bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Postcard from Harvard X: where’s the catch?

Posted in Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 4 June, 2018

This final report from my recent time at Harvard’s Houghton Library comes to you like one of those sets of holiday photos that returning travellers foist upon their unwitting ‘friends’. Not, truth be told, that I have many snaps of Cambridge or of Boston — too many hours were spent in the library for that, you see — but what I can provide is a sequence of images of one codicological feature.

Trawling through the humanist manuscripts in the Houghton’s enviable collection, it struck me that they provided an interesting range of examples of how scribes in the fifteenth century ensured the correct order of the quires they were copying. As we know, scribes did not write into a bound volume but instead had loose gatherings in front of them and had to use some method for organising them. They inherited from gothic codices the practice of catchwords — that is, placing the first word of the next quire at the bottom of the final verso of the preceding one — but also looked back to ‘pre-gothic’ habits, some scribes re-introducing the use of quire signatures. The variety of techniques is well surveyed by Albert Derolez in his Codicologie humanistique of 1984, and I have no new finding to add to that. Instead, I want to allow the images to talk – and give them the opportunity to share with you a few more manuscript descriptions.

Let us start with a manuscript that was the centrepiece of my seventh postcard. While it is exceptional in many ways, in its placing and style of catchword, it reflects the most common practice.

Cambridge MA: Houghton MS. Typ. 447, fol. 179v – simple horizontal catchword in the gutter.


Cambridge MA: Houghton, MS. Typ. 5, fol. 30v (Florence, s. xv in.).

Cambridge MA: Houghton, MS. Typ. 429, fol. 50v (?Verona, 1471)

Sometimes, a horizontal catchword might placed more prominently, at bottom centre of the folio, and it may be given a little decoration to enhance it. Humanist copyists were often less playful than their gothic counterparts – there is something austere about the archaising aesthetic promoted by Poggio Bracciolini, as seen in MS. Typ. 5, illustrated to the left here. But, on rare occasions, the catchword is used to serve another purpose. So, in MS. Typ. 297 (for which I can furnish you with my own description), the scribe employs this feature to reveal his name, by providing it rather than a decorated surround at the end of successive quires. At the end of the second quarternion, he writes his Christian name, Johannes,  around the catchword proper; at the end of the third, ‘de camenago’ and, at the end of the fourth, an abbreviation for ‘scripsit’. Here is the first:

Cambridge MA: Houghton MS. Typ. 296, fol. 16v.

Horizontal, however, was not the only position. Some scribes preferred to use the inner bounding line of the page as their guide for the catchwords and would write it vertically.

Cambridge MA: Houghton, MS. Richardson 16, fol. 21v.

Cambridge MA: Houghton, MS. Typ. 143, fol. 20v.

You should just to be able to make out one on this image to the left – it appears faint because it is written in red (a sign, incidentally, that the scribe was working with two pens on his desk, providing this and the rubricated titles alongside the main text written in black). Vertical catchwords also could gain some decoration, as in the case of Houghton’s MS. Typ. 143.

In all the cases so far, the catchword has been obvious and, in the case of Johannes de Camenago, it was intended to reveal his identity, with a little more subtlety than a colophon would have done. For others, though, the art lay in the making this element as discreet as possible, 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 practice was fundamentally counter-intuitive: it takes the vertical direction but divorces it from its common-sensical support, the bounding line. It instead floats close the gutter – in that sense, by its very process of hiding, it calls attention to itself.

Cambridge MA: Houghton, MS. Typ. 171, fol. 21v.

In my experience, such artfully hidden-so-you-can-find-them catchwords are a late development in humanist culture; an earlier practice which minimalised the intervention was to replace the catchword with a quire signature, usually a capital letter.

Cambridge MA: Houghton, MS. Lat. 375, fol. 21v.

Cambridge MA: Houghton, MS. Lat. 266, fol. 88v.

Here are two examples of this habit, the one on the left by that leading inventor of italic, Bartolomeo Sanvito, at work in the late 1470s or early 1480s. The other manuscript was probably made in the second quarter of the century; here is a description of it.

This was an elegant alternative to the catchword and one which spoke of the humanists’ agenda of creating an aesthetic by looking back to a style that preceded the gothic. There are always, though, some who will be belts-and-braces. So, in a copy of Sallust which is Houghton’s MS. Typ. 181, there is a quire signature but this sat above a simple horizontal catchword that has been cropped. As the manuscript is in an Italian binding of the fifteenth century, the cropping must have been contemporary, so the intention was to hide the catchword but leave the quire signature on display.

Cambridge MA: Houghton, MS. Typ. 181, fol. 40v.

The art of the catchword did not die with print. In one of Houghton’s incunables, printed in Roman type that imitated the humanists’ reforms in 1471, and soon after decorated in the humanists’ favoured bianchi girari style, an early user has added vertical catchwords by hand.

Cambridge MA: Houghton, INC 3346 fol. 1

Cambridge MA: Houghton INC 3346, catchword added

Print, of course, developed its own practices, both of signatures and of catchwords — the latter were placed horizontally but not at the end of each gathering and instead at the end of each page (a reflection of how the text was printed on sheets which were then folded and, if necessary, cut up). That development later infected scribal habits, when a copyist like the great Esther Inglis wanted to show that she was aware of what print did and could do them just as well, even when they were not essential to her art.

What are we to draw from all these examples? You will have your own thoughts, and I would like to hear them. I myself will highlight two basic but important features. First, for the humanists, their reform of the book was not simply about script; it was a conception of the whole page, that worked with existing traditions but re-shaped them to create what they saw as an elegant – and eloquent – page. More generally, these examples should remind us that scribes express themselves not just on the line but deep in the margins; they expect to be seen even in places where people are not expected to look. The pragmatic implication is that the palaeographer must also be a codicologist – these habits can help us identify individual scribes and their milieu.

Finally, as I end my series of ‘postcards’, let me conclude with a thank-you to all the staff of the Houghton Library, who were a model of helpfulness, running an astounding collection. To spend time in their company — both the books and the staff — was a privilege. To all, I say, plurimas gratias vobis ago.


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