Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Laud Misc. 281 fol. 184r

Massive manuscripts and weary scribe

How long does it take to write manuscripts? This depends on the text you want to copy, but it might take very long – especially when you were commissioned to copy the entire Bible!

The imposing cover of Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Bodl. 969

The Nuremberg scribe Heinrich Kun (or Kunn) may not have considered how exhausting this task would prove when Ulrich Segenschmid, a fellow citizen, asked him to carry it out. The outcome is two of the largest German manuscripts in the Bodleian, MS. Bodl. 969 and MS. Bodl. 970, consisting of two volumes of 375 and 324 folios, measuring 390 × 375 mm! written in two columns and 70 lines each.

Two outer cases of leather on millboard make the appearance even more impressive, added probably around 1700. These drew much attention from other researchers when I ordered them to the Weston Library’s reading room.

The Bible itself follows a translation which is commonly known as ‘Augsburger Bibelhandschrift’ as its oldest textual witness is kept at Augsburg (Augsburg, Staats- und Stadtbibliothek, 2º Cod. 3), although the exact provenance and composition of the manuscript are still uncertain. In total ten manuscripts and one fragment have survived. The two volumes of the Oxford copy split the text with Ecclesiastes, the prophets and the New Testament in the second volume. The Bible concludes with the Apocalypse.

Copying with colophons

Finishing the first volume, only halfway through, poor Heinrich seems to have asked himself why the Bible took so long to copy. He might have also been behind his schedule leading him to spend even the nights in front of the manuscript, if we are to take his colophon at the end of the first volume literally:

Copied by night: MS. Bodl. 969, fol. 377va

Hier hat ein end das erste teil der Biblien Geschrieben durch mich heinriczen kunn uon slewc […] 1442 am freytag vor mitter vasten […] czu nurmbergk In der nacht do es schir begund zu slahen drey in dy nacht (MS. Bodl. 969, fol. 377va)

Here ends the first part of the Bible, written by me, Heinrich Kun of Schleiz, on the Friday before mid-lent, at Nuremberg, in the middle of the night at three.

Not only did he have to fight his sleepiness, he might have also been exhausted by the fasting which Lent demanded – and there was still a New Testament to be written!

Nonetheless, he finally accomplished his task with the last dot of the Apocalypse on 27 August 1442. One can only celebrate with him and feel Heinrich’s relief when he wrote:

‘I have never been so happy’: MS. Bodl. 970, fol. 322vb

geendet dornach in dem zwey vnd virczigsten Jare am montag In mittag nach sant partholomeus tag des heiligen zwelff poten. Ich was nye so fro vncz do schreib finito libro. (MS. Bodl. 970, fol. 322vb)

Finished finally in [14]42 on the Monday at lunchtime after the day of St Bartholomew, the apostle. I have never been so happy as when I wrote ‘book finished’!

Thanks to Heinrich for giving insights into the book production process and how tiring and difficult sticking to deadlines even in the fifteenth century could be, and for leaving us with the largest German manuscript in the Bodleian. May the researchers have a better mood when finishing their (hopefully not so massive) texts.

About the author

Dr Linus Ubl is a Departmental Lecturer in German at the University of Oxford. He finished his DPhil on the Upper German reception of the Liber specialis gratiae by Mechthild of Hackeborn in 2019. His article on the Platterberger Chronicle appeared in German Manuscripts in Oxford, published in honour of Nigel Palmer.