bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Postcard from Harvard III: when manuscripts are fragments

Posted in Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 28 April, 2018

My previous trips to the States have been so brief that I could take my jet-lag home with me. Indeed, one reason I was keen to have a month in Harvard was to find out what it might be like to experience the culture without walking around in a daze. The sense of disorientation I had on other occasions was only heightened by working with collections that are so different from those in many European libraries. There a certain organic nature with a medieval core supplemented by later additions allows the style of provenance research I enjoy. That is not possible in the New World but there are, I am learning, compensating pleasures. In particular, the nature of what was available for American collectors sheds light on the mores of the later modern book market in their own lifetimes and earlier decades. What follows is a discussion of one element of that.

The heyday of the destruction of manuscripts was undeniably the sixteenth century, when technological change and religious turmoil combined to make many books obsolete. The dismantling of books was not a new discovery — there had been a medieval tradition of recycling and reuse — and it certainly did not end then. In fact, we would be cocooning ourselves in comforting myths if we claimed it was not still a function of some corners of the rare books market. My intention today is not to consider the morality of that but to take two examples from the Houghton collection to think about past practice and the challenges they set us as researchers. The first case of dismantling comes from the turn of the eighteenth to the nineteenth century, while the second occurred about a hundred years later.

Cambridge MA: Houghton Library, MS. Typ. 171, fol. 1.

MS. Typ. 171 is a delightful little manuscript from the last decade of the fifteenth century or possibly the first three years of the sixteenth. Its decoration may not be top-notch but it is written in a stunning italic script, one which in the twentieth century inspired the style of the leading English calligrapher, James Wardrop. Evidence for this comes in the curatorial records for this manuscript, where there are two captions written by Wardrop himself (I think they would be worthy of being given their own manuscript shelfmarks).

James Wardrop’s captions for MS. Typ. 171.

As Wardrop’s first note states, the work included in this manuscript is by Adriano Castellesi — a cleric and, eventually, cardinal who merits a walk-on role in The Borgias, as he hosted the dinner at which Alexander VI was supposedly poisoned (the intended victim, it is said, was Castellesi himself). The short text Castellesi had produced in this manuscript was dedicated to Cardinal Francesco Todeschini Piccolomini, the future Pius III — this, then, is a presentation manuscript in a different style from that I discussed in the previous post.

One might think that this manuscript in its early binding was complete. Indeed, that it is the assumption one is clearly supposed to draw from the title written in a lunette on the upper board, which has the one word ‘Hadrianus’.

The lunette on the upper board of MS. Typ. 171.

 This, however, is a case of misdirection. The lunette is original, but the script here is later, attempting to look contemporaneous with the manuscript. There are two details which show that the volume was more substantial than it is now. The first is the binding itself is showing wear, partly because it is apparent that something has been removed from it. We know, in fact, how many leaves are missing: look at the foot of the first image above and you will see it says ‘117’. There is one folio before it, originally blank, which also has a number: ‘116’. There were, in other words, 115 folios within this binding.

We can say something more about this, thanks to Bill Stoneman, the curator at the Houghton who is as sharp-eyed as he is genial. He immediately recognised the numbering as in a style often seen in the manuscripts owned by Luigi Canonici. He did not add them himself; they were inherited from the previous generation, when they were provided by Jacopo Soranzo. In other words, this volume had its first 115 folios into the late eighteenth century — but they must have left soon after that. Why? Look again at that first image and see at the top the added number, in a hand of the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century: that demonstrates that this had become the first folio of a manuscript numbered 60 (later 70) in a collection.

When precisely did the dismantling occur? And what exactly was on those preceding leaves? I do not know the answer to either. The first detail may be difficult to pinpoint; the latter, with the co-ordinates we have, should be possible to discover. The obvious first place to look is the catalogue of the Canonici manuscripts now in the Bodleian. I am dreaming of having a night of insomnia when I can look through hoping to see the information ‘fol. 115’ jump out at me. What we can say is that it is highly unlikely to have been a work of Castellesi, since no other text by him from this period survives. That suggests that what we now have in Typ. 171 was the original presentation copy handed over without a binding. The binding was probably added soon after and brought together this work with one or more others which had been entirely independent of it — thus, the volume was a manuscript Sammelband.

The implication of this is that the lunette does not just misdirect, it positively deceives, giving the impression that this lone text in this binding was always intended to be so. It is not the only feature of the binding which is odd: as I mention in my description, the clips and clasps are the ‘wrong’ way around — that is, the clasps sit on the lower board, rather than as is expected on the upper. This too may be a sign that someone at some point was trying to confect a look for this codex, using original materials but with the purpose of making them look ‘ancient’ but with the result that they appear not quite how they would originally have been.

We cannot put a name to the person who did that but we can for the man responsible for our second example which is now MS. Typ. 486. This is a less resplendent volume and its script is unusually small for a littera antiqua but it is still attractive.

Cambridge MA: Houghton Library, MS. Typ. 486, fol. 1.

As you will see, it provides the life of Tiberius by Suetonius — in other words, one twelfth of his Vitae Caesarum. Most of the rest of the manuscript survives, as has been skilfully reconstructed by Christopher de Hamel in describing the largest part of it, now Bloomington: Lilly Library, MS. Ricketts 225. That includes the bulk of the biographies, but two other fascicules, in Cambridge (the Old World one) and Philadelphia, provide single lives, like that here in Cambridge (the New World one). De Hamel could name the person responsible for the dismantling of the original volume: it was J. J. Leighton, the London bookseller, working about 1902 or 1903. What makes this more remarkable is what he did to the first leaf of the section now in the Fitzwilliam: the opening page had the very end of the life of Julius Caesar and the start of that of Augustus. To make the small manuscript look more like it had its integrity, he erased the last lines of the Julius life, so that the page began with the initial and incipit of the Augustus. This was not merely separating parts out for extra profit; it was also vandalism.

In both the cases, the person doing the dismantling did not have an eye to posterity. They were not going to work with the intent of fooling later scholars — their interest was more immediate and more pecuniary. Yet, like forged charters made in the Middle Ages, they set us challenges and remind us to be wary of trusting what we see before us, lest we too are deceived. In that challenge, of course, lies part of the excitement of our work: it requires us not only to decipher the medieval production and use of the manuscript, but also to be conscious of the ways in which later interventions may mislead us, intentionally or not. I hope this post has suggested some of what we can truly call the tricks of the trade: the techniques used by generations to maximise profit, and some of the details which can help us unravel the results of their actions.

As is my wont, I have embedded above links to my draft descriptions of each of these manuscripts. I would, as always, welcome any feedback.


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  1. […] so that it was nearly hidden. A good example of this comes from another manuscript discussed in a previous post: a fascicule produced as a presentation gift of behalf of its author, Andrea Castellesi. The […]

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