bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Lectio probatoria, cave lector

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 19 March, 2013

Yes, yes, I know. I have been silent for too long, leaving my audience shuffling in their seats uncomfortable at this Cagey performance. I did warn you when I started this site that I have neither the character nor the time to blog incessantly. But, by any standards, the hiatus since the previous post has developed from being a pregnant pause to a laboured silence. It is not, I would like to insist, because I have had nothing to say. Au contraire: several posts have been crafted in my mind, only to fail to be downloaded from brain to laptop. Perhaps their time will come or, more likely, they have been sent to the recycling bin of forgetfulness.

There is, however, one topic that has refused to be ignored and insists that I write something. My research in the last few days, in Oxford, London and Rome, has made me think about the uses and the limitations of the lectio probatoria: those intriguing and infuriating records in some medieval library catalogues of a terse extract, usually just the first word – if you are lucky, two or three – of a volume’s second folio (and so sometimes called the secundo folio). The practice of providing this information appears to have begun in Paris in the thirteenth century and became fairly common in France and in England (but, in contrast, very rare in Germany). The purpose of it is clear: while the opening of a text should always be the same, by the time a scribe and his pen come to the start of the next folio, it is unlikely that he will have reached exactly the same place as his exemplar or another copy to hand, and so the first words of that page can act as a diagnostic, identifying the specific volume where the title alone may not.

The use of such evidence in identifying extant manuscripts and so reconstruct their provenance is well recognised. Daniel Williman and Karen Corsano, in particular, have published studies using the lectio probatoria as a tool for manuscript provenance studies. More recently, James Willoughby has shown that the practice of recording the second folio continued into early print culture: this may seem, at first, nonsensical as what precisely marks out the (relatively) mass-produced printed book is that individual copies are not unique and all of one printing will begin each page with the same words. Yet, in defence of cataloguers who continued the practice, this did not, in the earliest decades of the new technology at least, have to worry them: several copies with identical layout may exist but only one was in their library and so the lectio probatoria remained a useful finding aid. And, as Willoughby explains, for the latter-day bibliographer, it can also be useful in helping identify precisely which printed edition the library owned: while multiple copies were identical, they were highly unlikely in their layout and thus their secundo folio to be exactly the same as the multiple copies of another printing.

But the historian’s use of the lectio probatoria has its limitations. There are obvious duds: the list-writer who records ‘et’ or ‘quod’ as the first word of the relevant page is providing the minimum of information which may not have been of much use then and is certainly not for our purposes. In other cases, the wording may still be fairly mundane but more revealing when combined with the knowledge of the text in the volume, which is usually the first piece of information listed. Yet, I have encountered cases where a search for the relevant phrase in the text cited suggests not it or anything like it occurs at an appropriate point early in the work. Either the cataloguer made a mistake or, as seems to be the case in some inventories, the text listed is not necessarily the first. This is the case with the indenture drawn up for the third and largest gift made by Humfrey, duke of Gloucester to Oxford University in 1444 (and which we know only from the copy recorded of it in the University’s Archives). My reconstruction of what happened is that the inventory-maker, working quickly, picked up the volume and (as was customary, because of the way clasps on bindings closed a book) opened it from the back, flicked through to find a title, and then moved to the beginning to record the lectio probatoria. What, then, he and other list-makers like him were providing was not a record of first work and second folio but a note stating that a manuscript included the cited work somewhere between its covers and, in addition, had the word or words recorded at its second folio.

The lesson from this is that to understand the evidential possibilities of the lectio probatoria, we first have to appreciate the particular modus operandi of that specific cataloguer. There are a couple of other rules of thumb that we need to follow and each can be introduced by a cautionary tale.

The first involves a manuscript of Juvenal, now in the Bodleian, that I was consulting last week. I was interested in it because it has been attributed to the collection of Robert Flemyng, dean of Lincoln (d. 1483), in whom I am interested as he was an early aficionado of humanist manuscripts, and himself a scribe competent in humanist cursive. The provenance of the manuscript – MS. Lat. class. e 30 –  has been reconstructed on the basis that the secundo folio agrees with the lectio probatoria of an entry in the 1474 catalogue of Lincoln College, Oxford, where it is stated that the book was given by Flemyng. The manuscript, a small mid-fifteenth-century Italian humanist product is the sort of volume that Flemyng could have picked up on his travels – but it has at the foot of its opening page two coats of arms, one of the Loredan family, the other suggested to be that of the Malipiero family (though the tinctures are wrong). This helps localise the manuscript to the Veneto; it is not impossible that Flemyng bought it second-hand but there is no other evidence to relate it to him – he does not, as he does in a good number of the other books he owned, annotate this volume. Nor does the present Oxford location help localise its earlier existence: we only know it was in England at the start of the twentieth century and may have been elsewhere before that. What is more, there is a problem with relying on the lectio probatoria as deciding evidence. Remember that this is a work of poetry, where the scribe has to respect line divisions. This obviously makes it much more likely than with a prose text that two manuscripts could have the same opening of the second folio. In such a case, the lectio is much less probatoria than we should like.

The second case I present to you (if any of the audience are still in the house) involves a Vatican manuscript for which Williman and Corsano have proposed a provenance. It is a copy of Vegetius the secundo folio of which accords with the lectio probatoria of a volume of that work as recorded in the 1389 catalogue of Dover Priory. This would be interesting evidence of the migration of manuscripts to Italy from England, except that the manuscript itself – MS. Vat. lat. 4492 – disproves the reconstruction by the fact that it was written in Rome in 1408. The book simply came into the world too late to be that recorded in the Dover listing. By the fifteenth century, then, at least two copies of the text Vegetius existed – at opposite ends of Europe – with the same secundo folio. An unlikely occurrence in a prose text, certainly, but one which, given the laws of probability, is going to happen in some cases.

What I want to emphasise in this case – and which is relevant to the Flemyng example as well – is a fact so obvious it should not need stating: the evidence of the first words of the second folio should not be taken in isolation. It cannot be used as a trump card, rendering all other known facts redundant. If it does not accord with the other information available, alarm bells should ring and another explanation must be sought.

This, though, is not to suggest that we should ignore the possibilities the lectio probatoria provide – we too often work with so little evidence, we cannot lightly dispense with this precious piece of proof. Indeed, we can probably make more use of them than we are accustomed to do. They can sometimes help us provide details about manuscripts that are no longer extant. I have enjoyed, on some occasions, identifying more precisely the opening contents of a volume from the record of the lectio probatoria. So, for instance, the first of Humfrey’s gifts to Oxford (made in 1439), one of the entries reads:

Item oraciones Tullii 2o fo. aut quelibet

Checking those two words, I realised that they came at the appropriate point in just one of Cicero’s orations, the Pro Sexto Roscio Amerino, a work which was re-found in 1415 by Poggio Bracciolini (a friend of ours from other posts on this site). The brief entry, then, demonstrates that the duke was providing classical texts which had been circulating for less than a quarter of a century. This much has subsequently been noted in print in an important article by Rod Thomson, but we can add further comment. First, the opening text was an unusual one, most of the copies of the ‘new’ orations choosing other speeches with which to begin. That nugget of information may help us reconstruct the origin of the copy that Humfrey owned. Second, the specific location of the words in the relevant text can give us some general sense of the size of the volume. It can only be general – the changes in possible shape combined with the varieties of scribal practice would not allow anything more exact – but, in this case, with the phrase falling just over 500 words into the oration, we are probably looking at a large quarto volume, perhaps something with between 20 and 25 lines to a page.

I provide that final example to suggest some of the possibilities of the lectio probatoria which are, as yet, underused. It may not be able to match as often as we would like a record with an extant manuscript – and we should use caution, respectful of other evidence and conscious of the type of text that we are studying – but it may well be able to give some insight into a volume that no longer exists. To put it another way: we are, perhaps, too keen to imagine it as a key to unlocking the secrets of what we do have, rather than recognising it as a peep-hole onto what we can no longer touch.

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