkenness, cheating and fighting, Johnson said.  

“We can learn a lot from books like this,” he said. “They’re physical objects that testify to the reality of the time they were made.”