bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

The Mysteries of the Wolsey Lectionaries

Posted in Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 14 May, 2017

Last week saw the launch of an exciting new website, The Wolsey Manuscripts. Its primary purpose has been to bring together the two gorgeous lectionaries produced for Thomas Wolsey in the late 1520s. They have, since the seventeenth century, lived in the same city, but in different institutions, one at Magdalen College and the other at Christ Church. Their libraries might be only a few hundred yards apart but, as anyone who knows Oxford well will attest, the High Street marks a cultural separation to compete with Paris’s divide between the rives droite and gauche. The books, as a result, have rarely been seen together and this project, energetically overseen by the two librarians, Daryl Green and Cristina Neagu, has provided the opportunity to reunite these long-separated twins — both in the flesh for a few days and permanently on-line.

The launch on Thursday involved a jolly evening event with a set of short talks; mine was on ‘Pieter Meghen, Scribe, Drunkard, and a Waste of Space’. I was accidentally introduced as Meghen himself; to add to the audience’s disappointment, I had to admit I could not compete with him in all regards — I am no scribe. The following day, the morning was given over to an academic roundtable discussion of the manuscripts, which I chaired. I opened it by reflecting on how, though the manuscripts are so beautiful and so famous, there are so many mysteries about their history. The symposium itself demonstrated how much there remains to be considered but also how the new website can help us. I want to draw attention to that by discussing here two details.

The lectionaries have traditionally been assumed to have been commissioned for Wolsey’s Oxford foundation of Cardinal College, the forerunner of what is now Christ Church. However, both James Carley (who was present) and myself have come independently to the conclusion that this is unlikely: the rota of feasts to be celebrated does not fit precisely with those Wolsey’s statutes required for his college, and the choice of saints says more about Wolsey’s construction of his own identity, suggesting they were for his private chapel. There was around the table no appetite for reviving the claim for a Cardinal College provenance but I thought we should at least air it. The internal evidence for it is taken to be the rather unusual presence of an image of St Frideswide in both manuscripts — Frideswide, the local saint of Oxford, adopted by the university as its saint and whose shrine was to be housed in Cardinal College. With the wonders of Mirador, we called up each of the miniatures to sit appear alongside each other, and the result led our conversation in a different direction. If you do it yourself, using the viewer to show fol. 12 of the Christ Church Epistolary and fol. 14v of the Magdalen Gospel Lectionary, you will see that, while the overall structure is the same, the details and the style of rendering is different: what we have here is evidence of two different hands at work.

This confirms what is a reasonable supposition — that the manuscripts were illuminated by a workshop rather than a single individual. Exactly where that workshop was remains unknown. In the forthcoming catalogue of the manuscripts of Christ Church, written by Ralph Hanna and myself, it is suggested that it was in Westminster, partly on the stylistic proximity to charters for Cardinal College produced in the same years. In particular, it seems to me that the same hand has written in gold the motto on the garter that appears in one of the charters and repeatedly in the manuscripts (for instance, at Magdalen MS. lat. 223, fol. 14v and Christ Church, MS. 101, fol. 20); note, for instance, the rather fat shape to the ‘O’:

Kew: The National Archives, E24/6/1, detail.

At the roundtable, however, Scot McKendrick was firmly of the opinion that the illumination could not have been executed in England because of evidence of ‘Antwerp mannerism’. The proposal that the manuscripts were sent across the Channel to be decorated is inherently plausible — we know that the sea acted more as a thorough-fare than as a barrier, and, of course, Meghen as a Dutchman himself, had good contacts in his homeland. Such a scenario does, though, create questions of its own: in the Christ Church manuscript, there are blank pages interrupting the text, raising questions about why an incomplete volume would have been sent overseas to be illuminated. It is also well-known that the Magdalen manuscript has different iconography from its twin, as it — but not the accompanying texts — celebrates Wolsey as bishop of Winchester (a see he received in early 1529); was this volume sent later with instructions of its own or were revised instructions rushed across the Channel?

In thinking about these matters, there was another detail that sharp-eyed Daryl Green brought to our attention. We zoomed in close on the initial at Christ Church MS. 101, fol. 33v and saw that the letter ‘p’ descends into the illumination just below. It is, in fact, not the only occasion on which this happens: looking through the manuscript itself with new eyes, I noticed a parallel to it at fol. 26v (there are, though, no equivalents in the Magdalen manuscript). This suggested to us at the roundtable that the rubricated titles must have been added after the illumination, complicating further the order and process of production. That was, in fact, a false hypothesis, as I can say now having used the website further. For, while there does seem to be over-painting in those two instances, there are also occasions when the edge of the  border has been interrupted to allow space for the title; in other words, in this case, the illumination must have happened after the rubrication. You will see a good example of that if you go to fol. 40 — and you will also see that the top of some of the ascenders on the first line (the ‘d’ and the ‘ct’ ligature) have been painted over by the illuminator. So, in these cases we have one sequence of work; do we have the opposite at fol. 33v? This is where the high resolution allowing us to zoom in very close is revealing in a way that peering at the page itself is not. Call up that folio again and zoom right in on that ‘p’: look closely and you will see that the gold circle surrounding the ‘E’ below stops at each side of the descender. You will also see that the colour of the descender does not change. These details demonstrate that the artist was actually painting around the letter, and is even making a feature of it. So, thanks to this technology, we can be certain that rubrication did occur before illumination but we also come to understand the care with which the artist interacted with the script.

The two insights that I have discussed here have become possible because of the capabilities of the new website. It is now your turn to tell us what you discover. I await your comments eagerly.


Did you make it to the BL exhibition on Henry VIII?

Posted in Exhibitions by bonaelitterae on 27 September, 2009

If you did not, you have, of course, missed it now: it ended at the beginning of the month. And if I praise it and describe its riches, that may only serve to increase your frustration. I made it to London only in the last week of the show and what follows is meant not as a review but as a comment on what we can learn from it in terms of future exhibitions.

For this exhibition David Starkey was ‘guest curator’, a designation which could cover a wide spectrum of involvement from the highly engaged to the wilfully insouciant. There were certainly some features of the show that seemed trade-mark Starkey: for instance, the importance, in the early sections on portraits, with the captions attempting to read from the image an insight into the sitter. The exhibition, it must be said, was uneven in its chronological focus, with Wives Three to Six seemingly crammed into the last section, and Catherine of Aragon and her nemesis occupying the (English royal) lion’s share of the space. That, perhaps, reflects both a desire to shape the popular imagination, reiterating the now well-tried line that Henry’s first marriage lasted longer than all the others put together, but also to reflect a popular understanding in which the cataclysmic events of the 1530s were the pivotal moment of the reign. To judge from the evening I was there, and from what else I have heard, the show was certainly a success in terms of number of visitors through the doors. Which is all the more surprising considering what was, for me, the most significant feature of this display.

Being in a library, books were always going to feature heavily in the exhibition, and with that comes well-known difficulties. Books tend to be small items, in scripts illegible to many, around which people cram without quite knowing what it is they are supposed to be seeing. I would not suggest that the exhibition succeeded completely in overcoming those difficulties but what it certainly did do was make the most of these problematic objects. Drawing on the work of James Carley and others, the show emphasised the interest of Henry’s own marginalia in his books. It did this not just be noting their presence in an exhibit, but by providing replica pages next to the item, with a moving light-source literally to highlight the elements to which our attention, like the king’s before, was being drawn. I had not experienced this type of display before and it worked. At times, it was too ambitious: in one corner of the exhibition, where the light was supposed to rise and dim around you to connect a page with the objects shown nearby with which it related, I just could not work out what was meant to happen.  More generally, however, it acheived the tricky task of helping these exhibits accessible without ‘dumbing down’ their content.

It made me think that this could be a prototype for future exhibitions. My dream: let’s have one on Henry IV and his sons, to coincide with the centenary of the first Lancastrian’s death in four years’ time. There are, in the BL, many manuscripts associated with him, with his sons, particularly John and Humfrey, as well as with his grandson. And, as I can point out where Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, annotated his books, the technology they have used could be put to good effect. Is anybody at the BL reading and willing to take up this challenge?