|Figure 1: Image as it appears on Wikipedia,|
originally with the caption “Plague Victims Blessed by Priest”
The image, however, is decidedly not about the plague; rather, it shows in the detail of an historiated initial 'C'(lericus) clerics with leprosy receiving instruction from a bishop. While art historians have long known what this image portrays, it was mislabeled as a plague image when the British Library’s digitization process removed it from its original textual context. It is not difficult to see how the mistake happened: the Black Death affected millions of people across Europe, caused visible physical symptoms, and coincided roughly with the production of the Omne bonum manuscript. By 2006, the Library made the image available for download on its website; after that, the mislabel appeared on virtually all further uses of the image, including on Wikipedia and a large number of other Internet sites, in popular and scientific publications, in exhibits, in lectures, and even in television documentaries. In short, the image became widely accepted as a representation of the “plague” because that was what its label said it was.
|Figure 2: James le Palmer, Omne bonum.|
London, BL MS Royal 6 E. VI, vol. 2, f.301rb.
“Clerics with leprosy receiving instruction
from a bishop.” Image from British Library
Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.
But what about all those many mislabeled copies of the Omne bonum image that are still found all across the Internet? Can the damage be undone? As we are finding out, it is indeed possible to put the genie back in the bottle – or perhaps more (or less) poetically, to get the toothpaste back into the tube – at least to some extent. “We,” in this context, refer to Green, Richard Nevell, a British PhD archaeology student and Wikipedian, and me, a Canadian PhD candidate in medieval and medical history. Together, we have taken on the at-times daunting task of tracing (and hopefully correcting) the spread of the mislabelled Omne bonum image through cyberspace.
My own involvement in this project began when I noticed that the October 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine included the Omne bonum image, complete with the erroneous labelling, in its response to a reader’s query about the microbiological causes of the plague. Using The Medieval Globe article as backup, I contacted the magazine’s editors to inform them about the error; a few weeks later the editor-in-chief responded and said that he would pass the information on to the magazine’s picture library (which, not coincidentally, had gotten the image from the British Library). Already by that time, Green had prepared an initial list of major websites and publications that were using the mislabelled image. She was also in touch with the British Library, requesting that it re-label the Omne bonum image correctly to correspond with its original meaning and that it announce The Medieval Globe article. Changes were made eventually to both the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts (CIM) and the Library’s Images Online site by early December 2014. Green sent out a tweet on 3 December 2014 (@monicaMedHist) to further share information about the image’s misdiagnosis and the article that unveiled it, and used the tweet to update the MEDMED-L list about the image. After a reminder, the British Library (@BLMedieval) tweeted about the article on 15 January 2015.
 Richard followed this up with some edits of his own and with a Wikipedia blog post on 16 January 2015 calling for volunteers to help edit the pages in other languages.
So where do we stand now? Dr. Green’s initial tweet received at least twenty-five retweets, while the tweet from the British Library has been retweeted at least twenty-six times. The Wikipedia blog was retweeted several times, and was further circulated on Facebook. The Omne bonum image has been removed from twenty Wikipedia plague-related pages, and is now used instead in the English history of leprosy article (The Medieval Globe article is also used on that page as a source reference). The image remains on nineteen plague-related pages across fifteen different language Wikipedias, where work continues to remove them. Between 9 December 2014 and 25 January 2015, I sent emails to the identified contact person for fifty-two websites. Of these sites, twenty-seven (52%) had an obvious educational or academic purpose (being either clearly identified as school/curricula sites or specifically designed to provide information, such as publishing house sites), twenty (38%) were personal or group blogs (historical fiction writers, for example), three (6%) were media sites, and two (4%) were commercial stock photo sites. As of 11 February, I have received twenty-nine responses (56%). The majority of those responding (twenty-two or 76%) have removed the image or changed its caption; one of these, a commercial stock photo site, also took the initiative to notify its distributors of the updated caption. Several other responders indicated that they were leaving it as is, because they intend to use it as a “teachable moment on the use of medieval manuscripts and images” or because their site is no longer active. Wikipedia and the British Library were the sources of most of the images.
Thanks to numerous digitization projects, we now have access to medieval images in a way that has never been possible before. In contrast to texts, which require thought and interpretation, images seem to speak to us directly in an appealing way. Few people can read Latin, but everyone believes that they can understand an image, even one from seven hundred years ago. As the old adage says, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” The caution here, is that when we are too eager to simply copy and circulate images without considering their historical context, the thousand words that we read into them might not be the right ones. It may not seem important that the Omne bonum image reflects leprosy rather than the plague – one disease rather than the other. But someone created it, after all, to tell a specific story, and reading the wrong thousand words into it means that we miss the story he wanted to tell us, in this case about another frightful disease. Besides, the text of the Omne bonum chapter that Green and colleagues edited (and translated) is almost exactly one thousand words long; in this particular case, people have actually been given the one thousand words that they need to understand this image and it is worthwhile for them to read them. Why does it matter if some images are mislabelled? It reminds us of the critical importance of context in using historical artefacts, including images, to reconstruct – and understand – the past.
Department of History, University of Ottawa
Issue 1 of The Medieval Globe: Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World: Rethinking the Black Death (2014) is now available for purchase.
Note: all images except for the first one are from http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/record.asp?MSID=7788&CollID=16&NStart=60506
Notes Lucy Freeman Sandler’s work on the manuscript provides the relevant details in this regard. See Omne bonum: A Fourteenth Century Encyclopedia of Universal Knowledge, British Library MSS Royal 6 E VI-6 E VII. 2 vols (London, 1996); see especially volume II, page 110.
 Unfortunately, the image often selected to replace Omne bonum, taken from the Toggenberg Bible, is also typically misdiagnosed as an image of the plague. We decided to add the task of finding and correcting this image to our project.