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.

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.