6th-Century Writing Discovered Inside Medieval Bookbinding

NU-ACCESS
NU-ACCESS

By fusing two imaging techniques, researchers at Northwestern University have illuminated ancient Roman texts that had been hidden inside the binding of another book since the 1500s.

From the 1400s up until the 1700s, it was common for book binders to recycle parchment to create new books, leaving behind fragments of text from the original book hidden within the bindings. While researchers are aware that these hidden texts exist, they cannot be viewed without destroying part of the books.

The book at hand, a 1537 copy of Works and Days by the Greek poet Hesiod, has been at Northwestern since 1870. The book still contains its original binding, and researchers studying it noticed still-visible writing on the book board that the book binder had clearly tried to wash or scrape away. The board was covered with a parchment cover, but the ink had degraded the parchment over the years, so that the writing began to peek through.

Views of the text being imaged and the results of each type of imaging
Courtesy Emeline Pouyet

They sent the book to Cornell University to be examined by a powerful, high-intensity x-ray called the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source, or CHESS. The x-ray revealed text that a historian identified as a piece of the 6th-century Roman legal code Institutes of Justinian, with notes and analysis written along the margins.

However, the researchers hoped to create a way to image similar books without sending them to another institution for analysis. Other scholars might not have the resources to send their books off for study, and some books are too delicate for travel, anyway. They wanted to find an in-house way to come up with similar results.

They began by using two different imaging techniques. One, using macro x-ray fluorescence, is sensitive to the metal in the ink, so it provides good contrast in an image—but it also has poor resolution and is a slow process. The other, using hyperspectral imaging in the visible range, is faster and offers good spatial resolution, but lacks contrast. "Using these two techniques alone, we could not read the text," study co-author Emeline Pouyet tells Mental Floss.

That's when they used a machine-learning algorithm to discover that by "fusing the data" from the techniques, they could create an image of the text that was nearly as readable as the one produced at Cornell. That means "we can use these instruments on site and analyze similar collections using this approach," says Pouyet.

The authors published their results in the August edition of the journal Analytica Chimica Acta.

The technique could yield many more finds within the recycled bindings of medieval books. "We've developed the techniques now where we can go into a museum collection and look at many more of these recycled manuscripts and reveal the writing hidden inside of them," explains co-author Marc Walton, of the Northwestern University-Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies, in a university press release.

The Time Baby Ruth Sued Babe Ruth

Allsport/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Allsport/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1920, the Curtiss Candy Company introduced the Baby Ruth candy bar, causing a certain baseball player with a very similar name to take notice. Babe Ruth was having a monstrous year—his 54 home runs in the 1920 season were more than any other team in the American League. If you were going to misappropriate someone’s name for a candy bar, Ruth’s was a logical choice.

Sensing opportunity, the Great Bambino struck back by creating his own Babe Ruth Home Run Bar. Curtiss quickly sued Ruth’s company for trademark infringement. But what happened next was surprising: When the Sultan of Swat accused the company of using his name, Curtiss feigned shock. Its bar was named after “Baby” Ruth Cleveland, daughter of President Grover Cleveland.

For years, this has been the oft-repeated explanation, but the argument makes no sense. Cleveland had been out of office for more than two decades and dead for 12 years when the bar debuted. “Baby” Ruth herself had died of diphtheria in 1904, at just 12 years old. Although the country’s most famous baseball star would seem much more likely to have a namesake candy than a former president's departed child, the courts sided with Curtiss.

When Ruth learned of the verdict, he bellowed, “Well, I ain’t eatin’ your damned candy bar anymore!” Somehow, the Baby Ruth bar survived without his support.

What Is the Wilhelm Scream?

iStock
iStock

What do Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Toy Story, Reservoir Dogs, Titanic, Anchorman, 22 Jump Street, and more than 200 other films and TV shows have in common? Not much besides the one and only Wilhelm Scream.

The Wilhelm Scream is the holy grail of movie geek sound effects—a throwaway sound bite with inauspicious beginnings that was turned into the best movie in-joke ever when it was revived in the 1970s.

Just what is it? Chances are you’ve heard it before but never really noticed it. The Wilhelm Scream is a stock sound effect that has been used in both the biggest blockbusters and the lowest low-budget movies and television shows for over 60 years, and is usually heard when someone onscreen is shot or falls from a great height.

First used in the 1951 Gary Cooper western Distant Drums, the distinctive yelp began in a scene in which a group of soldiers wade through a swamp, and one of them lets out a piercing scream as an alligator drags him underwater.

As is the case with many movie sound effects, the scream was recorded later in a sound booth with the simple direction to make it sound like “a man getting bit by an alligator, and he screams.” Six screams were performed in one take, and the fifth scream on the recording became the iconic Wilhelm (the others were used for additional screams in other parts of the movie).

Following its debut in 1951, the effect became a regular part of the Warner Bros. sound library and was continually used by the studio’s filmmakers in their movies. Eventually, in the early 1970s, a group of budding sound designers at USC’s film school—including future Academy Award-winning sound designer Ben Burtt—recognized that the unique scream kept popping up in numerous films they were watching. They nicknamed it the “Wilhelm Scream” after a character in the first movie they all recognized it from, a 1963 western called The Charge at Feather River, in which a character named Private Wilhelm lets out the pained scream after being shot in the leg by an arrow.

As a joke, the students began slipping the effect into the student films they were working on at the time. After he graduated, Burtt was tapped by fellow USC alum George Lucas to do the sound design on a little film he was making called Star Wars. As a nod to his friends, Burtt put the original sound effect from the Warner Bros. library into the movie, most noticeably when a Stormtrooper is shot by Luke Skywalker and falls into a chasm on the Death Star. Burtt would go on to use the Wilhelm Scream in various scenes in every Star Wars and Indiana Jones movie, causing fans and filmmakers to take notice.

Directors like Peter Jackson and Quentin Tarantino, as well as countless other sound designers, sought out the sound and put it in their movies as a humorous nod to Burtt. They wanted to be in on the joke too, and the Wilhelm Scream began showing up everywhere, making it an unofficial badge of honor. It's become bigger than just a sound effect, and the name “Wilhelm Scream” has been used for everything from a band name, to a beer, to a song title, and more.

But whose voice does the scream itself belong to? Burtt himself did copious amounts of research, as the identity of the screamer was unknown for decades. He eventually found a Warner Bros. call sheet from Distant Drums that listed actors who were scheduled to record additional dialogue after the film was completed. One of the names, and the most likely candidate as the Wilhelm screamer, was an actor and musician named Sheb Wooley, who appeared in classics like High Noon, Giant, and the TV show Rawhide. You may also know him as the musician who sang the popular 1958 novelty song “Purple People Eater.”

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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