bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Postcard from Harvard IV: a little witness to English humanist interest

Posted in Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 3 May, 2018

The manuscripts I have discussed so far have all been easy on the eye (as they say). The subject of today is not. Indeed, seated on the shelves alongside gorgeously illuminated presentation manuscripts, this codex might feel embarrassed by its appearance. That it is pocket-sized is not that unusual, but that it is written cursively on quires that are encarté (paper except for the outermost and central bifolia which are parchment) suggests that this was a volume on which little expense was spared. Nor can it claim to be a textual rarity — it provides a copy of a fifteenth-century bestseller, Leonardo Bruni’s new translation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. For me, though, this small workaday volume is gold dust in the library.

Cambridge MA: University of Harvard, Houghton Library, MS. Lat. 286, fol. 1 – the opening of Bruni’s translation of Aristotle’s Ethics.

The manuscript does not exclude any explicit statement of where or when it was produced but its evidence — palaeographical, philological and codicological — is revealing. James Hankins in his listing of Bruni manuscripts in North America correctly states that it was made in England. This is apparent from the pen-flourished initials, the script of the main text (which shows substantial continental influence) and of the textual corrections, which are by another hand using some anglicana forms. Those corrections show that the copy was being checked against its prototype — a suggestion that, for all its appearance of low-grade production for personal use, this was created in a communal context, with some care to ensure a level of textual accuracy. Collating passages of the text suggest where that might have been: it has affinities with two manuscripts which have Oxford associations. Those two volumes, however, are probably later than this one. This is where the paper becomes important.

The scribe wrote on paper of one stock, with a watermark of a hand, the fingertips of which touch a half-moon. The information gathered in Piccard on-line shows that there was a fashion for this in at a few German papermills in the 1430s. Those who know about paper suggest that use often follows at most a few years after production, but they are thinking of mainland Europe. England, which relied (apart from the 1490s) entirely on imported paper, may count as a special case: with the travel and distribution times involved, we would expect the possible lead-in before use to be longer. Perhaps Orietta da Rold’s exciting project mapping paper in medieval England will shed further light on the average time-delay. Even, though, if we assume a couple of decades between production in the German-speaking lands and use in this manuscript in Oxford, that would place it soon after the mid-point of the century, and that may be a little late, judging from the script. We know that the Ethics translation was known in England from the early 1430s, at the latest — that is, within fifteen years of its composition — and it may be that we have before us an early witness for its English circulation.

In short, this unprepossessing codex is notable evidence for the interest in the humanist re-translation of Aristotle’s textbook of ethics in England. It joins six other manuscripts identified at present as being of English provenance. Beside them, there is the well-known incunable, printed in Oxford in 1479. We might want to think of that printed version as a new beginning, but we could also see it as a culmination of an Oxford interest in the text stretching back decades.

Here is my description of MS. Lat. 286. As always, comments welcome.

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  1. […] is not unusual to have the work by a humanist copied in a gothic script. Indeed, the previous post discussed one such manuscript produced in England. The Houghton’s MS. Lat. 170 is a […]


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