Queens’ College D.20.21 – The Life and Afterlife of a Manuscript

This post was originally written during my MPhil year, for the Queens’ College Old Library Blog. I appreciate all the support provided by Dr Tim Egginton, College Librarian and by Lindsey Askin, then Queens’ PhD Candidate (now awarded) and Library Volunteer. 


In a previous blog, I explored how we can get information about the origin of a manuscript just from looking at the script and layout. After finding out when and where a manuscript was written, we can then ask if there is anything that a manuscript can tell us about what happened to it after it was made. In the Middle Ages, much as today, books had lives after publication. Manuscripts passed from person to person – they were often valuable enough to be mentioned in wills. Some owners added their own notes in the margins of books [see image of F.12.15], while others filled excess leaves with their own additions. Many people wrote their own names in books (inscriptions) to show ownership. In historical bibliography terms, the record of origin of a book is called provenance.

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Examples of marginal annotations in OL F.12.15

Before any such additions or changes, it is important to note that books were not identical. Today, I can buy identical copies of Shakespeare’s works from Exeter to Edinburgh, but in the Middle Ages books were individually copied, each with their own minor variations and errors. Even after the introduction of printing, books were not sold as they are now, ready-bound in identical editions. Instead, early book sellers and stationers sold works in quires (sheets of paper stitched together into blocks of normally 4, 8, or 12 pages, sometimes more). These blocks of pages could be used as disposable pamphlets, or bound by the owner. This is why private libraries in stately homes often have all their contents bound in the same style. It is also why Queens’ College houses some books bound rather cheaply. Except for a brief period during the reign of Richard III, Queens’ has never been a rich college, and, unlike other colleges, could not afford to rebind all its older volumes in the 18th and 19th centuries as was the trend. This poverty has meant the survival of numerous rare bindings from the 16th and 17th centuries, making the Old Library collections an invaluable resource for people interested in the early book trade.

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Examples of early bindings in Queens’ Old Library

Western manuscripts were made of parchment: writing material made from animal skin; the related ‘vellum’ refers exclusively to calfskin and is said to be better quality, while parchment may be from any animal. Today scholars prefer the wider terms parchment or animal membranae to refer to skin writing material. Early printed books often recycled pages of parchment from older manuscripts, which were seen as obsolete, in their bindings. These pages were stitched to the outside of the quires of text, before having wooden boards stuck onto them, which were covered in leather, providing a stiff, strong binding. Many of Queens’ books are bound in this way, leaving almost full pages of, for example, legal texts and biblical glosses visible inside the front cover.

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A Medieval pastedown, found in the binding of OL F.1.7

When a book-buyer was really strapped for cash, they might not even be able to afford a binding such as that. In that case, the quires could be bound in a sheet of parchment without a covering, as a temporary measure until cash flow was a little better. Queens’ Old Library includes two small volumes which never received boards, and are, for a medievalist such as myself, enchanting examples of both earlier manuscripts in themselves, and what might happen to them in later life.

Both volumes are small, about the size of a modern A5 book, and slim. The first of the pair, D.20.54, is a work by Petrus on Euclidian Geometry, printed in Frankfurt in 1600, containing numerous woodcut illustrations.

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OL D.20.54 alongside a Penguin paperback

Its binding sheet, however, dates to the late eleventh or early twelfth century, written in a late Caroline Minuscule script (or a Transitional script, depending on which palaeographer you talk to). This means that it is one of the earliest fragments in Queens’ OL collection, which has around 30 medieval manuscripts, dating as far back to the twelfth century. The page is a fragment of Caesar’s account of his war in modern-day France, de Bello Gallico, which was a staple of medieval libraries.

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OL D.20.54 front inside ‘cover’

However, it was the binding of the second volume, D.20.21, Michelet’s Discours de Géographie, published in Paris in 1615 which grabbed my attention when I started to volunteer at the Old Library. First of all, I was interested because, unlike D.20.54, nobody had made any attempt to classify the binding page before – it was entirely my project. Secondly, I was interested that the page included notation I set to work trying to work out what it was.

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OL D.20.21 alongside a Penguin paperback

The hand is Littera Textualis from the twelfth or thirteenth century. The script has no cedillas (ę, medieval abbreviation for æ), so its earliest date of composition was c.1150, but it was not a fully developed Littera Textualis; there was not much compression between letter pairs such as æ or be, d and s were both written with a mix of bent and straight shafts and the first line of text was written above the top line of the page, so it could not date to much after 1250.

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Notation on OL D.20.21 back ‘cover’ righthand column

After making a transcription and rough translation, it becomes clear that there is a common theme to the text, which was divided by sections with notation. The fragment focused on St Peter, specifically his escape from captivity. After trawling of the internet to match parts of the transcription, I was able to work out that the fragment included parts of two sermons by the fifth century theologians, Chromatius, Bishop of Aquileia, and Pope Leo the Great, both written for the feast of St Peter in Chains (Petrus ad vincula), which was celebrated on the first of August.

The layout of these Patristic texts, interspersed with musical responses, suggest that the page was from a liturgical book. The most likely contender is a breviary, which provided the texts and music used in religious houses for praying the Hours – the services around which the monastic day was shaped. The English rite had developed separately from that commonly used on the continent, and were largely the product of developments at Salisbury in the eleventh century, so was known as the Sarum rite. Comparing the D.20.21 leaf to the published edition of the Sarum Breviary [Breviarium ad usum insignis ecclesiae Sarum, ed. E.G. Duff, F. Procter and C. Wordsworth, 3 vols., (Cambridge, 1879-1886), III], I found that the chants did match for the feast of St Peter in Chains. What was confusing was that the texts did not. Leo’s sermon was in use, but it started later in relation to the chants in the published edition of the Sarum Breviary than in the D.20.21 fragment, while the extract from Chromatius was not included in the edition at all! This left me rather confused. It was time to consult a higher authority.

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OL D.20.21 detail of notation on front ‘cover’

Giovanni Varelli, a historical musicologist from St John’s College, Cambridge, has worked extensively on early musical notation. Over a coffee in the UL, he talked to me about the type of musical notation found in D.20.21. It was not, as I had first thought, neumes, but square notation from the middle forty years of the thirteenth century, originating in England. His assessment of the music, and mine of the text, gave us of a window of about twenty years in which the D.20.21 fragment had been written, and his knowledge confirmed that the fragment was of English origin. Finally, because of the number of manuscripts he has worked with, Giovanni was able to tell me that there was not one authoritative version of the breviary, even within a specific rite. Rather, the texts and chants often varied. In other words, the fact that the texts did not match up with the published edition did not mean that D.20.21 was not using the Sarum rite.

The D.20.21 fragment was part of a breviary written somewhere in England between 1230 and 1250. This breviary provided the hours of the monastic day, for an organised religious community of monks, nuns or friars. It could even have come from the community of Carmelite Friars, established in Cambridge around 1250, who later owned the land between Queens’ and King’s Colleges ( and the North wall of which now forms the northern wall of Queens’ Fellows garden).

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Detail from Richard Lyne’s 1574 map of Cambridge, showing ‘White Friers’ between ‘Queens Colle’ and ‘Kinges Colledge Chappell’

Later, probably as a result of the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, this breviary became obsolete. Maybe it was broken up, and odd leaves came into the possession of Queens’ College, or perhaps the whole volume belonged to Queens’. The inventory of the Carmelites’ possessions at the dissolution did not include any breviaries, but the priory seems to have been in decline at that point (with only two resident friars); it had already sold building materials and some of its stained-glass windows to Queens’ College, and could also have sold off parts of its library locally. The stained-glass survived the Reformation as a result of being moved to the Old Library, and are one of the very few remaining examples of pre-Reformation stained-glass anywhere in the United Kingdom. The glass panels include painted roundels of individual, expressive Carmelite friars (most likely done from life).

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Pre-Reformation stained glass, including Carmelite Roundel, from Queens’ Old Library

Whether Queens’ acquired the whole breviary or only fragments thereof, it is most likely that its repurposing as a binding fragment for a work on geography was done by someone with links to the college; geography being more appropriate a topic in the post-Reformation university than the monastic hours. The low quality binding indicates the economic constraints of the owner. The work might have been gifted to the college by a scholar, or was purchased and bound by the impoverished college itself. With such a binding, it is definitely unlikely that the volume belonged to anyone rich or influential.

What is certain is that, by the seventeenth century, the breviary had been split up, and a page of it was used by the impoverished college to provide a temporary binding for a new book on geography, which was far more in line with the scholarly endeavours of the post-reformation university. Somehow, this flimsy binding survived the subsequent four centuries without being replaced. Half a millennium after it was last used as a liturgical text, the breviary fragment is still performing a useful function, as well as providing a project for someone who, like me, was in need of palaeography practice.

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A pair of Carmelite Friars, depicted in roundels now in Queens’ Old Library
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