bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Small discovery of the week: Jean Dubreuil in Christ Church

Posted in Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 16 November, 2012

Christ Church was an arriviste on the Oxford scene. The brainchild of England’s most successful butcher’s son, it was founded as Cardinal College only in 1525, when the number of colleges of the university was already in double figures. On Wolsey’s fall, his institution became, in name at least, King’s College, to wallow in neglect until Henry VIII’s attempts to appease the gods for his desacration of the established church by replacing monasteries with new bishoprics led him, at the very end of his reign, to establish in Oxford an institution that combined cathedral and college. It makes Christ Church a unique institution, adding to the roll-call of titles for Oxbridge heads of house (Master, Principal, Warden, Provost, President…) by being the only to one to be ruled by a Dean.

Christ Church might be, then, a new foundation but, like those ennobled from his mates and sidekicks by Henry VIII, it has become part of the fabric of the establishment, the Oxford institution with the closest links to royalty. Not, it must be said, that its illustrious contribution to history — boasting thirteen Prime Ministers, the founders of both Pennsylvania and New Zealand, let alone philosophers, religious reformers and poets among its alumni — is what is uppermost on many visitors’ minds nowadays; it is not even its reputation as the home of Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, that attracts people; as I heard a tourist guide say to his teenage flock the other day, it is now known as ‘Harry Potter’s college’.

The late date of its creation and its distinguished connexions both have an interesting effect on its manuscript collection. Christ Church was founded when printed books were already occupying libraries to over-filling; while hand-written books still had an important cultural position and could provide texts not available in print, there was no need for a core of codices as there had been in, say, Merton, or any likelihood of a single donation formed solely of manuscripts, as there had been with the bequest of William Gray, bishop of Ely (d. 1478), to Balliol. At the same time, the young parvenu could not but expect to receive manuscripts as signs of respect from individuals who had been educated in its walls or who had passed through them. The result is a collection that is wonderfully eclectic and also well-stocked with richly decorated volumes. It is with one such manuscript, of suitably aristocratic heritage, that my recent small discovery is concerned.

Guy XV, count of Laval, from Oxford: Christ Church, MS. 93, fol. 1. Copyright: Dean and Governing Body of Christ Church, Oxford.

The volume is a late fifteenth-century Book of Hours, which came to Christ Church as part of its most substantial donation, that of William Wake, himself an alumnus whose career culminated in his tenure of the Archbishopric of Canterbury. His early career saw him in France and it would be attractive to imagine that this Book of Hours came into possession while there. It is certainly a French production but one so rich in illumination that it may be that Wake could only afford to purchase it later in his life. The volume, called the Hours of St Denis, opens with an illumination depicting its commissioner, Guy XV, comte de Laval from 1484 to his death in 1501, a significant political figure with lands in Brittany, richly awarded for his loyalty (while others were not) to the Valois monarchy. The images that enliven every page of this manuscript have been (surely correctly) attributed to an artist known as Maître François. As Thomas Kren demonstrated in an article published in the festschrift to Margaret Manion in 2002, this illuminator was one who worked with a scribe who produced several Books of Hours and who (unusually for copyists of devotional manuscripts) identified himself in one book, the Hours of Jacques of Langeac (now Lyons: Bibliotheque muncipale, MS. 5154). The scribe’s name was Jean Dubreuil, who was active between c. 1465 and c. 1485. What has not been noticed — but what will already be obvious from the title of this post — is that a comparison of the leaves of the Christ Church manuscript with others by Dubreuil shows this book to be an unsigned manuscript by this scribe. It has all the characteristic features of his flowing lettre bâtarde, with the prominent loop on top of the d and the hair-strokes on letters including the e. What is interesting is that the Christ Church book could not have been written before 1484, late in Dubreuil’s known career. Perhaps, though, it was not produced much after that — each count of Laval not only had to take on the name ‘Guy’ but also to adopt the comital coat of arms. Perhaps, then, Guy XV had this Book of Hours produced to celebrate his recently attained status. Perhaps, also, he chose the contents of this lavish volume for private devotion to demonstrate that his own loyalty was not to Brittany but to France. It might, in other words, have been a ‘private’ book but it was one for which using accomplished craftsmen was appropriate for it provided a ‘public’ message.

An opening from Oxford: Christ Church, MS. 93, showing script of Jean Dubreuil. Copyright: Dean and Governing Body, Christ Church, Oxford.

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  1. […] damaged and utterly undistinguished small codex I was looking at in Christ Church last week. As I have mentioned before, the foundation’s Library holds one of the more eclectic collections of the Oxford colleges, […]


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