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Parchment, paper and pixels: Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts in the Turnbull Library

June 10th, 2020 By Anthony Tedeschi

One subset of the Alexander Turnbull Library’s ever-growing corpus of distinct digitised collection items is its medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. While this component is small numerically, it is among the most significant. Not only is each manuscript unique and, in some cases, of artistic as well as textual importance, they are also among the oldest books in New Zealand and attract broad international research interest.

The collection numbers twenty-four codices of which sixteen have been fully digitised to date and are freely available through the National Digital Heritage Archive (NDHA). The majority of the manuscripts are French in origin, with other specimens from Italy, England, the Netherlands and Germany. With the exceptions of a few lines in French and English and a prayer book in Dutch, all the texts are written in Latin, and are primarily religious in nature.

This post provides an overview of how the collection was formed, along with a list of the manuscripts towards the end with links to their catalogue records and digital simulacra where available. Some comments on early ownership taken primarily from the unpublished collections catalogue (Tiaki) and drawn from Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in New Zealand Collections (London, 1989) are also included.

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Historiated initial ‘I’ with kneeling figure of Philosophy from Boethius’s Consolatio Philosophiae.
Historiated initial ‘I’ with kneeling figure of Philosophy from Boethius’s Consolatio Philosophiae, Ref: MSR-19, f.24r. Alexander Turnbull Library.

Origins

Medieval manuscripts have been part of the Alexander Turnbull Library collections ever since its doors first opened to the public one hundred years ago this June. The foundational manuscript, included in Alexander Horsburgh Turnbull’s bequest to the nation upon his death in 1918, is also one of the Library’s most well-known books: a multi-work volume consisting of Boethius’s De musica and four works by Guido of Arezzo, executed and beautifully illustrated in England during the mid-twelfth century and bound in an Elizabethan binding (MSR-05).

Purchased by Turnbull from the London book dealer Bernard Quaritch around 1900, it is the oldest complete Western codex in New Zealand, and for 400 years was in the Christ Church Cathedral library, Canterbury, England, until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the sixteenth century. An account of this manuscript can be read in Ruth Lightbourne’s ‘Boethius and Guido of Arezzo: Introduction to a Manuscript’.

Diagram of musical instruments and woman tuning a harp from Boethius’s De musica.
Diagram of musical instruments and woman tuning a harp from Boethius’s De musica, MSR-05, ff.14r and 77r. Alexander Turnbull Library.

Growth of the collection

The Boethius/ Guido of Arezzo codex remained the sole medieval manuscript in the collection throughout the tenure of the first Turnbull Librarian Johannes Andersen (1873–1962). By contrast, his successor, C. R. H. Taylor (1905–1997), Turnbull Librarian from 1937 to 1963, oversaw the most active period of collecting medieval manuscripts, which began on the cusp of the 1950s.

In 1949, the Library purchased three codices from the Cambridgeshire bookseller Frank Brown. These were a thirteenth-century commentary on the biblical Song of Songs (MSR-12) along with two fifteenth-century manuscripts: a copy of Roman historian Eutropius’s De gesta Romanorum (a history of Rome), expanded in the eighth century by Paul the Deacon (ca.720–799) and likely produced in Ferrara, Italy (MSR-08), and a collection of texts consisting primarily of sermons, written in Yorkshire, England (MSR-20).

Illuminated initial ‘P’ on the incipit page of Eutropius’s De gesta Romanorum.
Illuminated initial ‘P’ on the incipit page of Eutropius’s De gesta Romanorum, Ref: MSR-08, f.1r. Alexander Turnbull Library.

Further early additions

That same year another Cambridgeshire bookseller, R. C. Pearson, sold the Library a Pontifical or bishop’s service book from the fifteenth or sixteenth century (MSR-10). The coat of arms of the bishop for whom it was made were overpainted with the royal arms of France, but trace evidence visible underneath suggests its first owner may have been among the bishops of Chartres, perhaps Erard de la Mark, who was bishop from 1507 to 1523.

In 1950, the Library bought a second manuscript from Pearson, being a late medieval guide to religious life, which includes chapters on canon law, liturgical observances and religious offices (MSR-14).

These acquisitions were followed by two purchases from the venerable London firm of Maggs Bros in 1955: a fifteenth-century collection of nine short theological tracts written in Southern Flanders (MSR-13), and a thirteenth-century partial copy of the Elementarium doctrinae (N–P only), a dictionary first compiled in the 1040s by the Italian lexicographer Papias the Lombard (MSR-21).

Incipit page to the Pontifical with the royal arms of France.
Incipit page to the Pontifical with the royal arms of France, Ref: MSR-10, f.1r. Alexander Turnbull Library.

A 'Sumptuous gift'

The collection was nearly doubled in 1958, when the businessman, philanthropist and long-time supporter of the Turnbull Library, Sir John Ilott (1884–1973), presented five medieval manuscripts to the Library.

Ilott’s gift, described in Wellington newspaper the Evening Post as ‘one of the most sumptuous gifts that the Turnbull Library has ever received’, comprised a thirteenth-century Bible (MSR-09), an early fifteenth-century Roman Missal executed in London with seventeenth-century English marginalia (MSR-18), a fifteenth-century copy of Boethius’s Consolatio philosophiae (MSR-19) and two illuminated French Books of Hours (MSR-07 and MSR-11).

Thanks to internal evidence we can accurately date the two Books of Hours. MSR-11 includes two Latin inscriptions written by its scribe, brother Giovanni Malzevilla, which tell us the manuscript was copied in 1511 for the Carmelite convent at Baccarat in north-eastern France.

MSR-07 was written in 1555 for Etienne Sale (d. 1571) and his wife, whose initials 'E.C.' appear with her portrait on folio 230. The couple’s affection for one another was lovingly incorporated into the illustrations. On folio 22 is a miniature of Etienne and his wife; their initials are romantically entwined with a love-knot on folio 79v; and they appear again on folio 254v, with a heart and roses underneath a banner held by two angels which reads in Middle French, ‘Cesi a Dieu, et a moy. L’ame a Dieu, le corps a toy’ (This to God, and to me. The soul to God; the body to you).

Side by side images of separate pages: Miniatures of the Crucifixion and depiction of Etienne Sale and his wife at prayer before a vision of the risen Christ from a Book of Hours, France (Besanҫon).
Miniatures of the Crucifixion and depiction of Etienne Sale and his wife at prayer before a vision of the risen Christ from a Book of Hours, France (Besanҫon), Ref: MSR-07, ff.55r and 22r. Alexander Turnbull Library.

The Bible Society in New Zealand

In 1962, the former mayor of Feilding, Thomas L. Seddon (1901–1962), left a bequest to the Library which included a fourteenth-century Italian Breviary made for use by the Franciscan order (MSR-06). Sixteen years later, this codex was followed by the single largest influx of manuscripts into the collection.

In 1978 the Bible Society in New Zealand deposited its rare books collection on permanent loan with the Turnbull Library. Included among the 194 volumes were eight medieval manuscripts, five of which were from the library of Masterton-based collector Albert Clemas (1880–1956), who had sold them to the Bible Society in 1933 (then known as the British and Foreign Bible Society).

The Clemas manuscripts included a twelfth-century Glossa Ordinaria on the Gospel of Matthew, assembled by the French theologian Ralph of Laon (MSR-15), a thirteenth-century French Bible (MSR-16) and three manuscripts dating to the fifteenth century: an English Psalter given by Beterice Carneburgh to the Franciscan abbey of nuns of the Virgin and St Francis without Aldgate, London (MSR-01), a French Book of Hours with twelve miniatures from the Brownlow collection, Belton House, Lincolnshire, England (MSR-02) and an Antiphonary written for the Augustinian abbey of the Sisters of the Common Life at Amersfoort in the Netherlands (MSR-03).

Miniature of Pentecost from a Book Hours, France (possibly Dijon or Besanҫon).
Miniature of Pentecost from a Book Hours, France (possibly Dijon or Besanҫon), MSR-02, f.102r. Alexander Turnbull Library.

The other Bible Society codices are a thirteenth-century Bible, received as a donation in 1953 (MSR-04), and two manuscripts included as part of a larger donation of books given to the Society in 1955 by the family of collector Frank Rowley (1876–1952). These were a fifteenth-century Antiphonary executed in the Cologne region possibly for use in an Augustinian convent and bound with a printed Psalter (fRBS CATH PSAL 15--) and a thirteenth-century Bible from the Cistercian abbey of Holme Cultram, Cumberland, England (MSR-17).

The second to last manuscript came into the collection in 1989, when the Anglican Diocese of Wellington placed a thirteenth-century Psalter on permanent loan with the Library (MSR-26). Then, in April 2009, Dunbar Sloane auctioned the book collection of Edward C. Simpson (1874–1979), former Chairman of Directors for Kodak (NZ) and a co-founder of the Wellington Chamber Music Society who emigrated from the United Kingdom to New Zealand in 1922. Among the twenty-five lots purchased by the Library was a small fifteenth-century Dutch prayer book (MSR-25), the most recent medieval manuscript codex to be added to the collection.

Incipit page after the calendar from a Psalter, Northeast France or Flanders.
Incipit page after the calendar from a Psalter, Northeast France or Flanders, Ref: MSR-26, f.6r. Alexander Turnbull Library.

What's next?

While bound manuscripts have not been acquired since the Simpson sale in 2009, individual leaves have been received as donations, most recently by Emeritus Professor Alexandra Barratt (University of Waikato) in 2018 and 2019. These complete leaves and other fragments, once regarded as unimportant scraps, are the focus of a growing field of academic research.

With the introduction of the online database Fragmentarium and the application of IIIF (International Image Interoperability Framework) great efforts are underway not only to collect and collate images of medieval manuscript fragments so they can be shared worldwide, but also to reconstruct, in a virtual environment, codices whose constituent leaves are dispersed in collections around the world. But this is a topic for another day and another post.

View the digitised copies of the manuscripts

The images are big so image load times for the digitised copies can take up to 90 seconds. It's worth the wait.

  • MSR-14 — Regulae clericorum. France, fifteenth or sixteenth century (catalogue record)
  • MSR-17 — Holme Cultram Abbey Bible. England, thirteenth century (catalogue record)
  • fRBS CATH Psal 15 — Antiphonary. Germany (likely Cologne), fifteenth century with sixteenth or early seventeenth century additions (catalogue record)

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