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Thursday, April 6, 2017

Medieval Manuscripts in the Rare Books Collection

One of the interesting and valuable finds in early modern books are medieval manuscript fragments. Used at the time to strengthen the books' bindings, particularly along the spines, they have since become a subject of interest for book historians. In our collection we occasionally come across these fragments - technically our earliest materials - and have recorded several examples. More spectacular and more rare are books that are fully covered in medieval manuscript leaves, of which we also have a few.

These volumes often draw the interest of visitors and scholars, not only for the beauty and antiquity of their bindings, but also for the fragmentary manuscripts they preserve. Two examples in the collection are a 1575 edition of the Italian jurist Alessandro Tartagni's commentary on the Corpus juris civilis (the collection of Roman law received during the Middle Ages, which forms the basis of modern civil laws), and an influential Scottish collection of medieval laws and customs, the Regiam maiestatem Scotiae (1613).

Tartagni (1424-1477) was a legal standout of his day, a widely renowned, semi-itinerant jurist sometimes called the 'doctor of truth' or the 'golden doctor.' He taught canon and Roman law - as the latter was adapted to early Renaissance Italian life - to students who filled the cities as lawyers, diplomats, teachers and bureaucrats. Tartagni himself received doctorates from Bologna, the first and most famous medieval law school, and taught at Pavia, Ferrara, Padua, and Bologna, where he died. Each of our volumes of Tartagni's four-volume commentary on Roman law is covered in vellum (or animal skin) leaves from 13th-century manuscripts.  

At left is a detail from the cover of Tartagni's commentary on the middle books of Justinian's Digest of Roman law, known as the Infortiatum. Strikingly, the pictured manuscript leaf also includes an early commentary on the Digest. The leaf shows a section of book 19 of the Digest, on locatio conductio, or contracts for leasing goods and hiring services. The Roman legal text is in black, with red and blue initial letters to focus the reader's eye. A surrounding marginal gloss - a kind of abbreviated commentary - can be seen in a fainter brown ink. Just as Tartagni was commenting on Roman law in his volumes, a medieval scribe was filling the margins of his manuscript with short explanations of the same texts. A small history of evolving thought and pedagogy can thus be seen at a glance; all the more so as 16th-century editors then added footnotes to Tartagni's commentary. 

The Regiam maiestatem Scotiae is equally interesting, even if the connection between the text and the covering manuscript leaf is less clear. Grand in scope, the Regiam maiestatem was composed in Scotland in the 14th century and includes parts of Glanvill's medieval Treatise on the Laws and Customs of England, as well as elements of Roman and canon law, and ancient Scottish laws. Our edition was published in London, four years after the first edition compiled by John Skene was published in Edinburgh.

The manuscript that covers our Regiam maiestatem, at right, is a late 13th- or 14th-century antiphonal (or antiphonary), a liturgical book used for chanting the divine office in choir. It was tailored for use by monks, and needed to be large enough to be read by a small group. The particular leaf that covers the front and back of our volume is very similar to this leaf online (and the music can be sung with the aid of modern notation). Notably ours features a more intricate decorated initial letter "E." Monastic liturgical books were not much in demand in early modern Protestant Scotland, which may help explain its repurposed use here. Yet its aesthetics were not lost on an early modern binder, who positioned the beautiful "E" across the spine, where it would be seen more easily.  

   - Ryan Greenwood, Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections    


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