What was I saying the other day about the vain pursuit of finishing? While the proofs of the manuscript catalogue of Christ Church, Oxford progress towards the dreaded finality of print, I am also working to complete the text of another book, my monograph on humanist scripts and England. One chapter which I thought I had put safely to bed woke up this week with a start and a cry for more attention. The reason was the discovery of the provenance of an understudied manuscript in Cambridge University Library.
I am not complaining about this: it has happened at a moment when I can make the necessary changes to my text. Besides, I have already outed myself as a discovery junkie, waiting for the next high that comes with uncovering something not previously noticed. Not that this was a full hit — that comes when serendipity and surprise combine. In this case, I already suspected what might be there to find.
The trail to CUL, MS. Mm.iii.18 began with a note in the unpublished papers of A. C. de la Mare, a mine of gems held in the Bodleian. It was Tilly de la Mare who, in 1988, produced the last detailed study of the library of John Tiptoft, earl of Worcester, one of the two English secular princes — the other being Humfrey, duke of Gloucester — famed for collecting humanist manuscripts in the fifteenth century. She listed twelve manuscripts, including some by the enigmatic scribe known only by his initials ‘VfI’, but this Cambridge manuscript was not among them. She must have come across it later, for her notes comment that it too was by ‘VfI’. A few months back, I tried to follow up this lead and found to my surprise that it is not listed in the recent monumental catalogue of illuminated manuscripts in the UL, though it does include four bianchi girari initials. I contacted the library staff, and the amazingly helpful James Freeman sent me some images which confirmed that this codex, even though it is unsigned, is definitely written by ‘VfI’. That raised the question of whether it was made, as were several other of his productions, for the earl of Worcester. That I could not check without going to the UL myself and this last Wednesday was the first opportunity in a busy term to do that.
I assume that Tilly had not had the opportunity to consult the manuscript because if she had she could not have missed the tell-tale sign which welcomed me when I randomly opened the volume (a small moment of serendipity). What appeared was this:
If you ever come across a pointing hand like this, please drop me a line straightaway, for this is the highly distinctive manicula of John Tiptoft. There are, in fact, only a few other interventions by him in the volume, but it does also include annotations by his secretary, John Free, and others by another Englishman in his circle, John Gunthorp. What is more, this manuscript gives a hint about the origins of the scribe himself — but I will not mention that now; I have, after all, to leave something for the book.
As I said, the list of manuscripts provided in 1988 included twelve items; at that point, another ten were also known to have been his. The number now stands at 33, with another six related to Tiptoft but probably not owned by him. This is a notably high figure; it is nearly as many as survive from the library of the other noble just mentioned, Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, whose collection (I estimate) originally numbered over 600. There are, though, I suspect, more of Tiptoft’s to find. I wish I could wait to discover them before publishing, but one never knows in this pursuit when the chase is done. Instead, I predict that the day I sign off the proofs of this monograph, an e-mail will appear in my inbox, responding to my request for new sightings of his manicula, alerting me to a previously unknown instance. I will curse the day but also allow a little cheer.
This website has been feeling neglected. I see that it is over two months since I posted here and those who read the last message might imagine that I was stung into silence by the lashes I had to bear from my severest critic. Far from it: I am not scared of him. I have not been idle – or, rather, I was wonderfully, blissfully idle all too briefly when in vacanze beneath the deep blue sky of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. My silence has been occasioned by the opposite of idleness: I have been working hard on several projects which have provided new nuggets of information that I have honestly been intending to share with you, if only there were a spare moment. The findings could provide a set of pithy interventions for Notes & Queries — indeed, it seems to me that the internet, properly organised, can provide a space probably more appropriate now for that sort of learned comment or minor revelation than old-style paper periodicals could. Imagine: an on-line journal, Aperçus & obiter dicta.
The first of these little discoveries I will mention is also the most recent. Yesterday, following up a lead from the major on-going publication of the catalogue of illuminated manuscripts in Cambridge college collections, I entered the cyber-world of Corpus Christi’s Parker Library. I have already commented on how rich a resource this is – and I do so in full consciousness of the criticisms some have levelled at it, not all of them unjustly: it is expensive, it does need more updating than it presently receives, but it does provide such a wealth of primary material, making it possible to engage with a manuscript and coax it to offer up some of its secrets without even holding it in your hand.
One of the manuscripts which I viewed was MS. 409, a mid-fifteenth-century Italian humanist copy of Cicero’s De finibus. As I ‘turned’ the pages (perhaps that noun too needs inverted commas), I had a growing sense of a familiar presence lurking in the margins. One of the drawbacks of the on-line – or, at least, of my habits of use – is that I find it encourages one to progress through the volume, rather than as one would when picking up the book, begin by looking at the first and then the final folios (which are usually richest in provenance information) before turning over every leaf. So, it was only when I reached the last three or four images that my suspicion proved well founded. For, following the main text, in another hand which M. R. James describes charitably as ‘italic’, there is a short collection of epitaphs. I felt certain they are written by John Free, a Bristolian, the Wunderkind of English humanism, educated in the school of Guarino da Verona and then resident in Rome — it is said he was on the verge of being made a bishop when he died all too young in 1464. Some alleged foul play.
John Free was also, for a while at the turn of the 1450s to 1460s, the secretary of John Tiptoft, and I have sometimes seen them in company, with both annotating the same manuscript. As is apparent from other pages on this website, I have an ongoing interest in the library of Tiptoft, earl of Worcester and self-appointed heir to Humfrey, duke of Gloucester in his book-collecting and promised patronage of the University of Oxford. So, you will appreciate that it mattered to me to confirm or refute my impression that Free was at work in this manuscript. It did not take long to corroborate my first thought, but here is a salutary warning to us Google scholars: if I had confined my checking to on-line resources, it would have been difficult to find the evidence to clinch the case. There are few specimens of John Free available – the most accessible and extensive being the two pages of a manuscript he wrote for Tiptoft, now in the British Library as MS. Harl. 2639. While there are general similarities and some shared idiosyncracies between the bookhand there and the script in the Parker’s MS. 409, the latter is too cursive to make a firm identification with confidence. There is in Oxford’s Balliol collection a manuscript that includes Free’s own rapidly-written transcription of a Poggio translation; it is MS. 124 but that is not yet been photographed and uploaded by the college’s energetic archivist to her excellent flickr account. So, it is only by using hard copy reproductions that I could find a match so close to make the identification irrefutable. In other words, however tiresome we may find it, we always have to move away from our screen to make the most of what we find on it.
So, this manuscript shows that it passed through the hands of John Free. It also has other annotations which link it to the circle of John Tiptoft and we may, indeed, be able to associate it also with their friend in Ferrara, Ludovico Carbone — but I say that only tenatively until I have had chance to see the manuscript truly in the flesh. What my page-turning did reveal is that this manuscript does not contain any of the tell-tale evidence of the earl’s own handwriting, but, even without that, I suspect there is justification to suppose that it was in his collection. The main text ends with an added note in an English gothic script (fol. 81v) and it would be reasonable to assume that the volume was in England from the late fifteenth century and stayed here to reach, in the mid-sixteenth century, its donor to Corpus, Archbishop Parker. As we have seen, however, Free never returned to England and there is little sign that the books he himself owned did reach his homeland. On the other hand, we know that a large part of his former employer’s collection did come to England — not all, it must be said, and hardly any reached the institution to whom he had promised it, the University of Oxford. But there is certainly enough examples to show that the books he purchased on his Italian travels returned with him and, after his untimely death during the Lancastrian Readeption, were on the market. It seems likely that this was the fate of Cambridge: Corpus Christi College, MS. 409. Thus, it is now added, as 31.5 to the listing on this website of ‘probable’ manuscripts from Tiptoft’s library.
This, then, was a virtual find – the first, I think, I have made without the book physically before me. I might add, though, that the frisson, the breathless moment of excitement, is not much less than if I were sitting far from home in the library itself. I will admit that the quickened pulse and tingling sensation which comes with the act of discovery is what keeps me in the business — it is a drug, a stimulant or perhaps an aphrodisiac, previously only available in special collections rooms. I have also to admit that I am not quite sure how I feel about it becoming more readily available and (forgive the pun) free to use.
Manuscripts have a tendency to creep up on you when you are looking elsewhere, tap you on the shoulder and then punch you between the eyes. That has been my experience today in the Vatican Library. I called up a manuscript because of what is known of its late fifteenth-century provenance and did not expect to find staring up at me from the lectern a codex made several decades earlier, clearly (from the illumination) in Milan and, what is more, in a script very close to that of Milanus Burrus: he was a highly accomplished scribe who developed his own response to the Florentine palaeographical reforms and created a mise-en-page that reminds us that you do not need to have illumination on the parchment to be looking at a work of art.
And when one manuscript has softened you up, another then comes in and knocks you sideways. As this is my last day of this research trip, I was attempting to tie things up neatly — whenever you do that, the books tend to have other plans for you. So, revisiting the manuscript of his Synesius translation that John Free made, with little expense spared, for Paul II, I wanted to compare the capitals and so ordered up another volume for comparison. The volume was MS. Vat. lat. 3162, a copy of Juvenal and Persius which is known to be Paduan and has interventions by Bartolomeo Sanvito, though, as Laura Nuvoloni explains in the sumptuous recent volume in ‘The Handwriting of the Italian Humanists’ series, the main scribe is a separate person, writing in a similar style. What caught me off-guard was that, looking through the codex, I came across one occasion where there is an alternative reading added into the margin by a hand which is very familiar to me — it is that of John Tiptoft, earl of Worcester.
Those of you who have explored this site will already appreciate the importance of Tiptoft, whose library was perhaps second only to that of Humfrey, duke of Gloucester in the fifteenth century. We now have over thirty books from his collection, dispersed across Europe (his hopes of donating his books to Oxford where thwarted by his own execution). In one sense, it is perfectly understandable that this manuscript should have passed through the earl’s hands: he certainly knew its scribe, owning another volume which was produced by him (it is no. 11 in my listing). But there are two factors which are more surprising. The first of them is its location — there is, as you can see from the listing of the known Tiptoft manuscripts, no other book of his which is in the Vatican. The second relates to the contents of the codex: a few years ago I identified a copy of Juvenal and Persius from his library, written by Sanvito himself, and definitely in England in the late fifteenth century (no. 13 in the listing). Would he have had two rather similar-looking copies of the same texts? It is not impossible but surely unlikely. Perhaps, though, there is another explanation: Tiptoft is not the only annotator on the volume — the two other marginalia could well be by his secretary, who later presented his translation to Synesius to Paul II, John Free. We know that he remained in Italy when Tiptoft returned to their homeland, and it was in Rome that Free died prematurely in 1465. Now, MS. Vat. lat. 3162 did not arrive in the papal library earlier — it shows evidence of Italian ownership in the fifteenth and the sixteenth century — but we can posit a history for it: cast off by Tiptoft, who had a more elegant copy of the works it included, he passed it to Free, who took it to Rome, where, after his death, it circulated, only to end up in the Vatican some decades later.
This, I should say, is not the only discovery — and perhaps not the most important one — of the day. Having been pushed around by one manuscript, knocked about by another, I was then hit between the eyes by yet one more. So, I have been left punch-drunk and gasping for air, at the same time wishing that I could get more of the same and also knowing that I simply will, God and Mammon (aka research grants) both willing, have to return here to give the manuscripts as good as I have got from them.