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.


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 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.

Postcard from Harvard VI: an unnoticed manuscript from the circle of John Tiptoft, earl of Worcester

Posted in Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 7 May, 2018

The thrill of the library lies mainly, as I have said before, in allowing serendipity to work its magic and wish upon you a discovery. We might also consider that there is a taxonomy of such discoveries. There are those that are instantaneous and inescapable: they insist on not being ignored. Others, in contrast, are more surreptitious, not revealing themselves immediately but growing as a suspicion in one’s mind. There is, we should add, a third category: that ‘find’ which first seems plausible only to evaporate on further inspection — on those occasions, serendipity is more akin to the satanic verses.

We always hope, of course, to avoid that third class, and the one I am about to discuss falls instead into the second category. The endpoint (or final cause) of this post is, as usual on this trip to Cambridge MA, to provide a description of the manuscript in question, even though there is an excellent description in print by Laura Light; the rationale for compiling a new one is that we can now have a deeper understanding of the production of the volume. As an introduction to that description, it may perhaps be of some interest to reconstruct the steps I took to making this discovery.

Cambridge MA: Houghton Library, MS. Lat. 41, p. 3

Sir Edward Dering (1598-1644) by William Dobson (c) The Royal Welsh Regimental Museum Trust; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

My attention was drawn to MS. Lat. 41, an acephalous and (slightly) imperfect humanist copy of Cornelius Nepos, by a line in Laura Light’s description. She notes that it had been in the collection of Sir Edward Dering (1598-1644); that makes this volume a relatively early arrival from Italy in England and, while there are cases of early seventeenth-century imports, it raised the question of whether he was its first English owner. On seeing the manuscript, it became clear that he was not, because at a back flyleaf which was once the original wrapper to the book, there are two prayers in Latin, written in an English secretary script of the mid-sixteenth century. Their addition could give pause to thought: are they pre-Edwardian or Marian or perhaps recusant? I admit I did not stop to think further because their presence, pushing back its English provenance further, raised the question of how the book reached the country. In the mid-century, England was, notoriously, more of an exporter of manuscripts than an importer, and it is therefore likely that it arrived in an earlier generation: but by what route?

This query in my mind was compounded by the sensation the manuscript exuded of being familiar. The manuscript is localised by Light (on the basis of advice from A. C. de la Mare) as being from ‘Northeastern Italy, s. xv2’. This seemed right to me but I wondered whether we could narrow down place and date further. First of all, the counterpart to the back flyleaf — the front part of the wrapper — presented a contents list written in a script, contemporaneous with the text, which I was sure I had seen before, in a manuscript in the Bodleian, MS. Auct. F. 2. 19. I did not have an image of the relevant page to hand, but through the good offices and humanitas of Daniel Wakelin, one arrived on my screen and confirmed my suspicion. We know the name of this person: he called himself ‘Doctor Garsia Petri’, and we also know that he was in contact with a nobleman visiting Italy in 1458-61 from England, John Tiptoft, earl of Worcester. It may, in fact, be Doctor Garsia who gave Tiptoft MS. Auct. F. 2. 19, a copy of Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations in a variety of littera antiqua associated with (but not by) the leading Paduan scribe, Bartolomeo Sanvito.

Cambridge MA: Houghton, MS. Lat. 41, p. 2

Oxford: Bodleian, MS. Auct. F. 2. 19, fol. 139 (with thanks to Dan Wakelin, whose finger appears here, for the photo).

What is more — and what ensured MS. Lat. 41 exuded that sense of familiarity — its main script has strong similarities with that in MS. Auct. F. 2. 19. It is by no means as calligraphic, even at times appearing to be rushed, and we might doubt that the scribe of the Oxford manuscript (and of other ones, listed by de la Mare and Nuvoloni in the appendix to their indispensable study of Sanvito) could ever make something as unaccomplished as this volume. Even if it is not by him, though, the similarities suggest that it came from the same milieu: that is, Padua, early in the third quarter of the fifteenth century. I will admit, though, that my suspicion is that we are, in truth, seeing the same scribe at work (as it were) on an off day.

There are, then, associations with Tiptoft but he obviously was not the only book-collector in north-east Italy in the later 1450s. Is there anything which could confirm an association with him? I went through the manuscript several times and there are not the usual tell-tale signs that I have mentioned on other occasions as being found in other manuscripts owned by him: neither his distinctive manicula nor any annotation next to the text appears here. There are, however, running headers in one of the lives presented here — and their script does appear to be a match for that of a running header in another Bodleian manuscript, MS. Auct. F. 1. 7, where the intervention is certainly by Tiptoft.

Cambridge MA: Houghton, MS. Lat. 41, p. 25, with running header by John Tiptoft

Oxford: Bodleian, Ms. Auct. F. 1. 7, fol. 2, with running header (and annotation at foot) by John Tiptoft.

In other words, the evidence accumulated by turning the pages of MS. Lat. 41 eventually made it undeniable that this manuscript was made in Padua in the later 1450s and was used by John Tiptoft. In the title of the post and in the description, however, I have refrained from claiming he owned it. There were other Englishmen in his entourage who could have commissioned it (and for whom a manuscript of lesser quality would have been more fitting); it is also known that the earl sometimes wrote in books he did not own. Equally, though, there is no sign of his companions — either John Free or John Gunthorp — in this volume. Perhaps I am being overly cautious, but better to err on that side than over-confidence.

I am open to persuasion on that point but it does not greatly affect the consequence of the discovery. It takes the number of manuscripts associated with Tiptoft to forty, an increase of over 30% since the last detailed discussion by Tilly de la Mare thirty years ago. It has long been known that Tiptoft was an avid collector and reader of humanist books but the surviving evidence for his interests has necessarily be considered meagre. That is changing and with it not only our understanding of the earl but also of the Italian milieux in which he moved. Let us hope that serendipity strikes again.

Postcard from Harvard V: Bruni against the Goths gothicised

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

I realise that the tradition of the postcard privileges messages of few words. I note also that I have, in my recent posts, underachieved in that respect. This post is an attempt to rectify that. It comes without a description, for the manuscript discussed here has been well described in print by Laura Light. What I want to draw attention to is how this codex is witness to a humanist text escaping from the confines of humanist presentation and taking on another identity.

It 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 particularly pungent example of this habit for two reasons. First, while the copy of Bruni’s Ethics translation discussed last time is in a cursive script, this thin volume provides a case of the less common practice: a text written in a classicising style to be rendered into a textualis, that is a gothic bookhand needing to be produced with care and so at a slower pace. MS. Lat. 170 has suffered over time, mainly because of water damage, but it is clear that the scribe wrote with deliberation and a concern for detail, shown in particular with the frequent hairline strokes adorning the letters (look, for instance, at the h). The block of text is compact, with little space between the lines, in an aesthetic quite different from that promoted by the early humanists — the only similarity with their style of mise-en-page is the substantial blank borders around the text, which is, in fact, also to be found in the ‘pre-humanist’ circle of Coluccio Salutati. The illumination in this manuscript also shows no concession to the fashionable preference for bianchi girari initials. It is as if the scribe was unaware of the humanist agenda but that certainly cannot be true.

Cambridge MA: Houghton Library, MS. lat. 170, fol. 18v

This brings us to the second point: the text that is being presented here. It is a work of Leonardo Bruni, the acknowledged doyen of the first generation of Quattrocento humanists; what is more, it is his history, De bello adversus Gothos — the Italians’ war against the Goths. Here we have an Italian scribe providing a humanist text that discusses the Goths but doing it in a style that the humanists would have described as ‘gothic’. Did the scribe enjoy the irony?

I see that the text above could not fit on a postcard, unless perhaps I used a tiny gothic script.

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.

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.


Postcard from Harvard II: a presentation manuscript from Pier Candido Decembrio

Posted in Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 25 April, 2018

The opening leaf of Cambridge MA: Houghton Library, MS. Richardson 23, with the arms of Borso d’Este.

My second report from my new location involves a manuscript that is hardly unknown but which I could not resist making one of the first I studied. It is a copy of four texts by the Milanese humanist Pier Candido Decembrio, made under his guidance for presentation to the duke of Ferrara, Borso d’Este, in the early 1460s. Decembrio, cheer-leader for his city in its opposition to all things Florentine, has been an acquaintance of mine since my graduate days, for, in the late 1430s and early 1440s, he attempted to construct for himself an international reputation by presenting works and sending books to Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, as I discussed in my doctoral thesis. So, when I opened up this manuscript and saw before me Decembrio’s script writing the contents list, it had the sensation of a meeting with a familiar friend.

The humanist himself is not, however, the main scribe of this manuscript. As with some of those he made for Humfrey, he called on others to produce the volume but left enough evidence in the volume to show that oversaw its creation. As I explain in my description, his interventions here are multiple, correcting the whole text and adding annotations in some, using different inks for each level of accretion, suggesting he went over the manuscript two or three times. It provides us, then, with interesting detail about the mechanics of presentation — the desire to achieve an elegance which spoke of the cost involved being balanced by a need to personalise, not just in terms of the identity of the recipient but of the author as well.

Textually, this manuscript of importance for being the earliest known copy of his panegyric of his home city, De laudibus urbis Mediolanensis (a work first composed in the later 1430s but, apart from this codex, extant only in two later fifteenth-century manuscripts, in Milan and Brussels). That is a work which demonstrated his patriotism for Milan and his repudiation of Florence’s claims to pre-eminence, for in this panegyric he engages with the Laudatio Florentinae Urbis of Leonardo Bruni, a work which had already gained an international circulation, turning on its head its claims by a process of quotation and revision which, at times, comes close to creative plagiarism.

His expression of independence from Florence was expressed not only in words but in presentation on the page. He knew and acknowledged the reforms of the page promoted by Bruni’s friend, Poggio Bracciolini, but he by no means adopted it fully. In particular, he preferred a much smaller script than was fashionable in Florentine littera antiqua, and an example of this is on display not only in his own interventions but in the main script, which provides a notably compact block of text on the page. At the same time, Decembrio’s scribe here (identified as Gabriel Brepia) is more willing to accept some of the reforms than his commissioner. A key orthographical shift in Florence was the re-introduction of the digraph, demonstrating the presence of the diphthong (usually ‘ae’, sometimes ‘oe’). Here we see a contrast between Decembrio who continues to ignore it and his scribe who adopts a couple of strategies for marking the diphthong (a subscript mark, and a small loop before e). One wonders how far Decembrio condoned the transformation of his text in this detail, and whether he felt his work was succumbing to Florentine influence, even when it expressed its opposition to that city.

Cambridge MA: Houghton Library, MS. Richardson 23, fol. 12v – with Decembrio’s rubrication annotation at bottom left. Contrast his lack of digraph with the scribe’s writing of ‘quae’ at ll. 8 and 13.

The Houghton has helpfully digitised the whole manuscript and the iiif images can be viewed in Mirador. All I can add is a description of this important codex (with all the usual caveats about its draft status).

N. R. Ker and the palaeographer’s work ethic

Posted in Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 18 March, 2018

I am not doing very well with keeping my New Year’s resolution, which was, my friends, to spend more time with you via this blog. As you will see, after a sprint-start in January, the dynamo ran low and all fell quiet. I could claim that my Lenten vow has been to give up on my resolution – but now I am even breaking that.

I could make my excuses. I could, with honesty, say that I have been prioritising: apart from my teaching and research duties, there have been three papers to give in as many months (I know, I know, I should learn to say no). The last of these was in Magdalen College, Oxford, and was on someone whose energy and productiveness puts me to shame, the doyen of mid-twentieth century British palaeographers, Neil Ripley Ker.

Ker’s name is well-remembered in scholarly circles, though it is over three decades since his relatively early death in 1982, at the age of seventy-four. Anglo-Saxonists still prize his Catalogue of Manuscripts containing Anglo-Saxon (Oxford, 1957, reissued 1990); the wider community of manuscript researchers continue to thank him for his monumental Medieval Manuscripts in British Libraries, of which two volumes appeared in his lifetime — the first in 1969 — the third following soon after his death, and the enterprise being completed thanks to Alan Piper and Ker’s executor, Andrew Watson. It was one of two major projects for which Ker had main responsibility that has become widely known by a four-letter acronym. Alongside MMBL, there sits MLGB, Medieval Libraries of Great Britain, a listing of books for which provenance from a medieval British library can be traced; in the team that produced the 1941 volume, Ker was the most active (in part because, during the Second World War, he was a conscientious objector), and he also led on the significant revision which appeared as a second edition in 1964. The enduring importance of the work is attested by its transfer into electronic form as MLGB3, a version being provided thanks to Richard Sharpe and James Willoughby.

My talk in Magdalen, however, focussed on none of those works. It was designed to relate to the present exhibition in the college’s Old Library, which is an elegant and instructive display of music fragments. If you have not seen it yet, it is open each Thursday afternoon until 19th April 2018. It is the work of the urbane musicologist, Giovanni Varelli, and of the energetic librarian, Daryl Green — my only contribution to it was to offer a pun for its title, ‘Fragments of Note’. I was asked to speak in part because I am presently working on preparing the catalogue of the college’s manuscripts for print, and also because of my known interest in manuscript fragments. The most recent manifestation of that is the Lost Manuscripts website, but, a decade and a half ago, I was involved (with Scott Mandelbrote) in providing addenda and corrigenda for the reprint of Neil Ker’s Pastedowns in Oxford Bindings, which was first published by Oxford Bibliographical Society in 1954. Given that Ker himself was a Magdalen man, it seemed appropriate to talk about his work in producing a volume whose transformative potential for scholarship has not (I argued) yet been fully harnessed.

The title-page of the 2004 reprint of Ker’s 1954 volume.

It has been said that Pastedowns has a ‘wonderfully frumpy title’ and it may be that its lack of ostentation has been part of the reason that it is a publication often considered as one of Ker’s learned opuscula. That is not to say it has been entirely ignored: one of the reasons it was reprinted fifty years after its first publication was because it had been repeatedly cited in another volume that the Society had overseen, David Pearson’s Oxford Bookinding (2000). Pearson’s title suggests where the weight of attention has fallen: it is Ker’s exemplary discussion of the stamps and ornaments used in Oxford bindings of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries that has garnered the most interest. That, though, was, in effect, an appendix to the main study, which was a listing of manuscript pastedowns — not, it must be noted, all fragments — found in those bindings. Ker’s purpose was to begin to understand the process of destruction of manuscript culture in an England overtaken by print and by Reformation. In that enterprise, he has not, I would suggest, had the followers that his subject deserves.

My intention now, however, is not to reprise my talk but to draw attention to three points about his method of working which struck me forcibly as I was preparing it. The first is the evidence for his practices provided by the surviving notes on which the printed book depends. They show him checking each volume in person, taking rubbings of the binding as an aide-memoire and making brief notes on the text of the fragment. This last element hints at what a remarkably retentive memory he had. Boxed into our Google-world, where ‘real-time’ checking on-line can be combined with digital photography to refresh our hazy recollection of the item itself, we are liable to underestimate what a feat it was for him to identify both texts and the relationships between fragments which were geographically dispersed.

A page from Neil Ker’s post-publication notes on pastedowns.

If that might make most of us mortals despair at achieving his level of scholarship, there is a second factor that is salutary. It is the amount of sheer legwork that was essential for Pastedowns to be produced. The published work is nearly entirely confined to examples available in Britain. That was not the end of his studies: the image above shows him working on pastedowns on a rare trip to the States in 1971, a decade and a half after the book’s appearance. The tracking down of relevant examples was an enduring interest of Ker’s and, indeed, forms the main source of the addenda provided in both Pearson’s Oxford Bookbinding and the reprint of Pastedowns. What, though, is more remarkable is the effort he put into researching his topic ahead of submitting the volume to the press. It is perhaps best demonstrated by the map I have compiled of all the places he visited.

It is clear that, while there is a concentration in the obvious locations of Oxford, London and Cambridge, Ker saw it as his duty to criss-cross Britain in tracking down other examples, in public libraries, in parish church collections, and in private hands. All this took time, and that is the third point I want to stress. Pastedowns was published in 1954 and the text as printed shows that additions were being made up to the last possible moment. The history that lay behind it, however, went back about two decades. Magdalen has in its archives the notebooks he produced on the fragments in his college, and I am able to date those to the second half of the 1930s. That is to say, this was a long-term project requiring sustained determination. There was none of the publish-and-be-damned culture that the REF encourages. I would like to submit Ker’s Pastedowns as a vindication of the principle of slow study.

Looking through Neil Ker’s papers is a humbling experience. It reminds one of the qualities needed for such scholarship. We often hear of the ‘palaeographer’s eye’, and Ker certainly had that. What is meant by that is an ability to detect the distinctive features on a page, combined a retentive visual memory. In addition, Ker shows how the research has to be both painstaking and patient, aiming at a comprehensiveness which does not brook over-hasty publication. He also epitomises both a love of detail and an ability to see beyond the mass of minutiae to their wider implications — and it is that vision in Pastedowns which I think we have yet fully to appreciate.

There is, then, much more we can do and the starting-point must be to return to Ker’s work. This is why, thanks to financial support from the Bibliographical Societies of London and Oxford, I am beginning a project to create an online searchable edition of Pastedowns, to be hosted on the Lost Manuscripts website. Not all the funding is yet in place (if you want to assist, let me know!), but the work on building the database is beginning. I hope you share a little of my excitement at the times ahead.

Littera antiqua as a cosmopolitan enterprise

Posted in Humanism, Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 25 January, 2018

One advantage of teaching palaeography at King’s College, London, this year — apart from the enthusiastic and inquisitive students, of course — is that it is a short hop to the Eurostar. So, having introduced the groups to the delights of textualis yesterday morning, I am now in Paris to speak at the conference. Its title is L’Humanisme à l’épreuve de l’Europe (XV e. -XVI e siècles) and my topic is ‘The Renaissance of littera antiqua: a cosmopolitan enterprise’. At the risk of forfeiting what suspense there might be to my paper, let me share with you one small part of what I will discuss.

Littera antiqua, otherwise known as Roman hand or humanist minuscule, is famously an invention of Florence, c. 1400. Poggio Bracciolini (my old friend) and his colleagues called their innovation ‘ancient letter’ because they saw themselves reviving a script older than what had recently been fashionable. They insulted that fashion by labelling it not just modern but also ‘gothic’. That term implied that the contemporary bookhands, with their compressed, uniform-looking script, were an imposition on Italy by barbarian foreigners who knew no better. Poggio and those who encouraged him wanted to liberate their countrymen from this tutelage, and looked back to the scripts that preceded gothic to find a style of writing they considered more legible and more elegant. In this way, the humanists’ campaign had an element of local pride, of asserting an Italian-born cultural identity against the invasion of northern European habits.

The humanists’ nomenclature has stuck, and with it also some of the assumptions that underlie it. In particular, littera antiqua, like the other forms of script that the humanist came to promote, has been seen as an Italian product which was sometimes exported in the years after its invention and then slowly adopted in countries beyond the Alps, by the barbarians themselves. Thus, it is considered a safe assumption that a manuscript in a fine humanist minuscule was manufactured by an Italian, unless there is explicit evidence to the contrary. Sometimes there is, in fact, such contrary proof, for it is known that there were some non-Italians who adopted the humanist scribal habits, even in their homeland. So, for instance, Poggio tutored other copyists in the new style and these included one Frenchman, with whom his master was pleased — and his ability to emulate Poggio’s hand was so successful that it has sometimes proven difficult to distinguish one from another.

The ‘good French scribe’ is thought of as the exception, and in Florence, this has some truth. A. C. de la Mare’s seminal listing of seventy-two Florentine humanist scribes includes only eight who were non-Italian. That, though, does constitute a proportion of over one in ten. I have, previously in print, extrapolated from the data provided by Albert Derolez for a larger group of humanist scribes active across Italy and shown that the proportion there is one in six. It would, in other words, seem that in the city of littera antiqua’s birth, the engagement of foreigners in the humanist agenda was below the average.

There is one city which is certainly known to have been highly cosmopolitan and that is Rome. Elisabetta Caldelli, in a rich survey of scribes in the papal city, has drawn attention to the fact that about half of those whose identities we know were visitors, often long-term residents, from other countries. Caldelli’s figures, however, range across all scribes, not just those who adopted humanist practices. It would be plausible to assume that those who came from ‘gothic’ cultures would continue to deploy that style in which they were originally trained, and so that a lower proportion wrote in littera antiqua. In preparing my paper, I investigated her data further, organising those with a stated origin by geographical areas as they would have been contemporarily defined, and identifying the usual style employed by each of the copyists, both Italian and non-Italian. Of Caldelli’s 138 scribes, I find that 126 can be defined by national origin (my figures and designations differ slightly from hers; she organises them by modern countries). Of those, it becomes clear that only a minority — a third — of the total list were expert in littera antiqua, but that, of that minority, exactly half were non-Italian. Here is the information in detail:


All scribes

Scribes of littera antiqua


















TOTAL 65 out of 126 scribes (51.5%) 21 out of 42 scribes (50%)

[Data extrapolated from E. Caldelli, Copisti a Roma nel Quattrocento (Rome, 2006)]

Naturally, these figures need to be used with caution: they are based on named scribes, and not all were ostentatious enough to announce their identity. More did so in the Quattrocento than in previous centuries, but still only a small proportion of manuscripts have a revelatory colophon. It may be that scribes from afar were more likely to state their nationality, though I must say that I know of several non-Italian scribes active in Italy who did not feel the urge to do so. It is also the case that the figures make Rome exceptional, as Florence also was: nowhere else in the peninsula could claim to have a community of humanist scribes that was so cosmopolitan.

Even with those caveats, there is a very striking implication of these figures. The usual assumption, as I have said, is that a manuscript in littera antiqua should be taken to be by an Italian hand until proven otherwise. If, though, a volume hails from Rome, that assumption is patently not sound: it is equally likely that it was by a foreigner. That said, it is not always easy to localise a codex to a particular city and, that being the case, it raises further complications. In most places, only a minority of humanist scribes were non-Italian but the proportion was rarely negligible and, that being so, is it legitimate to continue to hold the traditional assumption? More broadly, is it not time to reconceptualise the history of the impressive pan-European success of littera antiqua?

This, as I have said, is only one small part of my talk and, in describing to you, I have glossed over some of the interesting features: I have not mentioned the split between nations; I have also left aside the issue of humanist cursive and of its most elegant sub-type, the italic bookhand (the proportions are strikingly different from the ones I have just outlined). There is more to say — but, then, I do need to leave some revelations fresh for the conference audience.