A manuscript, an instrument and a marble disc
My wife said to me the other evening: ‘You don’t like being in your comfort zone, do you?’ She knows me.
It is perhaps one reason why I enjoy working with manuscripts that to understand their history you have to move far, far away from any area in which you might be a specialist. And so it was with a small, slightly 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, the gifts of grateful graduates, Students (that is, Fellows in the real world that is Oxford elsewhere) or simply friends. The manuscript I was looking at — MS. 122, a commentary on the decretals – was given in the 1640s by a Student of Christ Church, Robert Payne.
Robert Payne has a certain fame, less for the fact that he was a translator of Galileo (his rendition was never printed) than for his friendship with Thomas Hobbes. Indeed, Noel Malcolm has shown that some of the papers and works, now at Chatsworth, attributed to Hobbes should, in fact be credited to Payne. He was an undergraduate at Christ Church in the 1610s and in his time there seems to have become a protégé of Edmund Gunter, mathematician and designer of scientific instruments. Payne proved a loyal son of his alma mater, and in the 1640s made two gifts to Christ Church of books, the manuscript I was studying and, as the donation note records, ‘insuper dono suo adjecit Concavuum Marmortum & Instrumentum æneum Magstri Gunteri’. This much is well-known but what has not been done is to marry up the surviving books and artefacts with his donations.
It could well be said that the fortunes of his other gifts was of tangential interest to the manuscript he presented but I wanted to understand how it may fit into his wider act of largesse. So, I checked the catalogues for matches with the printed books he gave. In many cases, the works and even the editions matched but could not be equated with the ones he gave, presumably because his had been sold off later as a duplicate (there were several such sales in the nineteenth century). So, for instance, for one edition of Euclid given by Payne we have a copy but it cannot be his because it carries a note recording Sir Charles Scarborough’s ownership at the end of the seventeenth century — that note also draws attention to the fact that there are inserted quires of handwritten notes, in the script, it is said, of Edmund Gunter. He was perhaps remembered longer in Christ Church than was Payne.
In other cases, we can be more confident that there is a match when, for instance, a volume combines editions listed consecutively in the donation note. And we can be absolutely certain when Payne’s script is found in the book — a script which is present in several of the Savile collection in the Bodleian and which I can identify with notes in at least two Christ Church volumes. Of those, the one which will attract more interest is the edition of De systemate mundi of Galileo, the author whom Payne translated. The edition has a donation note clearly in Payne’s hand. It is now crossed out but is legible as ‘Ex dono Petri Earle’. Who Mr Earle may have been, I admit I do not yet know.
But what of the objects Payne also gave? As my hospitable host in Christ Church, Cristina Neagu, taught me, the scientific instruments held there had been sent on long-term loan to the Museum of the History of Science on Broad Street. They have an excellent on-line catalogue and it did not take much searching to narrow down the possibilities for the ‘instrumentum aeneum’ to one item, a bronze sector made to Gunter’s design in the 1620s and 1630s. The term ‘concauum marmortum’ confused me more and even when I turned to those with expertise, there was further scratching of pates. It took some lateral thinking to find in the same Museum’s on-line catalogue something which could answer to a ‘marbled concave’: it is described as a ‘concave marble disc, for lens polishing?’. The interrogative suggests the cataloguer’s own uncertainty when faced with the object, as does the proposed date of ‘c. 1700?’, which, we can now know, postdates its shaping by over half a century. But that cataloguer was probably not the first to be perplexed by the object — having discovered its identity, it struck me that a similar uncertainty most likely affected the librarian who had to record it in Christ Church’s donation book and, more used to listing paper volumes by their title, could think of no better phrase for what sat on his desk before him than ‘concauum marmortum’. Even the donor’s own lifetime, part of his gift may not have been fully appreciated.
At least, for the librarian, our little manuscript had the advantage of being within his comfort zone. But where does it sit within the rationale Payne must have had for his gifts? The answer is that, in the context of works of science and of Greek and Italian texts, it does not fit. But that is not a negative answer but rather a revelation in itself: the way that a manuscript could be bought as a curiosity, rather than being central to a collection. It rather puts a palaeographer’s interests into a corner.
In short, what we have in these gifts is a tension between two concepts of the library, one which sees it primarily as a stock of books, some new, many old, while the other sees it as a repository of knowledge in all its forms, with an emphasis in novelty and innovation. The latter concept — that of Payne — did not, of course, win out, some might be pleased to remember.