bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

History in Fragments

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 23 September, 2016

Today deserves a little fanfare: the latest instalment of Lost Manuscripts has been made available this morning. There are only 32 new fragments, coming from 19 host volumes, so not a full drum-roll and brass band, please — but some piano trumpetting will not go amiss.

This is the third batch drawn from the collection of Samuel Harsnett (1561-1631), a Colchester boy who rose to be Archbishop of York. We must be grateful that he left his library to his hometown, and perhaps equally grateful that the authorities did not look after his books too well: that is, they refrained from hyperactive campaigns of ‘restoration’ and so most of the books are in their early modern bindings, with some usually sensitive repair work done in the 1970s. With those early bindings often come flyleaves and pastedowns from manuscripts. The procedure on the Lost Manuscripts’ website has been the same as before: to give brief descriptions of the bindings, to catalogue the fragments and also, where possible, to bring together separate fragments from the same manuscript and to record that. For reasons I have explained elsewhere, the imaginary location where those physically divorced fragments share an existence as a partially reconstructed manuscript is the city of Babel. The Babel numbers now run up to forty, with twelve new inhabitants appearing today. They include some elegant arrivals — my personal favourite is a full leaf from a fine copy of Moerbeke’s translation of Aristotle’s Metaphysics — but others, it must be admitted, turn up looking rather shabbier.

The intention of this project has never been simply to make freely available, in virtual format, information and images of these books, though that is a benefit in itself: if the result of the website is that someone appreciates more fully what can be found in an early modern book, then it has done a service. My aspiration, however, is that over time we can ask much larger historical questions about the death of manuscript culture. We are far away from being able to do that, but I do have a couple of tentative comments which I think deserve investigating further.

1. The long life of tearing up manuscripts

It is already known that, while the heyday of book destruction was the Reformation period, it began long before that and did not end in the mid-sixteenth century. The Harsnett collection itself has examples of this and it goes back much further: it was an element inherent in manuscript culture, new codices sometimes cannibalising older ones, not just through the re-use of parchment, creating palimpsests, but also through the recycling of discarded pages in bindings. The sixteenth century inherited this practice, which was certainly most widespread in the first three quarters of the century. It did, though, continue and not just in Oxford (as is sometimes said). The material used did, in some cases, change, with an increase in recent paper waste, including booksellers’ accounts, being taken out of the rubbish (or the privy) and employed to serve the purpose that parchment manuscript leaves had previously provided. There are, however, other occasions, at the very end of the sixteenth and into the seventeenth century, when medieval codices were available and were deployed in bindings. In some cases, these were from what must have been quite impressive volumes, being used in known a book-collector’s library: the books of Richard Bancroft (1544-1610) provide notable evidence of this from his time as archbishop of Canterbury (1604 until his death); I will discuss this in more detail another day. Perhaps the manuscripts involved were already too damaged to consider preserving them, but it remains striking that, in this generation of the early antiquaries, destruction could be thought an appropriate process.

2. Not one process but many

What also has intrigued me from the findings we have made so far is the variety of practice. It is obvious that there are differences in use which define the types of fragment that survive: some binders included pastedowns, others had large strips as flyleaves, yet others small reinforcing pieces. There were differences as well in the quality of manuscript, and the parts of it they would employ. In some cases, this must have been governed by issues of availability, a dynamic that must lie behind the increasing use of recent documentary material which I have just mentioned. That, though, would not explain, for instance, the habits of some binders who cut up the manuscript and kept only those pieces with no or minimal text. As some clearly did this consciously, it raises questions about others’ practices: did the provision of an elegant leaf as a pastedown, replete with text and sometimes illumination, say something about the interests or even the loyalties of the binder or of their client? There is a basic opposition in the practices between those which were intended to hide the origin of the material used and those that celebrated it, but even here these describe two extremes of a range of practices. Our intention here must be to get into the mind of the binder when they had the manuscript before them and set about re-using it: we want to recover the impulses that moved their hand as the knife came down upon the parchment.

There are, of course, further issues raised by the increasing amount of evidence that is being gathered, and any comments at this stage must be provisional. But at least we are beginning to know what questions we can ask – and I am confident they will be thought-provoking questions.