When is a manuscript royal? Is it solely when it was commissioned by a monarch? Or – a slightly broader definition – when it is called into existence by the will of a member of the royal family? Is it one which was made with the intention of entering a royal collection? Or one which, whatever its creator’s plan, did end up there in the Middle Ages? Or, indeed, one which reached the British Royal Library after the medieval period? It is a question worth asking because examples of all of these types of books are on display in the ‘Royal Manuscripts: the Genius of Illumination’ exhibition at the British Library.
On one level, the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition answers the question: John Lowden begins the introductory essays by stating that the definition used includes ‘any manuscript for which there is evidence of a royal connection at any point in its history’ (p. 19). It is a definition so capacious that it invites sub-division, a process that Prof. Lowden himself undertakes in the pages that follow. But it is also a definition not immediately on display to those who visit the exhibition, relying on the brochure, captions or audio-guide to help lead them through the more than 150 manuscripts laid out in the cabinets. They are told, instead, that manuscripts ‘associated with successive kings and queens of England … include some of the most outstanding examples of decorative and figurative painting that survive in Britain from between the 8th and 16th centuries’. A set of associations are implied, linking ‘royal’ with ‘manuscript’– associations which the visitor without a catalogue can (like Miss Lavish wandering Florence without her Baedeker) have the thrill of discovering for themselves.
The visitor may find it is easiest to define ‘Royal Manuscripts’ by what it is not: in the first place, the exhibition does not attempt to provide a detailed history of the library of the English monarchs. It is the case that, after a useful brief section on the creation of a manuscript (where parchment and vellum are bravely distinguished), the exhibition proper opens with a section on Edward IV as founder of the royal library, showing samples of the outsize Burgundian manuscripts that he bought. Beyond that, though, there is little here to hint at the difference between the Plantagenets and their French counter-parts: the development of the library of the Louvre from at least the reign of Charles V had a sense of books as part of the royal patrimony, whereas in England, until the late fifteenth century, manuscripts were as likely to leave the king’s ownership as to enter them, the books he came to own being seen as appropriate diplomatic gifts, ripe to be alienated from his property. Nor is there any mention in the captions of the purchase of the residue of the French royal library by John, duke of Bedford in the earl 1420s and its likely transfer across the Channel. This is simply not a tale the exhibition wishes to tell.
Similarly, the exhibition is not about the physical allure of the written word captured on parchment. The display includes some rolls – of prayers and genealogies – and, in one instance, presents an indenture of Henry VII (a manuscript made for the king to give away to Westminster Abbey: BL, MS. Harl. 1498) bound as a book within its binding and chemise, with heavily-encased seals hanging from it. These, understandably, are the exceptions: after all, the royal collection has suffered the sort of solicitous attention that results in the original bindings being removed and thrown away, though they (as many a presentation miniature reminds us) would have been the most noticeable element of a book to its early owners. Nor is there a discussion of the development of script in these volumes, nor a sense of what import different textual presentations may have been intended to carry. The sub-title for this show tells us where its main interest lies: in that element of a book’s construction that was its illuminations.
But the openings presented belong not only to manuscripts made for kings or queens. The second section of the exhibition, entitled ‘The Christian Monarch’ describes, through the medium of illuminations, the long association of kingship with religious devotion, from Athelstan to Henry VIII. Some of these books were created as instruments of royal worship, while others entered princely hands only a few generations after their first construction – a distinction neatly summed up by the juxtaposition of two Psalters, both owned by Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, with one made for his private worship (BL, MS. Royal 2. B i, noting that the presence of the duke’s notes in the calendar at fol. 4v works against the exhibition’s hypothesis that he intended the book for his nephew’s edification) and the other, the so-called St Omer Psalter, owned by him but produced in Norfolk nearly a century before it reached his hands (BL, MS. Yates Thompson 14). Yet others are included for their depictions of kings rather than being definitely royal in ownership – an example is the eleventh-century Rule of St Benedict from Christ Church, Canterbury with its fine miniature of three Anglo-Saxon kings joined by a swirling scroll that also lifts up the monk who reverently lies beneath them (BL, MS. Cotton Tiberius A iii). The section gives a sense of the habits of devotion and the duties they placed upon royalty but it also raises a question that lies at the heart of the rationale for this exhibition: was there a particularly royal type of illumination?
In some cases, the exhibition strains to associate a book with a royal patron. This is the case with the poster-boy for the show – God creating the world, as depicted in a Bible historiale (BL, MS. Royal 19 D. iii). It is a magnificent piece of work, its blues and reds a mass of delicately realised sets of wings – angels depicted à la Fouquet, if a few decades earlier. The audio-guide at this point echoes the catalogue in suggesting ‘it would not be a surprise if [the manuscript] were made for a royal owner’ but it goes further in suggesting the identity of that prince was likely to be Jean, duc de Berry. What interests me is the reasoning for this suggestion which, on the audio-guide, stresses the lavish nature of the illustration and implies that this would be most likely to be paid for by a member of a royal family. And yet, there are enough examples of resplendent manuscripts on display in this exhibition that were not commissioned by princes – from monastic and ecclesiastical establishments or from aristocratic families and (in the last century or so of the period) confraternities. The fact that some of the products made for such institutions or individuals later entered royal hands reminds us not only that princely collections were often inhabited by the second-hand but also that those same princes did not disdain handling manuscripts illuminated for the lesser-born. In other words, we would be best to avoid assuming that richness of decoration had particularly royal connotations at any point in the period covered by the exhibition.
The implication of this is that in their ownership and use of manuscripts, kings and queens were participating in a wider bookish culture. Rarely was it one of the factors that set them apart from their subjects but, instead, showed them sharing others’ interests. If this is so, we might wonder how far royal patronage defined what was new or what was best in manuscript production, rather than simply partaking of those fashions. Did princes earmark a larger proportion of their wealth on manuscripts than did other book-owners? Or did they reserve their cash for more ostentatious methods of conspicuous consumption? And, when they looked at a book, what drew their attention: did they turn to the illumination, seeing it as light relief from the over-supply of words that they were expected to decipher? Or did they let the volumes rest closed, so that the rich bindings were on show, at the expense of the masterful painting hidden inside? How did they hold these books and turn their pages? It is in the nature of a block-buster exhibition like ‘Royal Manuscripts’ that the objects are static, held open at a single folio for the duration of the display – no equivalent here to the daily turning of the pages in the Piccolomini Library of Siena’s Cathedral. What we are offered, in effect, is a snippet view rather than the whole book. The images can be enthralling, but the books in which they sit are not mere containers for artistic genius – each of these manuscript has a dynamism, an incorrigible plurality of its own, that can only be imagined when it sits under glass. We should savour the exhibition, with its juxtapositions and its insights, while we can; we should relish all the more the day these manuscripts are again available for consultation, folio by folio, opening by opening, in the Reading Room upstairs.
I have commented before on the excitement of previously little-known manuscripts coming up for sale. Lord knows that there is enough in our public repositories that has not been properly investigated and waiting to be discovered. But there is an extra frisson when an unique volume, from private hands, appears on the stage at an auction. This is the case with lot 45 of the Sotheby’s sale in London on 6th December: a manuscript that has been unknown to scholars because it has been in private hands since the Reformation and has never before appeared for sale. One of its selling points is that it adds to our knowledge of John Shirwood, described with little hyperbole in the sale catalogue as ‘one of the earliest English humanists’.
I have been long acquainted with Shirwood who, in his lifetime, became bishop of Durham and whose collection of manuscripts and incunables, via the successor to his see, Richard Fox, reached the latter’s new foundation in Oxford of Corpus Christi College. I have become used to seeing his ungainly large annotations and rapidly drawn manicula in his books. I remember seeing him get rather over-excited in the margins of one printed volume at a sententia of Cicero’s, saying that it was worth noting 10,000 times. Then, when preparing the appendix to the fourth edition of Weiss’s Humanism in England, I looked more closely at his one known work, De ludo arithmomachiae, a description of a chess-like mathematical game that, in a touching preface in attractive humanist Latin, he says he taught to his now-dead patron, George Neville, archbishop of York, then in exile in Calais for his disloyalty to the Yorkist regime that his family had helped make and had tried to break.
The manuscript now on sale takes us to an earlier stage of Shirwood’s career, before Neville was archbishop and was merely bishop of Exeter. The volume itself has the hallmarks, in its script and illumination, of being a product of the university town of Oxford in the early 1460s. The main part of it is occupied by works of Walter Hilton in Latin, followed by some prose and verse texts in English. They are followed by an epitaph, introduced by an image of a corpse, which, the title tells us was written by John Shirwood, chancellor of the cathedral of Exeter, in memory of John Southwell, seneschal to Neville. This information allows us to date the composition of the epitaph (but not necessarily, of course, the copying) to 1460 – 65. That Shirwood wrote verse as well as prose is itself a revelation. One might hope that he wrote in a Latin that demonstrated he had already mastered humanist Latin — but, actually, the manuscript is more interesting than that. The poem does have some classical references, but none of them highly unusual or outside the range of reference available before the feted ‘re-discovery’ of further texts in the later fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. The structure of the epitaph with each couplet opening and closing with the words ‘munde vale’ shows Shirwood working within a more established tradition of composition. In short, what we have here is Shirwood in ante-humanist mode.
This sheds interesting light on the development of the humanist learning of Shirwood and, indeed, of Neville himself, who was to become known as a friend of the Greek cardinal, Bessarion, and who employed Greek scribes in his household. Did the elevation of Neville to York open new vistas for him and his protege? Either certainly could have read humanist works earlier in Oxford, as some were available there, in large part thanks to the generosity of Humfrey, duke of Gloucester. But that they were there did not mean they must have read them (or, it should be added, that the university town was the only place where they could have found that inspiration). Oxford’s mid-century intellectual interests were not, of course, confined to the humanist — and, indeed, I think this manuscript is a useful example of that. The sale catalogue strains to associate the manuscript closely with Shirwood himself, because of the presence of this previously unknown epitaph of his. But there is no sign of his script in the codex, and the inclusion of his verses — probably as an afterthought — may better reflect his master’s standing in Oxford: Neville was long-term chancellor to the University. It would be little surprise if the literary activities within his household were quickly available to the clerks of Oxenford; those clerks, for their part, showed themselves keen (here as elsewhere) to add to their reading with some small sign of their interest in the recent or what they might have seen as the up-to-date.
What I am hoping to emphasise is the obvious truth that, while Oxford may have been important to English humanism (and this is often overstated), humanism was not of overwhelming significance in Oxford. This is reflected in this manuscript: for those few of us interested in the development of English humanism, this codex is of significant importance, but we should appreciate that in the context of the manuscript itself, English humanism is at best a minor element — a future perfect, as it were. The manuscript has interest enough beyond the couple of folios at the end where Shirwood’s poem is included. In fact, the main part of the book provides a striking example of a scribe regularly engaging with what he is copying: he regularly adds notes in the margin, cross-referring from Hilton to other authors, like Bonaventure and Bede. And, with my interests in maniculae, I cannot leave unmentioned his pointing hand, that curves out from the text and arches back towards it — a style that, in my experience, is not typical of fifteenth-century readers. It is, instead, old-fashioned or perhaps I should say archaising. Perhaps here, in this detail, rather than in Shirwood’s verse, there is sign of a desire to resurrect the scholarly style of long-lost generations — a parallel to (conscious or not), but not an imitation of, the humanist agenda.
‘What is palaeography?’ asked a young Albinia de la Mare, and the rest of her career demonstrates that she stayed for an answer. But not only that: her own work transformed how we should answer the question. It is an appropriate time, in the days following the Warburg conference commemorating her nigh on ten years after her death, to repeat the question she ingenuously asked at the beginning of her graduate career.
The simple answer – one I have given in the Oxford Companion to the Book – is that the term now signifies two activities, both intellectually valid. The first concerns the process of localisation and identification of scripts, using the panoply of evidence available in a codex, and thus encompassing those skills called codicology as well as the study of its handwriting. Within this definition is the ability to make alien scripts readable, which is the first way in which many students first encounter palaeography – or ‘adult literacy’ as I have heard it called. The second approach to palaeography is to place the book itself in its cultural context, to see the codex – and other graphic evidence – as a way into the mentalities of previous generations.
In an understated way, the research of Albinia de la Mare (Tilly, as she was known) wrought magic in palaeography in both its senses. The conference paid repeated tribute to Tilly’s ‘prodigious photographic memory’ aided, as Jonathan Alexander pointed out, by the invention of the photocopy. Supported by her copies of images and her capacious collection of notes (now under the tutelage of Xavier van Binnebeke), Tilly developed an ability to identify particular scribes and – a source of even more awe – to date manuscripts within a scribe’s career. These skills made her an oracle to many scholars in different disciplines, some of whom were involved in the conference that has just taken place. A question that remained unasked within the community of Renaissance scholars who gathered at the Warburg was how transferable was Tilly’s skill. I mean, in the first place, whether there is something particularly revealing about humanist scripts which makes them open to analysis in a way that may not be possible for other scripts. To some extent, it must be true that gothic bookhands, where the emphasis is on uniformity of letter-forms, also have a further homogeneity of aspect – in short, that they are less individual than the manifestations of humanist bookhand known as littera antiqua. At the same time, from what little work I have done on French fourteenth-century manuscripts, it seems to me that the possibility of a similar process of identification is present, if only the full range of details – codicological as well as narrowly palaeographical – are used.
But the question of how transferable were her skills should also be taken another way: to put it bluntly, who else can do what she could? I do not pretend to judge who can consider themselves her heirs – and (what the scholarly community might find even more entertaining) who not. Instead, I express this as a warning about the curse of the legacy of genius. Tilly demonstrated that, in naturally gifted, trained and experienced hands, a manuscript could offer up its secrets to an extent that few had imagine. In her wake, it is natural to hope that what she achieved should become the standard rather than the apogee. The result, though, can be dangerous: over-confident identifications of hands on tenuous grounds will take scholarship down corridors of the labyrinth that are no more than wrong turnings, leaving the next generation to unravel previous errors before it can actually make progress. Let us remember that Tilly herself recognised the importance of being tentative and (as her notes on her late masterpiece ‘New Research’ demonstrate) changed her mind. Even Tilly would not live up to the ideal that others would claim for her and for themselves.
I said a moment ago that Tilly worked her wonders with palaeography in both its definitions. I remember when I was a graduate student her reminding me of the importance of not looking only at the letter-forms but at the whole page – a truth I pass on to students by describing palaeographical investigation as a repeated change of viewing, for the ductus to the aspect and back again. If, by analogy, we can talk of palaeography in the first definition as the ductus, then the aspect, the larger picture, is provided by the discipline in its second definition – a consciousness of what manuscripts can tell us about the culture in which they were created. This is where the level of specificity that Tilly achieved – localising manuscripts to specific towns and to specific decades – could be so fruitful. As Vincenzo Fera described at the conference, her interest from the time of her thesis in Vespasiano da Bisticci opened up a world populated by scribes, certainly, and their patrons, but also by the book-sellers and readers of these manuscripts. From the residue of ink left upon the prepared skin of a dead animal it became possible to conjure up a sense of human associations that was not a mere handmaid of history, it was the stuff itself. If, as historians, we fail to appreciate the evidence not just of the words but of the book in which the words appear, we will only be able to tell an impoverished and hollow history. In this sense, we have a duty to follow Tilly’s example, even as we are humble enough to realise that we cannot emulate it to her level.
What is palaeography? It is, I would suggest, a box of skills, of talents and of insights which can so enrich our understanding that the revelation of them is akin to the gift of fire – a simile that (I realise and do not blush to write it) makes Albinia de la Mare our Prometheus.
I am briefly once again in Rome, thanks to a grant from the Bodleian as part of a partnership with the Vatican Library. So, I am spending my days in the marble-floored Sala manoscritti of the Biblioteca Apostolica, with the late-summer sun shining onto the roof-top cortile to my left. And sitting in that room, consulting codices made in this same city five hundred and fifty years ago, a nagging question that has disturbed my mind before, only to be put to one side, now returns, all the more insistent and demanding of attention. It is this: how come so many of these manuscripts can be elegantly written on fine quality parchment, with ostentatiously wide borders empty except for tasteful illumination, and often in an appropriately expensive binding – how come these books that so look the part can be, in truth, evidence for what can only be called sloppy copying?
I will name (but not with the intent to shame) a particular scribe, whose products I have recently been studying: step forward Johannes Caldarifex, as he sometimes signs himself, a Latinisation of the name he was born with, Johann Kessler. A German and a cleric, he spent a large part of his career here in Rome, for some of it at least in the household of Antonio de la Cerda, Spanish cardinal and dedicatee of works by both Rinucius Aretinus and the future Pius II (Cerda himself is worthy of much more attention than he deserves). In that household, Johannes acted as a scribe, specialising in large-size codices, on thinnish, smooth parchment which he ruled with a dry point, often so heavily that it nearly tears the surface. He produced copies of recent publications like George of Trebizond’s translations of Aristotle and of Eusebius, as well as traditional texts in fashion among humanists, like Lactantius or Cicero’s Familiar Letters. This last is the earliest dated manuscript we have by Johannes, to 1448, and it shows him already master of humanist littera antiqua bookhand; there is – aside from changes of detail – a notable consistency in his script. In some of the codices, he makes the text accessible by providing running headers and foliation which inform the contents lists he compiles and places at the start of the volume. He also, in some cases, shows signs of personal interest in the texts he is transcribing, adding nota monograms and other annotations in, for instance, his copies of Josephus and of Jerome. These are all imposing, highly presentable volumes but – let us whisper it – textually accurate they were not. We have reason to suspect a scribe’s Latin when he ends a work with a colophon that reads ‘Qui scripsit scripta sua manu sit benedicta’, suggesting (if it were to make any sense at all) that the scribe had changed sex. More importantly, however, the body of the work is characterised by being strewn with errors. For instance, in the codex he constructed of Cicero’s Letters – a volume that opens with an impressive full border in the bianchi girari style, inhabited by two disconcertingly out-size birds – the first owner, the bishop of Brescia, Pietro del Monte, clearly considered the text deficient for he felt the need to correct obvious mistakes with his own suppositions of what the reading should be.
Johannes’ manuscripts, it must be said, are not an egregious and atypical case of bad copying. We can not simply write it off as the work of a barbarian northerner corrupting Renaissance culture: a list of Italian scribes who were equally susceptible to making mistakes would be extensive. Let me give another example from the collection of Cardinal de la Cerda. A humanist scribe, who does not identify themselves, provided him with Leonardo Bruni’s recent translation of Aristotle’s Politics; the copyist – who writes the titles in gold, on one occasion, stating the book is the work of ‘Aristelis’ – so mangled the text, however, that an early user went to the lengths of comparing it with another copy and adding corrections to nearly every page. In the Spanish cardinal’s library, poor quality texts in high-grade manuscripts were the norm, not the exception. And we should wonder how unusual his library was.
We might, of course, wonder why we should wonder at this: after all, we know that in a manuscript culture each transcription was liable to introduce error and take the text further from its pristine state. Yet, there is something particularly counter-intuitive about this tendency within codices that conspicuously display their commitment to humanism, that culture of the book which we now describe as the first, heroic phase in the history of philology. What is more, the script of humanism was itself the forerunner of the Roman typeface and so, for us, may resonate with the perceived aspirations of the enterprise of the text in print. Those aspirations – the commitment to accuracy manifested in the stability of the printed page – are undoubtedly themselves a mythology and, for many generations, Gutenberg’s technology provided imperfect texts which held out the prospect of only being perfected by the intervention of you, the reader, yourself. This is a recognition which has become all the more possible as we enter into a second information technology revolution where the text becomes even less stable and the mistaken or the downright inaccurate has its place in the democracy of the internet. However that may be, it is certainly the case that our understanding of early print culture has developed to bring it closer to the dynamics of the world it only gradually replaced. If, then, we have to accept error as a recidivist reality, a sort of ghost in the non-mechanised machine, we can also recognise that tactics intended to provide confidence in textual quality often provide illusory reassurance. And so it must have been with the humanist aesthetic for the book: the emphasis on the uncluttered page drawing attention to the clearly-written words – all this was little more than a false promise to the reader who came to realise that the transcription they had before them was untrustworthy. Did they see this as a paradox, or as an inescapable fact that had to be tolerated? What strategies could they master to negotiate a culture of inaccuracy?
It is certainly the case that mistakes were tolerated. Error on the level perpetrated by Johannes Caldarifex seems certainly not to have placed a break on his career: we see him at work for well over a decade. Nor can we explain his success simply by noting that he was employed by one cardinal who may have shown commendable Christian charity towards his servant’s mistakes, for Johannes certainly made works for other leading clergymen as well – aside from Pietro del Monte’s collection, there were manuscripts by this scribe to be found in the libraries of Filippo Calandrini, half-brother to Nicholas V, who made him a cardinal, and of Bessarion, the papabile and learned Greek. Certainly, we know that some owners did not care what was written on the line as long as the page itself looked splendid; but readers – humanist readers – who were concerned to be able to approach the text clearly learnt to live with imperfections. We might wonder what level of error was considered acceptable. We might even ask ourselves whether they, perhaps, quietly relished a corrupt text which tested their ingenuity for correction.
Yet, my interest is more with the scribe himself, who has made a conscious choice to adopt the humanist agenda. Was he unaware of its intended implications for the text? Assuming that he had the understanding, did he feel shamed if confronted with evidence of his own mistakes? More basically, how could he rationalise to himself the reality of error? Perhaps the apparent insouciance of scribes was not simply unthinking, but suggests a mindset, a way of seeing their work that recognises their innate and human inability to produce the perfect text. Perhaps they comforted themselves with thinking that their efforts were not the text itself, but a witness to the text. We might call to mind the Islamic tradition in which the divine wisdom which is the Qu’ran is separate from its physical manifestation, the mushaf. Or we might consider more apposite the Platonic concept of the Form. Or we might think of the x or the y of the philologist’s stemma – the assumed prototype to which the editor attempts to return by reconstruction from the extant copies. Faced with such a presentation of the evidence of the descent of a text, our scribe might with a weary smile acknowledge that what they were producing would sit – could only ever sit – far from the stemmatic head.
We can take the analogy with a textual stemma further, for that diagrammatic presentation necessarily speaks of a multiple of witnesses to a text. Our scribe, similarly, might have been concious that there was not the copy of a work, but only one manifestation among several: that there was, in other words, a community of copies, a republic of literal letters – a republic, they would admit, that was certainly a flawed state, a fallen state. That perception or outlook might not be just a phlegmatic philosophical consideration; in some particular situations, it would be an immediate practical reality. Someone like Johannes Caldarifex – who was not the only copyist in de la Cerda’s household, let alone in the few square miles beyond his palace – would have been well aware that he was one of a plurality of scribes at work not very distant from each other. In quattrocento Rome, like Florence several copyists could each independently make their living by their trade in providing attractive, if inaccurate, manuscripts. This was a context, then, in which the scribe of literary texts was becoming a professional and perhaps this is the central paradox: the process of professionalisation could also be a victory for imperfection.
I have never been persuaded of the use of white gloves when consulting manuscripts — in my experience, it is not just cumbersome, it can be positively harmful: you grip the page more tightly because of the lessened senstivity of touch and, in the process, are in danger of damaging the leaf. So I could only cheer when I read the advice from the British Library (advice, by the way, that I came across thanks to the twittering of ‘Richard Debury‘ — is that really his name?!).
I have already mentioned my interest in maniculae, those pointing hands that appear in printed books but also in manuscripts. When a history of manuscript annotation comes to be written — to stand alongsie Bill Sherman’s work on early-modern varieties — particular attention will be drawn to the manicula. It is not the only form of annotating symbol, a method of marking a passage of interest or significance; indeed, it is probably rather a late-comer, slapping out of the way the style of face-drawing that is more common in twelfth- or early-thirteeenth-century manuscripts. Sometimes those two forms stand side by side in late medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. I have before me at the moment an interesting specimen, as I sit in the Vatican Library (how things change — when I first came here sixteen years ago, the idea that in this sanctuary next to its roof-top cortile you could be in contact with a wider world was unimaginable. I hanker after those days).
The manuscript, a copy mainly of Pliny’s letters (in the 8 book tradition), has the shelfmark MS. Reg. lat. 1472. It is dated by its scribe to 1453; he signs himself ‘Val. Sal.’. Val not only writes the text, he adds frequent marginalia, in Greek and in Latin, in black and in red ink. He provides plentiful specimens of various maniculae but he does not confine his ‘nota marks’ to these — as I have said, he also includes several faces, one of them distinctive for the Cyrano-like size of his nose and a chin of stubble which is a few centuries ahead of fashion. But it does not stop there: he also provides an example of the annotating symbol which should be known as the ocululus: I know some examples in Leiden, but here the eye is weeping at the beauty of the text (without any water damage). There are also the familiar Greek symbols, and a few Nota monograms. There are other drawings as well: a flowering plant, for instance (presumably considered an appropriate sign to suggest the text should be put into a florilegium). More unusual and less explicable perhaps is the last intervention: the scribe also draws as a nota symbol a boar’s head, with tusks and an extended snout pointing to the text. The animal, I should add, is wearing an elegant collar.
As I have suggested, there is a history to be written of these symbols. You might think that mere antiquarianism but I hope my short description of the scribe’s playful activities in his book has persuaded you, if of nothing else, of the fact that this manuscript — if you pardon the expression — is no bore.
A few decades ago and the name of Henry of Kirkestede would have been known to very, very few. His major work, a Catalogus scriptorum ecclesie, had from the sixteenth century been ascribed to ‘Boston of Bury’. Even after R. H. Rouse had demonstrated that it should instead by attributed to the monk of Bury St Edmunds who became its mid-fourteenth-century librarian, Henry from the Norfolk village of Kirkestede, the error continued to circulate. In the meantime, in editing the Catalogus for the Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues, Richard and his wife Mary Rouse proposed another work for Kirkestede: a Speculum Coenobitarum, discussing the origins of monasticism and celebrating its signifance by listing the saints and other worthy figures who had been monks. The Rouses’ argument that Kirkestede substantially revised and expanded this text produced at Bury, was based on internal similiarities with the Catalogus: what they could not show was a manuscript that made explicit reference to his involvement. Now, we can have yet greater confidence in their inspired supposition because there is a small piece of further evidence that comes from an unexpected location.
I have been mulling over a manuscript in the Vatican, MS. Vat. lat. 1221, largely dedicated to hagiography of Thomas Becket. It is unusual for this type of text in being written on Italian parchment in the fifteenth century in a humanist script with matching bianchi girari initials. It has been known to scholars mainly because it includes an otherwise unknown letter of John of Salisbury. I have had the suspicion that the manuscript, though looking to all intent and purposes as an Italian product was actually the work of an Englishman — there are a couple of moments when the copyist slips into a more gothic script and he shows notable mastery of English placenames. My interest led me to look more closely at all its contents. Near the end, there is a set of lists recording monks who were saints, popes, kings, authors and doctors of the church. Each list is introduced by four lines of verses — verses which also appear in the similar lists that make up the revised Speculum Coenobitarum. But what makes this all the more striking is that those lists include a rubricated colophon which reads ‘Explicit compilatio fratris de kyrkested’.
Now, it might be said that the phrasing is open to interpretation: properly, it should refer to a brother at the monastery of Kirkestede. If so, it would be curious: there is little other evidence of such scholarly activity from that Lincolnshire Cistercian house, and it would beg the question why the compiler of the manuscript does not mention the order in his concluding collection of oaths made on being a monk. A more plausible explanation is that the Christian name ‘Henry’ has been omitted either because the scribe did not know much about him or was transcribing from a copy that itself did not record the forename. It seems to me that the identification with Henry, and thus corroboration of Rouses’ suggestion, is inescapable.
This being so, it raises interesting issues about the popularity of the work. All the manuscripts of the revised Speculum known to date are from English monasteries — in particular, Bury itself, St Albans and Durham. This copy made in Italy (and soon after production, it can be added, in the papal library) could suggest an international fame that has previously been unnoticed. Then again, as its copyist is likely to be an Englishman, most likely in Rome, it might be said that the work had travelled far from Bury but not far from the English community.
I have been proof-reading a chapter that is about to appear in a volume on the production of books in late medieval England, edited by those fine young scholars (young in comparison to me), Alex Gillespie and Dan Wakelin. The publishers, CUP, in their wisdom have decided in one case to move the shelfmark of a manuscript I mention from the footnote into the text itself. Apparently, their house style tends to place shelfmarks in the body of a work — something I strive to avoid. This has set me thinking about the most appropriate way to cite manuscripts or specific copies of printed works.
Let me start by saying that there are some cases when I would certainly provide a shelfmark in the text itself: you only need to look at the manuscript descriptions I have put on-line to find instances of that. When I do that, I like to mark out the shelfmark typographical, my preference being for small caps. There is a difference, though, between a description or a catalogue, and continuous prose forming an article or chapter. Even in this latter case, I could see an argument for citing shelfmarks within a sentence, if you were having to publish with endnotes rather than footnotes. Then again, it would be better to avoid being published in such a format – but that is a debate for another time.
Considering why my strong preference is for avoiding shelfmarks in the text and having them cited at the bottom of the page, in the footnote, it seems to me that there are two reasons. The first could be dismissed as stylistic — but style is central (or should be central) to our practice as authors. The presence of a shelfmark, with or without the library abbreviated, is an intervention in the flow of the prose, a distraction from the words and their argument. If the manuscript needs to be identified in the text, much better to think of a verbal designation rather than a formula of words and number. Those who favour shelfmarks in the text would probably argue that it aids precision — but what I think they mean is that it looks more ‘scientific’. And that, indeed, is probably the nub of this issue: as authors, we are not scientists who cite equations or formulae, and we should not pretend we are by adopting a pseudo-scientific rhetoric. Placing shelfmarks in the text may exude an aura of forensic scholarship, but all it actually does is make the text less readable than it really should be.
The second point is equally important and also defines more tightly the alternatives for citing a manuscript in continuous prose. Reference to a shelfmark in text does not only distract, it can also mislead: it necessarily associates the book in the reader’s mind with its present location rather than its earlier history. This is a problem, obviously, also with talking a manuscript by a loconym based on its present home, like ‘the Madrid Hours’. That manuscript was of Low Countries manufacture (illuminated by the ‘Vienna Master of Mary of Burgundy’) and was owned by an Englishman. It might be said that there is no harm to this practice, as the loconym so obviously does not relate to its origin, and that would, of course, be the case for an American or antipodean repository. But in other cases it is positively dangerous because there is still a tendency to assume present location may relate to origin, when usually the history is more complex. Let me give a specific example: it relates to a manuscript made by Thomas Chaundler, now Oxford: New College, MS. 288 (a description of it is available on-line). Chaundler was Warden of New College and so it might seem logical to assume that the volume was always in Oxford. But that is demonstrably not the case: he had it made for Thomas Bekynton, bishop of Bath and Wells, and it was in Wells that it lived, certainly into the 1530s when it was seen by John Leland. Its eventual arrival at New College presumably reflects a later appreciation of the author’s association with that Wykhamist foundation and so tells us more about the subsequent history of the construction of the College’s identity, rather than its earlier history.
In short, let us keep shelfmarks in their rightful place: they are welcome on the page, as long as they confine themselves to the footnotes and avoid distracting or misleading readers by inserting themselves in the text. Shelfmarks are, I suppose, a little like Victorian children: they should be seen but not have erred into the flow of one’s prose.
Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands, said e.e. cummings. He could have said such manicules, since in its Latin root, maniculae, the word means precisely ‘small hands’ — the diminutive of manus. It has come to mean something more specific to those of us who grub around in the margins of books: it is the nota-symbol drawn, sometimes rapidly, sometimes elegantly, as a pointing hand, a fashion that lasted several hundred years. Bill Sherman has discussed manicules with customary verve and insight; he has helped us consider their possible meanings. Except they do not, officially, have an English name; the manicule has no meaning. It does not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary.
I discovered this lacuna just now when I typed the term into the OED and was advised that the nearest English word is ‘manicure’. Few of the pointing hands I have seen require such care to their nails (if they have them at all). Bill Sherman similarly noticed in 2005, when entitling an article ‘Toward a History of the Manicule’ that the word – the concept he was championing – had no existence then. Five years on, and despite his work, it is still not recognised.
One wonders why this oversight: is it because it is rude to point? Is there a worry about touching the manicule because you don’t know where it’s been?
My immediate reaction was to call for a campaign, demonstrations with appropriately designed placards demanding dictionary space for the manicule — a truly Pythonesque occasion. But then it struck me that there is something of a badge of honour in being so underground that you have no meaning, something ironic that an image so well-defined can have no definition, and something fitting that a symbol from the margins is considered so marginal. The manicule is precisely beyond the text and, indeed, defines the text rather than being defined by it. So, what has the OED to offer to an extended forefinger that has travelled so widely? If a manicule was to appear, it should not dragooned into line alongside any quotidian term. Frankly, the manicule has no need of the OED. So, rather than campaigning to include it, let’s fight to keep it out of the dictionary. Anyone to join me? Put your manicule up.
And, lest I leave you without an image on which to feast, view a comely, if tiny, manicule, a maniculula if you will. It is by Pier Candido Decembrio, the translator of Plato’s Republic, in a manuscript he himself prepared for Humfrey, duke of Gloucester:
Considering how the vast majority of manuscripts are now in institutional hands , it is exciting whenever a codex, previously unknown or unavailable, appears on the market. This year has already provided one discovery thanks to an auction house. Now, there is another, to be sold at Sotheby’s in London on 6th July.
Few may share the tingling sensation that courses through me when seeing the images of this book, but let me try to convince you of its interest. The first folio, I will admit, is distracting — a case of what might be called creative vandalism with the ill-advised addition of an over-heavy and over-colourful border in the eighteenth century. It detracts from the original understated illumination often seen in humanist manuscripts, in this case in a style of interlace placed on a gold background typical of north-east Italy. In this there is little that it is unusual, nor is its content — Hegesippus, De Excidio Iudaeorum, copied — a matter of great surprise. Similarly, that the book is signed by its scribe does not make it stand out from the hundreds that are likewise revealing of their parentage, but the identity of this scribe is what makes this most interesting. It is not that he is well-known: ‘Petrus Lomer’ signs only two manuscripts in public libraries, one in Verona and one in Padua. But he was not a native of either of those cities, and rather one of the northern European scribes who mastered littera antiqua. The Sotheby’s catalogue rightly notes that the illumination to the manuscript in the Capitolare in Verona [MS. CCXXXIV (221)] is English in origin; in fact (pace the catalogue), so are the simpler initials in the manuscript, also in a capitular library, that of Padua, which is a copy of Salutati’s De Seculo et Religione [MS. C 78]. But we can not infer from this, as the catalogue does, that Mr Lomer was in fact an Englishman. In the manuscript in Verona, a copy of Giles of Rome’s popular speculum prinicipis, the De Regimine Principum, the scribe adds a table of contents, ending it with the words ‘Petrus Lomer de Colorna Deo gratias Ave Maria’. The place-name has been mistranscribed twice, and never satisfactorily explained – Orbis Latinus does not help, but the most likely explanation is that it refers to Cologne. Such an origin would fit well with both the sound of the scribe’s surname and the aspect of his script, an accomplished humanist bookhand which tends to add spiky elements to enhance its calligraphy.
So, there was a scribe, probably of German origin, who (we already knew) was at work in England. We might ask how his manuscripts got to Italy — and the copy of Giles of Rome provides something of an answer to that question, though it has not before been noticed. In that manuscript, some of the chapter headings are rubricated not by the main scribe but by another hand which I can identify as Tito Livio Frulovisi, who was secretary to Humfrey, duke of Gloucester in the late 1430s (thus making the manuscript datable). His successor in that role was a humanist whom I have also had cause to mention before — Antonio Beccaria, translator of Plutarch, Athanasius and, indeed, Boccaccio. Beccaria spent about eight years or more in England and then returned to his hometown of Verona, where he became a member of the circle around Bishop Ermolao Barbaro. Is it too much to wonder whether Beccaria returned to Italy with one or both of the manuscripts that Lomer had copied in England?
Perhaps it is. My journeys in the crepuscular realm of manuscript provenance have taught me at least this: Ockham’s razor is a blunt instrument. The simple, the obvious, the logical is all too often just wrong. In the case of Lomer, the volume now on sale interestingly complicates the issue. As already mentioned, this manuscript was not illuminated in England: the catalogue suggests Padua, c. 1460 — while the dating is surely about right, the origin of the initials could equally be Verona. The dating is about twenty years later than the other two manuscripts: if the initials are contemporaneous to the copying of the text, this would give us more information of the career of Lomer, suggesting he moved to Italy. If so, did he take his ‘English’ manuscripts with him? Or did he travel with Beccaria?
What, in fine, is exciting is that this does not answer questions but poses them. It complicates the information we have, and reminds us how little we know. The manuscript itself may answer some of the queries it sets: it would be interesting to know the quality of parchment used, which would help to ascertain its place of copying, and it would be immensely helpful to study the marginalia, the few examples of which displayed in the Sotheby’s catalogue enticingly suggest they are in a hand familiar to me. I say ‘would’ — the sale occurs while I am on honeymoon, and it is unlikely that I will be able to visit London before then. Nor do I think my future wife will be pleased if I make a bid for a manuscript that would mean re-mortgaging the house. So, will these mysteries be solved?