bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

The Wondrous Variety of Fragments

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 27 June, 2022

Have I ever mentioned how spell-binding manuscript fragments can be? Even if I have — and maybe I have once or twice — it is worth repeating. I can do it with just one example, which I was asked to discuss on the Picture This blog of Canterbury Cathedral Archives.

I do appreciate that the claim of being ‘spell-binding’ might cause hollow laughter in some quarters. In fact, anyone who has had to pore over a scrappy bit of parchment with kakographic handwriting from an obscure text would be likely to curse rather than to praise — likely to wish that the book had disappeared completely. But part of the fascination of fragments is the sense that they are a doorway, left just a little ajar, so we can peep through and make out in the distance how much there is which is beyond our certain knowledge. Just do not step into the wardrobe and close the door behind you.

Or fragments are the flickers of flames on the back of the cave. We conjure with the shadows they throw.

And what shadows. This is my point for today: the plurality of the fragmentary. This is the case in terms of shape and location and of previous use. It also pertains to their origins. So, the example I have recently discussed elsewhere involves a printed book which combines one pastedown from an incunable of Cicero and one from a medical manuscript, at least a century and a half older. In the space I had, I could only touch on the various questions this raises. We know that binders fairly often brought together pieces from different books to help finish a new binding they were making, but how did this work? Was there a conscious desire for variety or was it merely about what caught their eye at the specific moment when they wanted something? The variety of ‘waste’ which must have stuffed the binding shop must have been the epitome of the gallimaufrical — and these two fragments do not reflect the full range. Both could reflect a university’s educational programme at different points in its history, but what was available also included the biblical, the liturgical, the devotional, and then also the documentary and, yes too, the blank. We are aware of this variety if we survey large collections of surviving complete books but, I suggest, fragments make this eclecticism all the more immediate, as it places them into close proximity, and creates unexpected harmonies and imperfect cadences.

So, read that blog-post and tell me: are you beginning to be persuaded?

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The fragmentary is the norm

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 20 September, 2021

In these autumnal days, a return to normality is a fashionable topic — or (as the conversation often goes) perhaps it is the arrival of a new, subtly different, normality. One feature which suggests that times they are a-changing back again is the revival of in-person academic conferences, albeit masked and capped, and with no physical proximity (until the conference dinner). I have just returned from one such event, From Fragment to Whole, organised by the University of Bristol’s Centre for Medieval Studies, and an invigorating day it was. At this near-normal event one of the repeated propositions was about normality itself: that, in manuscript studies, the fragmentary is the norm.

It was a claim with which I began my own paper; it is probably one which you consider needs its truth to be proven. What I can say is that, in my experience, an historic collection (a cathedral’s, or a college’s) is usually defined by this characteristic: it holds several handwritten codices which give the ostensible impression by their solidity of each being whole; however, if you inspect them closely, it will become clear that some begin or end in medias res, in others the texts are disrupted by loss of leaves, while some are otherwise not pristine because of damage or wear or vandalism or, indeed, repair (for instance, when cropping with rebinding has removed marginalia) — and are, in some way, now less than originally envisaged. These, indeed, are so numerous that they tend to form the majority of the collection. What is more, this relates only to those items with shelfmarks that begin ‘MS.’; in most libraries of several centuries standing, there are also early printed books, and it is likely that some of those have signs that, as part of their early modern binding, include manuscript ‘waste’ — or did once include them: there may now be only some offset and, if one is lucky, these pastedowns, flyleaves and reinforcing strips will be collected together in a guardbook, itself is given a MS number. A library, in other words, might have an integrity in itself but this whole is a home to the fragmentary.

My challenge to you is to provide an example of an historic collection where this does not hold true. Before you rush to respond, let me provide three further points: a counter-balance, an implication and a more philosophical query.

The counter-balance relates to what, for me, is one of the delights of working with manuscripts. We might say that they begin to decline from their original completeness from the point of production — that their history is an unavoidable move from whole to fragmentary — but we would also have to admit that their completeness can also be increased: they gain accretions through the addition of further items or the insertion of notes of ownership or by the interventions of readers, and the attempts to elongate its life, and to save that ‘original completeness’ often involves medieval or later conservation work which might replace its binding and add to it extra leaves which can themselves then receive written words or passages of whole texts. The endpoint of a manuscript’s production is rarely the point when it stops coming into being: the shape it takes before us is not the result of a single movement but of generations of interactions with it.

The implication can be briefly stated: not all that is fragmentary is a fragment. A manuscript which has had its initials cut out but appears otherwise complete is fragmentary in the text it provides but would hardly constitute ‘a fragment’. What precisely we might mean by that noun was the subject of stimulating discussions at the conference. How we might go about this was the subject of Daniel Sawyer’s paper, in which he noted the earlier comments on this by Peter Kidd. What became apparent was that there was a difference of perspective in the room on the basis of disciplinary research: for those with primarily literary interests, the fragment was an incomplete textual unit, even when it was intentionally inserted into a manuscript as an excerpt or abbreviation. For those of us approaching the material with a focus on the codicology, we conceptualise a fragment as something more exiguous. Literally, the term implies a remnant of breaking up, though, as I noted in my paper, some instances we would define as fragments were born that way: the writing out of a text which was abandoned because of an imperfection or redundancy, but survives because it was recycled, often as flyleaves in a medieval binding. Despite such cases, we can provide a definition that unites all the examples: we imagine a fragment to be an out-take, the remains of what was either intended to be a larger project or produced as one. We are inclined, then, to reserve the term ‘fragment’ for a leaf or a bifolium which shows signs of being re-used. Yet, as Daniel Sawyer, also said, we have to be aware that in wider parlance, a certain vagueness is bound to remain and is unlikely to be radically revised by academics’ attempts at reform. Given this, my reflection is that we should not waste effort on trying to police the terms but instead take care to using qualifying phrasing so we can clarify the sense each of us is employing them (so we might talk of a ‘part-leaf fragment’, say).

The question I have for you is, in fact, the primary reason for writing this post: why should the obvious truth that fragmentary is the norm need stating? Why might it surprise us? My hypothesis is that, in Western culture, we have a deep-seated commitment to the concept of the whole. In my talk, I suggested it was a latent neo-Platonism: if we can perceive that there might be a Platonic form of the manuscript, the fragment would surely be at several removes from that perfection — a mark of severe defect. For sure, there is also a Romantic tradition of prizing the ruin, with its sense of what was or might have been, and that undoubtedly feeds part of the attraction of fragments. Yet, even that ruin-lust plays with ideas of the once-whole or even the future-whole. What, I wonder, happens if we accept the evidence of how the ‘whole’ in manuscript terms is neither common nor the intended nature of the object — it is, as I have said, expected to mutate, to gain and to lose — and take the next step: dispense with the assumption that the world is made up of the complete or is some way complete in itself.    

My sense, at this moment, is that, if we did take that step, it would not immediately have a significant effect on how we work when we describe fragments. There could be changes in some details — for instance, as I have explained elsewhere, with a fragment, there is a use to measuring the space between the lines and the height of minims, and that might usefully be done for all manuscripts. A more substantial change would be to provide internationally agreed permanent identifiers for manuscripts digitally reconstructed from disparate fragments; again, I have commented on this before and suspect I will do again. This would have some wider consequences but still would have a relatively minor impact. Much more important would be the shift in our perspective. It would not simply be a case of releasing ourselves from assuming a fragment is a ‘failed manuscript’. It would encourage us to begin from the assumption that any manuscript we have before us, however weighty it may seem, is not to be interpreted merely as a ‘whole’. In this way, ‘fragmentology’ would not be a small field of study but, instead, working with fragments will help us revitalise manuscript studies more generally. How would that shift manifest itself? I have my own thoughts, as will be clear from what I have written elsewhere, but I would like to hear how you might take up this proposition and deploy it yourself.

Tower or Babel
Marten van Valkenborch, ‘Tower of Babel’, c. 1600 (private collection)

Ker’s Pastedowns online

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 23 April, 2021

St George’s Day is celebrated in several countries around the globe — Ethiopia, Georgia, Portugal for example. In 2021, there is another reason to consider it a red-letter day: it sees the launch of the online edition of Ker’s Pastedowns in Oxford Bindings, with its supplements.

I have discussed before on this site the remarkable nature of Neil Ker’s work on manuscript fragments. You may notice that post was written in March 2018 when I announced my aim of producing an online edition of Pastedowns. It has taken some time to secure funding but heatfelt thanks are due to the Bibliographical Society of London and to the Oxford Bibliographical Society — the original publishers of Ker’s volume — for providing the support which allowed me to enlist the help of James Willoughby for organising the data into a spreadsheet and Tom Gillett of We Write the Web for making the technology work.

Only two points remain for me to say now, one of them minor, one of them of more significance. The first is to explain why the online edition is introduced to the world with the sobriquet POxBo. Pastedowns is best known by its author’s surname (even if there are disagreements about how to pronounce it) and his name is used for the website’s search function. We could not, however, publicise it as ‘Ker’ for two reasons. First, this is only one publication among many with which he is intimately associated, and those who studied pre-Conquest vernacular literature, for instance, will think of something else when they hear his name. Second, POxBo includes not solely his work but also the supplement published in 2000 by David Pearson as well as the corrigenda and addenda provided to the OBS reprint of the volume in 2004, compiled by Scott Mandelbrote and someone called David Rundle. I would like to thank Dr Pearson for allowing us to include his supplement in this database.

POxBo, then, is intended to signify that we are working with the tradition established by Neil Ker but are not confined to his 1954 volume. I do appreciate that, for other Ker projects, the expectation is that there should be a four-letter acronym: MMBL or MLGB, though the latter is now online as MGLB3. Following its lead, our abbreviation is five characters long because I wanted to emphasise a key feature of the work which is sometimes overlooked: its remit was not to collect together all fragments reused in bindings but only those pastedowns found in Oxford bindings of the sixteenth and early seventeenth century. That was because the habit of using manuscript ‘waste’ for pastedowns lasted longer there than elsewhere in England and because the scholarship available on bindings from that university town allowed a plotting of the development of the practice with some precision.

This last comment relates to the more important thought I want to share. POxBo exists partly because there is an enduring use to Ker’s listing of fragments which is increased by making it searchable online, with all its supplements included. There is, though, another rationale and that is a sense that we have not yet fully understood how useful his work can be.

It is pleasing to see that a manuscript catalogue of an institution cannot appear now without due regard to the fragments in the collection. In many cases, however, the fragment alone is mentioned, with reference to its number in Ker’s Pastedowns. There is less attention paid to the binding from which it came but this provides crucial evidence. The date of publication of the printed book and the tools used to stamp the binding can provide a narrow date-range for when the manuscript from which the fragment comes was dismantled. This is crucial evidence for its history.

Why might this information be overlooked? A cataloguer might respond that their interest is in the fragment itself not in its wider context. Or they may point out that traditional practice privileges the medieval history of medieval manuscripts, with less attention given to what happened to them after c. 1540. They might also with justice provide the defence that they cannot include everything. I have come to realise how superhuman the challenge of cataloguing a manuscript fully can be: it requires more eyes than Osiris had. I do want us, however, to reflect on the fact that cataloguing often considers a manuscript from the standpoint of its creation, rather than its later life. What I am urging is that we look back from the present moment and focus on unravelling how the codex in front of us — either whole or in small parts — has come to be how it is.

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The Renaissance Reform of the Book and Britain — in one word

Posted in Humanism, Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 30 April, 2019


If you had to summarise your book in one word, what would it be? The Renaissance Reform of the Book and Britain has its official publication date on 2nd May 2019. I have, then, been giving some thought to what my response to the question would be and I think the answer is: cosmopolitanism.

I appreciate that some might me to justify my use of that word. I employ the term in its general sense of involving people from different countries but, the remit of my book, with its cast-list which ranges from St Andrews to Rome and from Majorca to Milan, is rather narrower than the word’s little sense. My use of the concept cannot have the worldwide reach that cosmopolitanism has in present-day philosophy. I could defend my profligate deployment of the term by noting that Diogenes the Cynic, the first person on record to claim he was a cosmopolite, envisaged a world that did not include the Americas or Australasia. I could also point out that The Renaissance Reform draws attention to how humanists saw the British Isles as at the very edge of the world — but I could not claim that those humanists’ vision was so myopic that it stopped at the Mediterranean or that it was oblivious to cultures beyond Western Christendom. Indeed, the interaction of ‘the West’ (as defined by obedience to the pope) with Eastern Christendom impinges on the book’s discussion. Moreover, a sense of the edges of a civilization is intentionally at the borders of its coverage. All that said, The Renaissance Reform cannot pretend to be a contribution to the global Middle Ages. Perhaps, if I had my time again, I might replace ‘cosmopolitan’ with ‘Europolitan’ — a citizen of Europe (with the inclarity of its definition being productive) — except that I see that term has already been appropriated by a Swedish mobile phone company, and I would not want to infringe their copyright.

The emphasis on cosmopolitan in the book is a challenge. The theme of the work is the re-design of the manuscript book, in script and layout, promoted by Florentine humanists at the very start of the fifteenth century and its success among the British. That statement in itself is a provocation, since it is usually assumed that humanism reached England, at its earliest, in the reign of Henry VII and only found glorious summer under the sun of York and Lancaster combined, Henry VIII. In contrast, I insist that there was a sustained tradition of interest from the 1430s which should qualify to be called ‘the English Quattrocento’. This is not to say that the tradition was the sole preserve of roast-beef-eating English-born, or that it grew solely in English soil. On the one hand, there were many immigrants who were central to the promotion of the humanist agenda in England — with the most significant being not Italians but Dutch scribes. On the other, there were Englishmen and Scots who were active in the humanist reforms in their heartland of Italy. These Britons were part of a wider pattern of engagement which, I claim, was integral to the success of the humanist aesthetic for the book. I would go further and say that some were significant not merely in its propagation but in its construction. That is to say, this Renaissance reform originated with a coterie of Florentines but it gained its popularity through international collaborators. The leitmotif was cosmopolitanism at not just the edges of Europe but what was to Italian eyes its epicentre.

Oxford: Balliol College, MS. 310 fol. 32v — Letters of Leonardi Bruni, written in England by the Dutch scribe, Theoderic Werken (1449).

This assertion, for which I give evidence in the monograph and other recent publications, raises a question: why would non-Florentines or non-Italians adopt a script designed to be a local reaction against ‘gothic’ (that is northern European) influence? We tend to see in the humanist bookhand as immersed in a particular set of cultural co-ordinates: the legacy of ancient Rome with its physical presence in Italy (though not much in Florence itself), the humanists’ attempts to revive eloquence both textually and visually. Yet this — I hypothesise — was not primarily what other Europeans saw on the page when viewing a book in the new ‘Roman’ hand. Here, I take cosmopolitan to mean ‘the world’ not in a simple synchronic sense of how it is now but also encompassing its shared inheritance. The humanists, in developing their reform they turned to prototypes of the eleventh and twelfth century — to late caroline minuscule or ‘protogothic’ bookhand. Such prototypes were not, of course, Italian patrimony alone: caroline minuscule, emanating from north-east France and beyond, had been successful across Europe, and ‘protogothic’ had thrived near the shores of the English Channel. That is to say, what non-Italians saw when they looked upon the ‘new’ script, created in its very particular local circumstances, was an acknowledgement of a tradition in which they could see themselves as full partners.

The humanist reform, however, was not a single moment. The bookhand itself developed — in part, thanks to the intervention of ultramontanes. Equally, there was also a ‘second wave’ when, in the north-east of Italy in the mid-quattrocento, what we know of ‘italic’ was invented. That very name, foisted on the script by French and English, suggests its Italian origins, and it worked on viewers in a very different way from the ‘Roman’ hand, since there was not for this any historic precedent to which it returned. While the humanist bookhand was archaising, italic was archaising by metaphor. The result was that this later script’s international success worked differently and was, in its first decades, more dominated by Italians. In The Renaissance Reform, this is presented as a shift in cosmopolitanism but it could be configured otherwise: as a move from Europolitan to Italophile.

Lot 951 - A rare letter to Da Vinci’s patron, with a full signature HENRY VII: (1457-1509) King of England

A royal letter of 1506, signed by Henry VII, written in italic by Pietro Carmeliano (private hands).

As will be clear from what all that I have said, the field of action for this cosmopolitanism is the page. In that sense, detecting it is akin to the sensitivity art historians show to the multiple cultural contacts that shape a Renaissance painting or miniature. In palaeographical terms, cosmopolitanism can stand as a conceit for digraphism or polygraphism. The Renaissance Reform discusses the movement between scripts, and the adoption of humanist elements in gothic scripts; it also muses on how far we can sense a conscious rejection of the reforms when a bookhand shows no humanist influence. I also invoke at one point the concepts of code-switching and code-mixing, but an implication of what I have just said is that, while these may be separate ‘codes’, they could announce, to some eyes, their shared origin, speaking of one graphic tradition that has ramified into many forms.

It could be legitimately said that the ‘some’ just mentioned are only ‘a few’. The Renaissance Reform is very clear that it is talking about a minority among a minority. Most of its characters stood out from the many who were born in the same village or town because these people were highly mobile across Europe. They also were the privileged because they were highly literate, in societies that were majority-illiterate. Cosmopolitanism — citizenship of this ‘world’ — was only for the select. At the same time, a theme that underlies this book is a sense that they themselves sensed their special status and that some were humbled by it. Some, I suggest, took it less as a badge of pride than as a spur to think on the poverty of their own literacy and, indeed, on the limits of their own cosmopolitanism.

How (not) to describe a manuscript’s weight

Posted in Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 3 March, 2019

Canterbury, Monday 4th March 2019: a day of delights for manuscript-lovers. There are two related events taking place to celebrate the cathedral’s purchase at auction in July 2018 of a so-called pocket Bible from the thirteenth century. The book was most recently in the Schøyen Collection (as no. 15) when it had a short title of ‘Canterbury Bible’; it was advertised at the sale as the ‘Trussel Bible’, after an early owner whose name is still present at the opening flyleaf; since its purchase, it has changed name again, now being the ‘Lyghfield Bible‘, after a monk of Christ Church, Canterbury through whose hands it passed. It will feature in the Cathedral’s Annual Library and Archives Lecture given on Monday evening by the redoubtable Alixe Bovey. Before that extravaganza, there will be a workshop organised under the auspices of the University of Kent’s Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies by my dynamic colleague, Emily Guerry, and myself.

Canterbury: Cathedral, MS. Add. 392 – the Lyghfield Bible

In preparing for the workshop, I have spent some hours in close company with the Bible and written a short post introducing some of its interesting aspects. As I explain there, it is certainly of a small page-size and is eminently portable, but you would have to have had well-lined and very large pockets to be able to carry it. To bring this home to readers, I thought I should provide its weight and the ever-obliging staff at the Cathedral Archives unearthed some scales. There is an established tradition of describing the weight of a manuscript by relation to some animal: the locus classicus is R. L. S. Bruce-Mitford’s assertion that the Codex Amiatinus (34.25kg) is as heavy as ‘a fully grown female Great Dane’. In similar spirit, let me tell you that the Lyghfield Bible has the approximate weight of a small duck-billed platypus. Imagine having one of those in your pocket.

From the information I have given, you will gather that the Bible weighs 700g. Or, more likely, it will not have been transparent to you. Unless you enter your platypus in the village fete’s ‘how heavy is my pet’ competition, or are given to lifting canine weights, then the comparisons are useless. There is, though, a serious point. We are accustomed, in codicological descriptions, to giving the measurements of the page and written space or ruled space (the two can be different). I have become convinced that the formula fashionable in Italy presents that best:

height x width of page = (upper margin + [height of written space] + lower margin) x (inner margin + [width of written space) + outer margin)

That is because it ensures that the placing of the text-block on the page is clarified — and some of my recent research suggests that the placing is culturally specific so useful to record. These details, though, are perhaps not the only co-ordinates worth noting. I cannot think of cases where the breadth of a book’s spine is mentioned, and to note its weight is unusual, a reflection of it being out of the ordinary. Perhaps we should change that, and so make reference to it less of an eccentricity.

Note of clarification: no animals were harmed or even weighed in the preparation of this post.

The stories manuscript tell: Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

Posted in Exhibitions, Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 28 October, 2018

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms is monumental. The British Library has become accustomed to putting on ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions that cram its gallery with items — and visitors — to the point of sensory overload: feasts for the eyes which go beyond an elegant sufficiency. At the end of any show, its curator must have an acute feeling of the passing of a moment, but when this exhibition closes, something more will happen. Never before has it been possible to look at the Exeter Book and the Vercelli Book side-by-side, or to stand looking at the diminutive Cuthbert (formerly Stonyhurst) Gospel and then turn to ninety degrees to see the outsize Northumbrian masterpiece, the Codex Amiatinus. A sweep of manuscripts that takes us from the first known book in England, the St Augustine Gospels, to Great Domesday, and beyond, with the exhibition’s coda being a stupendous case placing the Utrecht, the Harley and the Eadwine Psalters in dialogue with each other. An exhibition where the Lindisfarne Gospels are reduced to a walk-on part, upstaged by the Book of Durrow and the Echternach Gospels near by them. Those who saw the Bodleian’s recent Designing English will be insouciant about the Alfred Jewel and the Alfredian translation of Gregory the Great being together (and, in truth, Oxford did that combination better) but they will not have had the chance see the treaty between Alfred and Guthrun close by, or Beowulf in the same rooms, or items from the Staffordshire Hoard. Plus, mingling with books and objects, there are single-page letters and charters which enliven and deepen the story. Never before and, given the ravages of time exacerbated by the present resurgence of petty nationalism, most likely never again. When the curators oversee the exhibition being dismantled, it will be difficult for them not to have a tear in their eye because they will know that something unprecedented is being irrecoverably lost. Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms is not, in the usual publicity parlance, a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience; it is once in the life of the world.

This is an exhibition, then, that cannot be judged by the usual standards. If it were, we might set the litmus test: does it make best use of the materials to hand for its stated aim? How good is it at telling the story of the English lands from the fifth to the eleventh century? I am not the person to answer that, and not just because my expertise lies much later than the Anglo-Saxon period. I have only, so far, had chance to make one visit of two-and-a-half hours. I will surely appreciate different elements when I return again and, hopefully, again. On this first occasion, my palaeographical interest informed my viewing: there before me, in the flesh, were so many of the manuscripts that I have mentioned to students and encouraged them to study, online or in reproduction. It was like having a bibliography of must-see manuscripts that reside on disparate shelves all flutter down and come to rest in one place. This makes it for me and (I have heard tell) for other scholars, an exhibition with a massive emotional punch. I admit all those points but, at the same time, I believe the items themselves dictated my response: in the vast majority of cases, each manuscript opening was so rich with information that it commands your focus, only for its neighbour to redirect you, at which point you step back and appreciate the contrasts and the comparisons between that coupling. And so on, taking the manuscripts and charters as small groups, sometimes separated between cases, sometimes making you move back and forth in the rooms to the annoyance of others present. That is to say, I did not so much ‘take in a show’ as wallow in its exhibits.

Not all the manuscripts hold equal allure: Beowulf is an unprepossessing volume, whose attraction is perhaps enhanced by the damage it suffered in the Cottonian fire of 1731. But why it should contrast substantially with the grandeur of others shown before and after it in these rooms is itself an interesting question. In other words, while the layout of the gallery encourages a singular linear progress, the items on display propose other itineraries: they encourage you to make the museumscape your own. I emphasise this because it provides for me a partial solution to a problem I have with exhibitions of manuscripts. Here is the issue: a book is not an art object in the same way as a painting or a statue — those latter artworks are intentionally single and, in the right conditions, can be observed as a whole. The virtue of a book, in contrast, is that it is plural, that it is intended to be picked up and its pages turned: it has kinetic energy. To put this another way, it is less an object than a performer. When it becomes an object is as part of a gathering of books: a library impresses by the quantity of packed shelves, and teases by its owner taking out just one of the volumes and opening it before you. The library offers the possibility of reading, but the exhibition display (as we know it) cannot. It reduces the books to being like other art objects; it captures these performers in tableaux.

So, for me in an exhibition of manuscripts, there is often a frustration at the static presentation of these mobile, plural items. That, though, would be too begrudging when faced with what is, in effect, the ultimate pop-up library, an unrepeatable conglomeration of outstanding codices. Each, yes, is forced into a single pose but at least each is open alongside others. As a palaeographer, I would have preferred fewer openings highlighting illumination and instead ones foregrounding the fundamental artistry of a book which is its script. Yet, with what we have here there is so much to read, not simply in the sense of deciphering words but, more widely, in looking at the object. At the most basic level, this is about matters of size: the exhibition ranges from the pocket-book to the all-too-heavy Amiatinus. The sense of the individual shape — I was surprised by how relatively thick the Cuthbert Gospel was — is brought home by each being placed in relation to the others. Issues of magnitude relate also to the script used. Some of the opening cases bring in close proximity fragments of the letters of Cyprian (BL, MS. Add. 40165A), the earliest copy of the Rule of St Benedict (Bodleian, MS. Hatton 48) and the earliest known charter of English origin, made by Hlothhere, king of Kent, at Reculver in 679 (BL, MS. Cotton Augustus II 2). They are all in a script we would term uncial but the differences between them and, in particular, how small and delicate the module is of the charter’s writing, are what is most noticeable in how they are presented here.

London: British Library, MS. Cotton Augustus II 2 (top part), Reculver, 679

The history of script is very much on display: the grandeur of uncial and half-uncial; the practical importance of insular minuscule; its later replacement by what we know as Anglo-Saxon minuscule, itself increasingly informed by and challenged by the presence of caroline minuscule, and the changes that bookhand underwent at the masterful fingertips of Eadui Basan and Eadwine — these can be traced through the exhibition, if you care to find them. Attention is not drawn to these issues by the captions but what matters is the material is available to allow you to investigate these elements.


So, I will end these musings with two pleas. One is to future curators of exhibitions: you will not be able to repeat the unforgettable success of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms but when you are looking for a successor worthy of its achievement, do think of having an event which takes a single period in western history and looks at its manuscripts primarily through their scripts and, more generally, through their physicality. Such insights are necessarily there in the exhibition and perhaps providing visitors with suggested multiple itineraries would be one way of encouraging them to see the multiple perspectives this display allows. As it stands, the viewer needs to make the exhibition their own and so my second plea is to anyone going to London: be like walkers in the city and when you are in the gallery, find your own routes through it, not expecting to travel in one required direction but, instead, toing and froing through its riches. That assumes, of course, you do visit it. If what I have said has not been explicit enough, let me be clear: your grandparents could not imagine this event, your grandchildren will envy you your tales of it. Go, go, go.

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.

Postcard from Harvard IX: the genius of Esther Inglis

Posted in Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 23 May, 2018

You will all have had the experience of sending postcards late in a trip, with them arriving at their destination after your own return. You may even have travelled home with them and put them in a postbox round from your house. The last two postcards to result from my time as a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Houghton Library fall into this latter category, in as much as I am now in Oxford again and the warmth of my hosts in Cambridge MA is only a memory. In the case of both this post and the next, however, all the work was done across the pond, in the Yard of Harvard.

This penultimate instalment allows me to discuss an early modern scribe whom I met for the first time three or four years ago, in Christ Church, Oxford. I was handed a small volume, with a needlework binding, which I — like anybody else I have known who has looked at it — at first assumed was a printed book: it had all the presentational features of one, and the words looked too regular to be by any human hand. But turn over the pages and you realise that the plurality of styles of letters offered from opening to opening was just too various to be the work of a machine. Nor did the volume make any secret of how and when it was produced: it announced that it had been created in Edinburgh in 1599, for Elizabeth I of England, by the pen of Esther Inglis. I was smitten, and delighted that part of my role in the catalogue of Christ Church’s manuscripts assigned to be by the Keeper of Special Collections, Cristina Neagu, was to write a full description of the book, their MS. 180. It is now fully digitised, and the description is also on-line (though it is undeniably easier to read in the hard-copy volume, which is richly illustrated and ridiculously cheap for those joining the Oxford Bibliographical Society).

There has been much good work on Inglis, which has reconstructed her career and her oeuvre, as well as (more recently) thinking about the place of gender in the identity she projected. It is known that she was the daughter of Huguenot émigrés who settled in Edinburgh and that she was first taught to write by her mother. To say that she essayed the panoply of scripts proposed for emulation by men like Jean de Beauchesne is to understate her achievement  — her mastery went beyond that of any writing master. She was also prolific: from a career of about forty years, just over sixty examples of her work survive. Five of those are now in the Houghton Library. I could not pass up the opportunity to deepen my acquaintance with her and to study all of those while I was there. It was also relevant because a future project is forming in my mind, which will consider the transformation of bookhands after print, with Inglis as the endpoint of the discussion. What I discussed in the last post, on Beauchesne, and in this one will act as a first trial for some of the ideas I am developing. I will express these thoughts through a comparison between Christ Church’s MS. 180 and one of those at the Houghton, their MS. Typ. 212, which is also available on-line. It is a volume made in 1606 and, like the earlier one relates to the Book of Psalms — that made for Elizabeth providing the text in French, while the one at Harvard, presented to Thomas Egerton, England’s Lord Chancellor, has a set of Latin verse summaries of each Psalm.

Both similarities and differences between the two manuscripts are immediately apparent. They contrast in basics like the format, the later one preferring an oblong style to the upright rectangle of the earlier one. They share some text — the commendatory verses celebrating Esther Inglis and her skill are the same in both. The connexions and the distance between them is perhaps best summed up in two images:

Oxford: Christ Church, MS. 180, fol. viii.

Cambridge: Houghton Library, MS. Typ. 212, fol. 9v.



This comparison would suggest that the scribe’s self-presentation is essentially constant except with a move from monochrome to colour. There is a truth to that, though it hides a life-defining change for Esther: between the production of the two manuscripts, she became a mother. We do not know the exact date, but her child, Samuel, graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 1618, and so probably went up to university in 1615 – when his mother gave him a ‘thumb Bible’ of her own making which is also now at the Houghton (MS. Typ. 49 – remember when you look at it that each page is 46 x 32mm). As the age of matriculation was often between about twelve and fifteen, Samuel’s birth probably took place in the very first years of the seventeenth century, and, indeed, at that point there is a hiatus in Inglis’s scribal work.

It may be coincidental but I also sense an increased manipulation of her gender as part of her identity in the volume produced after her son’s birth. One element that I found interesting in the life of the 1599 manuscript was how it was part of a group of books that she made as gifts to leading figures in England, addressed to them in her name but to be delivered not by her — she remained in Scotland — but by her husband Bartholomew Kello. All the more striking, he himself was not permitted to present the gift for Elizabeth I but had to pass it to his patron, Anthony Bacon, who was himself a client of the earl of Essex. These specifics reinforce our established understanding of the intersections of gender hierarchies with those of social status, but a further detail caught my attention as I read the letters by Kello which allows us to reconstruct the narrative and which now live in the British Library: his script is fairly close to one variety practised by his wife, and it raised in my mind the question of whether she might have trained or influenced her husband’s writing.

I do not have a definitive answer to that, but a feature of the 1606 manuscript is relevant to this observation. In that volume, as in the earlier one, Esther inserts herself not just by a self-portrait and by transcription of verses in praise of herself, but by providing a dedication letter to the recipient, in French. What is different in 1606 is that this is followed by a second letter to the dedicatee, this one in Latin verse and signed at the end with the name of Bartholomew Kello. In other words, this manuscript presents itself as the result of a marital alliance. What is most notable, however, is that Bartholomew himself, though a competent penman, does not write ‘his’ letter: it is clear that Esther is the scribe and so his self-presentation is entrusted to her hands. What is on display here, in other words, is the product of a wife-husband team.

We might see this as going a little way to counter-balancing the prevalent social norms of gender relations. We might also want to interpret what follows in the manuscript as expressive of a particularly feminine identity, the range of delicately written scripts set off, on every recto, by the painting, in colour, of a flower (occasionally with a tenderly depicted animal). Perhaps there is an element of that, but I think the more significant intention is also a more complex one. Some of these images replicate and all (I would suggest) echo the title-page of the volume, where they form a border placed on a gold background.

Houghton Library, MS. Typ. 212, fol. 1.

What I find interesting here is that the style of illumination harks back to one that was popular a century earlier. Let me direct your attention to just one set of examples, in manuscripts produced for Thomas Wolsey near the end of the 1520s, and so a relatively late but particularly fine instance of the style. It would seem that Esther Inglis has become acquainted with manuscripts in this mode and was keen to engage with them. The result was essentially archaising (in that fecund term of Malcolm Parkes) and that, I would suggest, was her conscious purpose. The change between 1599 and 1606 was that Inglis had moved forward from creating a manuscript that looked identical to a printed book (but better) by looking beyond print and back to the tradition of manuscript-making. She presented herself as that tradition’s inheritrix.

As that final noun demonstrates, her identity as a ‘rarissima foemina’ (as she is called in one of the laudatory verses), was entwined with her role as a witness to the continuing possibilities of scribal production. Against the pattern of mechanical book-making in a printing-house, where men’s muscles mattered as much as their minds, her work hints at a different model of creativity, not one of a single female genius but of a family unit — a family unit, however, where the woman takes her central role. The 1606 volume ends with a motif of a crowned laurel wreath, with crossed pens and the motto ‘Vive la Plume’. In ribald humour, ‘la plume’ can be the penis, but who gives birth to that? A traditional talent, displaced in the brave new world of a mechanised economy, has to be protected and to be nurtured to survive for the next generation. The implication is that for the pen to flow, it needs the generative power of a woman, a wife, a mother.

Houghton Library, MS. Typ. 212, fol. 100.

Postcard from Harvard VIII: what to do with a blank page

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 15 May, 2018

Nuremberg Chronicle (1493), fol. 259. Image from Cambridge University Library:

Here is my latest ruse to make you read: a page blank except for a running header of printed letters. It may well look familiar to you. Certainly, Bill Stoneman, the curator here in the Houghton, immediately recognised it is as from the Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493. The reason for its presence is explained at the preceding verso, where the text of the history of the ‘sixth age of the world’ ends. The printers make a virtue of having space left within the gathering and provide this suggestion:

Nuremberg Chronicle, fol. 258v – detail.

They propose that future generations will ’emend and add’ to their volume by inserting further records; the pages are there so that readers can write — perscribere possunt. Just over eighty years after the book was published, one reader took them at their word. Not any reader but Jean de Beauchesne, a French native resident in England who was responsible for the first pattern book of scripts printed in London.

Cambridge MA: Houghton Library, MS. Typ. 232.

Beauchesne takes the opportunity to use the blank space to demonstrate that he can certainly write and more than that: he delights in his virtuosity in mastering a range of bookhands, ending by signing himself in mirror script (elsewhere he describes it as ‘by the left hand’ which raises other interesting questions); he dates his interventions to 1575. It does not appear, however, that he is adding to a page in situ in the volume. I say this not just because the curve of the pages in the bound book would make it difficult to achieve as smooth a movement of the pen as he does, writing remarkably steadily free-hand. It is also because he does not employ the verso, suggesting that the intention was for the page to appear flat as a set of specimens for others to admire and to imitate.

Why, though, would he cut out a page from a printed book and use it like this? There is an obvious practical reason: the quality of paper is good, thicker than much that he would have probably have found from mills in action in his own time. This, in itself, may have attracted him to it. But I asked myself — or, rather, I asked the learned curators and former curators in the Library here (I am here following the sensible injunction of Bridget Whearty to include those who make our work possible in our narratives) — why Beauchesne would retain the printed book’s running header. He could, after all, have disguised its origins by excising the top, without substantial loss to his writing space. That he did not, I suggest, was central to his purpose. Beauchesne wants us to notice the printed letters, wants us to realise from what book they came and wants us to think upon those implications. So, Jean, I will follow where you lead.

The printers of the Chronicle expected readers to write in their copies, personalising them. We have learnt from excellent scholars like Harvard’s own Ann Blair (whom I take this opportunity to thank for stimulating conversations during my short stay here) that the printed book was often considered unfinished, intended to be completed by the interactions it encountered with its owners and readers. Something like this is happening here but, at the same time, Beauchesne is intentionally going beyond the future the printers envisaged for their volume. They expected historical records to be entered but he deploys the smooth page undirtied by print for another possibility: to demonstrate the ongoing efficacy of script. He makes print cohabit with script and, in effect, to cede its place.

The consequence of what I am proposing is that Beauchesne’s act is highly self-conscious. If so, then, we might wonder whether his choice of texts is similarly conscious. As you will see from the image above, he opens, in a grand textualis bookhand, with two lines which translate as ‘a man’s three fingers write and the soul labours; who does not know how to write thinks there is no labour’. This is a variation on a colophon found in earlier medieval manuscripts in which the scribe emphasises the effort involved in their work; some examples show that the usual wording talked of ‘the whole body labouring’ instead of ‘the soul’. Beauchesne repeats the statement by translating it himself into French, in the second sample presented in a littera antiqua that can rival print in its static appearance. What I think he is doing is placing himself in a long tradition of scribal practice, making the printed running header conscious that they are a mere youngster in the presence of this millennia-old skill.

I will push this further and suggest that the next choice of text is, similarly, as pointed as a pen’s nib. It is a passage from the Vulgate, the opening of Proverbs 4, where the father instructs his son to listen to his advice and to seek wisdom. It is a suitably moral message of the sort that often appear in pattern books. At the same time, written above Beauchesne’s signature, it places him in the role of the wise father. But who is his son? Could it be that the child that needs to learn, that needs to follow the paternal precepts, is print itself? Is the suggestion that print continually needs to learn from the sagacity of script?

You may feel this is an overly inventive reading, but the next quotation gives it, I think, some credence. It is another Biblical quotation, this time the famous passage that opens Ecclesiastes 3 – ‘To everything there is a season…’. In the context of the page’s original context, it would have been highly apt, as the histories in the Nuremberg Chronicle describe continual changes of fortune. In the folio’s stand-alone reuse, it gains extra significance. This is because the extract ends with verse 5 and any attentive reader would be expected to think over what comes in the following lines — and in verse 7, we have ‘there is a time to keep silence and a time to speak’. In the same vein, we may be encouraged to ask, is there a time to use script and a time to use print? Is print the future, or it is simply another season in the repeated tergiversations of time?

I am not suggesting that Beauchesne is proposing that there is a single reading for his texts — but I am arguing that he wants us to read his texts at the same time as reading his scripts, and that he is hoping we will consider the interactions between print and handwriting that he provides for us. He is by no means insensible to the ironies of his reuse and of the possibility that it may indeed be claimed that his art of handwriting has had its day. His final phrase, which in its brevity is intentionally ambiguous, acknowledges that: ‘Nil Penna sed Usus’. This motto is sometimes rendered ‘The pen has no force but is useful’, but one other way of translating it would be ‘The pen is nothing but when in use’. Beauchesne might, then, be acknowledging the limitations of his skill but, in the context of this page, I think he wants us also to take the advice not to let the pen run dry and so become useless. Even in the presence of print, Beauchesne is reminding us, script does not die.

And, in the face of a bravura performance of script, would any of us honestly dare to assert that the printing press is mightier than the pen?



Postcard from Harvard VII: a master at work

Posted in Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 9 May, 2018

The title for this post promises a single master but, with winning generosity, I am going to offer to you three masters.

The centrepiece of our discussion is Harvard’s MS. Typ. 447, an attractive little volume which, if it were a printed book, would be described as being in small chancery octavo format. It was designed to fit into a pocket, though why someone should want to carry its contents with them is a quandary. Its main text — though, as this description reveals, not its only one — is Palladius’s tract on agriculture, which one would imagine was hardly most people’s vademecum. What is unusual in this manuscript is that it is preceded by a devotional calendar, giving the saints’ days through the year. The combination of religious and pagan may strike us as curious but it has its logic: Palladius’s work is organised by the month, and the commissioner of the volume might have considered that his little book (we know it was a man) brought together different but complementary methods of framing time.

This is by no means the only element of interest to MS. Typ. 447. Its creator gives us both his name and that of the person for whom it was made, as well as the date and place of production. It was compiled in Verona and completed in 1460 (we can narrow that further by a reference to January of that year). The scribe introduces himself as Blasius de Saracenis, a citizen of Vicenza and son of Hieronymus; in modern scholarship, his name is sometimes vulgarised to Biagio Saraceni. What is notable is that the date of this manuscript makes Blasius’s work an early example of the italic bookhand, a style invented in the immediately preceding years. In particular, there are very few examples at this early date of one written at such a small module (the minims are no more than 1mm high).

The scribe most closely associated with the invention of italic is the second master we need to mention: Bartolomeo Sanvito. His stock is, at present, very high, in large part because of the detailed work done on him by the late Tilly de la Mare, carefully completed by Laura Nuvoloni. His skill is undoubted, and the beauty of many of his manuscripts remarkable, but we should not imagine he was a lone worker, creating a new script in solitary confinement. Even Poggio Bracciolini, the creator of humanist littera antiqua, was not experimenting alone, and his achievement was a revival and reform of an earlier bookhand. The creation of italic was arguably more revolutionary, a construction of a new vision of text on the page. To achieve this and, especially, to ensure it gained wider acceptance, what was surely required was not a single genius but team-work. In that équipe, Blasius had a significant role.

It is already known, thanks to de la Mare, that Blasius’s own innovations preceded those of Sanvito. It is likely that they knew each other as Blasius was in Sanvito’s hometown of Padua in the 1450s, until just before he made this manuscript. It is also clear that there were strong similarities between their practices. The best place to be able to observe this is here in the Houghton Library, for Harvard is the fortunate owner of three manuscripts written by Sanvito. One of those, a copy of Sallust which is MS. Richardson 17, dated by de la Mare and Nuvoloni to c. 1487-88. It is of nearly identical dimensions with MS. Typ. 447 (page size in the former: 136 x 90mm; in the latter: 138 x 93mm), and each is in an early binding, so they allow us to compare like with like.

Perhaps most notable is how both scribes present the title in painted capitals, with a change of colour for each line.

Cambridge MA: Houghton Library, MS. Typ. 447, fol. 10v.

Cambridge MA: Houghton Library, MS. Richardson 17, fol. 1.

















Following Blasius’s opening title, he provides the colophon in blue, in a littera antiqua, but his main script and that of Sanvito’s bear share many characteristics. There is a difference: Sanvito’s bookhand looks more strident, an effect partly achieved by decreasing the distinction between thin and thick strokes which is on display in Blasius’s work. That should make us marvel at the skill with which Blasius wrote such tiny letters with frequent turns of the pen.

Cambridge MA: Houghton Library, MS. Richardson 17, fol. 138v.

Cambridge MA: Houghton Library, MS. Typ. 447, fol. 13.
















It is not on such palaeographical details that I want to dwell. Instead, look at the layout each chooses to use. There is, certainly, an obvious similarity: the majority of each page is blank. That, as I have written before, is a basic co-ordinate of any respectable manuscript, though both take it further than many would. Blasius’s written space occupies only 36% of the page, while Sanvito shows even greater chutzpah, allowing exactly two-thirds of the page to be margins. Yet, there is a contrast between their mise-en-page. It is that Sanvito’s perhaps looks less familiar: he employs a markedly narrow space for the text. It has been suggested by that leading bibliographer, Paul Needham, that Sanvito’s practice might, in general, have been inspired by an interest in the golden ratio — that is, the idea that there is a particularly proportion that is pleasing to the eye, which in mathematics is signified by the letter phi and which equals 1.618. That is to say, the height would be 1.618 times the width. In fact, Sanvito in this manuscript provides something a little different: in the page (the dimensions of which I have already given) the written space is 90 x 45mm. Thus, the width of the text is half its height which is the width of the page which is two-thirds of height of page, with the result that the width of the text is a third of the height of the page.

At this point, I will put in a plea to all those cataloguing manuscripts. In the Anglo-Saxon tradition, it is usual to record solely the size of the page and of the written space, but to fully appreciate the layout, it is important to provide the measurements of the margins too, so that the reader can appreciate the placing of the text-block on the page. This is done in the Italian tradition in a formula (using the recto): (upper margin + [height] + lower margin) x (inner margin + [width] + outer margin). Thus, in this formula, MS. Richardson 17 = (11 + [90] + 35) x (16 + 45 + 29)mm. Those figures give a clearer sense of what Sanvito is doing: the written width is set within margins where the inner is half of the outer, so the proportions across the page are 1:3:2. The height, meanwhile, is placed within margins which are, in total, half of its height, divided unequally to be approximately 1:3.

Let us return to Blasius’s manuscript and his arrangement of the text. In the formula, MS. Typ. 447 = (14 + [86] + 38) x (13 + [54] + 26)mm. You may notice that margins of the width have, as in MS. Richardson 17, an inner margin half the size of the outer. The arrangement of the height is also similar, with the lower margin nearly three times that of the upper. It might be noted in passing, that these proportions would have surprised earlier generations, where (as Erik Kwakkel has noted) it was more usual to have a lower margin only twice the size of the upper. What, though, is more significant for us is that, while Sanvito and Blasius share some co-ordinates of the page, Blasius does not have the height of the written space as double that of the total margin space above and below it. Instead, the proportions are closer to 1.65. More tellingly, the height of the written space to its width and the height of the page to the height of the written space approximate to 1.61 — that is to say, close to the golden ratio.

If all these numbers have made you call for a icepack to cool your head, let us draw this to its conclusion: while Sanvito and Blasius are working with a similar sense of the beautiful page, and perhaps developed that aesthetic together when both were in Padua in the 1450s, there is also a difference. It is Blasius who ensures his page echoes the golden ratio, while Sanvito in later years moves away from it to develop instead a layout based on the prime numbers of two, three and five.

This is not quite the end of the tale or of the fascination of MS. Typ. 447. It has an interesting later history, including being owned by the early twentieth-century Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in that other Cambridge, in England. When it was bought by Sydney Cockerell in 1917, it had lost the opening page of its text. He turned to a known calligrapher, Graily Hewitt, to provide a supply leaf.

Cambridge MA: Houghton Library, MS. Typ. 447, fol. 12, supply leaf by Graily Hewitt (1917).

Hewitt’s work is very accomplished, though it patently contrasts in style of script with that used by Blasius. Part of Hewitt’s skill is in providing the exact number of words required while following the ruling Blasius used in his work. One wonders whether, in accepting that layout as his guide, this third master of the page was conscious that he too was paying homage to the golden ratio.