bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

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.



The Itinerary of the Itineraries of William Worcestre

Posted in Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 18 October, 2015

Welcome to the latest issue of Aperçus & obiter dicta, that entirely virtual (that is to say, non-existent) journal, devoted to recherché discoveries. This instalment comes to you from the Brewhouse of Oxford’s Christ Church, a building which has been – o tempora, o mores – transformed from its original use and is now home to that institution’s archives. In revising the introduction to the catalogue of Christ Church’s western manuscripts, I have had reason to visit there more often than the patient Archivist would probably like (though she is too generous ever to admit it). I have, I must admit, come under the records’ spell. The Disbursement Books, which present in glorious detail the termly expenditure of the institution, are so rich in information that they repay the sort of repeated and close reading that one could only afford if allotted more than one lifetime, with each day offering more working hours than are allowed to a human being. We learn from them the dining habits of the House (as Christ Church is known to its members): the rewards regularly given to the servant who brings a doe; the changing fashions in meat (with turkey being often supplied – and thus presumably reared locally – from the very start of the seventeenth century). We discover the names of the men and the women who were employed for everyday tasks, and see them sign their names, or leave their mark when they are illiterate. We are also appraised of the running of the various elements that make up Christ Church: the ‘church’ which is Oxford’s cathedral (and which is the reason it is a solecism to call the House a college: it is a dual foundation); the array of buildings which occupy its curtilage, and – most relevant for my research – its library.

The library has its own section in these Disbursement Books but that is often sparse in contents; to learn more of activities related to it and to manuscripts we have to look elsewhere, as the following example demonstrates.  It comes from the first months of 1617 and appears in the section listing the costs of ‘Law and Iornies’. It reads:

To the Carrier for carrying our letter to Cambridge and carrying and recarrying William of Worcester — 2s 6d

The entry is, sadly, unsigned, so we do not know who made this trip or, rather, trips, to Cambridge, back to Oxford and then repeated the exercise. What is interesting is the reference to ‘William of Worcester’. The description of him being carried demonstrates that it was not a person who travelled; instead, this must record an object given the name, presumably, of its producer. That object was surely a book, for William Worcestre will be known to you, learned reader, as the fifteenth-century proto-antiquary who was long-suffering secretary to Sir John Fastolf and who, perhaps in posthumous revenge, plagues scholars with his spidery, inelegant handwriting. He is probably now best remembered for The Boke of Noblesse, which survives in a manuscript in the Royal Collection of the British Library. He was, in addition, an inveterate note-taker. One of those compilations was edited in 1969 with the title of Itineraries from the unique manuscript which belonged to Archbishop Matthew Parker and is, thus, in the collection of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, as MS. 210. It is a holster-book, so called for its long, thin shape which made it particularly portable and with which Worcestre himself travelled. Patently, its peregrinations did not end with his death or with its ownership by Parker and subsequently Corpus for, being the only book in Cambridge that can answer to the name of ‘William of Worcester’, this must surely be the object that was being carried and recarried between Cambridge and Oxford.

This previously unnoticed entry is notable for two reasons. First, famously, Archbishop Parker had been very careful in drawing up instructions for his library intended to minimise losses. They involve annual audits which, if the care of the books is found wanting, would mean Corpus would lose the rights to the whole collection – these continue today, under the anxious eye of Christopher de Hamel, and are also the occasion for an impressive dinner in the hall of Corpus. Despite the archepiscopal injunctions, by the 1640s, a few Cambridge scholars were able to remove temporarily a volume from the collection for study elsewhere in the university. This example, though, comes over two decades earlier, and involves a loan over a much greater distance. One wonders what the late Archbishop would have thought of it.

We also might wonder what the Dean and Chapter of Christ Church wanted with this volume. The fact that the transaction is recorded in the Disbursement Books shows that this was an official matter, not a private arrangement for the sake of a solitary scholar. It would seem likely that the authorities at the institution wanted to consult Worcestre’s notebook because they thought there was something of relevance to them in it. With the endowment provided by its founder, Henry VIII, Christ Church had rights to lands in various parts of the country and there is other evidence to show that, in the second and third decades of the seventeenth century, attempts were being made to ascertain precisely what was due to the institution. These researches involved an interest in medieval manuscripts, as shown by the importuning of Sir Robert Cotton first to borrow and then to gain ownership of the cartulary of Osney Abbey, a house most relevant to the House for it had been the site of Oxford’s first cathedral before that honour (and all of Osney’s holdings) were transferred to the new foundation of Christ Church. Colin Tite has reconstructed the move of that codex to Oxford with remarkable accuracy, considering he did not have access to the records – also in the Disbursement Books – which corroborate his dating of the transaction: it was taking place in 1620. A decade later and another entry in the relevant Book (under ‘Expenses Extraordinary’) shows one of Christ Church’s number being paid for a journey which had a parallel purpose:

for searching records att lincolne to Mr. Burton — 25s

The entry is signed by Robert Burton, author of The Anatomy of Melancholy and, at this point, Librarian in Christ Church. The size of the payment shows that he was not crossing the High Street to the college of that name but must have travelled to the cathedral city after which the college was named.

It is, in conclusion, my supposition that Worcestre’s Itineraries were requested from Corpus, Cambridge for similar practical reasons – evidence, in other words, that this antiquary’s writings were not of merely antiquarian value in the early seventeenth century.

Rod Thomson discovers a Humfrey manuscript

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 2 July, 2009

On Thursday 2nd July in the Year of Our Lord 2009, most people in Oxford were wondering how to survive the relentless heat. Rod Thomson, meanwhile, was working coolly away in Corpus library, where, to add to his already-extensive record of scholarly achievements, he now can add unearthing a manuscript formerly owned by Humfrey, duke of Gloucester. It is a discovery that has made the sun shine all the brighter on my day.

The manuscript is Corpus MS. 1, a later thirteenth-century Bible, localised to Oxford. What had previously gone unnoticed was the partially covered, and partially erased ex libris at the top of the final verso (fol. 488v). I can confirm that it is undeniably and irrefutably the ‘short’ ownership inscription by the duke: Cest livre est a moy homfrey duc de gloucestre. The erasure, which removed part of the Christian name and all words following, is by scraping (itself a scrape of information which may assist to piece together this manuscript’s odyssey).

The verbum probatorium does not accord with the inventories of the duke’s gifts the University of Oxford, nor to any entry in the catalogue of King’s College, Cambridge (where a few – we should not overstate the number – of his books were washed up after his death).  This codex can, therefore, take its place among the majority of those which survive from his collection for it is a remarkable fact that it appears that the rate of survival of those that reached an institution in his lifetime, or soon after,  has been lower than those that remained in his hands. At the same time, this manuscript is highly unusual among the extant books which he owned as it is the only complete Bible that we can say for certainty was his. There are, of course, his lavish Psalters (London: BL, MSS Royal 2 B I and Yates Thomson 14) but nothing quite in this category.

It is for Prof. Thomson to coax further from the manuscript the secrets it blushes to tell the world, as he continues his work on the catalogue of the college’s collection. What is certain is that he can take his place among a small group of scholars who, in the past century, have discovered a manuscript once owned by ‘Good Duke Humfrey’. The roll-call includes Berthold Ullman, Roberto Weiss, Christopher de Hamel, Tilly de la Mare, Ian Doyle and, most recently, the young Dutch scholar, Hanno Wijsman. I hope Rod considers himself in worthy company.