On Mediaeval Books: Including the Continuation of Forestalled Reminiscences of Oxford and Books I Beheld There

As discussed previously, the purpose for my recent trip to Oxford was the viewing and collation of a manuscript lurking in Oriel College (for manuscripts do, indeed, lurk). Due to circumstances outwith my control, I was able only to view this manuscript for two full and two half days in my second week in the beautiful city of Oxford. I spent the first week sightseeing with my wife, Tim, and Doreen,* using material in the Bodleian, and being ill.

Then I got to spend my days with this manuscript. The book, as the word manuscript requires, is written by hand. It is on vellum parchment, made from the skins of goats. As mentioned in my last post, at least two people wrote it, as well as a corrector who inserted a couple of phrases in between the lines and gave alternatives to the odd word here and there. This manuscript, however, had far fewer such ‘corrections’ than the one I viewed in Milan in January. Except for the last few folios (pages), the ink is brown (someone with greater expertise — Mr Dunning? — may be able to answer whether ink simply turns brown with age). Each new item is proclaimed to the reader by a heading in red ink. Each new section begins with a littera notabilior, a more noticeable letter — notably larger than the rest, sticking into the margin or the space between the columns on the page, and in red or blue ink.

It has a table of contents that, as is the custom in mediaeval books, gives you no page numbers. The last item is various works ofPapa Leo Magnus. Hence my interest in this manuscript; it is reputed to be the best manuscript overall of the particular collection of items found in it.

I pulled out my printouts of the last edition of the letters I was there to see (1757, but printed at New College 2012 ;]) and began my work. I noted in my text which folios the Leonine items began and finished. I took note of which sermons were included with the letters. I found where on earth the patristic testimonia meant to accompany Ep. 165 had got to.

Then I began to compare the texts, marking the variations between the two on my printouts.

It was tiring. My eyes grew tired. I will go blind from this. Sometimes I lost my place on the page. But it was worth it.

Mediaeval books are great. They are brimming with awesome. Besides the characteristics mentioned above, mediaeval scribes had a series of established abbreviations they would use. This made their job easier. Eventually, one gets used to them. They are written with care and precision. People laboured over them. Goats died for them. In a letter about the date of Easter, a scribe included a marginalium:

Require in fine libri duas epistolas missa beato Leoni de ratione Pasche.

‘Find at the end of this book two letters sent by blessed Leo about the reckoning of Easter.’ A very practical concern. This was a book meant to be used — outside of Leo’s sermons and the ‘dogmatic’ letters, the material found herein is primarily for the use of canon lawyers. People needed to know what the church councils and popes had to say about things. So books like this were gathered and copied by hand for generations.

These people took painstaking care with their books. It is a joy to spend time with a mediaeval manuscript, with a book that a monk somewhere spent hours upon hours of his life crafting with pen and ink.

My final day in Oxford saw me at All Soul’s College where I spent time with a book printed in 1470 by Giovanni Bussi. It has all of Leo’s sermons and six of his letters in it. Like the twelfth-century Oriel manuscript, the table of contents lacked page numbers. Also like that handwritten book, Bussi’s book had litterae notabiliores, written by hand. Indeed, one S was even in gold leaf surrounded by a blue box and with the interior of the S’s coils red and green.

Mediaeval books are works of art. They are treasures to be enjoyed and experienced, wonders to behold, from the magnificent illuminations of the Lindisfarne Gospels to the simplicity of St Cuthbert’s Gospel or of a book of canon law.

*Huzzah for the Oxford Comma, for my wife is not Tim and Doreen as ‘my wife, Tim and Doreen,’ would imply.

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