Special Collections & Archives Blog

Manuscript commentary on the gospels of Matthew and John, ca. 1240

Monday, March 25, 2013 2:18 pm

What’s the oldest book in your collection?

This is the question most frequently asked by visitors to ZSR’s Special Collections. Our oldest book is a manuscript codex dating from around 1240. Created two centuries before the invention of printing with moveable type, this book is a handwritten copy of a commentary on the Biblical gospel books of Matthew and John.

This volume has recently been the subject of study by medieval manuscript experts from some of our neighbor institutions, who have uncovered some interesting features.

Like the vast majority of medieval manuscripts, the text of this book is in Latin. However, physical features of the manuscript suggest that it was made in England. The text is a copy of a scholarly commentary on the gospels of Matthew and John, perhaps part of Hugh of St. Cher‘s Postillae in Universa Biblia juxta Quadruplicem Sensum.

The text has many features typical of manuscripts of this era. It is written on parchment (also called vellum), a specially prepared animal skin. The running heads in blue and red indicate the chapter title on facing pages. Here  MA THS  indicates that this part of the text is about the gospel of Matthew.

The commentaries on these two gospel books were bound together in their current form much later, probably in the 17th or 18th century. They appear to be pieces of a larger work, and some small notations in the manuscript suggest a reason for this.

This note at the bottom of one leaf includes the word “pecia” along with numbers (in Roman numeral form). The manuscript contains other such markings, which suggest that it might have been part of a 13th century system for copying books for Oxford University faculty and students. This pecia system was modeled after ones developed at Italian and Parisian universities.

Copying texts by hand was obviously a time-consuming process, and the rise of European universities in the 12th century created an increased demand for texts. The pecia system addressed this concern by lending out standard texts in parts (pecia is Latin for piece) to students or to the clergy who made up the university faculties. The borrower would copy the part of the text himself– or hire a professional scribe if he could afford it– and then return the piece to the university stationer (bookseller) for the next part. This system allowed for faster and more efficient production than the lending of lengthy texts in their entirety. Existence of a pecia system at Oxford is less well documented, but it is known that by the mid-13th century the local Dominican order had set up a proto-library of texts available for consultation and copying.

In the universities, the pecia system was also an attempt at quality control. Transmission of manuscript texts was a process prone to error: when texts circulated and copies were made from copies, the effect was like a game of telephone. Errors were transmitted and multiplied to the extent that it was sometimes impossible to determine the correct version of a text. In the Paris universities, the stationers were provided with exemplars– texts vetted by university officials for accuracy– which they lent to scholars for copying. With everyone copying from the same exemplar text, errors were at least reduced (though certainly not eliminated).

The page below shows one common form of correction in a manuscript text. The marginal notation on the left, outlined in red, is text that was accidentally omitted from the column next to it. A symbol in the main text indicates to the reader where the insertion should go.

The excerpt below shows the opposite type of error. In the last line of the left column, some words are crossed out in red and underlined with a series of dots. This indicates text inserted by mistake, which the reader should ignore.

ZSR’s manuscript appears to be an exemplar– a master copy  that was lent out for reproduction. The handwriting is skilled enough that it was likely produced by a professional scribe, or at least a skilled copyist. But it is not a deluxe manuscript. Decoration is minimal, and the parchment on which it is written is not high quality. The image below shows one large tear that would have occurred as the skin was prepared. The tear was once sewn up with thread (now disintegrated), as indicated by the tiny holes along the sides.

Smaller tears, holes, and discolorations exist throughout the text. Clearly this was a working textbook, not a luxury item.

Later owners’ marks in the text support the theory that the manuscript has English origins. Both probably date from the 16th or 17th century. One is by a Robart Emy.

The other is one Thomas How[e], who asserts that he “own[es] this booke.” Thomas, who one suspects was a rather young student, has used the margins of several other pages for doodling and practicing his penmanship.

We have little information on the provenance of this manuscript. There is no record of how it came to reside in ZSR’s collection, although a newspaper clipping in our files indicates that it was stolen in the 1970s by a part-time library employee and eventually resurfaced in the library at the College of William and Mary.

So our oldest book has led an exciting life. And it has many mysteries yet to be solved.

Medieval Manuscripts at ZSR, Part 1

Friday, March 8, 2013 1:58 pm

This week I attended  the third annual “Understanding the Medieval Book” symposium at the University of South Carolina. It was my first time attending this seminar, which is organized by Dr. Scott Gwara of the USC English department and held in USC Library’s Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. This year’s seminar was led by Dr. Eric Johnson, Curator of Early Books and Manuscripts at Ohio State University. Participants included teaching faculty, librarians, and students from various academic institutions. During the two-day symposium Eric described in detail the physical and textual features of medieval manuscripts, with a focus on religious texts. We learned about how manuscript books were created– from the making of parchment, to the scriptorium, to the bindery– and how they were used by their original owners. We also talked a lot about ways to use medieval books and fragments in the college (and even K-12) classroom.

ZSR’s Rare Books Collection does not have an extensive collection of medieval manuscripts. We have five manuscript codices (bound volumes) which I believe date from the late 14th/early 15th centuries. All are religious works in Latin. We also have a few manuscript fragments taken from larger works.

The image above is a page from one of ZSR’s manuscript codices. It is probably Italian (though the text is of course in Latin) and has many typical features of a manuscript from the 14th century. The red and blue ornamentation is not just decorative. Rubrication in medieval manuscripts served as a sort of punctuation, orienting the reader to line breaks and different sections in the text. Marginal notes and symbols, like the manicule (pointing finger), could be used to highlight important passages, add text or commentary, or correct errors in the text.

This very small New Testament manuscript from our collection is an example of the trend for “pocket Bibles” which began in the 12th century.

Most medieval manuscripts were written on parchment (also called vellum), which was specially prepared animal skin, usually goat, sheep or calf. Parchment was durable but very expensive, so bookmakers on a budget often made do with lower-quality skins. These might have uneven pigmentation, holes, or other flaws. The image above is a detail from another of ZSR’s manuscript books. The right margin shows a tear in the parchment, which was at one point repaired by sewing up the hole with thread.

Manuscript production in Europe fell off rapidly with the invention of printing from moveable type in the mid-1400s. Manuscript books were sometimes disbound and the parchment sheets put to other uses. One typical use was in the bindings of other books. Above is a manuscript page pasted inside the cover of a volume of the works of Horace, printed in Venice in 1490. Below, a page from a manuscript missal covers the outer binding of a 1532 Basel imprint.


Though the ZSR medieval manuscripts collection is not large, it gets a lot of use. I show the books to many medieval and Renaissance history and literature classes, and my History of the Book class uses the manuscripts extensively. And of course I pull them out every time someone asks the ever-popular “What’s your oldest book?” question. My goal in attending the USC symposium was to learn more about medieval manuscripts so that I could use them more effectively in teaching and so that I could create catalog records for our codices, which are currently undocumented. I definitely learned a lot, and I met some terrific medievalists. In fact, Dr. Gwara from USC and Dr. Jo Koster from Winthrop University have volunteered to make a site visit to ZSR next week, to look at our manuscripts and help me identify and describe them in detail. So check back for part 2 of this post, in which we’ll learn everything we ever wanted to know about medieval manuscripts at ZSR!


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