Reading the Manuscript Page: Design Features of the Medieval Book

Modern readers today rely on design features found in the pages of printed books to navigate their way through the text, but did you know that medieval manuscripts were read in much the same way? This post looks at the design features added by scribes to medieval pages, using a 14th-century Latin Vulgate Bible produced in East Anglia (TCD MS 35) and recently digitised as part of the Manuscripts for Medieval Studies project: click here to see the manuscript in full. This decorated single-volume Bible features layout elements typically found in books of the Middle Ages to guide readers when consulting their manuscripts.

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A Manuscript’s Journey through the English Civil Wars

TCD MS 174, f. 50r

The Manuscripts for Medieval Studies project has now digitised an early medieval collection of saints’ lives (TCD MS 174), produced between the late 11th- and early 12th centuries as one of four companion volumes at the Old Sarum Cathedral of Salisbury. See the manuscript in full here. So how did this manuscript reach Trinity College Dublin? To find out, we must follow this manuscript’s journey through the English Civil Wars (1642-1651).

Old English inscription reading of searbyrig ic eom (‘I am of Salisbury’), from TCD MS 174, flyleaf i-recto

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A medieval manuscript in two parts

TCD MS 514, f. 3r detail

When modern readers encounter medieval books, they are not always in their original form and the contents of many manuscripts have been altered over time by owners and institutions. One such example is a miscellany book of historical and religious works (now TCD MS 514), with a section of text missing and now part of a second compilation manuscript (now Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Digby 77). In this post, we explore the ways of identifying the separated manuscript portion through written and visual signs.

The Trinity miscellany is made up of 15 separate texts relating to history and theology, including Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (‘The History of the Kings of Britain’), A history by Dares Phrygius on the fall of Troy, Pope Innocent III’s De miseria humanae conditionis (‘On the Misery of the Human Condition’), and Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger’s Naturales quaestiones (‘Natural Questions’). This manuscript was compiled in the early 14th century by John of London (fl. c. 1290-133), a monk of St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury. He later donated this book to the abbey and the volume is recorded as item number 900 on the 15th-century library catalogue of St Augustine’s Abbey (now TCD MS 360) explored in a previous blog.

Opening page of De excidio Troiae historia by Dares Phrygius (TCD MS 514, f. 3r)

Following the Dissolution of the abbey in 1538, the books of the library were destroyed or dispersed with many volumes acquired by private individual owners. The miscellany may have been later owned by English mathematician and antiquarian Sir Thomas Allen (1542-1632), who was an avid collector of works of history and sciences from monastic centres. It was during this period that the portion of the miscellany manuscript was separated and added to the second book. The miscellany was acquired by Allen’s acquaintance and fellow antiquarian, James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland (r. 1625-1656), whose collection is now housed in Trinity College Library, Dublin. The missing portion of text was bound with a second manuscript later owned by Sir Kenelm Digby (1603-1665), Allen’s former student to whom he bequeathed the majority of his books, now housed in the Bodleian Libraries as the Digby collection.

There are several signs that demonstrate the portion of the Digby manuscript formerly belonged in the Trinity miscellany (B.C. Barker-Benfield, (ed.), Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues: St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury (London, 2008) volume 2, item BA1.900). The text of Pope Innocent III’s De miseria humanae conditionis ends imperfectly, breaking off in chapter 3, book 26 ‘Discedite a me maligni in ignem’ on the last line (TCD MS 514, f. 204v). The text continues without break in the same hand on the top line of the Digby manuscript, ‘eternum. Non erunt…’ (Bodleian Library, MS Digby 77, f. 83r).

The text of the Trinity manuscript (TCD MS 514, f. 204v) continues without break in the Digby portion in the same scribal hand, showing it was originally one work (Bodleian Library, MS Digby 77, f. 83r: photo by Matthew Holford, Bodleian Library)

The Digby portion of the text is followed by another work, De essentiis essentiarum of Thomas Cappellanus, an alchemical treatise on the essences of God, minerals and animals. This text also originally featured in the Trinity manuscript, as the work is included in a list of contents written in the hand of John of London as ‘Item de esse et essentia tractatus nobilis’ (TCD MS 514, f. 2v). The original manuscript was additionally marked and foliated in the 15th century by the librarian of St Augustine’s Abbey, Clement of Canterbury (fl. 1463-1495), including a drawn face and pointed hand manicule that highlight passages of text in a copy of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae with a similar drawing also surviving in the Digby portion.  

Face Off: Two manicule drawings featuring a face with pointed hand by abbey librarian Clement of Canterbury feature in both the Trinity manuscript (TCD MS 514, f. 76r) and the Digby portion (Bodleian Library, MS Digby 77, f. 96r: photo by Matthew Holford, Bodleian Library)

Clement’s foliation numbers survive in both manuscripts, showing that the medieval folios numbered 204-229 are missing from the Trinity miscellany, and the exact folio numbers appear in the Digby manuscript (now Digby 77, ff. 83-108). The Digby manuscript further contains another portion of text from a second book (now Oxford, Merton College MS 251) that was previously owned by Thomas Allen (Digby 77, ff. 150-197). Although it is not possible to reunite these works in their physical forms, we could reconnect these works in the near future using digital technologies such as the International Image Interoperability Framework (III-F) for readers to study and enjoy online.

Dr Alison Ray

Follow us on Twitter @TCDResearchColl

The work of the Manuscripts for Medieval Studies project has been made possible by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Further reading:

B.C. Barker-Benfield (ed.), Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues: St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury (London, 2008) volume 2, item BA1.900

Medieval Libraries of Great Britain online (MLGB3), entry for Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Digby 77, ff. 83-108 http://mlgb3.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/mlgb/book/6606

Virtual Trinity Library is a digitisation initiative of the Library of Trinity College Dublin’s most valued collections. It will conserve, catalogue, curate, digitise and research these unique collections of national importance, making them accessible to a global audience, from schoolchildren to scholars.
https://www.tcd.ie/virtual-trinity-library/

A medieval library: The book list of St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury

TCD MS 360, f. 27r Location register

Libraries have been a source of knowledge and inspiration to readers for centuries, and as part of the Manuscripts for Medieval Studies digitisation project, we have recently made available a medieval record of England’s oldest known book collection, the library of St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury (now TCD MS 360). Click here to view the manuscript on our Digital Collections page. In this post we explore what we can learn from this list and surviving books from the abbey today.

Opening page of main catalogue list (TCD MS 360, f. 27r)

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Manuscripts for Medieval Studies: Virtual Trinity Library project supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York

The Library is delighted to announce the start of the Manuscripts for Medieval Studies project. The project will seek to research, catalogue, conserve, digitise and share 16 medieval manuscripts of international research significance.

The project is part of the newly launched Virtual Trinity Library Programme. Its outputs will be presented in the Library’s Digital Collections platform, allowing us to share our collections with communities around the world, to catalyse research and educational dissemination on a global scale, whilst ensuring the preservation of our collections for generations to come.

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