‘Hello there – how old are you?’
This must be one of the most common questions in any reader’s mind when they are picking up a medieval manuscript. This is closely followed by ‘Where do you come from?’
The two questions are often interlinked, as many of the clues give answers to both questions. In an earlier post Matthew Holford discussed how artistic representation of monochromatic initials point toward twelfth-century Cistercian origins. Sometimes manuscripts conveniently give us specific evidence for dating and localization: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Laud Misc. 281 is a useful example of such marks.
When dating a medieval manuscript, it is quite common not to be able to assign it to part of a century. If you are lucky, however, the answer might be right under your nose:
This book was written and completed in the year 1341 for the reverence and honour of the chaste Virgin Mary and of the monastery of Eberbach and for the evident usefulness of the monks living there, through the labour and expense of brother William of the said monastery, a professed monk and a Parisian scholar in the aforementioned year. In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. He who wrote me (i.e. had me made) had the name William.
Anno domini mº cºcºcº xliº. Liber iste scriptus et completus est ob reuerenciam et honorem intemerate virginis Marie. necnon monasterij Ebirbacensis. ac monachorum inibi commorancium vtilitatem euidentem mediantibus laboribus et expensis fratris wilhelmi dicti monasterii monachi ac professi. scolaris. parisiensis. sub annis dominice incarnacionis supra scriptis In nomine patris et filii et spiritus sancti: Amen: Qui me scribebat (id est scribi procurabat) Wilhelmus nomen habebat.
And there you have it – as reliable a date as you can hope for. The colophon appears to say twice that William commissioned and arranged for the manuscript to be written. A final colophon attests that this section was concluded in Paris in the year 1340:
Explicit scriptum parisius anno domini millesimo tricentesimo quadragesimo.
The minor discrepancy of a year in the dating to 1340 and 1341 can be approached through the analysis of scribal hands. The volume was written in three sections (fols. 1–123, 125–183, 184–235) by two different hands. The first hand wrote the first and last sections, which are covered by the colophon on fol. 229v (completed in Paris 1340). The second scribe wrote the middle section which ends in the colophon on fol. 183v (completed in Paris 1341).
Some questions remain as we don’t know who the scribes were. Some features in the script indicate potential similarities with the hand of an English scribe, William de Kirkby, who lived in Paris and completed another manuscript in 1336. This other manuscript (now Princeton, Garrett MS. 83) was also a commission in Paris, this time by a Dominican Simon Comitis, who was the prior of St-Jacques of Paris.
It is good to keep at the back of your mind a small caveat: could this be copied from an earlier manuscript that was used as the model from which the text is copied by a later scribe? Are there any other supporting features for ‘1340–41, Paris’ date and place?
There are two pages that have gold and green initials with border decoration of animals and coloured leaves. The style conforms with Parisian workshops of the time, and provides further assurance of the accuracy of the two colophons.
The historiated initial on a red and gold patterned background at the beginning of the manuscript is in striking contrast to the monochrome initials in manuscripts produced in Cistercian houses (read more on the Cistercian minimalist decorations). The connection to the Cistercian Abbey of the Virgin Mary at Eberbach can be induced from two details though it is clear that this is not an in-house production. The subject of the depiction is the enthroned Virgin Mary, who was the patron saint of the Abbey. Secondly, in front of her, in the lower part of the letter, a monk is kneeling in adoration. He can be identified as Cistercian on account of the white habit that had earned Cistercians the name of ‘White Monks’.
The manuscript also carries evidence that links it to the pecia manuscript production lines that flourished around the medieval university in Paris from the 13th to the 15th centuries. In the pecia system one authorized copy of a high-demand work was split into several pieces (peciae). Each piece could then be lent out to different scribes, so that several scribes could be copying different parts of the same work at the same time. Scribes often marked the change of these pieces with a note in the margin.
A sharp-eyed reader can still find some of these pecia marks in MS. Laud Misc. 281. Contrary to the common practice they are not numbered, but only state beginning of piece: incipit quedam peª (e.g. fols. 129va, 130va, 218rb, 226va, 229rb).
The wording could suggest that the scribe copied from a complete text instead of separate pieces, and thus thought it unnecessary to copy pecia numbers. Whether this manuscript was copied as part of the pecia system, or from a manuscript that was itself a pecia production, doesn’t make a big difference to our question. The existence of pecia marks is yet another link that strengthens the connection of MS. Laud Misc. 281 to Parisian book production in the 14th century.
In this happy instance there seems little doubt that MS. Laud Misc. 281 was indeed produced in Paris in 1340–1341, for the library in the Cistercian Abbey at Eberbach.
About the author
Tuija Ainonen is a Bodleian project archivist reassessing the library’s medieval charters, and was previously a cataloguer on the ‘Manuscripts from German-Speaking Lands’ project.
The manuscript and its history is described in detail in Nigel F. Palmer, Zisterzienser und ihre Bücher: die mittelalterliche Bibliotheksgeschichte von Kloster Eberbach im Rheingau (Regensburg, 1998), pp. 114–115, 292.
Pecia manuscripts, and MS. Laud Misc. 281 particularly, are discussed in Murano, Opere diffuse per exemplar e pecia (Turnhout, 2005) nos. 782, 783; and A. Ray, The Pecia System and Its Use in the Cultural Milieu of Paris, c.1250–1330, UCL PhD Diss. (2015), pp. 341–42.