Among a generally splendid collection of pre-1600 manuscripts, The Lilly Library at Indiana University happens to also own several of the oldest medieval manuscript leaves in the United States. One hundred of their manuscripts were recently catalogued for exhibition by Christopher de Hamel, and his catalogue, Gilding the Lilly, is definitely worth owning. In addition, most of the manuscripts have been at least partially digitized and are accessible through Digital Scriptorium. The collection is so varied that you could teach an entire semester on the history of the development of Latin script and manuscript illumination from the seventh through the fifteenth century without ever leaving the library, physically or virtually. There are only a handful of libraries in the nation for which that statement is true. Here’s a sample of some of the really early – and really rare – leaves that gild this Lilly:
I want to start with this tiny cutting from a late-7th/early-8th-century manuscript of the Gospels written in Italy, because it is one of the oldest examples of the Latin Bible in the United States (see de Hamel, pp. 10-11). It’s just a scrap about two inches square, preserving a few lines of the Gospel of St. Luke from an otherwise unknown manuscript. This little scrap has a noble provenance, however, having once belonged to the great collector Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872), in whose massive collection this fragment was MS 22229 (the fact that the shelfmark has five digits should tell you something about just how massive the collection was). The script is a broad and beautiful example of uncial bookhand, with clearly defined ascenders (the [L] on line 3) and descenders (the [F] on the same line). Strokes that rise above and sink below the line of writing are something we take for granted in modern handwriting and typeface (the font I’m using right now is full of them), but in the pre-Caroline era this was a major development that eventually allowed for a clear distinction between majuscule letter forms and minuscule, which led to the standardization of capital letters and their use at the beginning of a sentence. The round [d] (line 2) and the lambda-shaped [a] (line 1), the round-topped [m] and the descending [g] are all innovations of this script that have stuck around for 1,500 years so far.
Next, we’re going to jump to early eleventh-century England. This is a very rare example of Anglo-Saxon script, a fragment cut from a copy of Ælfric’s Excerptiones de arte grammatica written in Anglo-Saxon and Latin (full description here and de Hamel pp. 30-31). In the detail you can clearly see the alternate letter-forms used in Old English: thorn [þ] (line 3) and eth [ð] (line 4). Also present is the a-e ligature [æ] (line 3).
The letter thorn [þ] survives today in attempts by barkeeps to sound antique by naming pubs something along the lines of “Ye Olde Tavern” – “Ye” should really be [þe], or, in other words, “the.” As for the [ae] ligature, it is also used in Latin, where it has a long and happy life before falling out of favor and being replaced by [ę] (in which the cedilla is really just a vestige of the loop on the [a]) and eventually just [e]; for example, “mariæ” becomes “marię” becomes “marie,” which those of you with some Latin will realize is kind of a problem as far as grammatical clarity is concerned. The final letter form worth noting is the [g] (four lines from the bottom in the main image), which has that open insular form that today’s calligraphers associate with Gaelic or Irish script.
Now down to Italy for a prime example of early twelfth-century Beneventan, a localized Italian script that developed alongside pre-Caroline minuscules but survived well into the romanesque period, as represented by this Psalter. Recognizable by its distinctive square character, the script is easy to identify but can be tricky to read.
In particular, the letters [a] and [t] are almost indistinguishable from one another. At the beginning of the third line of the detail below, for example, we find the end of the word “ambu/labit” that started on the previous line. The second letter of the line is an [a], the fifth a [t]. You have to look hard to find the difference – the stroke at the upper right corner of the letter. For the [a], the stroke breaks downward; for the [t], it runs straight across. Another letter form worth noting is the [e] (see “ego” near the end of line 5). It looks like the number 8 but is really essentially what we think of as a capital [E]. This hand also includes a graceful and distinctive [ri] ligature that looks like triangle standing on one point (see “honoris” on the last line of the main image).
Finally, I want to share with you a mid-ninth-century leaf that I am going to add to my paleography lectures, as it is a stunning and perfect example of the use of multiple scripts in hierarchy to help readers orient themselves on the page, another important Caroline innovation that has survived in book design to this day (full description here and de Hamel pp. 20-21).
The detail below begins with a heading in epigraphic display capitals introducing the preface to the Gospel of John. Next comes the beautiful and enlarged initial [H] (note the Celtic influence in the scrollwork that fills the body of the letter), followed by nine lines of uncial (the same script we saw in the first example above) and then, at last, the primary Caroline minuscule script. The column ends with a line of rustic capitals, a slightly more hurried and less-formal majuscule.
This leaf comes from one of the great Tours Bibles, which exemplify not only the major innovations in script and layout that characterize Carolingian manuscripts but also demonstrate the savvy of King Charles the Great himself. Charlemagne inherited a smallish kingdom in 768 and found himself running a largish empire in the year 800. One of the problems facing the Emperor was that different parts of the Holy Roman Empire used different letter-forms to write the Roman alphabet, some of which were illegible to readers elsewhere (Google images of “Luxeuil script” and you’ll see what I mean). Under the leadership of the scholar-abbot Alcuin, a standardized script developed at Tours (in the Loire Valley) was disseminated intentionally to monastic scriptoria throughout the Holy Roman Empire in the first decades of the ninth century, in part by the transmission of massive Bibles such as the present example which were then copied by monks learning the new letter forms. It was one of the ways that Charlemagne managed to unite his vast empire.
On our way out of Indiana, I’d like to make one more stop and share with you some of the great work being done in the Rare Book Room at the University of Notre Dame.
If you’ve been following me on this virtual road trip for even a just the last few weeks, you will probably have noticed that I am more than just a little bit interested in fragments of manuscripts, those that have been cut up for binding use or broken up for sale. In addition to early-stage projects aiming to reconstruct as many manuscripts as possible, there are several projects underway to reconstruct single manuscripts: David Gura, Curator of Ancient and Medieval Manuscripts (among other things!) at the University of Notre Dame, has made significant headway in literally reuniting some of those scattered leaves. As David explains in this blog post, he is systematically acquiring leaves from a beautiful Book of Hours written in Brittany around 1435 that was whole as recently as 2011, when it was sold at auction as part of Joseph Pope’s Bergendal Collection (Sotheby’s 5 July 2011, lot 113; formerly Bergendal MS 8). A dealer who bought the manuscript broke it up and started selling the leaves one by one. Gura decided to buy as many as he could find in an attempt to literally put the manuscript back together; he has already acquired 86 of the manuscript’s 129 leaves on behalf of the Hesburgh Library at Notre Dame. Keep your eyes out for these leaves and let him know if you find any for sale (you can reach him at email@example.com). The artist’s treatment of grassy hillsides and plains is particularly distinctive; take a look at the hillside behind St. Francis in the miniature reproduced here and you will clearly see the symmetrical tufts and swirls that characterize the artist’s work.
In honor of Halloween, I leave you with the Bergendal/Notre Dame Hours illustration of The Three Living and The Three Dead, with the famous epitaph that sometimes accompanies this subject:
Quod estis fuimus; quod sumus eritis
What you are, we once were. What we are, you will be.
The rest of the Notre Dame collection is also available on Digital Scriptorium. Check it out, then meet me in Illinois!