Archival visit post № 2: BPL

Boston Public Library’s Special Collections holds a fifteenth-century Dominican breviary, catalogued as MS q. Med. 234, which was the subject of my second archival visit. The manuscript, which is of German origin, dates to circa 1460.

The book is a codex with 287 parchment leaves of approximately 13 × 17 cm, bound with leather-covered pasteboards. On fifty-eight of these leaves are bookmark tabs; these are of the simple rectangular type like those on the Dragon Prayer Book, rather than the knotted-parchment type used on Hay Latin Codex 4 (the subject of my first archival visit). The bookmarks are colored with a substance which has oxidized to a dark tone, sometimes appearing reddish, but in some cases it appears that a chemical reaction has turned them green. Compared with the Hay codex, which has fifteen bookmarks and 119 leaves (or roughly eight leaves per bookmark), and especially with the Dragon Prayer Book, which has eight bookmarks and 290 leaves (or roughly thirty-six leaves per bookmark), the BPL codex is very densely bookmarked, being provided with approximately one bookmark for every five leaves.


A bookmark on folio 120 of BPL MS q. Med. 234, one of the ones which appears green.

The BPL codex is written primarily in a 19-line gothic textus in at least three hands, the first of which can be considered textus quadratus, the other two representing a textus semiquadratus script. In addition, the first six folios (like the Hay codex) contain a calendar of saints’ days and are written in a 35-line textus semiquadratus.


Textus quadratus in the first hand, from folio 8r.


Textus quadratus in the second hand, from folio 65r.


Textus semiquadratus in the third hand, from folio 239r.


The 35-line textus semiquadratus used in the calendar, from folio 1r.

The classification of these hands is not straightforward and is, to be quite honest, subjective. (I am following the classification given in Albert Derolez’s The Palaeography of Gothic Manuscript Books [Cambridge, 2003].) The defining feature of textus quadratus (also called textura quadrata) is the diamond-shaped ‘feet’ which form the bases of the minims. These can clearly be seen on virtually all the minims in the image from folio 8r. In the images from folios 65r and 239r, on the other hand, while the basic shapes of the letters are the same, the bases present a generally softer appearance, and—critically, for the purposes of classification—some of the minims have bases which are rounded and swept up to the right, most notably the first minims of many us. (Compare with the us in the image from folio 8r, where the first minims have the diamond bases.) This makes these hands examples of textus semiquadratus; were the bases of the minims uniformly rounded, it would be a textus rotundus. The script used in the calendar is also a semiquadratus, but as can be seen in the image from folio 1r, it is much further along the spectrum toward being a textus rotundus.

These examples from the BPL codex show quite nicely that the varieties of gothic textus script exist on a continuum and that the classifications used by palæographers are ultimately rather arbitrary.


The hybrida script used in the added text, from folio 241r.

Not all differences of script used in gothic manuscript books were so subtle, though, as illustrated by the text (the Office of St. Katharine) added to folio 241r. This is written in a dramatically different script, a form of hybrida. Hybrida is a classification used for derivatives of the cursiva script (itself derived from cursive document scripts) incorporating elements of gothic textualis—hence its name. By its nature, hybrida is a somewhat variable script; in the image from folio 241r, for example, two distinct forms of l can be seen: in the word vigila(n)s in the second line shown, the l is of the usual textualis form, while that in the word pulch(ra) at the end of the fourth line is of the looped cursive form. Similarly, the word spa(n)so [sic, sc. sponso] in the third line employs both a cursive and a textualis form of the letter s (or rather ſ).


Hybrida script, from Hays Latin Codex 4, folio 7r.

Recall from my previous archival post that the Hays codex also employs a hybrida script for the calendar, introduction, and ritualia. Pancratius’s hybrida hand, though, is very different from that on folio 241r of the BPL codex. It is a much better formed hand, of course, but it is also notably less cursive; the single-story cursive as, so different from the two-story as of textualis scripts, mark it, however, as definitively hybrida. (Note that this distinction is retained in modern typefaces, where one of the main differences in letterform between roman and italic faces is that the former has a two-story a and the latter a single-story.)


Hybrida script, from the Dragon Prayer Book, insert preceding folio 11.

An interesting point of comparison between BPL MS q. Med. 234 and the Dragon Prayer Book is that the latter also uses a hybrida script for an added text. In the case of the Dragon Prayer Book, it is on a loose leaf inserted between folios 10 and 11. The Dragon Prayer Book’s hybrida is much less cursive than the that used in the BPL codex; it is in fact intermediate between that and the very formal version used in the Hays codex.

Both the Dragon Prayer Book and the Hay codex present problems of classification, the former because it does not obviously fit into any of the standard types (breviary, ordinary, etc.) and the latter because its main text is of an uncommon type (a collectar), resulting in cataloguing confusion. BPL MS q. Med. 234, however, presents no such difficulty: it is simply a breviary. It remains, however, a mediæval codex, and as such its precise contents are probably unique or nearly so. Not only does it have the Office of St. Katharine added later on folio 241r, it also includes assorted texts like an abbreviated Order of the Dead and a partial Hours of the Virgin. This is one of the main ways, potentially surprising to a modern reader, that mediæval manuscript books differ from printed ones, and especially from modern printed ones.


Folio 7r of the BPL codex, showing the foliate initial ‘A’.

In comprarison with the Hays codex and the Dragon Prayer Book, too, the BPL codex is much more finely made. This is most dramatic in the illumination of folio 7r, the first page of the text following the calendar. The text begins with a foliate initial A, the letter appearing on a gold background and the page ornamented with highly colorful vegetal tendrils.


Folio 1r of the Dragon Prayer Book, showing the initial ‘R’ with dragon.


Folio 9r of the Hays codex, showing the initial flourished ‘D’.

The rich foliate initial of the BPL codex makes a fascinating comparison with the much cruder sui generis R of the Dragon Prayer Book. The latter appears larger on the page, though they are both seven-line initials, but in the BPL codex the initial is set in a 19-line page, while in the Dragon Prayer Book it is set in a much smaller 15-line page. The Hays codex, however, begins with a mere five-line flourished D.

Given that the Hays codex’s initial is the lowest on the hierarchy of initials—it is only a five-line initial, it uses only a single color of ink, and it contains no pictorial element—one might expect it to be, in general, the least ornamented of the three codices. The opposite, though, is true. The Dragon Prayer Book, in fact, is the plainest of the books. Its initials throughout the text are mostly plain, only occasionally flourished with contrasting color (e.g., the three-line blue initial with red flourishes which opens the “Cursus de Beata Virgine” on folio 19r; see the image in an earlier post). It is also generally lacking in other decoration.


Portion of folio 241r of the BPL codex, showing the large rubric and flourished ‘E’.


Rubric for the ‘Propria sanctorum’, from the Hays codex, folio 57v.

BPL codex, excepting its dramatic foliate initial, is moderately decorated. Its internal initials are not too different from the Dragon Prayer Book’s. The Hays codex, though, has some very interesting decorations. The rubric “Sequntur p(ro)pria s(an)ctoru(m)” on folio 57v, for example, is richly ornamented if only in a single color. As mentioned in my last post, too, the Hays codex’s internal initials are highly varied and include litteræ duplices that do not appear in either the Dragon Prayer Book or the BPL codex. The Hays codex, too, contains numerous marginal decorations that are more intricate than anything appearing in either of the other two codices.


Marginal ornamentation, from the Hays codex, folio 34r.

All of these variations in ornamentation among the three books make it difficult to place them in any clear hierarchy of “quality.” Clearly the foliate initial which begins the breviary text in the BPL codex stands out as something far superior to anthing in the Hays codex or the Dragon Prayer Book, but outside of that it is difficult to assign a ranking.

BPL MS q. Med. 234, Hays Latin Codex 4, and the Dragon Prayer Book share much in common. All three are German liturgical books dating to the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century, used by religious orders. Two—the BPL codex and the Dragon Prayer Book—are Dominican, the Hays codex being Benedictine. But all three exhibit interesting textual and material features which illustrate the rich diversity of mediæval manuscript books, even within such a narrowly circumscribed category.

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