I’ve spent the last few weeks virtually exploring libraries in Arizona and New Mexico, looking for pre-1600 manuscripts. What I found has convinced me even more deeply of the importance of considering provenance and context where medieval and Renaissance manuscripts in North America are concerned.
Consider for a moment the (very over-simplified) origins of modern Arizona and the Southwest in general (a caveat: because the subject of this blog is European by definition, I am here looking at the history of Arizona from a European perspective, with all due respect to the indigenous cultures in the region). While New England was colonized by northern Europeans crossing the Atlantic, the southwest United States was colonized from the south, by Spanish conquistadors and missionaries making their way north from Mexico. With this in mind, it should come as no great surprise that the majority of pre-1600 manuscripts in Arizona are in Spanish, of Spanish or Central-American origin. These tend to be documentary, missionary, or historical in nature and came to their current repositories as part of larger archival collections with a greater chronological extent. In other words, they weren’t collected because of their age, they were collected because of their context. In fact, the “pre-1600” chronological criterion that I have used throughout this virtual road trip feels particularly arbitrary where these manuscripts are concerned.
Sixteenth-century manuscripts from northern Europe often feel like they “belong” to the end of the Renaissance, while those written in Spain from the same period seem to “belong” to the beginning of Spanish Colonialism, an era that stretched from the fifteenth through the nineteenth century. Manuscripts from the entire Spanish Colonial period are in fact particular strengths of Special Collections departments in this part of the country. In this context, my arbitrary date line has to be pushed backwards to, well, 1492. For manuscripts of Spanish origin that have found their way to the United States, in other words, to find the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, you have to look before Columbus. By that standard, there are just a few manuscripts in Arizona that could be considered as of truly medieval or Renaissance origin. That being said, the sixteenth-century manuscripts are of great interest as well, so I have included them in this survey anyway. I apologize for the lack of images this week; I haven’t found any that I could post here.
We’ll pick up where we left off a few weeks ago, heading east on I-10 out of Riverside, CA. We’ll pass some of the most beautiful desert scenery in the country as we drive through Palm Springs and Joshua Tree National Park, before crossing into Arizona and reaching our first stop, Arizona State University in Tempe, just outside Phoenix.
Arizona State University is the exception to the rule, in that the single pre-1600 manuscript in their collection is indeed from the Renaissance, a humble mathematical codex written in 1429 in Italy (perhaps Mantua). The ASU manuscript (Schoenberg Database nr. 117778), purchased from Bernard Rosenthal in 1985, was described in detail (but not reproduced) by Barbara Hughes in “An Early 15th-century Algebra Codex: a Description” in Historia Mathematica 14 (1987), 167-172. The manuscript turns out to be a rather important copy of Maestro Dardi da Pisa’s Algebra (a.k.a. Aliabraa-Argibra) written by the scribe Jacomo di Ierushali (see Hughes, p. 170). According to Warren van Egmond, “The algebra of Maestro Dardi is the most important work of mathematics to have been written in Europe in the 350 years between the Liber abbaci of Leonardo Pisano in 1202 and the Ars magna of Girolamo Cardano in 1545. No other work of the period displays a comparable level of competence, organization, and scope…” (see the introduction to his proposed critical edition of the text). In her discussion of the manuscript, Hughes describes the ASU codex as possibly being the “most reliable manuscript” of the text and hypothesizes that it may have been used by Mantuan mathematician Mordecai Finzi as the basis for his translation of the text into Hebrew, as evidenced in part by the numerous Hebrew annotations in the manuscript. As Hughes convincingly demonstrates, the preface to Finzi’s translation seems to refer to the ASU manuscript as his source by citing the name of the scribe and the date it was written (Hughes, p. 171).
Also of note in Phoenix is the Melikian Collection, a private collection focusing on Armenian manuscripts and artifacts.
As it runs through Phoenix, I-10 turns south. We’ll follow it through the desert to Tucson, where we will visit the University of Arizona.
Most of the early manuscripts in this collection are of Spanish or Central American origin, and are found in the Charles F. Lummis collection, in a sub-group containing documents dating from 1559 to 1932: a 1559 manuscript concerning the reform of the royal hospital near Burgos, Spain; a 1584 manuscript relating the legal history of this hospital from the 1450s to the 1580s; and a 1613 “purity of blood” testimonial attesting to the non-Jewish background of one Estaban Ruiz of Santa Marta, Spain. The latter is of particular interest as it dates from the period of Jewish expulsion from Spain when it was particularly important to prove one’s lack of Jewish blood. Finally, MS 89 is a 1592 census of Native Americans in Colima, Mexico.
Now we’ll continue eastward on I-10 into New Mexico, turning left at Las Cruces onto I-25 (if you’d like to visit Mexico, turn south instead). This will bring us to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where we will find six pre-1600 British documents in the Robert W. Korber Collection in the Center for Southwest Research. These were collected by Robert Korber during his overseas military service and are part of a larger collection of documents.
Next week, we leave the desert behind for the plains. Put on your boots and meet me in Texas!