Herzog August Bibliothek, Cod. Guelf. 630b Helmst., fol. 247r

Towering wisdom, messy manuscripts, and a confused scribe

We often think of medieval codices as elaborate and flawless works of art. Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Cod. Guelf. 630b Helmst. doesn’t quite fall into that category. One of the religious diagrams contained in this late fifteenth-century paper manuscript highlights a more human, functional, and fallible quality to medieval books. We see a working text whose very flaws reveal the scribes and readers behind it - imperfect people, like all of us.

The manuscript in question is a compilation of Latin and German religious texts, containing three allegorical diagrams. Such drawings are common in theological manuscripts, representing abstract concepts in an easily understood visual form:

  • the Tree of Divine Love (arbor diuini amoris), fol. 247r;
  • the Tower of Wisdom (turris sapientiae), fol. 247v;
  • the Tree of Vices (arbor uitiorum), fol. 248r.

These diagrams chart the way towards virtue, wisdom, or vice in spatial terms. The two trees did not pose a major challenge to our anonymous scribe. As we can see below, the Tree of Divine Virtue is so basic that it would make a disappointing houseplant.

Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Cod. Guelf. 630b Helmst., fol. 247r

The Tower of Wisdom is another story. It is known in many manuscript versions dating from the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries, and there are even a few woodcuts that are roughly contemporary with our manuscript. A woodcut in the Bodleian Library from the 1470s is clearly labelled ‘The Tower of Wisdom, to be read from the bottom to the top in the order of the letters of the alphabet.’ Starting from the foundation of humility (humilitas), each part of the tower is assigned a virtue. The reader is guided towards the top by the letters labelling each section on the left-hand side. The result is a complex but neat hierarchy, designed to help us memorize the way to attain wisdom. So far, so wise.

A woodcut tower of wisdom printed in the 1470s: [Oxford, Bodleian Library, Auct. M 3.16(1), recto](https://digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/inquire/p/ef234169-7bda-4c7f-83ad-0a6640bba21b)
A woodcut tower of wisdom printed in the 1470s: Oxford, Bodleian Library, Auct. M 3.16(1), recto

The Tower of Wisdom in Cod. Guelf. 630b Helmst. is different. Its design is less elaborate, sketched out in the same cursive hand as the texts that come before and after in the manuscript. It is constructed of sketched pillars and stones, with the comparatively elaborate doors and windows standing out. As in the Bodleian woodcut, the components are labelled in Latin, though less neatly.

[HAB Wolfenbüttel, Cod. Guelf. 630b Helmst., fol. 247v](http://diglib.hab.de/mss/630b-helmst/start.htm?image=00498)
HAB Wolfenbüttel, Cod. Guelf. 630b Helmst., fol. 247v

The problems begin once we reach the top of the tower. At the top of the page, our scribe ran out of space, and the resulting confusion mars the overall effect. The last two categories of virtues – the defenders and guardians of wisdom – practically overlap. Elements of wisdom are squashed, rearranged, or simply left out as the tower overflows its ruled frame. Virginity (virginitas) is crammed vertically into the right-hand corner and purity (puritas) is nowhere to be seen. Having climbed up so many steps towards wisdom, the confused reader encounters a label, ‘This is the Tower of Wisdom’. We might feel inclined to disagree.

Cod. Guelf. 630b Helmst. is not a luxurious manuscript. It is written on paper rather than expensive parchment, only slightly larger than an A5 booklet (210 × 160 mm). We see a workmanlike manuscript probably intended for personal study.

It has been suggested that versions of the Tower of Wisdom in other manuscripts may have been more than a mnemonic tool to be learnt by heart. For those who struggled to memorize all elements of wisdom at once, it may also have been a meditative guide to acquiring and applying wisdom in life. Perhaps the readers of Cod. Guelf. 630b Helmst. felt that even a flawed and incomplete tower served this purpose. It may have provided a salutary reminder that perfect wisdom is not so easy to attain.

This particular tower may seem underwhelming, but it provides both a complex path to human wisdom and a powerful testament to human fallibility. Instead of a neat Tower of Wisdom, we are left with a confused Tower of Babel outgrowing its page but nonetheless striving for understanding.

About the author

Michael Angerer is an undergraduate reading English and French at Oriel College, Oxford, with a particular interest in medieval literatures and issues of medieval translation. He has recently completed a year at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris.

Further reading

  • Katharina Bahlmann and Mechthild Dreyer, ‘Wissensarchitekturen oder der Aufstieg zur Weisheit: Philosophische Positionen aus Antike und Mittelalter’, in Gewusst wo! Wissen schafft Räume: Die Verortung des Denkens im Spiegel der Druckgrafik, ed. by Katharina Bahlmann, Elisabeth Oy-Marra and Cornelia Schneider (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2008), pp. 3–16

  • Kévin Gœuriot, ‘La Tour de la sagesse: Étude historique d’un exemple d’image “édificatrice” à la fin du moyen âge’, Revue d’Histoire Ecclésiastique, 103.2 (2008), 363–403

  • Lucy Freeman Sandler, ‘John of Metz, The Tower of Wisdom’, in The Medieval Craft of Memory: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures, ed. by Mary Carruthers and Jan M. Ziolkowski (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), pp. 215–225

  • Nigel F. Palmer, ‘Blockbooks, Woodcut, and Metalcut Single Sheets’, in Alan Coates and others, A catalogue of books printed in the fifteenth century now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, 6 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), [i]{.smallcaps}, pp. 1-50 (p. 42)